Vladimir Putin’s mid-dictatorship crisis has erased 20 years of growth and geopolitical statecraft
[Published first on 3/16/22 on my substack, The Halfway Café. If you enjoy liberal takes on contemporary politics and foreign policy, subscribe!]
Vladimir Putin’s fundamental misconception of historical context in his ongoing European invasion is that Ukrainians’ demand for independence and utter disinterest in joining a smaller union with a post-Soviet Russia and Belarus was the final nail in the coffin for the USSR following the failed coup against Gorbachev and the successful secession of the Baltic states. Ukrainians were emphatic they weren’t Russians then, and they’re emphatic they’re not Russians now.
This miscalculation has wrecked Putin’s mid-dictatorship crisis dreams of a new Russian empire, and Putin has spectacularly failed to achieve any of his strategic geopolitical goals. America has deployed thousands of extra troops to Europe and is currently debating sending Ukraine some US drones alongside billions of dollars in aid, NATO is suddenly existentially relevant to European interests after 30 years of declining interest, former Eastern Bloc countries are rounding up as many arms and supplies for Ukraine as possible to be soon replaced by more modern weapons from Western nations, and the European Union is virtually unanimous in its commitment with America to crushing the Russian economy and currency for as long as Putin’s war crimes continue.
This is literally the exact opposite of what Putin was trying to achieve. It appears Putin self-destructively convinced himself that Presidents Biden and Zelensky were incapable leaders, Europe was too fractured and dependent on Russian energy to intervene, and Ukrainians would not rebel against another Russian intervention in their democracy. Putin got high on his own supply of propaganda.
If Putin were a real historian, he might understand the irony that Russia’s historical security concerns, which drove the previous strategies of the final Tsar, the Bolsheviks and Stalin, were the combination of being surrounded by a strong Germany and a strong Japan. Now Putin has provoked Germany into doubling its military budget to a figure above Russia’s military budget, and almost the entire Western world including Japan is sending military equipment to Ukraine. Russia is more isolated today than at anytime during the Cold War, and Russia’s behavior has been so bad even its close ally Belarus won’t send troops to assist the stalling Ukrainian occupation. Only war-torn Syria, a fellow butcher dictator, is willing to help Russia destroy Ukraine.
Even with a reported 40,000 soldier surge from Syrian recruits, Russia’s military goals have failed even more humiliatingly than Putin’s geopolitical goals. Hoping for a speedy invasion and quick regime change, the Russian military has shocked the world with its embarrassing setbacks.
The initial strike wave failed when Russian paratroopers were immediately repulsed from airports around the country and forced to flee into surrounding forests. Meanwhile, the Russian air force is either sheepishly unwilling to risk planes against Ukraine’s impressively dogged anti-aircraft weapons, or, worse and maybe more likely, incapable of pulling off the complex sortie tactics that could enforce air superiority.
On the ground, the Russian army’s advance on the ground has been hindered by inept logistical planning and terrible resource allocation. The original invasion stretched the army conspicuously thin in order to invade along much of Ukraine’s Northern and Eastern borders, and the military units’ lack of success likely suggests Russia’s ubiquitous corruption has spread into its military and defense industry. It was widely reported that some of the army’s food rations were long expired, and several ambitious military funding projects in recent years have been mired in embezzling scandals by Russian defense officials living suspiciously above their means.
Further staining the Russian military’s reputation is its surprisingly negligent tactics. We’ve gotten to experience schadenfreude from videos of Russian trucks, tanks, and other mobile materiel running out of fuel and being abandoned on the side of Ukrainian roads by demoralized and untrained conscripts who have expressed guilt and confusion about why they’re invading and bombing a country Putin has spent months claiming is full of their Russians brothers and sisters. Long columns of tanks and convoy trucks have been bunched up together providing easy targets for Ukrainian defense forces, and the loss of valuable fuel supplies also means some Russian troops are struggling to keep warm in the winter temperatures. Even more negligent, Russian tanks are getting caught by themselves with no infantry protection, and easily being wrecked by Ukrainian soldiers.
All of this has led to anywhere from 5,000 Russian soldiers killed (rough US estimate) to 13,000 killed (possibly inflated Ukrainian estimate). This loss of life in just two weeks is very bad news for Russia, especially considering wounded soldiers are typically accumulated at a 3–1 ratio in wars (meaning very roughly 15,000–33,000 Russian casualties overall). This reality hinders Putin’s efforts to convince the Russian populace that the war is fake news, and the deaths occurring in Ukraine refute Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent claim that “we have not even attacked Ukraine.”
The Russian military has revealed itself as somewhat of a paper tiger, and it appears to be incapable of waging the caliber of war America accomplished to defeat the Iraqi army in ‘90–91… thirty years ago. Ukraine has no doubt commandeered countless weapons and expensive equipment, though the bigger worry for Putin is that his military is losing massive dollar amounts of machinery including tanks, jets, helicopters, armored vehicles, artillery, and its top-tier air-defense and missile combat systems at a time when sanctions are making it impossible to import replacements, new technology, or even spare parts for damaged but salvageable equipment. The Russian military will require a lot of time to recover.
