Unpacking Ukraine part 2 – Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy

The levels of global support Ukraine currently enjoys is truly something to behold. A major reason for the multilateral support they get is because there is such a clear ‘bad guy’ in this conflict. Like I discussed earlier, there’s a good case to be made that Putin is the most hated man alive right now.

But while our narrative of the conflict paints Putin as the evil villain to be overcome, Putin certainly doesn’t view himself in a similar light. Nobody ever thinks that they are the bad guy, at least not in the moment.

Sure, people might be temporarily driven by emotions and do something they later regret, or they might experience a change of heart afterwards that makes them re-evaluate their earlier actions. People can certainly see themselves as evil because of what they have done. But it’s incredibly rare for someone to hold similar views because of what they are doing or about to do.

So where does this discrepancy come from? Some claim that Putin simply has a few screws loose, and is acting like a madman out for destruction, especially with his threat of using nuclear missiles. But if this really was the case, why is he bothering with this foreplay in Ukraine instead of just going directly towards a nuclear climax. Russian leaders historically do tend to love their pretexts for conflict (however blatantly false), but with the nuclear option there’d be nobody left to judge his actions anyway.

While there are certainly some signs that he is behaving a tad paranoid (potentially brought about by his extensive isolation during COVID), there is little evidence that his actions are truly irrational. The lack of a swift victory in Ukraine can easily be attributed to a severe miscalculation. Ukrainian resistance is clearly fiercer than expected, and the logistical support for the army was not prepared to sustain a multi-week campaign.

“Putin certainly does not view this conflict through the same lens that the Western world does”

What about his other actions like nationalizing the foreign assets of firms that try to leave? A move that’s incredibly stupid in the long run since this will surely discourage foreign investors from considering Russia as an appealing market for a long, long time, but it provides Putin with a short-term liquidity boost, and he might not even live long enough to see the negative consequences.

Ok, so Putin miscalculated. But making a mistake does not make him crazy or erratic. On the contrary, ‘to err is human’ after all. Decisions like shifting towards a slower-paced invasion now that he knows for sure NATO will not get involved, while simultaneously ramping up domestic propaganda to generate support at home, are not actions made by an irrational actor. So if we can discount the hypothesis that Putin has gone mad, why is he then engaging in actions that are so multilaterally perceived as evil?

An existential crisis

Some have argued that the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO forms an existential threat to Russia. This argument is hard to justify. Concerns over NATO using Ukraine as a base to launch missiles from are unconvincing, since Russia already borders several other NATO countries which are similarly close to Moscow, such as Estonia and Latvia.

And the threat of using Ukraine as a staging location for a ground assault to capture Russia? Also rather implausible. How many signs of willingness to capture territory in a land war has NATO exhibit since its inception? Zero. Yes, NATO has led invasions in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya with the intent to overthrow regimes, but never in NATO’s history has it shown an intent to conquer another country.

More plausible is the idea that Putin is motivated by illusions of historical grandeur. Putin has been in power for roughly 22 years by now, and it’s not unfathomable to think that he might be starting to get concerned about what he will leave behind. The way he tends to surround himself with portrayals of famous former Russian leaders such as Alexander the Great and Catherine the Great further plays into this narrative, and makes it clear where his inspirations lie.

“Putin Russia has seen little but a steady decline over the years”

A desire to restore the Russia to its former glory days of the USSR is likely a large motivator. Over the course of the 21st century, Russia has slowly started to fade into irrelevance, at least compared to the dominant position in geopolitics it once had. If the intent of the Ukrainian invasion was to put Russia back onto the map as a topic of global discourse, then Putin certainly accomplished his mission. Whether this was actually worth it though is another matter altogether, and the lack of immediate success might have done more harm than good when it comes to perceptions of Russia as a relevant superpower.

