Saturday, March 05, 2022
A few days ago, I was watching footage of Ukrainian mothers, panicked and crying, trying to evacuate their children from a beautiful city that a paranoid dictator has now turned into a war zone. I looked over at my wife, sitting a few feet away from me, and saw the tears welling in her eyes. I felt helpless. And for once, I was at a loss for words.
Night after night I find myself staring at the television, almost paralyzed with anger and grief. Russian President Vladimir Putin, after a catastrophic strategic miscalculation, is now embroiled in perhaps the greatest military blunder in modern European history. In his desperation, he is resorting to the classic Russian military playbook of indiscriminate and massive violence. His unprovoked war of aggression is rapidly escalating into war crimes.
In my rage, I want someone somewhere to do something. I have taught military and national-security affairs for more than a quarter century. . . I want all the might of the civilized world—a world of which Putin is no longer a part—to obliterate the invading forces and save the people of Ukraine.
Others share these impulses. In recent days, I’ve heard various proposals for Western intervention, including support for a no-fly zone over Ukraine from former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove and the Russian dissident Garry Kasparov, among others. Social media is aflame with calls to send in American troops against the invading Russians.
And yet, I still counsel caution and restraint, a position I know many Americans find impossible to understand. Every measure of our outrage is natural, as are the calls for action. But emotions should never dictate policy. As President Joe Biden emphasized in his State of the Union address, we must do all we can to aid the Ukrainian resistance and to fortify NATO, but we cannot become involved in military operations in Ukraine.
I realize that this is easy for me to say. I am not in Kyiv, trying to spirit my child to safety. I am not watching the Russians approach my town. When I finish writing this, I will reassure my wife and sit down to share dinner with her in a quiet home on a peaceful street.
But public figures and ordinary voters who are advocating for intervention also do so from the comfort of offices and homes where they can sound resolute by employing clinical euphemisms such as no-fly zone when what they mean is “war.” For now, fidelity to history requires us to remember that this isn’t the first time we’ve had little choice but to stand by and watch a dictator murder innocents.
The day may come, and sooner than we expect, when we have to fight in Europe, with all the risks that entails. If we are to plunge into a global war between the Russians and the West, however, it needs to be based on a better calculus than pure rage.
Also, let’s remember that America is, in fact, taking action to help Ukraine and oppose Russia. Western sanctions will not save Kyiv or other Ukrainian cities tomorrow, but they are crippling the Russian economy and undermining Putin’s ability both politically and materially to seek a larger war. We are working with the rest of the world to get military assistance to the Ukrainians, who will be fighting a resistance for as long as the Russians are in their country.
More important, we are sending more forces to our allies around Ukraine. If Putin reckoned on a quick victory and a dash to the West, that dream is over. He’ll win on the ground in the short run, but in the end he’ll be lucky to get out of Ukraine with his military intact—if he’s even still in power.
Indeed, one more reason not to let our emotions get the better of us is that the only way Putin can save himself from his own fiasco is to bait the West into an attack. Nothing would help him more, at home or abroad, than if the United States or any other NATO country were to enter direct hostilities with Russian forces. Putin would then use the conflict to rally his people and threaten conventional and nuclear attacks against NATO. He would become a hero at home, and Ukraine would be forgotten.
I am trying to be calm and rational, and yes, helpful, as much as I can be. So should we all.
Hard as it may be, we need to continue indirect support for Ukraine and let the noose Putin put around his own neck slowly tighten until it takes him out one way or another.
IF VLADIMIR PUTIN’S invasion of Ukraine rests on a grand delusion, it is one he might have learned watching Fox News and other outlets of the American right. Ever since Donald Trump rose to the top of the Republican primaries in 2016, conservative talking-heads have praised the Russian leader’s vigour and acuity and denigrated his Ukrainian, European and NATO adversaries as corrupt, weak and gutless. As recently as last week, Tucker Carlson, America’s most popular cable host, suggested that, if forced to choose between Russia and Ukraine, he would pick Russia. Only a warmongering liberal obsessive would fuss over Mr Putin’s prosecution of the faraway conflict, he added: “Is he making fentanyl? Is he trying to snuff out Christianity? Does he eat dogs?”
The subsequent reality of Ukraine’s bombed towns, dead children and heroic resistance has not entirely pierced this delusion. Fox is still airing pro-Putin commentary. Mr Trump still praises the Russian leader. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on February 26th, he condemned the war but snuck in that Mr Putin was “smart” and “playing [Joe] Biden like a drum”. Even so, the war has caused the most dramatic rethink among Republicans since Mr Trump took over their party.
Republican voters, who felt warmly towards Mr Putin under Mr Trump, have swung hard towards Ukraine. So have Republican politicians, with a fervour—illustrated by the blue-and-yellow flags many wore to the state-of-the-union address this week—that would recently have been unimaginable. Two years ago they dismissed Mr Trump’s guns-for-political-favours shakedown of Volodymyr Zelensky as a nothing burger. Now they demand that Mr Biden do even more to support the Ukrainian leader than he is.
