Will Vladimir Putin Put His Shirt Back On In Ukraine?
Putin is threatening a pyrrhic invasion of Ukraine to distract Russians from his long string of geopolitical failures and severe economic mismanagement.
[Published first on my substack, The Halfway Café. If you enjoy progressive takes on contemporary politics and foreign policy, subscribe!]
Since NATO’s sleepy alliance has been startled awake by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden territorial ambitions in Ukraine, it’s a fine time to discuss just how terrible an idea Putin’s potential invasion would be for Russia.
First of all, talk about a hard sell to convince the average Russian citizen this potential war from left field with Ukraine is somehow necessary or even justified. Putin has tried some token measures of cultural jingoism, notably a blatant propaganda letter he recently distributed throughout his military claiming Ukrainians and Russians are the same people alongside other ahistorical claims of a shared Kiev-centered heritage neglecting to contextualize centuries of varying Ukrainian independence, rivalry, resistance, and separatism. Current polling clearly shows that Ukrainians and even Russians don’t buy it.
Putin may desire to reintegrate lost pieces of the Soviet Union (and the Tzarist Empire before it), but he would be wise to remember that the USSR’s breakup was less of a collapse of the Soviet communist system in the Kremlin and more of a sudden dissolution fracturing notably along strictly pre-communist ethnic and nationalist borders. Ukraine’s departure in particular, motivated by staunch insistence on Ukrainian liberation and societal independence after years of Soviet repression of the Ukrainian language and culture (despite the irony of the official communist ideology surrounding international equality and brotherhood), disproves Putin’s historically insulting claims that the Ukrainians and Russians are one people.
Still, not that long ago in 2010, Ukraine had elected a pro-Russian government headed by Viktor Yanukovych, though Russia’s succeeding brazen attempts to extort and dominate Ukraine at the expense of the Ukrainian people and their obvious economic self-interests backfired and led to a massive wave of democratic street protests in 2014 that ultimately exiled Yanukovych.
Since then, Putin has considered Ukrainians’ self-interested trade with the West a security liability, and Ukrainians’ commitment to democracy a political threat that contrasts boldly with his totalitarianism at home. His attempts to punish Ukraine have further eroded his meddling influence in Ukraine’s governmental affairs, and, now staring at 120,000 Russian soldiers on their border poised to steal more territory after previous illegal annexations of Crimea and Donbas, Ukrainians’ support for joining NATO is increasing considerably. If Putin’s aim is to keep Ukraine inside his Russian sphere of control, his belligerence is way off mark.
Even worse for Russia, the Western response to Putin’s sudden militarism threatens to negate virtually all the geopolitical goals Putin has been trying to achieve in Europe throughout the two decades he has clung to power. Putin has worked to reclaim Russia’s former Soviet-era global authority, accelerate the waning of America’s Western hegemony and commitment to Europe’s security umbrella, and motivate the fracturing or even disbanding of NATO.
Whether Putin’s will-he-won’t-he mobilization on the border was intended as a gamble or a strategic bluff, with every nation’s cards on the table it increasingly no longer matters. The US and several NATO allies are currently airlifting daily cargo loads of advanced defense weaponry and other military resources into Ukraine, donating medical aid, and coordinating the deployment of potentially thousands of NATO troops along with extra fighter jets and other other military systems to Eastern European allies nervous about Russia’s portending provocations. Meanwhile, a pre-planned but conveniently timed series of NATO naval exercises in the Mediterranean and Black Sea has brought an American carrier strike group under NATO command for the first time since the Cold War. The US and NATO have been clear that the troops won’t be sent to the frontlines in Ukraine, but NATO is contributing enough weaponry to make Putin’s gambit far more deadly and costly than previously imaginable.
If Putin has merely been bluffing about invading Ukraine, he clearly misjudged his Western opponents’ willingness to raise his wager. The West has so far relatively appeased Putin’s previous provocations in Crimea, Donbas, and Georgia outside of economic sanctions, but the West appears to agree that Putin is dissuaded far more by the stick of lethal military aid than the carrot of easing economic sanctions in exchange for better geopolitical behavior.
Therefore it has become apparent that the most opportune time for Putin to invade Ukraine has passed. Every day is empowering Ukraine to dramatically increase the body bag count that would return to Russia, ensure a full-scale insurgency against Russian occupation efforts, and quickly deteriorate Russian domestic public support for the adventurism. Since an invasion has suddenly become much more difficult for Putin to achieve quickly, at this point the only reason for Putin to go through with it is if he wants to irrationally kill a bunch of Russian soldiers, severely tarnish Russia’s global stature, and truly sever any conceivable remaining ties and future Ukrainian-Russian unity in order to protect his fragile dictator ego and not have to admit obvious miscalculations.
The best option for Putin is to accept some form of a face-saving agreement with NATO and the US despite the Biden Administration’s abject refusal to allow Putin to have a veto on whether Ukraine can join NATO at some point in the future, and withdraw hoping that more arms and Western troop movements don’t continue to flood the Baltic states and other Eastern European countries once solidly in the Soviet sphere of influence, such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Backing down without obtaining major concessions from the US and NATO will make him look weak, but subtly admitting he blundered would be less of an embarrassment and strategic failure than Russia getting bogged down in a Ukrainian forever war the Russian people largely do not support.
