Friday 29 July 2022

UK Nukes, part 3: FFS, why?

OK, so HMG is hell-bent on Sizewell C, to the extent that they are kissing the Frenchman's arse to get it done.  Since last week's announcement there has only been bad news from France, on Flamanville and the operations of the existing French fleet.  This follows upon well over a decade of nothing but bad news on the EPRs; so why SZC will be any better, no man can tell.  If ministers had half a wit, but were still that determined to go ahead, they'd be striking a much harder bargain than appears to be the case - and experience tells us the actual bargain will be even worse than anything that's ever made public prior to the inevitable public inquiry that will follow when everything goes pear-shaped.   (For a modest fee, I offer to act as commercial consultant in the matter.) 

Even if were to be concluded on intelligent commercial terms, literally nobody would dare hazard a guess as to when this chunky bit of capacity would come on line.  That's pretty dreadful for long-term planning in a perilously-balanced sector of crucial national importance; and gives the lie to the "only nukes deliver predictable baseload electricity at scale" line, which is about all EDF has to offer.

The question therefore arises: why in the name of Hell is HMG so bent on SZC?

Here are three answers:

  1. Keynesian job creation.   That's the explanation I have always favoured.  You can see the attraction of HPC, for example: a project creating thousands of fairly decent civil engineering jobs (albeit the workforce holed up in portakabin hotels in the middle of Zummerset is not a particularly happy body of men) that drags on for year after year, being paid for by the French & Chinese, at their ultimate risk.  RAB-financed SZC, though, looks to be under-written by HMG and paid for concurrently on electricity bills - a rather different equation.
  2. Support for the UK nuclear deterrent.  They bang on about this at great length at SPRU (Sussex University), essentially suggesting that the civil nuke programme is tacitly subsidising the military.  Maybe: it's not something I've ever studied: and I'm instinctively suspicious of deep-state conspiracy theories.  But the logic is obvious enough: you can take a look for yourself.  
  3. A new one:  getting HMG off the legal hook.  So I now add this 3rd explanation: HMG can use SZC as something rather concrete** they can adduce in front of the judge as evidence they are actually doing something - however crass.  I've written here before about the stupidity of legislating for targets like Net Zero 2050 by making them "legally binding".  It simply invites court actions by the Green Blob, and indeed the courts gratify it by entertaining them, and sometimes finding in their favour.  Just last week, the High Court agreed that HMG's NZ2050 strategy was too woolly and has given it a few months to sort it out (plus costs for the Blob).  This is of course bloody ridiculous, but what does anyone expect?
What do readers think?  What other explanations might there be?  Is anyone convinced by SPRU's military hypothesis?  

Over to you.


** and I do mean concrete - unbelievable amounts of the stuff, even more than at HPC: 40% of the new plot they'll be building on at the northern end of the site is bog, with very poor and deep underlying bedrock.   EDF screwed up the geology at Hinkley, so the scope for real and very costly nonsense at SZC is huge. 

Thursday 28 July 2022

Interlude: кто кого? - Putin's MO

No, not his medical officer (the US seems to be giving him something of a clean bill of health just now, despite the shakes and the dreadful steroid-y appearance of May).  In between posts on UK nuclear power plants, here we refer to a detail of the way Putin is conducting his operations, military and 'civil'.

Exhibit A: Odessa and the grain deal

No sooner has Russia signed the grain export deal, it bombards Odessa, the very port in question.

Exhibit B: Nord Stream 1

Despite much nervousness on the subject, gas deliveries from Nord Stream (1) did indeed recommence last Friday after its routine summer maintenance - albeit at the level of only 40% of capacity (despite demand for 100%), just as had been the case for several weeks before the maintenance, on a pretext the Germans and many independent sources insist is spurious.  Two days later, this flow is reduced to 20% on an even more spurious pretext.

There's a pattern here.  Make a modest conciliatory gesture, followed immediately by a punch in the face.  Proves who's boss.  кто кого?  Don't imagine we ever take any of our options off the table: we reserve our rights to do Absolutely Anything.  