The Russian military, however, is still vastly bigger than Ukraine’s military, and is slowly surrounding Ukraine’s biggest cities and threatening to level them. Russian troops may be bogged down and occupying very little territory beyond the highways their varyingly fueled tanks are driving down on their way to potentially Sisyphean urban melees, but Putin can still try to bomb Ukraine into submission. Allowing indiscriminate bombings of civilians and other war crimes recorded live by Ukrainians, Putin is apparently adopting the sociopathic Syrian playbook of pyrrhic victory.
But by wrecking neighborhoods across Ukraine’s big cities — and throwing away Russian money by bombing non-military targets — Putin is destroying tens of thousands of homes and erasing much of the country’s industrial capacity, economic stability, and personal wealth. This means that Putin’s options to annex Ukraine or turn it into a vassal state within a neo-Russian Empire have become a waste of an invasion since tens of millions of now impoverished Ukrainians suddenly have very little productivity and capital to contribute to Russia’s GDP and trade. Putin’s new apparent goal is to merely erase Ukraine’s Western-aligning economic growth, and obliterate the vibrant contrast that Ukraine’s burgeoning democratic freedom models against his autocratic kleptocratic oppression.
It’s ironic that part of Putin’s gambling calculus to pull the trigger and invade was America’s messy withdrawal from our forever war in Afghanistan. Putin thought it showed the Biden Administration would be unable to organize Western unity, yet now Putin has potentially gotten himself into a forever war of his own if he really seeks to continue occupying Ukrainian territory.
Current circumstances show that Ukraine has the potential to become an Afghanistan on steroids since NATO, the EU, and the US share with Ukraine enthusiasm for stopping Russian aggression. European nations are offering truly stunning overtures of military equipment, such as Poland’s offer of its entire fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, and tens of thousands of anti-tank weapons alongside thousands of anti-aircraft missiles. There are currently up to 17 military flights a day to Ukraine’s western border delivering a US package of $350 million in aid and much more from the rest of NATO, along with an upcoming $13.6 billion Ukrainian aid package just passed by Congress.
Even worse for Russia, Ukraine is overwhelmingly winning the battle of military morale so that Ukrainian regime change is no longer a salvageable outcome. If Putin successfully burns Kiev to the ground, assassinates or imprisons President Zelensky, and installs some Russian stooge as the nominal head of state, the Ukrainian people will only be more emboldened with a martyr president symbolically leading them with his globally esteemed personification of Ukrainian defiance and independence. Ukrainians increasingly have nothing left but their freedom, and the will to defend it with the 18,000+ machine guns that have been handed out to Kiev’s residents. Breweries have converted into Molotov cocktail factories, and much more of the population than young men are offering their lives to fuck up the Russian invaders. Even Russian-speaking Ukrainians, who voted for Zelensky’s presidency by a large margin, reject Putin’s war and are horrified at his war crimes. What military brigade, police force, or average citizen will be loyal to a foreign, Russian-imposed carpetbagger? Paying taxes and following curfews or any other emergency power laws passed by a Russian puppet legislature are going to remain much lower on Ukrainians’ to-do lists than killing the Russian soldiers struggling to impose such martial law.
The Russians simply do not have enough soldiers to functionally occupy the cities they’re currently bombing from the outskirts, and armed Ukrainian insurgency will continue across the country. Russian soldiers cannot and, more importantly, will not adequately patrol anywhere in an occupied Kiev if every window they pass potentially has an existentially pissed off Ukrainian deputized partisan armed with a Kalashnikov and Molotov cocktail.
There is simply no Russian empire to be made in Ukraine — that ship has sailed. And worse for Putin, his regime now faces unprecedented domestic threats with the Russian economy in free-fall and extremely brave and commendable public protests proliferating with Russian awareness that their country is the bad guy. Much of Russia’s foreign reserves that Putin so laboriously saved up for twenty years have been sanctioned and frozen, Western corporations are abandoning the Russian economy, and the Ruble has become effectively worthless for international trade beyond China. With the Ukrainian invasion costing an estimated 20 billion dollars a day, Putin is quickly losing the means to replace cash reserves and military equipment to continue this war he can’t win. If Ukraine capitulated literally this second, and its entire annual GDP ($155.6 billion) was added to Russia’s, it would not make up for the economic losses Putin has facilitated. An empire this war does not make.
Putin has two options left: cut his losses and withdraw from Ukraine with some kind of nominal concessions from NATO and the European Union concerning the timeline of Ukraine’s now inevitable transition toward the West, or pyrrhically bomb the rest of Ukraine into oblivion turning Russia into a state closer to North Korea than a superpower peer of the US and China. It appears Putin is choosing to shred his personal legacy in the image of blood-thirsty megalomaniac Bashar al-Assad.
Putin’s regime, following the chaos of Russia in the 90s, has essentially been a deal with the Russian people to offer them stability and economic growth as well as nationalistic pride in exchange for his autocratic rule, and he has reneged on that deal. Who knows what kind of palace intrigues, public dissension, or even coup plots against Putin might take place in the near future, but Putin should probably start getting some longer tables for his administration’s meetings.
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