Sunday, September 25, 2022

Point of Order: Ukraine war to end – but what then?

With every pause in the Ukrainian counteroffensive, talk of stalemate pops up. But pay more attention to the currents, than the surface froth.

So nice to get some quality thinking in the Hoover Institution’s Strategika publication. First, Niall Ferguson with a typically thought-provoking insight into war as a continuation of economics by other means.

He argues that Russia is just too poor to overwhelm a Ukraine backed by the rich West.

“This is an asymmetric war in Cold War terms. The combined resources of the countries actively supporting Ukraine vastly exceed Russia’s, while China has thus far offered minimal support to Russia.”

Worst case for Russia:

“There is a scenario in which the Russian position in Ukraine now unravels. This is a largely colonial army, its best battalions severely depleted by six months of highly destructive warfare, its ranks replenished by raw recruits from impoverished provinces east of the Urals. Its morale is low. Such armies can be brought to a tipping point if they encounter well-armed, well-organized, and well-motivated opponents. Defeat in land war is much less about killing enemy soldiers than getting them to surrender, flee, or desert.”

So he is interested in how the rich Western countries will cooperate or compete in manipulating cash (and weapon) flows to achieve their preferred outcomes. His conclusion, decisive as one would expect:

“The question in the scenario of a Russian collapse would be whether Putin was willing to risk direct NATO retaliation against Russia by resorting to tactical nuclear weapons or (an option less discussed but potentially more effective) strikes on Western satellites aimed at disrupting Ukrainian communications.

Because neither Washington nor Moscow wants to go head-to-head, I suspect Western assistance to Ukraine will continue at around the current level, ensuring that the war lasts not for just a few more months but for perhaps a year or more.”

What a pity he didn’t let his war-as-economics go to even further extremes.

He might then have envisaged Putin’s war as a giant misplaced vanity investment on behalf of the Russian people, complete with public sacrifice of the mostly-colonial troops. More Roman circus than pyramids.

And misplaced because, while Putin has gone to great lengths to use his country’s resources to enthuse a sense of unified Russianness, the war seems more likely than anything else to divide Russians into uncontainable factions.

Next, Ralph Peters with Disastrous Triumph, Triumphant Disaster? Question mark essential.

He follows Ferguson in abstracting from order-of-battle calculations to look at the political realities should Putin achieve some sort of stalemate in Ukraine:

“What will Putin have won? … a devastated Donbas he cannot afford to rebuild; a shrunken local population embittered and ruined; a laughing-stock military; appalling casualty counts that will inevitably emerge; a continued Russia-wide brain-drain and a Russian domestic population forced to forego economic advancement for decades to come as sanctions persist, alternative supplies of gas are secured, technology languishes, and once-eager Western firms hesitate to re-enter Russia, even should that be permitted.”

He hammers the point made here back in February that the war might give form to a distinct and unified Ukrainian nation. So even if Putin manages to hold his crown plus a few impoverished scraps of territory, the price will be an implacable Sparta – and perhaps an economically successful one – on his southern borders.

The basis of Putin’s 22 year reign has been the belief that he delivered economic security and social stability after the whirlwind which followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And a sense that someone else might not be as successful in getting the powerful to play within the rules (albeit rules with considerable tolerance for abuse).

While you can’t rule out population-wide Stockholm syndrome, at this stage it’s hard to see the war enhancing Russians’ confidence in their president’s ability to keep delivering. And think pieces like Ferguson’s and Peters’ remind us that the war is first and foremost a Russian – or at a pinch, a Slavic – political exercise.

Point of Order is a blog focused on politics and the economy run by veteran newspaper reporters Bob Edlin and Ian Templeton

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