I imagine they taught this stuff at KGB interrogation school. 


Tuesday 26 July 2022

New nukes in the UK - part 2

So EDF won't (and, by itself, can't: it's bankrupt) take construction risk on nukes any more (Part 1).  But it needs to parlay its supposed expertise into anything that can defray its appalling future liabilities and monetise its sunk costs - at other nations' expense.  Hence, its relentless pressure on HMG, (a) to proceed with Sizewell C, and (b) do so on a completely different financial footing to that of Hinkley Point C.  Oh, and (c) HMG must put its hand in its pocket right away to fund the ongoing engineering, because "EDF has almost run out of money".  And HMG has agreed.

The new finance basis will be "Ratable Asset Base", whereby approved developments call on guaranteed periodic payments from, well, taxpayers ultimately**, during the construction phase.  The logic is, this reduces risk to the point where cheap institutional finance will swing in, attracted by the state-backed cash-flow stream.  By "reducing the cost of capital significantly" vs the "commercial" margin EDF claims it needs to charge in return for taking construction and cash-flow risk on (e.g.) HPC, the overall cost - which was always to be borne by UK bill-payers anyway, if over many more decades - is brought down by a noticeable amount.  In capital intensive sectors, attracting the least-cost capital has always been vital (true).  As a throwaway line it is added that RAB is how loads of big infrastructure projects are financed in the UK and elsewhere (true): and of course almost the whole of the US utility sector has been built on this basis (also true).  How heartening!

Heartening for the French, maybe, but open to many heavyweight challenges.

  • EDF, having just been re-nationalised, is now essentially the French state, which can raise money (almost) as cheaply as any western nation.  If they are so strategically keen on SZC, let 'em get on with it.  They already have a put option for the project, complete with UK-guaranteed electricity price.
  • Yes, RAB is used in big infra projects.  The difference is, those are traditionally based on conventional technology, proven construction methods, and low strategic risk.  SZC?  Pull the other one: it comes from a stable with truly appalling previous in these matters.  To trust them to get their act together on this one, in the face of all history, is some kind of madness.  RAB as 'conventionally' practised is not at all suitable for nukes: ask the Americans, who've tried it.
  • In particular, tax-payers are open to the following scenario (as HMG freely admits).  SZC construction gets underway, and taxpayers make regular payments, year by year.  For the first N years, the work is all civil engineering anyway (HPC is still in the civils phase, five years after commencement), and the construction risks are moderate (though by no means nil) - so the chances are, the payments will properly fall due, more or less.   After several billions of this and a monstrous scar inflicted on the East Anglian countryside + precarious heritage coastline, EDF says that's it, we're stuck - we need a lot more £££, in order to finish the project.++  HMG says 'no'.  EDF declares its project affiliate bust, and says, maintenant mes braves, whatchagonnado?  There is no answer to this question, short of having the French government guarantee construction which, naturellement, it refuses to do: that's the whole point!  So the UK taxpayer bears the ultimate risks of construction, delay and budget overrun, as part of its exposure to (it bears repeating) an organisation that is legendary for its grotesque, world-scale failures in all these regards.  
  • It's not at all clear big institutional money is looking for the kind of home represented by SZC.  Nuclear risk lies at the heart of this, despite attempts to dress up the financial proposition as just another annuity stream.  In particular, everyone knows the Big Contract between HMG and EDF will be secret.  So the institutions will also ask for secret protections - and they won't take their sharpest pencils to the rates they charge, either - if indeed they are interested at all. 

This is just the headlines of the RAB stuff:  I'm not even talking about the massive strategic issues of (e.g.) China having a 20% stake that needs squaring away; and whether a large chunk of deeply uncertain nuclear capacity commencing probably 10 / 11 / 12 years from now (who'll ever have a firm handle on that?) can contribute meaningfully to a national electricity requirement which places an ever greater premium on reliability, flexibility, and certainty in both these vital dimensions.   Still less am I addressing the plethora of SZC- and East Anglia-specific environmental issues involved, which themselves are multi-dimensional and acute.