Putin also appears to be clearly inspired by Aleksandr Dugin’s treatise on the preferred geopolitical course in the 21st century, as laid out in his book Foundations of Geopolitics (I strongly recommend clicking on the Wikipedia summary of the book I linked, well worth a look). In this book, the author sets out several objectives that Russia ought to pursue, many of which eerily have come to pass: Germany being the dominant power in Europe, the establishment of a strong Franco-German bloc in Europe to counteract American influences, cutting off the U.K. from mainland Europe (i.e. Brexit), and the dismemberment of Georgia.

Perhaps unsurprisingly also on this list? The annexation of Ukraine back into the Russian fold.

But the economic angle also cannot be neglected here. Where his predecessor Boris Yeltsin saw Russia through a period of major transformation and economic growth, Putin’s Russia has seen little but a steady decline over the years.

Russia’s future economic outlook does not show any signs of bucking this trend. While Russia is Europe’s largest provider of both oil and gas, they are heavily dependent on the pipelines in Ukraine for its distribution chains (almost a million barrels of Russian oil pass through Ukraine each day). And this export is crucial to the governmental budget. While estimates vary, projections range from around 25% to as much as 35% of governmental income being derived from oil and gas revenues.

This makes the discovery of significant fuel reserves in the Black Sea near Ukraine particularly worrisome for Russia’s future outlook, a discovery that arguably contributed to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Not only do these Ukrainian reserves create a nearby competitor that is closer located to Russia’s main export market (the rest of Europe), but it’s also a competitor Russia itself is heavily reliant for its pipeline transportation network. This also explains why Russia was initially so adamant on implementing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project of delivering oil through the Baltic Sea, as this would lower their overall dependence on Ukraine.

Putin certainly does not view this conflict through the same lens that the Western world does. In his mind, he is trying to save Russia and create a resurgence back towards Russia’s former glory days, instead of a slow fade-away into obscurity.

From quagmire to sinkhole

In his attempt to revitalize Russia, Putin clearly bit of more than he can chew. But now that he’s got Russia into this conflict, how does he get out of it? Russia’s plans for a swift invasion didn’t work out, and with that their chances of a rosy outlook dissipated altogether.

The economic sanctions placed on Russia are going to cripple their economy for years, if not decades. Not only will their currency experience a massive depreciation, importing key products from other countries has become significantly more difficult. Many foreign firms already left Russia, causing massive capital flight and further product shortages.

But perhaps the biggest blow to the overall economy was the own goal scored made by Putin when he announced imminent measures to prevent foreign investors from selling their remaining Russian assets. This move just made investments into Russia that much riskier, by several orders of magnitude. Even in a post-war scenario, the possible threat of asset seizures by the government creates a huge deterrent for future investment opportunities.

“The perception of the Russian military, often seen as one of the most effective in the world, has been utterly shattered”

In addition, with the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 project, Russia will be more reliant on Ukrainian infrastructure than ever. And since Russia just invaded the country they depend on, a Ukraine that remains independent will be a major issue for Russia.

To top it all off, the perception of the Russian military, often seen as one of the most effective in the world, has been utterly shattered. The unexpected levels of resistance Ukraine is putting up have utterly destroyed the idea that Russia has a powerful military. It doesn’t even matter if this is actually true or just the result of poor planning and underestimating Ukrainian resistance, it’s the perception that matters.

This means that Russia and Putin are pretty much in a no-win situation. Their reputation is shattered, their economy is down the drain, the might of the Russian military has lost its luster, and they might not even achieve their objectives in Ukraine. So where can they go from here?

The possibility exists that Russia eventually wins the war, and manages to occupy Ukraine or install a puppet government. Winning the war is a very uncertain proposition at the moment, further fueled by the support Ukraine is receiving. But even if they win, the strong anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine makes it seem unlikely that they can maintain control for long (just look at earlier forays into Afghanistan as an example of this approach not working out).

