Putin’s Miscalculations

Overview

The enemy of progress is perspective. Perspective is limited, illusionary and therefore, fundamentally flawed in its decision-making processes. Vladimir Putin’s perspective on Russia, Ukraine, and the relationship between the two is fixed: the latter has no right to exist independently, and the former, should return to its former glory and power. Both issues are existentialist in nature and thus, are the driving forces behind Putin’s quest for further power and influence. But there is a broader perspective behind what is termed almost exclusively outside Russia and Belarus as ‘Putin’s war’: the perspective that, by any metric except that of nuclear arms, Russia is no longer a superpower. The invasion of Ukraine is at once both an expression of the perception that she is by the authors, and proof positive that those glory days – and the power that came with them – are gone forever. The ‘cold peace’ that Yeltsin spoke of, may yet turn into a hot war.

Mine, all mine

It is all too easy to only consider history as part of your own subjective timeline of events – and to use these events to fit a narrative that justifies your actions, whatever the nature of these. Dictators through the centuries, have on this basis committed ethnic genocide, waged war, and forced their will upon nations on the belief that they are either morally right, or fundamentally required to do so. Putin has stuck to this template for years. The invasion of Crimea in 2014, and before that, the brief war in Georgia of 2008, were not only strategies to better position Russia for her political and economic purposes (reminding Eastern Europe that the Russian ‘sphere of influence’ was still predominant and gaining control of key land and sea cargo routes), but actions that Putin felt were mandated by his personal sense of Russian patriotism. To his mind, these nations had always been Soviet at heart, and independence was a mere aberration of history. But more than this, the dissolution of the USSR sits at the heart of Russia’s status as a faded superpower. The nation that had once dominated Eastern Europe like a colossus, which had defeated fascism and stared down the USA in the 1960s, was now literally falling apart and unable to feed its own citizens. Sure, it had nuclear weapons, but prevailing doctrine held (and we must hope, still holds), that nuclear powers will not go to war with each other, rendering them somewhat irrelevant. Moreover, these independent nations turned away from Russia in the clearest possible sense by joining the European Union, NATO, or both. The very existence of NATO is, to some quarters of the Russian elite, a threat to the very existence of Russia. In this light, Russia’s actions over the last ten years have been as much about restoring the past, in every respect, as they are about safeguarding the future.

In the intervening years between the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine, Russia made no further political plays but significantly strengthened their military presence in the region (including illegal naval operations blockading Ukrainian cargo), and increased the rhetoric that Russia was retaking its place on the world stage. Of the myriad reasons why Putin chose this moment to go to war, those that revolve around the reality of Russian power compared to its myth, can particularly not avoid discussing the economic reasons, and one in particular that serves to illustrate Russia’s apparent diminished status.

Weaponised fuel

It is no secret that Russia provides much of Europe’s energy needs, but the degree to which it can wield this as a weapon is perhaps only now coming into sharp focus. In 2009, temporary halts on gas exports in a dispute over transit fees effectively held Europe to ransom, and Moldova was threatened with a complete cessation in the winter of 2021, over a desire to seek gas from the EU rather than Russia due to the latter’s price hikes – and Moldova eventually capitulated to a 34% price hike. Of the major European nations, Germany and Italy are the most heavily reliant on Russian energy and, as major EU and NATO voices in deciding any response, it is plain to see how the energy weapon can be leveraged across a continental-level response.

Up until early March, Germany had intended to make use of the Nordstream 2 pipeline, which would bypass Ukraine entirely (and denying Kyiv the resulting lucrative transit fees), but which would have put Russia in an even greater position to monopolise the fuel industry. Nordstream 2 will now not happen, and the degree to which it would have weakened the German position economically and politically, is now in sharper relief. Much of Europe – even countries such as the UK, which sources less than 4% of its fuel from Russia – is now planning to be completely independent of Russia as far as energy needs go. This was the one area where Putin could lay absolute claim to Russia’s ongoing status as a great power, and he has arguably been directly responsible for its diminishment. Although the impact on global prices and supplies due to worldwide sanctions will reverberate throughout the world, there is little use in having such a strategic weapon if it can no longer threaten your enemies. 

Foreign relations

One of the defining factors behind a country’s status as a ‘superpower’ is the confirmation that others see you as such. Russia’s greatest partner in this respect has long been China, with the two regularly collaborating on political and trading deals, while handily vetoing at UN-level anything that the other might not like. Indeed, it was only in February 2022 that Xi Jinping and Putin announced a ‘new era… [a] global order’ endorsing their common territorial and political ambitions – with Putin attempting to create a meaningful counterweight to NATO and China looking for accepted superiority over the entire East Asian sphere, and the common factor to both being ‘the West’. It has even been whispered in certain circles, that Beijing asked Moscow to delay the start of the invasion until after the Winter Olympics had concluded. But since then, support from China has been more muted than anticipated. An abstention in the symbolic UN vote rather than siding with Russia was unexpected, and requests for military and economic assistance have, so far at least, not been met. This is not to suggest that China is no longer Russia’s strongest ally, only that the war seems to have set even Beijing noses out of joint. Of course, this may be because China has long had designs on retaking Taiwan, and the international pushback against Russia for its own invasion, may have given it pause for thought.