And yet, HMG ploughs on regardless.  As we said at the end of Part 1:  FFS, why?   Some suggestions towards an answer in Part 3 ...



** I say 'ultimately taxpayers' but in the first instance it will probably be electricity bill-payers.  Not a huge amount of difference, in practice. 

++ Ample proof of EDF's approach to contractual obligations comes very recently from this FT revelation: 

EDF is in negotiations with the British government over penalty clauses in [the] agreement struck in 2013 to finance the building of [HPC]. The subsidy deal guarantees EDF a price [for] electricity it produces for the first 35 years of its life ... Penalty clauses ... reduce the 35-year term if Hinkey is not generating electricity by May 2029 [by] one year of guaranteed payments for every year of delay up to 2033. If the delays extended beyond that date the government has the option to terminate the subsidy contract. EDF ... has repeatedly pushed back its completion date while costs have spiralled. In the latest setback, EDF warned ... that the first of Hinkley’s two reactors would not be completed until June 2027 .... [and] the company cautioned that there was the possibility of a further 15-month delay to September 2028, adding that date could slip again ...

Sunday 24 July 2022

New nukes in the UK: Sizewell, RAB etc (part 1)

For well over fifteen years here we've periodically asserted that France has a critical strategic objective of getting other nations, not least the UK, to pay for its monstrous nuclear liabilities.   As soon as EDF came away with Osborne/May's outrageously generous gold-plated deal for Hinkley Point C, they started lobbying for the next one, Sizewell C (CGI above); and - significantly - that this should be on a different contractual basis.  To remind ourselves of the salient details of HPC, bad and good:

  • there is no HPC completion date!  In fact, EDF isn't obliged, contractually, to build it at all!  
  • ... but if they don't, all the ever-increasing sunk costs are for the account of the project (80% EDF, 20% the Chinese)
  • any problems encountered along the way that are down to HMG, and most specifically any more-than-trivial changes in nuke-related regulations, are for the account of HMG (even if, for example, another nuke accident happens somewhere in the world that inevitably means every government everywhere will insist on a new type of widget being fitted on all nukes everywhere).  In other words, EDF - arguably the world's leading nuke institution - refuses to accept fundamental nuke-risk
  • the electricity sales contract strike-price (technically a CfD) of £92.50/MWh, was base-year 2012, indexed to inflation (it is now well over £100).  At the time that was some three times higher than prevailing wholesale baseload electricity, although obviously it looks a lot better right now, as our good friend Mr Wendland noted BTL the other day
  • the HPC deal gave EDF a put option on SZC at £89.50 (indexed) (which would then apply to them both); said (by EDF) to be a good deal at the time, since "of course" SZC would be cheaper to build than HPC, being able to call on all the HPC experience and the established construction labour force etc.
  • any problems encountered along the way that are NOT down to HMG are for the project's account
  • certain very mild contractual disadvantages (I won't call them penalties because they are trivial) kick in if EDF isn't finished by 2029; and the whole contract is cancelled in they aren't finished by 2035.   This for a plant that EDF told us in 2008 would be operational by Xmas 2017! 

But, pleased though they were to get this deal inked in 2016, this wasn't good enough for EDF - a company that is technically bankrupt, although as a recently fully-re-nationalised French state entity, this might not be as fatal as it would be for most companies being relied upon to undertake huge and critical enterprises.  Why not good enough?  Because EDF retains HPC construction risk, and is only remunerated (if at all ..! - see 2035 above) via electricity sales in due course, albeit at a price underwritten by HMG.