Or Russia can extract some concessions from Ukraine, such as recognition of the Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk regions as Russian, along with a renewed promise of not joining NATO. This would be a symbolic victory for Russia at best, and also one that Ukraine is not likely to agree on unless their situation gets really dire. On top of that, given Russia’s earlier promise to protect Ukraine in exchange for giving up its nuclear missiles, trust in such an agreement will likely be very low.

Perhaps the unthinkable happens, Ukraine manages to stave off the Russian invasion, and Putin is forced to go home to lick his wounds. Another scenario that seems unlikely, given the humiliation this would be for Putin alone. And even with Russia not achieving the quick victory they might have hoped, they still have more than enough in their arsenal to flatten most of Ukraine should they really want to.

No matter which of these results comes to pass, it’s unlikely that any of them would result in an easing of the sanctions placed on Russia, to deter any future plans for invasion if nothing else. The overwhelming global support for Ukraine also makes it difficult for the Western countries to de-escalate their sanctions without good cause, even if they wanted to.

Exit Stage left

So how can Russia get out of this mess that Putin got them in, especially when it comes to their economy? It seems there are only two real pathways, neither of which would be easy.

The first would be ousting Putin from power. It’s difficult to assess how extensive Putin’s grip on Russia really is, and whether the chance of ousting him from power is at all likely or not. While it will likely also require a thorough restructuring of their governmental apparatus, so that there is some guarantee the next Russian leader isn’t as bad as Putin (or worse!), it would also clearly be a best-case scenario.

Removing Putin will allow Russia to ‘rewrite’ the narrative of what happened: they were gripped by a power-mad tyrant that did not represent the will of the people, and now that he’s gone, all will be better. Given how Putin has been portrayed by the media, also provide a justification in Western countries to de-escalate, which they’d likely prefer given that the sanctions hurt them too. It’s therefore mindboggling to me that the condition of removing Putin as a precursor to lifting the sanctions hasn’t been explicitly discussed yet. If there is one way to test the potential for a coup within Russia and provide a way out, this is certainly it.

If ousting Putin altogether is unfeasible, there is another exit ramp to be used. Instead of giving up Putin, Russia could undergo significant de-militarization or perhaps even de-nuclearization instead. Given the explicit threat of nuclear weapons used during this war, which none are keen to ever see be repeated, de-nuclearization would provide a viable alternative to removing Putin from office.

Unfortunately this option is arguably even more unlikely. While Russia might eventually win the battle in Ukraine, this option would make them, in a very real sense, lose the proverbial ‘war’. Both de-militarization and de-nuclearization would perhaps be even more humiliating than exiting Ukraine without any gains, and so the chance of either happening is slim.

“Ironically, losing their nukes or other pathways of de-militarization, might actually not be such a bad move for Russia overall.”

Ironically, losing their nukes or other pathways of de-militarization, might actually not be such a bad move for Russia overall. Expenditures on war can very much be a zero-sum game, with countries spending significant amounts of money to maintain the same relative position compared to their ‘opponents’.

The upkeep of nuclear weapons is incredibly expensive, and Russia is in the top 3 countries when it comes to how much of their GDP goes towards military expenditures, ahead even of the United States! Decreased military spending could go a long way towards eventually rebuilding Russia’s economy. The two big losers from World War II, Germany and Japan, who were forced to de-militarize after the war, are now the third and fourth largest economies in the world.

Yet Putin will likely not let Russia be muzzled. This means that we’re in a situation where he has no real way out. Some are therefore concerned that Putin’s earlier threats of resorting to nuclear weapons are more than just threats.

I think this scenario is very unlikely. Throwing a nuke on Ukraine would just be further destruction to the area he’s trying to occupy, which makes zero sense, and might even expose Russia itself to the fallout zone. And outside of Ukraine Putin has no clear target to aim at, given how multilateral the sanctions have been. Nuclear weapons simply don’t work very well as an offensive tool, hence why they’re primarily used as a deterrent (though how effective they actually are as a deterrent is also questionable).

