This post is going to fall under the category of fake it until you make it. I am going to pretend like I have some special insights into Russia and its actions vis-à-vis Ukraine because I was a political science major, I took classes in Russian history, which I loved, as well as some in Russian literature, and I actually was in the Soviet Union, which Putin seems to miss so dearly, in 1985. Before I get to my main points, here’s an interesting set of facts I learned from an interview with General David Petraeus. Ukraine is bigger than Iraq and has a population that is 50% larger so occupying Ukraine will not be an easy feat for the Russians.
If one takes a dispassionate look at the situation and reviews the history and statements made by Putin, or those attributed to him, as well as the actions he has taken over the years, one can see that this is a man who has been completely focused and obsessed with overcoming the humiliation that came from the breakup of the Soviet Union and former satellite states going into the orbit of the West, particularly the United States, by joining NATO or having a goal of doing so (Ukraine and Georgia). There was no way this could happen without coming from a place, or multiple places, of strength. This necessitated rebuilding and modernizing Russia’s military so that it could project power. It also required that Putin show the world that he would not be afraid to use his power as evidenced by taking over Crimea, Georgia, and intervening in Syria. It has also served as a “peacekeeper” between Armenia and Azerbaijan and to prop up the dictator in Kazakhastan by helping to crush a rebellion there and keeping troops on the ground to keep the peace.
Energy leverage has been hugely important as well. Russian oil production has been on an upward trajectory, with the exception of the Covid collapse, since 1999. Putin has done very little to diversify the economy away from energy but it has made the hydrocarbon-hungry world more reliant on Russian oil and gas.
The United States has extremely low crude oil inventories which make a supply shock quite problematic as it could result in significantly higher prices.
And OPEC is not flush with large inventory levels and is having its own set of challenges increasing production which makes the world need Russian oil even more.
Russia is also a big supplier of non-energy commodities as well while Ukraine, the breadbasket of Europe, is a huge supplier of corn and wheat.
Putin knows that the United States has very little appetite for more endless wars, nation-building, and international interventions. At the same time, he also knows that we see China as our most formidable adversary. This has led to the United States pivoting from the Middle East and Europe towards Asia to confront China’s growing economic strength and aggressive actions against its neighbors and constant saber-rattling. Putin also knows that much of the world, even America’s allies, has found the United States to be arrogant at times and not committed to NATO and its other allies like it has been in the past. The disastrous withdrawal/retreat out of Afghanistan did nothing to convey strength to our adversaries. These growing gaps have given Putin the opening to fill the void in very savvy ways that have helped Russia check the United States and build up its capabilities and resilience to take on a more assertive role around the world to position itself to get to this point to be able to invade Ukraine while perceiving the costs to be manageable.
Russia has been quite masterful at building up alliances with key allies of the United States or thorns in the side of the U.S. and the West. It has done this with Israel after entering Syria and giving Israel the relative freedom to check Iranian/Hezbollah territorial advancements and weapons procurement. Russia knows that the United States is Israel’s strongest ally and yet Russia has filled the vacuum left by the U.S. and Israel knows that it has to contend with Russia being in Syria and letting Israel have free reign to check Iran or create impediments for this. This puts Israel in a difficult position when it comes to unequivocally denouncing Russia as Russia will seemingly be in Syria for the long term while the United States has pivoted to Asia.
Russia also has an understanding with Turkey about each country’s red lines and spheres of influence and Turkey is definitely a thorn in the side of NATO and some Gulf countries which helps keep the world more divided which serves Putin’s interests. This will prevent Turkey from impeding the Russian navy from free navigation of the Black Sea. It also has an understanding with Iran which can counter the United States and the Gulf countries as well as Israel to some degree. It also has a decent relationship with the Saudis since they need to cooperate on Opec+ production decisions and quotas. Until the invasion of Ukraine, Russia had friendly and mutually beneficial interests with most of the world, except for the West and its former satellite countries. As a result, outside of the United States and the West, the world does not seem to be in a position to criticize the Russians vociferously and to take actions that might harm their long-term relationship.
The most important relationship for Russia now appears to be with China. The two countries seem to have on the surface much warmer relations culminating in Putin attending the Olympics in Beijing and meeting with Xi and the release of a lengthy joint declaration. And if George Orwell isn’t alive and well then read this excerpt from their February 4th declaration.
The sides share the understanding that democracy is a universal human value, rather than a privilege of a limited number of States, and that its promotion and protection is a common responsibility of the entire world community.
The sides believe that democracy is a means of citizens’ participation in the government of their country with the view to improving the well-being of [the] population and implementing the principle of popular government. Democracy is exercised in all spheres of public life as part of a nation-wide process and reflects the interests of all the people, its will, guarantees its rights, meets its needs, and protects its interests. There is no one-size-fits-all template to guide countries in establishing democracy. A nation can choose such forms and methods of implementing democracy that would best suit its particular state, based on its social and political system, its historical background, traditions, and unique cultural characteristics. It is only up to the people of the country to decide whether their State is a democratic one.