Construction risk?  Well, needless to say, at HPC there have been many problems along the way.  Obviously Covid wasn't expected - although hey, any firm undertaking projects with a construction period of more than a decade, and a lifespan of maybe a century, had better reckon on Shit Happening, no?  But Brexit happened before the contract was signed, so no sympathy there.  And likewise no sympathy for the many purely technical and design cock-ups perpetrated by EDF and its (mainly French) major contractors, e.g. getting the geology wrong on the bedrock at Hinkley, FFS.  So costs have been steady rising, and timetables steadily slipping.  Oh yes, there's construction risk aplenty.

So what about SZC?  Surely, as we've been assured by EDF ad nauseam, just as HPC was going to be a breeze, because of the prior experience obtained with EPRs at Flamanville (France) and Olkiluoto (Finland), so SZC in its turn would be an absolute shoe-in.  Hah!  All three European pre-SZC EPR projects have been fiascos; and the two EPRs built in China, apparently much more efficiently and on time / on budget, are in trouble already: one is shut down and the other on limited running, due to unresolved problems that the French nuke authorities are very troubled by.

And aside from the entire history of EPRs, there are SZC-specific reasons to believe it'll be more costly than HPC.  I won't bore you with the details, but every site is always different and SZC will bring all manner of new challenges, some of them pretty fundamental.  Nothing that engineers can't solve, mind - at a cost ...

SO.  We can easily see why EDF refuses to bear construction risk at SZC.  They are "even more bankrupt" today than they were in 2016.  In the next post we'll look at how HMG proposes to steam ahead with SZC anyway - and we'll ask the obvious question:  FFS, why?


Friday 22 July 2022

Germany not so sure-footed

We are no fans of Russian aggression here, but sadly do recognise that Putin is better at Realpolitik than the West.

As Russia sells ever more gas to China, it is starting to turn the taps down substantially to Europe. Italy, Poland and Germany will be the main victims. As a result, the German President of the EU, Ursula Van de Leyen, has demanded all EU countries reduce gas consumption by 15%.

This has not gone unnoticed by Spain and others that are not reliant on Russian gas. Germany is also closing its nuclear power stations and burning more coal to reduce its reliance on gas. There is little appetite to tag along to German needs. 

Putin is showing again how the virtue signalling of Western governments is so contradictory to their needs. The West is going to find it very hard to stay united this coming winter. The US is not keen on riding to the rescue, either, due to its own inflationary problems, even though there is plenty of gas for export. 

Sad to admit that Russia has the upper hand in geopolitics at the moment, but they planned this for a long time and are executing this well, even if the war in Ukraine is much harder than they anticipated. 

Wednesday 20 July 2022

Truss or Sunak?

Turns out, Conservative MP’s are mad after all. They want Sunak so much they have put a lemon up against him. 

They won’t look so clever when if the Lemon wins.

What a high risk strategy this is by Team Sunak.

Tuesday 19 July 2022

A solution to the world's energy problems

 ... and also the issue of, errr, removing plastics from the ocean.

Yes, fortunate we are that the genius who is Terrence Howard is alive at this time of peril, with his novel solution to the Grand Unified Field theory.  It has lots of beneficial outworkings, which he is now offering to the good people of Uganda.  To solve many of their most pressing problems.  Of course.

The Gruaniad, (home of George Moonbat), describes this as "impenetrable batshit" - but what do they know?  Bunch of racists.

Anyhow, pour yourself a cool drink and enjoy his presentations, starting with this gem.  Then graduate to his lengthier expositions.  Don't let the sun get to you: it can lead to hallucinating ...


Friday 15 July 2022

German economy harmed by ... pensioners?

So the story is:  the Greek tourism industry is suggesting German pensioners winter in Greece, to save on fuel bills (and indeed bills for food and almost everything else).  Fair enough - it has more logic than the blarney the Irish tourist board feeds to Americans ("we know you all like to think you have Irish roots, so you all need to come 'home' at least twice a year wearing a clip-on ginger beard and a silly green hat" etc etc, cue twiddledy-dee music).  And of course the association of German travel agents agrees, and suggests a government subsidy for the travel. 

But ... 