The right’s Putin fandom was always more about posturing than substance. Its cheer-leaders were the ultranationalist, isolationist fringe that Mr Trump elevated. Members of that relatively small group admire Mr Putin as an authoritarian challenger of the liberal order. Diehards such as Steve Bannon also consider him the leader of white Christian repulse to godless China, which seems more debatable. Yet most Republican voters expressed more mildly positive feeling towards the Russian leader, mainly because Mr. Trump kept praising him. And that was enough to deter many Republican politicians from speaking on the issue.
Even now, some of the most ambitious Republicans only do so delicately. . . . . Yet the changing mood among Republican voters is encouraging Republican lawmakers to be more forthright by the day. Though few suggest American troops should be deployed to Ukraine, most are no longer ambivalent about where America stands in the fight.
Americans have in the past witnessed many periods of introspection and self-doubt—only to relaunch themselves, re-emboldened, into global affairs. According to the scholar Walter Russell Mead, such action tends to be triggered by isolationists (whom he terms “Jacksonian”) apprehending a frightening new global threat. That may be happening now; polls suggest Mr Trump’s supporters increasingly consider Mr Putin to be dangerous as well as malign.
In any event, two things seem clear. After a prolonged isolationist funk, Republicans have rejoined the internationalist mainstream on this issue. And in doing so they have turned from Mr. Trump.
The crisis underlines how positive that is. Had Mr Trump won a second term, he might have tried to remove America from NATO by now. His administration would certainly have been incapable of the Biden team’s patient diplomacy. Yet there are probably limits to how far the normalisation of Republican foreign policy will go.
Previous foreign-policy schisms—over Germany in the 1940s, for example, and Korea in the 1950s—gave way to a sense of common purpose. By contrast, in their latest gratuitous criticisms of Mr Biden, Republicans seem determined to punish him for being right. Perhaps they wish to distract from their own former apologism for Mr Putin.
This makes the Republicans bad-faith actors on Ukraine, barely capable of providing the constructive criticism that the Biden administration needs. Senator Mitt Romney, who has justly criticised both parties’ history with Mr Putin and praised Mr Biden’s recent diplomacy, is one of the few Republicans with credibility on the issue. Not coincidentally, he was also the only Republican senator to vote to impeach Mr Trump for coercing Mr Zelensky.
In their disloyal opposition, Republican politicians are again channelling their supporters. They rate Mr Biden’s performance as badly on Ukraine as they do generally, even though most Republican voters, whether they know it or not, support his policy.
Sadly, intelligence and thinking skills are no longer common traits among the GOP base.
Friday, March 04, 2022
In recent years, many on the American right have deified Vladimir Putin as a “genius” and his armed forces as invincible conquerors because they are not burdened by Western liberal pieties.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) typified the trend last year when he linked to a TikTok video showing a muscular Russian soldier doing pushups, parachuting out of an airplane, and using a rifle. Cruz contrasted this Kremlin propaganda unfavorably with a U.S. Army recruiting video featuring a female corporal who was raised by two mothers. “Holy crap,” Cruz tweeted: “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea…” He went on to blame “Dem politicians & woke media” for trying to turn U.S. troops “into pansies.”
Well, how do you like the Russian military now, Sen. Cruz? The Internet is full of videos showing Russian troops running out of fuel and food in Ukraine, weeping after surrendering, and complaining that they are being used as “cannon fodder.” There are reports of Russian soldiers sabotaging their own vehicles rather than fight in a war they want no part of. The Russians are even leaving their dead on the battlefield — a shocking thing to see for U.S. soldiers, whose creed contains the line, “I will never leave a fallen comrade.”
I have spent decades covering the U.S. military, including numerous visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lack of competence and morale displayed by the Russian military is simply impossible to imagine on the part of U.S. troops. U.S. personnel are far better equipped, trained, motivated and led than their Russian counterparts. It’s not even close. If the Russian military were ever to face the U.S. military in battle — something that we must fervently hope will never happen because of the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides — I doubt the Russians would last any longer than the Iraqi army (which was trained and equipped along Soviet lines) did in 1991 and 2003.
Cruz and other Republicans who glorified the Russian armed forces are dupes — “useful idiots,” the communists called them — who did Putin’s bidding by enhancing the Russian dictator’s aura of power. To be sure, we still don’t know the outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s quite possible that, despite early setbacks, the Russians could still pound Ukrainian cities into rubble and claim at least a temporary victory. But one outcome is already clear: The myth of Russian military power has been shattered.
There has been much talk in recent years about Putin’s rebuild of the Russian armed forces, which included changing it from a mostly conscript to a mostly volunteer force and equipping it with high-tech weapons systems, such as cruise missiles. The buildup appeared to pay off during earlier interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.
