The Empire Strikes Back

Russia and its empire, the Soviet Union, was once the greatest and most formidable power on earth. It was rivaled only by that of the United States, but even the US was outmatched in many ways and forms by the Soviet empire.

The Soviet Union produced social and technological achievements and innovations such as putting the first man into space. It boasted the world’s second-largest economy, the largest standing military in the world, and it was recognized as one of the five nuclear weapons states—and to this day has the largest stockpile. The Soviet Union was also the world’s largest country in terms of landmass, covering seventh of Earth’s surface, over 22,402,200 square kilometers (8,649,500 sq mi).

But Russia hasn’t been “great” since the 80s. Crumbling infrastructure, a sliding economy and currency, waning international influence, a poor and mostly rogue reputation, and a largely poor and despondent population. Russians have had little to be proud of these days. Canada, a country of just 37 million, a quarter the size of Russia’s 144 million, has a larger economy. Citizens of its Western countries benefit from a strong Euro and dollar. The Ruble weakened through corruption and poor economic development has left most Russians stuck in their Russian sphere of influence.

Yes, being Russian comes with few benefits these days. Perhaps that’s part of the motive for Russian President Putin’s decision to invade its neighbor and former Soviet counterpart, Ukraine. From a bird’s eye view, it looks to be a last-ditch effort to spark some of the pride lost over the last 30 years and “secure” the Russian peoples’ future. But the dangers and complexity of embarking on a path of war with another sovereign nation in the 21st century are high.

International pressure, particularly the West and their military counterpart NATO can make waging war with a neighbor increasingly difficult as Putin is learning. Perhaps Putin and his oligarchs weren’t farsighted enough to foresee an indefinite suspension of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline or expulsion from the SWIFT payment system. We may never know. What is certain is that war guarantees huge costs: the destruction of infrastructure and equipment, the disintegration of global stability, and the loss of human life and dignity.

Russia is currently invading Ukraine on four fronts. Source: Why is Russia invading Ukraine and what does Putin want?

Let’s Talk About Russia

Russia is an incredibly diverse and geographically large nation—the largest on earth. Although ethnic Russians comprise more than four-fifths of the country’s total population more than 120 ethnic groups, many with their own national territories, speaking some 100 languages live within Russia’s borders.

Russia has funded its rebuilding through its vast oil and gas resources. Russia produces over 10% of the world’s oil and 17% of the world’s natural gas. Over 30% of Europe’s natural gas, but the majority of it is sent through Ukraine which charges Russia a hefty tariff to use its land as a bridge. Russia has built NordStream 2, a massive pipeline from Russia and is in the process of building a second one in the south to avoid the Ukrainian tariffs. To make things more complicated, there have been discoveries of vast reserves of natural gas in western and eastern Ukraine, and around the western half of the Crimean peninsula. With these gas reserves in Ukraine’s control, it will ultimately challenge Russia’s energy dominance in Europe.

Putin will not surrender Crimea as that would mean surrendering the entire economic zone, the gas resources within, and the Sevastapol, the port the Russian navy needs to operate year-round within the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.

Russia wants to protect its interests in the Black Sea and now around Crimea. Source: Why Russia is Invading Ukraine

The Problem with NATO

Ukraine is not a nuclear state, but the NATO alliance has three of them (the US, Britain, and France). Because NATO states don’t want a wider war with Russia, one that carries a risk of a nuclear exchange, they’re less likely to intervene in a conflict they might otherwise join. Putin knows this; his public threat to use nukes against any intervening country suggests he’s counting on it.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, and the loss of former Soviet states, Russia has become significantly exposed. Nearly 80% of the people live in the far western area of Russia, the heartland, and that poses a security threat should NATO ever become hostile, and NATO was established to unite North America and Western Europe against a Russian threat.

The Russian public has been led to believe that NATO will continue westward expansion threatening the very sovereignty of the Russian state and people. Moscow has pledged to protect the sovereignty of Russians and Russian speakers, ethnic Russians, and citizens wherever they may be. Putin and the oligarchs have become convinced that NATO’s westward expansion is with the purpose of destabilizing Russia. As Ukraine seeks NATO and EU membership, Putin grows more paranoid, just as Stalin was towards American expansion and wants to strike first.