Opposition politicians have said the idea has to be treated with caution, not least because it could have a negative effect on Germany’s economy.

Wow.  If that's what they think is going to harm the German economy, they have a very big surprise coming.  

Is any politician, anywhere in the West, levelling with voters on how bad it's going to be?  Don't they need to, in order to get the public best-positioned for whatever can be done by individuals, or inevitably will have to be done by government?  Or is everyone relying on the local equivalent of Martin Lewis, in the hope he's best placed to break the bad news?


Monday 11 July 2022

Where is TINA?

 In the aftermath of Boris, where is she? Where is she?

Margaret Thatcher famously said, to get her middle of the road right-wing policies through, that;


This surely is what the Conservative Party is looking for. The obvious anti-dote to the Boris sleaze poison with the added benefit of being more electable that Keir Starmer. 

On paper, this should not be too hard. Starmer occasionally comes out with policies still written in deepest Corbynism that won't be very popular at the ballot box and has shunned the idea of going for Rejoin the EU which likely would grab a big chunk of votes in the aftermath of a non-event Brexit which is not proving to be very helpful.

However, Boris has left a big trap for his successor. Boris was a very leftwing and big state Tory politician. Yes some of his henchmen like Cummings may have been against all that, but the facts are big state Boris threw the Government into the pandemic, offering furlough and all sorts and has nationalised the railways by stealth. He has then instructed his Chancellors to raise taxes to higher levels than Gordon Brown dreamt of. 

This of course has solidified the Northern seats which the Tories gained and has outfoxed Labour who still need to release Corbynite madness to try and outflank the Tories. Meanwhile the mad online world of lefties is busy trying to say the Tories are the new nazi's and it is a charge that does not stick. 

But who can re-balance the party, towards more conservative social and liberal economic policies, that will be needed to manage down the mad Government spending of Boris?It will need someone good at communications and also at home with some basic economic theory. For this, they may well lean towards Rishi Sunak, but a non-dom billionaire is a very bad choice for leader during a prolonged recession and it is his stupid policies that have put us in this mess. 

Penny Mordaunt and Jeremy Hunt show little sign of understanding economics of the broad changes needed to reduce Government interference in the economy and the constant mis-allocation of resources that increases our debts to no effect. They are focused on themselves with no concept of what a Government could or should do beyond having them as leaders. 

This will leave in reality a true right-winger needing to come through. The only one I can see at all being capable is Kemi Badenoch, who like Thatcher herself, is young and untried but very bright and determined. 

If she gets to the final two it would be amazing. However, I doubt this will happen, a nothingness run off between Sunak and Hunt or Mordaunt will produce a caretaker Government keen to hand the problems onto Labour for a decade or so. 

Friday 8 July 2022

The beast that is Boris

From Clive, BTL on yesterday's Boris post, expanding on a short comment he'd been picked up on:

Re: "The energy inputs for creating and sustaining media (and political) momentum are much higher here..." ... What I was getting at, tricky to explain, was it only took a Howe resignation speech, a leadership contest and some cabinet members talking Thatcher into resigning. All mundane stuff. The merest hint from a few, largely behind closed doors, and Thatcher resigned. There wasn't any inclination in her to keep fighting through the second round of the leadership contest. Contrast with what it took to get Johnson to go (not that he's actually gone yet, but we have to -- stifle a guffaw here please -- take him at his word he really will go, really he will), literally every, bar a few exceptions, cabinet minister to tell Johnson, in public he must go and/or resigning. Plus a great gaggle of PPSes and junior ministers. It was touch-and-go whether the 1922 Committee might have to blast him out of Downing St with heavy artillery. Both the parliamentary party and the mainstream media had to throw everything at him, 27x7, for weeks. Months, even     [my emphasis

Interesting.  Yes, Boris is unusually obdurate.  In fact, he's a pretty extreme case in many dimensions, a fact easily forgotten when he's in smiley, jokey-witty-banter, all-out charm mode.  That "really rather good" resignation speech with it's nicely crafted phrasing.  Lots of 'extreme' politicians can do that to people, particularly in the flesh ...  And what will it still take now, actually to get him out of the door?  Oh yes indeed - another big input of energy still needed, to drive the stake home.