I’ll note here how remarkable the difference a single year can make. Thirteen months ago the US had a president who publicly declared NATO to be an obsolete waste of money, and suggested that NATO’s sacred Article 5 provision for mutual defense didn’t mean anything to him. Now the NATO alliance has been invigorated and given new purpose led by a president who again values democratic sovereignty.
In Europe, heavyweight France had already been campaigning for more European military unity with greater defense spending to develop more self-sufficient and credible military capabilities with which to defend strictly European interests, and may very well obtain greater collective spending in the coming years thanks to Putin’s belligerence. Germany has so far tried to maintain a degree of restraint in reacting to Russia’s mobilization given its reliance on Russian natural gas, but Putin’s aggressions are likely empowering the ruling German coalition’s more hawkish Green Party to force the centrists to take a less neutral position on further Russian encroachment into Ukraine. Putin seems to have bumbled his way into self-destructively empowering NATO to find new relevance throughout the 2020s.
Domestically, it’s imperative to remember how this Russian display of regional power belies the current reality that Russia’s standard of living and GDP per capita are awkwardly low compared to much of Europe, and truly embarrassing in contrast with Western Europe. Russia has a little more than half the GDP of France despite having more than twice the population, and a GDP per capita below its Western-turned former Soviet Republics of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, as well as its former Warsaw Pact members the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. With most of its economy tied up in fossil fuel exports, Russia has little to be ambitious about in coming decades while the world’s shift to green energy amidst increasingly ubiquitous natural disasters fueled by climate change is to become the most dominating focus in international relations. And to the south, Russia is increasingly being boxed in by China’s efforts to expand its economic power and influence throughout Central Asia at the unmistakable expense of Putin’s regional superpower dreams.
Since Putin’s delusions of grandeur are now motivating Ukraine to integrate further into the West, Russia will have few places left to flex its muscles slowly withering due to dependence on endangered fossil fuel profits. Before long it will appear absurd to history fans that Putin spent so much of Russia’s time and geopolitical capital antagonizing the few potential regional partners it has left instead of adapting to an increasingly post-carbon and globalized future. Russia’s unimpressive circle of friends currently includes autocratic pariah Belarus, a Syria gutted by a mass refugee exodus and a still ongoing civil war following horrific human rights violations perpetrated by the Assad regime, and a little-brother partnership with China.
Societally, Russia is facing demographic collapse with falling average life-spans, low birth rates, struggling health care systems across the country, and growing demand for autonomy from the myriad peoples long subjugated by Russia’s historical imperialism. Putin may still pretend Russia is an equal peer power with the US, the European Union and China, but the socio-economic gulf between it and the other major geopolitical anchors of the world grows wider every year.
Putin’s belligerence is also damaging his legacy in domestic Russian politics, as slowly the Russian people, goaded by currently-jailed Alexei Navalny’s enduring critiques of Putin’s presidency, have to acknowledge the reality of Putin’s long line of economic failures and tyrannical governmental abuses. If an unprovoked Ukrainian invasion occurs and goes terribly, the usual scapegoating of America and NATO will cease to be a credible explanation for his country’s obvious decline. Putin and his oligarchs’ relentless corruption and economic mismanagement has kept Russia suffering needlessly from the infamous resource curse and financially dependent more on the international price of oil than its own domestic dynamism and innovation. And, to add insult to thievery, the oligarchs in Russia don’t even keep their fossil fuel money in their own country, preferring instead to squirrel their money away in foreign bank accounts and exorbitantly over-priced real estate holdings abroad to hide the money from their political enemies and Putin’s lifetime dictatorship. Putin’s governance has been more of a successful robbery of the Russian people than a Make Russia Great Again campaign.
Putin has administered a presidency like a showcase of selfish, greedy, and backward thinking, and Putin’s greatest damage to Russia of all is his deadly, desperate, dictatorial cling to power. I shudder to imagine the political turmoil that will result from the authoritarian power vacuum when Putin finally retires or dies in office after decades of snuffing out democracy, jailing and poisoning his political opponents, repressing and murdering his critics, and stifling Russian society.
This theatrical production on the Ukrainian border may help Putin superficially project strength, like his penchant for absurdist photo-ops of shirtless horseback riding jaunts and his annual hockey game where the other players let him score eight goals, but Russia’s only real geopolitical strength is when the price of their wrong-side-of-history-export oil is above $40 a barrel, and while some European nations, Germany in particular, are still momentarily dependent on Russia’s natural gas.
Russia is unmistakably regressing back into its historical position as the underdeveloped backwater state of Europe with an oversized military and self-conscious nationalism. The ghosts of striving Romanovs like Peter, Catherine, and Alexander alongside Soviet leaders like Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev would be unimpressed how Putin has maintained an average Russian prosperity far below the West, and now feels the need to launch a pyrrhic invasion of Ukraine to distract the Russian people from thinking too much about it.