The sides noted that Russia and China as world powers with rich cultural and historical heritage have long-standing traditions of democracy, which rely on thousands of years of experience of development, broad popular support, and consideration of the needs and interests of citizens. Russia and China guarantee their people the right to take part through various means and in various forms in the administration of the State and public life in accordance with the law. The people of both countries are certain of the way they have chosen and respect the democratic systems and traditions of other States.
The sides note is that democratic principles are implemented at the global level, as well as in the administration of State. Certain States’ attempts to impose their own ”democratic standards“ on other countries, to monopolize the right to assess the level of compliance with democratic criteria, to draw dividing lines based on the grounds of ideology, including by establishing exclusive blocs and alliances of convenience, prove to be nothing but flouting of democracy and go against the spirit and true values of democracy. Such attempts at hegemony pose serious threats to global and regional peace and stability and undermine the stability of the world order.
It’s hard to see how Russia’s long-term interests align with China’s other than being a provider of commodities that China hungrily consumes. We shouldn’t discount this as the magical thinking of the greens is proving to be just that as the world needs huge quantities of hydrocarbons, rare earth commodities, agricultural products, etc. as we are facing significant constraints with demand exceeding supply and global supply chains being frayed. Look at what the green of the green countries, Germany, had to do last year.
And from this pie chart, we can see how meaningful Russian natural gas is to the German economy.
Russia is derogatorily considered as China’s gas station and the relationship has the added benefit of serving as a possible check on the United States and the West. While I was almost brought to tears by their mutual commitment to democracy as articulated in their joint memorandum, I then let my head overrule my heart and regained my clarity to remind myself that Russia’s economy is minuscule compared to the United States and Europe’s and there is no mistaking that, if economic growth and stability are important to keep China’s Communist Party in power, then it cannot hitch its wagon to Russia at the expense of the West as it is much more reliant on these economies to sell their goods and from which to gain critical technology. Russia is a relationship of convenience but not it’s long-term interest. One can see from this headline and first paragraph that China will not go to the mat for Russia.
Russians are known for their love of chess and producing some of the world’s greatest players. Putin’s sport, however, is judo. Great judo practitioners use their opponent’s strength against them. Russia has learned how to use the West’s greatest strength, its freedom, and openness, against itself in spite of being far weaker economically and demographically. It has a declining population, it’s very corrupt, stifles innovation other than that which serves the state, is highly reliant on energy production for its economic output with very little diversification, and has tremendous inequality as so much wealth and the means of production are in the hands of Putin’s oligarch cronies which Putin can use to prevent any serious rivals emerging. Putin can take their wealth away virtually overnight as well as their freedom if any of them choose to contend for power. Putin himself is thought to be one of the richest people in the world from all of the money he has ciphered from the Russian economy.
In spite of so many fundamental challenges, Putin has been able to create powerful dependencies on Russian energy and its military while also using its cyber capabilities to stoke division and exacerbate the West’s disdain for more wars and military intervention.
Putin will be turning 70 this year and one has to think that if your life’s mission of making Russia as feared and respected as it was during the days of the Soviet Union has not been accomplished and you are the leader of Russia then this must be eating at your soul. Putin is at a place in life in which the number of years ahead are far less than those behind and he is facing what must be an existential crisis for him. Does he let events unfold as they will over the course of time with the risk that either he won’t see his mission accomplished during his remaining years or have faith that his successors will see it to completion, or does he try to shape events after taking steps for many years to be in a position to act and try to accomplish his life’s mission while he is still alive and in control? I think we all know the answer now after the brutal attack on Ukraine.
I read an interview with Mark Galeotti, director of Mayak Intelligence, a professor at University College London, and an expert on Russian security affairs, who spoke about this. If one takes the position that great leaders do all they can to shape events to achieve their objectives, especially ones who have a messianic zeal for what they feel they are called to accomplish, then one can’t overlook the background of the individuals, especially what psychological scars they have they feel compelled to avenge. This is what Galeotti had to say about Putin’s obsession with his legacy.
A final point is we know that Putin is obsessed with his historical legacy. History is one of the few things he reads. When he meets historians, he asks them, “How are they going to be writing about me in 100 years’ time?” Which, first of all, what a deeply uncomfortable question to be asked by the despots of your country, a man who has people poisoned or put in prison! But secondly, it gives us a sense of where his head is at.
I think from his point of view, you know, he’s 69. He can rule for only some years to come politically, but he’s probably getting old and he’s getting tired. It’s fairly obvious that he is tired and bored with much of the job. The last thing he wants is for his legacy in the history books to be the guy who lost Ukraine, the guy who rolled over and let NATO and the West have their way.
So I think this is also about him feeling this is … I wouldn’t say his last chance, but one of his last chances to stand up for Russia and make sure that Russia asserts its real place in the world, forces the West to acknowledge that and in the process, that’s what gets him into the history books, [so] he’s a chapter rather than just a paragraph.
My thoughts and prayers with the Ukrainian people and I feel very sorry for the many Russian conscripts who will lose their lives for a cause for which I would wager that most do not believe in.