The Resource Game — Putin, Ukraine, and the Future
“I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”
— W.H. Auden; ‘September 1st, 1939’
I had a conversation with a friend of mine yesterday.
She asked me why I hadn’t written anything on the Ukraine conflict. “So much has already been said,” I told her. “I doubt I’d have anything more to add. Plus, I don’t really have the right.”
“Your three degrees gives you the right to weigh in,” she told me. “Even if I’m the only one who reads it, I’d like to see your take.”
I began to think about what hadn’t been said — and what remained to be said in more or less plain English. I went back to the map, below, and one thing jumped right out at me: Putin doesn’t give a damn about Donbas. The separatists are a sideshow.
What Putin wants are resources, and a new map of Europe, with Russia at the center of it all.
To really begin to unpack this thing requires looking at the history of Ukraine and Russia, and their relationship. In brief, the Kievan Rus ran Ukraine, as well as what are now Belarus, large parts of western Russia including parts of the Baltic states, and part of Finland from around 800 C.E. until 1240 C.E. (the time of the Mongol invasion). The first capitol was in Novgorod, but was moved to the then-central city of Kiev. All this happened while Moscow was a relatively small trading village.
Ownership of the region was contested by its neighbors following the collapse of the Kievan Rus federation, finally falling under the control of Tsarist Russia. For all this, Ukraine was the second most populous region behind Russia proper during the Soviet era. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has struggled to catch up to its peers in Europe; its economy had been narrowly developed by the Soviets, with attention paid primarily to resource extraction — which should be our first clue regarding the current conflict.
A Recap on Resources
Ukrainian resources at a glance below:
Iron — World’s fifth-largest exporter
Titanium — 20% of world’s titanium reserves; 6th largest producer
Lithium — Unknown; tests show that it could be as much as 500,000 tons.
Arable Land — 33M/hectares; #10 in the world
Nuclear Power — 15 plants operational; 2 under construction*
Connecting the dots here isn’t very hard. Ukraine is a resource mine for Russia. All that was needed was a casus belli to justify invasion.
In early 2014, discontent in the eastern districts of the country was exploited by Russia to destabilize governmental control. This was in concert with their outright annexation of Crimea. The Ukrainian military pushed back, and Russia began more conventional military operations in the region combined with separatist irregulars. The region has been contested for the last eight years. Russia has recognized the independence of the two Donbas districts, Donetsk and Luhansk. Separatists in both districts joined Russian troops in February of this year to sweep remaining Ukrainian forces from those regions.
Nazis in Ukraine?
The Ukrainian military has accepted a volunteer regiment into its ranks with neo-Nazi sentiments (the Azov Regiment). This act gave Vladimir Putin part of his justification for invasion — his intent to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine.
The Ukrainian government has partially funded the Azov Regiment, justification for which was the overall weakness of Ukrainian ground forces and the need to enlist the help of paramilitaries.
That this was a bad decision on the part of Ukraine’s government is not open to question.
Unpacking The Invasion
The map below is the most current state of things in Ukraine. Two things leap out at me, but we first have to look at the geography of the place.
Ukraine is divided, east and west, by the Dniper River. The Dniper valley is a natural corridor which would allow any invader to quickly divide the country and make it easier to conquer. The Russian invasion appears to be following that stratagem — secure the separatist regions, invade from the north and south, and link up through the valley before the second phase, which would be to deal with the larger western half.
To do this, Russia will have to reduce the cities (along with their capacity to fight); otherwise they’ll be leaving significant forces in their rear when they attempt to secure the rest of the country.
In the beginning, I’d said, “This is over” during Day #1 — I frankly anticipated Russia to roll over the Ukrainian military, which all analysis said was weak and poorly led. Instead, they’ve fought surprisingly hard, and civilian support has been unexpectedly strong. This derailed what was likely Putin’s goal; a 72-hour lightning campaign which would topple the government, paving the way for a Russian puppet/client regime.
As I write this, there’s a stalled convoy on the road to Kiev; it was supplied with three days worth of food and fuel. The troops haven’t been fed in days (unless they’ve been turned loose to loot the countryside); resupplying the convoy with fuel will prove difficult in the extreme. Unless he escalates the conflict to involve more air support and aerial resupply, Putin risks having his gamble on Ukraine fail completely.