Here's a thesis.

Most people in societal contexts (and also many people even when they are cast adrift from company) are not much under the sway of any kind of inner primordial beast that knows only the urge for gratification, the Will to Power (Wille zur Macht), survival in all circumstances and against any odds; never say 'die', only 'attack': the cornered alpha predator, wounded but still fighting.  Most people recognise social constraints: the price we pay for the benefits of living in a society. 

Those who are thus possessed of the demon, but who still partake of society to some degree (and are 'successful' enough to be prominent), are generally to be found in the ranks of callous and bullying corporate warriors, big-swinging-dick traders, sportsmen in the fighting arts, ruthless lords of organised-crime, aggressive soldiers, manic artists, ambitious politicians.  With a few constraints still being observed - on a good day.  But if completely beyond the pale, they are Johnny-Byron wild men of the woods, pirates and bandit chiefs ... or the occasional politician leader who hacks his way into a position of outright dictatorship.  Not much social inhibition with William of Normandy, Peter the Great, or Kim Jong-un.

Boris Johnson famously knows almost no social restraints on his hedonistic and status-seeking pursuit of personal gratification.  Lying?  No problem.  Loyalty?  Never heard of it.  Family responsibilities?  None that he can think of.  Consistency?  Don't be daft.  Integrity?  No interest.  Shame?  You're kidding.  Respect for the rules?  They don't apply, he was given a permanent pass at birth.  Modesty in lifestyle?  Gimme gimme gimme.  Fellow feeling?  ... etc etc.  As he apparently told Cummings when musing that he ought to be his own chief of staff and head of communications: so I'll fuck it up - so what?  What's the point if I can't do whatever I want?

And then look at the face, whenever he's in any kind of sporting endeavour - even with children.

That's naked aggression, unabashed will to win.  'King of the World'.  Will to Power.

And now ask why it took what it did, to get him to resign; more even than Thatcher or Gordon Brown.  And consider that, if he isn't forcibly defenestrated right now, he'll still be plotting ways to hang on during whatever process the Tories will now go through to find a successor.

You might think what follows a little extreme; but if you want a graphic portrayal of the animality of the Will to Power in its rawest human form, read Robert Harris' Archangel.   The historical backdrop is Stalin's reign of terror but by the time of the action of the novel, that's at one remove; it's the past.  What's chilling, truly chilling, is the appearance in the book of Harris' most menacing creation** - the long-lost Son of Stalin, a beast of pure, undeflectable Will to Power.  It's through this device that Harris conjures up what it must have been like, even to think about dealing with Stalin, let alone opposing him.  Lenin knew he was too dangerous for power.  Probably everyone did.   Much good did it do them.

OK, 'personable' Boris also has the buffoon about him and is not (so far as we know) given to personal violence, even if he was famously willing to facilitate it.  But his will to win, to survive, to prevail in all circumstances and on his own terms, is not, errr, easily deflected.

Why are high inputs of energy needed to get him out, Clive?  That's why. 



** Even more chilling than his Cherie Booth in The Ghost 

Wednesday 6 July 2022

Bedtime for Boris

Finally, if disingenously, cabinet ministers have had enough.  Why it takes l'affaire Pincher, a trivial and sordid little occasion, to precipitate matters is a bit of a puzzle, but here we are.  A Geoffrey Howe / Nigel Lawson moment; and it's off to the bookies for MSM editors everywhere.  Of the runners & riders I noted here less than a month ago, Mordaunt appears to have risen to the top just now.  And Starmer's puppetmaster will be hoping and anticipating there's more than one Big Vacancy in the offing as the dominos fall.  That strategy of simply being there looks better than ever. 

... Johnson is always going to self-destruct: possibly sooner rather than later: the key is to be in position for when it happens ...

