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Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Russia Has Won The Ukraine War–Oil And A Nuclear Threat Have Beaten The West

There are two immediate steps the West can take to blunt the Russian blitzkrieg and to force Putin to think twice about his war – institute and enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine; and stop buying Russian oil and gas. Neither one is tenable. 

A no-fly zone implies enforcement – i.e. shooting down Russian aircraft – and such action would, according to Putin and to most other more neutral observers, be an act of war.  No one in the West wants an all-out war with Russia, one which would quickly evolve into World War III with the likelihood of the use of nuclear weapons.  So, classic old style European warfare continues without restraint. Russian missiles intimidate the population of targeted cities, followed by the Anschluss of tanks, armor, and personnel and eventual military rule.

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While economic and financial sanctions have had an effect in the Russian countryside, their impact has been relatively minor.  In the run-up to the invasion Russia, knowing that foreign assets would be frozen in the West, made certain that its billions of foreign currency held domestically were protected and that their investments in China would be untouched.  The sanctions placed on the Russian central bank have been severe, limiting the free flow and exchange of currency, but they were expected and prepared for.  Limitations on Russian banks to access the SWIFT financial system, while appearing punitive, are relatively insignificant.  Since Western investors and traders will be just as affected by such restrictions as Russians, they have been mainly for show.

While a growing segment of the Russian population has become  restive and increasingly unhappy with the economic bite of sanctions, the increasing isolation of Russia on the international stage, and the death of Russian soldiers, those who protest are arrested and detained; and most others, unwilling to risk detention, punishment, and deprivation of their livelihoods and families, keep silent.

Putin has control of all the levers of power.  He controls the Duma, the military, the apparatuses of civil society, and the population.  He is arrogant, determined, and steadfast.

A major source of Russia’s income and wealth is derived from oil and gas, and Western Europe – with the exception of France which has turned to nuclear power and the UK which has its own domestic supply of energy resources – is almost totally dependent on them.  Turning off the spigot to punish Russia for its actions in Ukraine would mean untold hardships for Europeans and they have not been willing to do so.  The United States, far less dependent on Russian energy; and under Donald Trump on the way to energy independence, has considered shutting off Russian oil and gas but has been reluctant to suggest the same course of action for Europe.

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In short, Russian gas and oil keep flowing uninterrupted, and the one real measure that can hurt Putin is off the table.  Moreover, Putin has said that shutting off Russian energy supplies would be tantamount to an act of war, no different in its damages than any military action; and if the West had the temerity to try such an interruption, they would pay and pay dearly.

There is no doubt that Putin had been planning the annexation of Ukraine since the deposition of the Russian ally president in 2015, anticipated the Western reaction, and was prepared for it.  He knew quite well that he could take over Ukraine with no Western resistance and that he could survive whatever punitive measures put in place  by the West.

While it is true that the invasion has not gone as well or as easily as Putin had expected, complete takeover of the country is only a matter of time.  No number of volunteer militia warfare even generously supplied with Western armaments can deter the Russian advances. 

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And once the mission has been accomplished - i.e. after Russian takeover of Ukraine and a puppet government installed, the same rules of engagement will apply. Russia will defy Western sanctions, reconfigure Ukraine to its own measure, and assure a solidly Russian ally. 

The sanctions will continue and increase, but Russia will not only adapt to and accommodate them but continue to realize billions in foreign exchange from the sale of its gas and oil reserves.  Eventually the newly configured Russia will, by economic and geopolitical necessity, be welcomed back into the commonwealth of nations. It will have accomplished all of its goals. 

The lessons are clear, but too little too late.  

In the aftermath of the American Civil War, the Radical Republicans in Congress were determined to destroy the South – to punish it for its transgressions and to assure that it would never rise again.  They systematically dismantled Southern society, denied landowners of the right to their land, and engineered the takeover of state politics by former slaves.   By insisting on their immediate, precipitous representation in Southern state legislatures, the Northern Radical Republicans guaranteed chaotic rule.

These Radical Republicans, however, grossly underestimated the determination of former Southern grandees to return to power; and no matter how punitive were the measures of Reconstruction, the South was uncowed, unintimidated, and determined to restore its economic and social system.  Soon  Jim Crow and subsistence tenant farming had replaced slavery. The South never forgot the unrequited humiliation inflicted on them by the North, and became more determinately racist than they ever had been before.  

Had Lincoln lived, he would never have taken such a radical action  The South he said, returned to the Union, must be accorded its rights and obligations. 

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The same was true of the Western response to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.  Western countries, tired of the long, protracted Cold War, wanted to be absolutely sure that the newly independent Russia would never threaten Europe the way the Soviet Union had.  NATO would encircle Russia, aim its missiles at Moscow and be sure that the country would never rise again.  Rather than welcome Russia into the ambit of Western democracy, it continued to treat it as an adversary, a second rate, Third World country; and by so doing denied Russia’s storied imperial history.  Empires mean nothing in the modern, liberal world, and Russia would quickly abandon any hope of restoring its Tsarist past.

Vladimir Putin understood all this, and from the very beginning of his reign twenty years ago, planned to restore the legitimacy of Russia and its place in the world.   He understood, thanks to the aggressive moves of NATO, a proxy for Western expansionism, that Europe would never stand for a powerful, renascent Russia, and that one day sooner or later, there would be pitched conflict.  His annexation of Crimea was only the most obvious expression of his intents; and one had only to look at his consolidation of power in the former Soviet Republics of the East for confirmation.  While he may not have imperial designs on the Balkan and Eastern European republics of the former Soviet Union, his political intents have been eminently clear. 

Few in the West, however, expected his military attack on Ukraine.  There seemed to be a number of ways that he could accomplish his aims without war.  However, once again the West misjudged him, assumed that he had become a man of Western liberal sentiments, compromise, and reason.  

Nothing could have been farther from the truth.  Putin had become, as he had always planned, an autocratic dictator.  The problem was that unlike the dozens of tin-pot dictators throughout Africa and the rest of the developing world, Russia had wealth, energy resources, a powerful military, and nuclear weapons.  The West assumed beneficence and the irresistible allure of liberal democracy when such an idea could not have been more fanciful.

The final chapter of the Ukraine invasion has yet to be written, but it cannot be a happy one.  The West has predictably condemned the Russian blitzkrieg – thousand of civilians are dying and the country is being reduced to rubble.  Yet in its refusal to understand geopolitics - how its post-Soviet geopolitical moves and NATO expansion, its refusal to understand Putin as a brilliant Machiavellian, and its teat-sucking, stubborn dependence on foreign oil, have contributed to the problem.  Putin is the villain, but he has been helped along in his ways by the West.

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