Everything stays the same, until it doesn’t
It has been a year since Vladimir Putin launched his war against Ukraine. According to most estimates 100,000 troops have been killed on each side, and almost 10,000 Ukrainian civilians. And yet, little has changed in the position of the sides: Russia is sticking to its absurd narrative of “de-Nazifying” Ukraine, Ukraine wants all its land back (including Crimea, lost without a fight in 2014), and the West is helping Ukraine defend itself (but not enabling it to attack).
Some thoughts on where this might go, in part from the above TV debate on i24:
- Putin’s goals certainly extended far beyond making gains in Ukraine, to areas like restoring Russian primary in its near abroad and projecting power toward the West, rattling and even destabilizing its democracies. But the stated goals involve Ukraine, giving Putin maneuvering room. Dictators can lie more freely.
- And in Ukraine, Russia does in fact control a crescent of of the east and south of the country (see map below), creating a land bridge to Crimea. This is not the level of success one expected from the Russia army, but it is far from nothing.
- The sanctions regime against Russia has been more powerful that many expected, but Russia has also proven more resilient. Its economy has shrunk, but not catastrophically, in part because it found new markets, especially in China and India (which now buys 33 times more Russian oil than a year ago).
- This underscores that those two Asian giants will go their own way and will not be a party to any Western-led grand enterprise — indeed, will likely care little for “doing the right thing” from a Western perspective. That goes triple, obviously, for a completely criminal regime like the one in Iran.
- Thus, at some point Russia may declare victory, putting Ukraine on the spot: Will it fight on? I’m not sure the West will forever back this, because Ukraine’s borders are based on the internal Soviet ones, purposely designed to mix populations and create mayhem. They shouldn’t be altered by force and bullies shouldn’t be appeased — but there’s also no obligation to stick like glue to nonsense.
- If Russia does choose this path — cutting its losses — and Ukraine does fight on, that’s when Putin might apply nuclear blackmail for real. If he carries out a threat, and the West responds, this is the doomsday scenario.
- This is why the West should be smart, and not just right. Giving Ukraine the choice to fight on is the right message to project in public; giving Ukraine encouragement to be flexible as part of a wider strategic plan may be the right thing to do in private.
- Such a deal could include fast-tracked EU membership and a massive “Marshall Plan” — the term has become a cliche, but a useful one — to rebuild Ukraine and provide it with a level of prosperity that would have been unlikely before the war.
- In any plausible scenario, Russia under Putin, even after the war, will be a pariah nation. Trade with it, investment in it, polite diplomacy with it — these things are now under a cloud. Its military’s ability to project power has been hobbled, and its intelligentsia has either left or is trying to get out.
- Thus has Putin has both provided a great argument for the beleaguered concept if democracy (by showing how even more idiotic dictatorships can me) and undermined globalization (by revealing that the price of efficiency is potential reliance on bad faith players). The man is great at seizing power and clinging to it in satanic fashion — but perhaps a genius he is not.
- Putin controls everything in Russia now, and looks omnipotent and invulnerable. But as with bankruptcies, the fall of dictatorships happen at first slowly, then all at once. No one should be surprised if there is a surprise.
Watch this space.