So what happens now.  My guesses:

  • Boris, being copper-bottomed shameless and utterly desperate, not least for money but also for fame and glory, will not quickly see his way to the exit
  • The remaining Cabinet ministers will be in agonies of indecision.  Has Sunak stolen a march on them all and restored his earlier, pre 'non-dom moneybags' standing?  Or does the rule about wielding the knife hold good?
  • The 1922 Committee, proven to be able to act with lightning speed when the mood takes it, will move into permanent session, making it clear they have the power to change the rules in whatever manner they choose (just watch them) 
  • Team Boris (which exists, and will also be pretty desperate now) will have been up all night plotting his next moves.  They may be fairly adroit, in a last-chance sort of way.  Expect to see him abroad very soon (he is scheduled to be in Poland next week, and there may be ways of advancing this), wrapped in the Ukrainian flag again.  Mention of tax cuts was near-instantaneous.  Expect also to see hints that if directly threatened, he'll bring down the pillars of the temple in some unspecified way.  
'Unspecified'?  Obviously all his instincts are for après moi... but I'm not at all sure he can call a GE unilaterally: all he can do is go to the Queen, who must then cast around for someone who can form a government.  But remember always: the lines of logistics in politics are very short, and power in the hands of someone with imagination is a mighty thing.  For example, unilateral commitments made publicly to international parties would be very difficult for a successor to row back from.

We must thank the Lord there is no UK equivalent of the Presidential Pardon, or there'd be no saying what else he might do. 

Have at it!


Tuesday 5 July 2022

Putin's next roll of the dice

Can you believe it, Putin declined my carefully reasoned military advice of 8 weeks ago

... much as he evidently wanted to achieve more, Putin's orders must surely now be: Define a defensible subset of what we now occupy - categorically including whatever it takes to water Crimea.  Dig in; set up the resupply lines; and hold that territory to the last mercenary.  Lay waste and abandon the rest.

... and plugged on with his "main aim" (as hastily re-defined shortly after the attack on Kyiv foundered in such a humiliating manner), being to take the whole of the Donbas.  In practical terms this meant rolling up the major Donbas towns of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk which, 8 weeks later he has just "achieved" (by levelling the former and all-but levelling the latter) - at a formidable cost in blood and treasure ... and time.

Although he was always going to be able to do this - he has the artillery - this was a highly questionable enterprise.  At best, he's gained a PR point for use with his compliant home media.  (Nobody else is even slightly impressed, and his homegrown 'milibloggers' are scathing.)  At worst, his casualties may very well force his hand as regards some kind of call-up by stealth, should he wish to carry through with his stated whole-Donbas objective.

The aforementioned towns were not at all ideal for the defenders.  Even so, the Ukrainians inflicted high casualties on the attackers, as street-by-street fighting does - the very reason Soviet military doctrine was clear that it should always be avoided.  And (unlike at Mariupol), the surviving defenders were able to withdraw before total encirclement, their job complete. 

But the next objectives to the west will be a different story, despite all the diversionary hints of reopening the fronts at Kharkiv and Kyiv.  In particular the next target necessarily to be engaged (if he seriously intends to take the whole of Donbas) is the area around Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, an even better-prepared killing ground than the two riverside towns that have occupied him for two months.  And Ukraine is tooling up with long range artillery.  As noted here and elsewhere many times already, Russia has proved itself surprisingly inept at the offensive; and such "lessons" as it may have learned in the field during the "victories" in built-up, unfortified Mariupol, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk will not serve for very much in the next phase.  Everything the Russians plan is being telegraphed to its opponents and meticulously prepared-for:  up and down, up and down, fly the planes of NATO aerial reconnaissance.  

How much of his airforce is he willing to hazard in this operation?  What can he hope to achieve before winter, when his gas-supply weapon finally comes into its own against his NATO tormentors?  Unhappy will be the troops of the first echelon for the next stage of Putin's adventure.