Again, as I write this, Putin has authorized two ‘corridors’ through which civilians may evacuate key Ukrainian cities — but those corridors go only to Russia and Belarus. (I’d posit that Kafka would be proud of this, but I’d be diluting my point here.) We can count on Putin authorizing a stepped-up campaign to secure those key cities if he can get enough civilians out of the way.
The Real Question: Why?
I believe Putin’s core reasons are to redraw the map of Europe post-Cold War, and to gain the vital resources necessary to Russia’s growth. He wants this to be ‘Russia’s century’. He’s created several political and military straw men to justify all of this.
One of Putin’s core claims is that NATO violated an agreement not to expand eastward. The blunt truth is that no such agreement ever existed. Neither the Partnership for Peace program (1994) nor the Founding Act on Mutual Relations (1997) had such a proviso. Former Russian client states behind the iron curtain requested NATO membership, and were granted same.
Objectivity, however, requires that we look at things from a Russian viewpoint.
NATO (mainly the U.S.) has ringed Russia with military bases, and neither NATO nor the U.S. shows any sign of ceasing that activity. The map below would give any military or political planner pause, and would lend at least some credence to Russian claims of NATO/U.S. destabilization of the region.
None of this, however, is a justification for what Putin has done in Ukraine.
My Two Cents….
In no particular order; some observations:
In the end, I believe Putin will win the invasion, and lose the war. This will lead to serious instability in the region, and perhaps a wider conflict. The wild card is whether the Russian 1% will tolerate all of this without orchestrating a palace coup of sorts.
If he pulls this off, he’ll be stuck with occupying a nation that clearly wants no part of him, his new Europe, or his ‘Russian Century’. There’s a chance he’ll pull his troops out, send in engineers and other foreign aid (with serious strings attached), making it look like his newly installed client government has pulled off an economic miracle. Just how he’ll do this with his economy circling the toilet-hole is another story.
He’ll likely give a speech when the invasion’s over and the new government is installed, telling the world that he has ‘no more territorial demands’ (Google that one if you’d like to know who said it first).
To make any sense of this, at least a partial understanding of Putin-the-man is necessary. His ‘handlers’ in the KGB during the early part of his career pointed to a ‘diminished sense of danger’ in the man, causing him to take unnecessary risk. This seems to sort well with his behavior in his later career; his personality hasn’t served his increased responsibilities well.
He gambled on annexing Crimea in 2014, and won. It was a dangerous game, but in winning this round, he was emboldened, and this no doubt played into his decision to invade Ukraine. He also likely judged NATO and the U.S. as unwilling to commit substantial resources into defending Ukraine — and so far, he’s been right.
His personality type appears to be one that will ‘double-down’ on a gambit if prior experience has been successful. He also doesn’t appear to know the difference between genuine success and blind luck.
In a straight-up fight, there’s no way Ukraine can win against the Russian army. In an occupation, there’s no way Russia can keep Ukraine without it turning into another Afghanistan.
The wild card here is the process by which the U.S. and allied nations are treating this problem. Economic sanctions have a habit of harming the most vulnerable, and right now, they’ve all but cratered the Russian economy. Putin can continue to pump oil out of the ground, refine it, and send it to the mechanized divisions in his army and to his air force. What he can’t do is keep massive numbers of people in his own country from starving.
It’s known that his police has arrested nearly 15,000 people for antiwar protests. The war is not popular in Russia, in spite of their well-controlled media. Our own media has published some erroneous information as well — the old saw that ‘the first casualty of war is the truth’ is well stated here.
We’re wiser to our government than we were twenty years ago — WMD’s were not, in fact, in Saddam’s arsenal; the world was not on the brink of some catastrophe when the decision was made to invade in 2003. We can hope saner heads will prevail in Russia, as well as here.
‘Whataboutism’ isn’t going to solve anything. Pointing out our failure-to-outrage at Yemen, Syria, and other conflicts assisted by U.S.-built war machinery is only stating the obvious. Yes; we should be equally outraged — but the other blunt truth here is that none of these conflicts have the potential to spin up into full-blown nuclear war overnight like the one in Ukraine.
Putting a stop to Putin’s aggression and imperial ambitions isn’t a bad thing, as it turns out. We’d also, while we’re at it, do well to look at our own.