NATO has been on an aggressive path of eastward expansion for the last 20 years. Source: How NATO Expanded Eastwards

What Putin Wants

Moscow could tolerate Ukraine as long as it had a pro-Russian government and played by Russia’s rules. But in 2014 that all changed with the Maidan Revolution which led to the ousting of President Viktor Yanukovych and the overthrow of the Ukrainian government. Fearing the vast resources and access to Sevastapol could fall under NATO and Europe’s protection if Ukraine continued to lean towards the West, Putin took action while he could and moved troops in to seize the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. But that was just the beginning.

What Putin really wants is all of Ukraine. The vast and very difficult-to-defend plains of Ukraine have been a costly burden ever since the Soviet Union collapsed, but it has become progressively more of a concern as Ukraine moves towards the West. It’s has become a kind of tug-o-war. Putin sees Ukraine and its people within the Russian sphere of influence. Ukraine is either in the West’s possession or Russia’s. He recently wrote an article claiming, “Russians and Ukrainians were one people—a single whole,” and “[Ukraine is] ancient Russian soil.” From Putin’s perspective, if they won’t join us, then we will force them to do so. Clearly, that is what we are seeing unfold with a full-scale invasion and assault on Ukraine from four fronts.

Many underestimate Putin and the might of his empire. There are estimates that Putin’s war chest is over $650 billion so any form of sanctions simply won’t work, and after all his allies such as Pakistan, China, Syria, and Venezuela are the West’s enemies. Countries dependent on foreign oil such as China would gladly secure the oil and gas Russia has to offer.

Russian speakers, ethnic Russians, and passport holders. Source: Ties to Russia

Nuclear Deterrence

Some leading scholars look at the logic of deterrence and conclude that nuclear weapons are actually a good thing for the world. This “nuclear revolution” theory, most commonly associated with the late political scientist Kenneth Waltz, holds that the spread of nuclear weapons will spread peace by expanding deterrence. The more countries can make aggression unthinkably risky, the less likely war will become.

What we’re seeing is a kind of twist on the classic paradox: Putin is relying on nuclear fear to allow him to get away with invading a country (Ukraine) that a nuclear-armed third party (NATO) might otherwise want to defend.

This dynamic is familiar from the Cold War; it’s in part why the Soviets could send troops to Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 to suppress popular anti-communist uprisings without real fear of Western intervention.[2]

Estimated global nuclear warhead inventories. Source: Status of World Nuclear Forces

But the fact that we’re even talking about it illustrates how nuclear weapons, by their very nature, make the world a riskier place. While they likely are playing a major role in keeping the US out of the Ukraine conflict directly, they helped create the conditions where Russia could launch the war in the first place — and, in the very worst case, could escalate to complete disaster.

What Happens Next

The Ruble has collapsed by as much as 40% in the last week to a record low. To prevent the Ruble from collapsing further the Russian central bank has doubled interest rates to 20% and bought gold. As oil and gold soar to levels not seen in years, Ukraine suffers the onslaught of the Russian war machine. But much of the world will suffer too. Russia accounts for a 1/4 of the world’s oil supply and this could be cut through Western sanctions. Russia, along with Ukraine also account for nearly a 1/3 of the world’s wheat market. The conflict will push prices higher which will lead to higher prices and more inflation. There are estimates that US inflation would reach 7%, but war with Russia could push that figure even higher.

So what happens now? There are 3 scenarios that could occur as the conflict progresses:

  1. Surrender. Ukraine surrenders within the next few weeks or months and forfeits large portions or the entire country to Russia.
  2. Armstice. Ukraine holds off long enough that the sanctions and bad publicity begin to wound Putin and his regime. The two countries agree to sign a cease-fire, but Russia occupies parts of eastern Ukraine, including the Donbass.
  3. Intervention. NATO sends in air support to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine, pushing back Russian troops to the existing borders. This may be the most unlikely scenario as it could risk a large escalation of war by Russia, and it’s allies such as China.

These are only predictions, of course. Most experts get these wrong. No one knows just how this might unfold. The difficulty in predicting the outcome of a conflict or war is that there are just too many variables, and this conflict is no exception. Will Russia step up its threat to use the nuclear option and will China take the opportunity to invade Taiwan? Right now the world waits and prays that cool heads will prevail, and there is an easy way out of this awful mess. Unfortunately, when it comes to empires no one ever plays nice, and many endure tremendous suffering that cannot be undone.

Sources

  1. Why Russia wants to restore the Soviet borders. CaspianReport. July, 20, 2021.
  2. Why the US won’t send troops to Ukraine. Vox.com. February 25, 2022.

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