In reality, it’s therefore going to come down to removing Putin from power. As long sanctions continue to last, the Russian reserves grow thin, and the population at large is affected, discontent will rise in Russia.

But it’s not unthinkable that Russian could spin the cause for this into an anti-Western narrative, especially since the West has rarely been viewed favorably in Russia. If this were to happen, and Putin can successfully pin the blame for the economic woes of Russian citizens squarely on Western countries, ousting him from power seems unlikely.

In the end, everything revolves around who the bad guy is. Or at least, who people believe that the bad guy is, especially in the eyes of the Russian populace. If they see Putin as the bad guy, there is a light at the end of the tunnel of this conflict. But if they lean towards the West being the villain that is trying to curtail Russian glory, we likely be in this for the long haul.


Ron Maas
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2 thoughts on “Unpacking Ukraine part 2 – Nobody thinks they’re the bad guy”

  1. What happens in your opinion when a third option occurres: Putin is assassinated, with help of an outside power. Will we get another Putin and a escalation of the conflict or would this be an escape for Russia out of the conflict and the sanctions

    Reply
    • The assassination of Putin would essentially be a variation of the scenario where Putin is removed from power. As to what the consequences will be, it would depend on the source of the assassination. I can see five possible scenarios, including assassinations with the help of outside powers, although none are especially likely.
      – Option 1: An assassination organised by the U.S.: Incredibly unlikely. While the U.S. is supporting Ukraine, they have very little to gain from eliminating Putin. Putin has become a significant detriment to Russian prosperity, and the longer Putin remains in power, the worse it’ll get. In addition, the U.S. likely has few assets to enact a regime change that would favor them. Perversely, the U.S. is best off by having Putin stay in power as long as possible.
      – Option 2: An assassination organised by Ukraine itself: Incredibly unlikely. Ukraine is far too occupied with defending it’s territories at home, and its main objective is an end to the war while keeping the old borders intact. Assassinating Putin runs the risk of providing further justification for a prolonged war in Ukraine.
      – Option 3: An assassination organised by another country neighboring Russia (e.g. one of the Baltic states, Finland or Georgia): Extremely unlikely. One of these countries might get nervous about Russian outward aggression and try to pre-emptively strike at Russia themselves. This is also unlikely, because these countries have a lot more to lose than to gain. They will likely also have little sway over enacting a regime change that is guaranteed to be favorable to them, and just like Ukraine, might just give Russia a compelling reason for invasion.
      – Option 4: Putin is overthrown and assassinated by the general populace (think Gadaffi). This is the outcome that has the highest chance of creating meaningful change in Russia, altough the chance of it happening appears slim, at least in the forseable future. The Russian media is in full swing to generate domestic support for the invasion, so it’s unclear how unpopular Putin might even be at the momemt. Putin also appears paranoid enough to limit his exposure to risk from overthrowing from the general populace. Perhaps there is a small chance for this in the long run, if prolonged exposure to the sanctions has an averse enough effect on the quality of life in Russia.
      – Option 5: An assassination organised by key people in power in Russia (e.g. oligarchs). The likeliest option by far, although still by no means a sure thing. Assassination generally only makes sense if you have some control over what the conditions might be afterwards, and some of the oligarchs might have enough domestic sway to create conditions favorable to them. They will likely use this as an opportunity to use Putin as a scapegoat for Russia’s actions, which will in all likelihood result in sanctions being overturned. The chance of this resulting in ‘another Putin’ are high, although it depends on what you mean by another Putin. One that impelements similar policies? Absolutely. The people who put Putin in a position of power will likely back a candidate with similar objectives. One that displays similar levels of overt outward aggression? Very small chance. Russia will have likely learned from their little excursion abroad, and the struggles their experiencing mean that it’s an endeavour unlikely to be repeated in the forseable future, no matter who eventually succeeds Putin.

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