Putin Has Already Revealed That Russia Can Not Afford Not to Act
The only question left is can anything that's not war suffice?
In early 1979 the Soviet politburo sat down and listed all the reasons why going into Afghanistan was an extremely bad, terrible idea. Then in late 1979, that very same politburo ordered the Soviet military into Afghanistan.
The 2003 neocons went into Iraq with enthusiasm expecting a cakewalk, convinced that soon they would be overseeing pro-Israeli regimes in Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran. The Soviet leadership by contrast went into Afghanistan believing there was a decent likelihood they were making a terrible mistake. It isn’t that they loved the idea of going into Afghanistan, it is merely that they came to hate the idea of living with the consequences of doing nothing even more.
The Russian government of Vladimir Putin absolutely detests the idea of adding East Ukraine or any significant part of it to Russia. The Russians calculate they would need to be reinvesting 15-20% of their GDP into economic modernization if they are to truly develop to Western levels but are managing only a little over 10%. To deepen this problem by adding the responsibility for dilapidated East Ukraine is not an attractive proposition. Developing East Ukraine and being on the hook for paying off its retirees isn’t a challenge Putin wants on his plate. He proved as much in 2014 when he rebuked Donbass’ application to join Russia and instead forced it into the two Minsk Ukraine-reintegration plans.
But just because Moscow doesn’t want East Ukraine doesn’t mean that it can afford not to take it. Winning large swathes of Ukraine would to Moscow equal a defeat that would cost it huge riches it doesn’t have. But it may be that leaving Ukraine in the hands of worshippers of America and of Nazi collaborators may come to be seen as even worse.
What have the Russians been saying recently? What does Putin mean when he says that Russia has nowhere further to retreat and yet still more threats are popping up? He means that the status quo for Russia is already just about intolerable yet it continues to deteriorate.
To believe that the current war scare has a 0% chance of progressing into a Russian military offensive you would have to believe that for Moscow there is a very clear winner between war and peace. But for several months the Russians have been saying just the opposite. That for them seeing things continue to develop along the current path is an intolerable state of affairs. One worse than having to take unspecified dramatic and desperate action. It’s not that Moscow wants what’s coming next but that it’s becoming a coin toss between two equally undesirable alternatives.
Official Kiev makes zero concessions to the fact it is towered over by a huge and powerful Russia. But that is okay, neither does Estonia and Moscow ultimately doesn’t care. But Kiev’s orientation also makes zero concessions to its own large Russia-friendly constituency.
Nearly half of the country is still very Russia-friendly yet this doesn’t move the needle for Kiev even a little bit. Ukrainians overwhelmingly voted for negotiations and for putting the economy before the war, a slim majority favors neutrality over NATO, 55% speak Russian, 40% consider Ukrainians and Russians to be one and the same people or something like it, 30% even now admit openly to wanting military ties to Russia. And what is the government in Kiev doing? Begging for NATO membership and presence, rehabilitating Nazi collaborators, demonizing the USSR and Russia, mandating linguistic de-Russification, and locking up pro-peace politicians and shuttering down their media. Praise Ukraine’s existing ties to the CIA and the Pentagon and you’re a patriot, call for better hypothetical relations with the Russians and you end up in house arrest.
To be fair Estonia similarly disenfranchises its large Russian-speaking minority, but then Estonia is small and unimportant and doesn’t lie on former ethnic Russian territory.
I don’t want to see war because I think there is a danger that East Ukrainians will come out of it even worse off than they are now, especially if they are denied direct incorporation and are turned into a Donbass-style protectorate instead. Certainly any mothers who lose a child to a stray Iskander are going to be way worse off.
But when the Russians are A) saying that status quo has grown intolerable and B) are shipping large quantities of military equipment west I do think there is reason to fear (wider) war. That reason is that the argument for (escalating the) war is also a compelling one. And it’s one the Kremlin has been making in 2021. Putin:
“Do they really think we do not see these threats? Or do they think that we will just stand idly watching threats to Russia emerge? This is the problem: we simply have no room to retreat. That is the question.”
Putin hasn’t revealed if he’s going to order Russia to war, but he has already revealed that absent other solutions war would now make sense for Russia. The Kremlin Stooge put it well in a different context: “where peace is impossible, violence is inevitable.” Or perhaps: where inaction is intolerable, action is inevitable.
What is that action going to be?
Does he have an ace up his sleeve, or it’s going to be blood and guts?