But this is just one example of how the consequences of the invasion will bleed over international borders. Notably the Middle Eastern oil giants, Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular, have already been vocal about seeking to ‘take over’ all the businesses that international firms are now not doing in Russia. This brings with it immediate problems: not only the repercussions from Russia itself (discussed below), but the potential risk of creating dependency on another contentious region just as the current dependency is upon Russia, and on the global balance of power as a result. Attempts to lure flight capital are admirable inasmuch as they offer an alternative lifeline and opportunity for companies now not morally or legally able to operate in Russia, but by no means provide a ‘cleaner’ alternative.

Aside from Belarus, Russia has few remaining hardcore and unquestioned allies, with countries such as Pakistan being relative outliers in terms of signing new deals and maintaining friendly relationships. Iran joined Russia-China military drills for the first time last year, but very much has its own problems. The increasing isolation at political, economic and cultural level does not seem to cast Russia in a superpowered light – but Putin is never more dangerous than when he has his back against the wall.

The human and economic impact

More than two thousand Ukrainian civilians and over one thousand soldiers have lost their lives since the start of the war, and Russia continues to insist that its objectives of de-Nazification, demilitarisation and neutrality, must be met before there can be peace. Market uncertainty and costs are rising worldwide, and trade logistics will be seriously disrupted, not only in fuel but in food. The consequences of the invasion will not be small, nor will they be brief.

The picture in Russia is one where the self-imposed isolation is rapidly turning into a cocktail of rhetoric and revenge. Plans have already been announced to consider any company attempting to leave Russia as declaring voluntary bankruptcy, with directors subject to criminal charges if the money goes with them, and Russia has a long history of launching cyber-attacks against nations, or even just companies, with which it has a grievance. Putin has declared that ‘sanctions are akin to a declaration of war’ and has spoken about simply creating the legal conditions needed to take further action. The biggest wave of anti-government protest for a generation has been unleashed across Russia, and the thousands of arrests and detentions thus far will not prevent the calls for Putin to reverse course or go completely – neither will the banning of the words ‘war’ and ‘invasion’ and the censuring of any media outlet that goes against the Kremlin’s stance.

Reciprocal attacks in the economic and corporate sectors have thus already begun, and similar cyber-attacks are expected. Perhaps, in his words on ‘a declaration of war’, this is the only area where Putin is right. Russia and the West are already in a conflict of political ideology and existential rights, a conflict that has been ongoing for far longer than the military invasion of Ukraine. From his desire to reignite the USSR in tooth and claw, escalation on every front is to be expected; whether that be marching troops into Georgia once more, increasing the number and severity of reciprocal attacks against those that support Ukraine, or employing a far more devastating and terrifying weaponry from which there really would be no way back.

Summary

It is arguable that at every stage of this war, Putin has miscalculated. He thought the Russian troops would be welcomed with open arms; they were met with brave resistance. He thought Kyiv would surrender within the weekend; it has been resolute in defying him. He thought he could cement Russia’s status on the world stage once more; instead, it is more isolated than ever. Such a combination of failure has put paid to lesser leaders, and it may yet mean the end for Putin himself. But it has become clear over the past few weeks that although this is not a ’clash of superpowers’ between East and West, Putin remains a highly dangerous and unpredictable leader, who could still decide the fate of not only Ukraine, but the world. It is never in the Russian mentality to back down, and Putin has shown that he is committed to the game for the long haul. All that remains is to discover the point at which he goes ‘all in’.

For how does this end? Whether Russia occupies Ukraine or is driven out, whether a settlement is reached or a guerrilla future envisaged, for Russia to restore any level of morality or credibility on the world stage is currently all but impossible, a chasm matched by the continuing refusal of the West to just go back to how things were. This time, there must be a reckoning, there must be a punishment. This might serve only to consolidate the idea in Putin’s mind that the Balkans, Baltics and beyond, are all fair game. A man who has nothing to lose, has nothing to fear. A future of strategic battlegrounds, economic weapons and outright distrust, is surely as damaging to Russia’s interests as it is to everywhere else, but observers long ago stopped considering Russia (or more precisely Putin) as a rational actor.

One thing is certain – battle victories, tough talking and the potential to cause mass destruction do not a superpower make. True power is identified by a country’s ability to employ diplomatic relations, influence and mutually beneficial deals, coupled with the capability to defend one’s citizens from tyranny. Putin has no interest in diplomacy except that which comes at the barrel of a gun, no interest in community except the one that he defines. The further Russia goes down this path, the more inadequate and self-destructive it becomes as a state. The only question is whether it is too late for Russia to retrace its steps, or whether the whole world will be forced to walk with him on his doomed quest to wear the ‘superpower’ badge once again.

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