That is a very different task from invading and occupying a country of more than 43 million people with a battle-hardened military equipped with Western-supplied weapons and backed by a large citizen militia. The invasion of Ukraine is laying bare all the corruption, inefficiency, and incompetence of the Russian military machine, which is all too reminiscent of the old Red Army.
As one retired U.S. general quipped, the Russians may have been trying to emulate U.S. “shock and awe” tactics from 2003, but their efforts are more like “shock and yawn.” The Russians have proved utterly incapable of coordinating air and ground operations or keeping troops supplied on the march. They can’t even maintain truck tires. A week into the war, the Russians still haven’t established control of the skies
Russia has a lot more aircraft than Ukraine, yet Russian ground troops have often been left to attack without air cover. The Russians fired fewer missiles in the first six days of the war than the U.S. did in the first night of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
At least 2,000 Russian soldiers have already been killed — and likely a great deal more. That’s almost as many as the United States lost in 20 years in Afghanistan. A retired Australian general commented that the early days of the invasion are indicative “of professionally corrupt and incompetent military leaders who are literally throwing away the lives of their soldiers.”
It’s still possible, of course, that the Russians could bombard Ukraine into submission. Never underestimate Putin’s barbarism. But it’s doubtful that Putin can ever extinguish Ukrainian resistance — or resurrect the myth of Russian military competence. American right-wingers such as Ted Cruz look foolish for being taken in by Russia’s Potemkin village armed forces. I’ll take our “woke military” any day.
Let's hope Putin is overthrown just like the tsar in 1917. In many ways he is far worse than Nicholas II ever was. Let him meet a similar fate.
Thursday, March 03, 2022
Threats of severe economic sanctions were not enough to deter Vladimir Putin from invading Ukraine. But the enactment of those penalties by the United States and other Ukraine allies has exacted an enormous cost on the Russian economy, bringing its financial system to the brink of disaster and augmenting pressure on the country’s increasingly isolated authoritarian leader. Russia’s economy was already reeling from the swift punishments world leaders imposed following last Thursday’s attack: The country began suffering cash shortages, the ruble went into free fall, and at least two oligarchs—who have been targeted by sanctions, along with their families—called for an end to the conflict, even if they didn’t explicitly call out Putin.
The stress on the Russian economy only intensified Monday, when the U.S. Treasury Department and European allies prohibited individuals from working with the country’s central bank, finance ministry, and wealth fund. “The unprecedented action we are taking today will significantly limit Russia’s ability to use assets to finance its destabilizing activities, and target the funds Putin and his inner circle depend on to enable his invasion of Ukraine,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in a statement Monday.
Taken together, the moves, which include sanctions against Putin himself, amount to a bold, concerted onslaught that threatens to bring the Russian economy to ruin. Putin might be surprised by the response of U.S. and European nations, even famously neutral Switzerland, which adopted European Union sanctions against Russia on Monday. But he shouldn’t be. Russia’s attack last week on its democratic neighbor was executed “without provocation, without justification, and without necessity,” as President Joe Biden put it, and has already brought about horrific destruction and devastating loss in Ukraine.
The question is how Putin—who appears increasingly frustrated as his invasion is met with fierce resistance internationally, in Ukraine, and even in Russia in the form of protests—will respond to the pressure.
There are concerns Putin could respond to the measures by further escalating the crisis, as he’s already done in putting nuclear deterrence forces on “high alert” Sunday. “At every step of this conflict, Putin has manufactured threats to justify more aggressive actions,” a U.S. official told CNN. And for now, Putin seems intent on continuing to escalate: He is cracking down on protests at home, and on Monday raged against the West as an “empire of lies” amid the international condemnation of his invasion. Meanwhile, with Ukrainian forces, composed of troops and everyday citizens who have taken up arms to protect their embattled nation, mounting a spirited defense against the Russians, Putin appears to be shifting to siege tactics that the Pentagon warned would increase the “likelihood of collateral damage to civilian life and infrastructure.” Delegations from Ukraine and Russia met in neighboring Belarus on Monday for discussions. But with the Russian bombardment building, and Ukraine vowing no surrender, there appeared to be scant hope for an immediate resolution . . . .
Putin is a narcissistic monster - which explains why Donald Trump worships him - and, hopefully, at some point his inner circle will decide he needs to go. If he won't follow Hitler's example and commit suicide, someone needs to help him to meet an much needed end.
Wednesday, March 02, 2022
Last night during his State of the Union address, Joe Biden put Russian oligarchs who are part of Vladimir Putin's inner circle on notice that western nations are coming for their assets in recognition that they are part of Putin's rogue government that is conducting an illegal war and in all likelihood committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. The Washington Post outlined what is about to hit the oligarchs who have helped keep Putin in power and usurped 30% of Russia's wealth to themselves:
America’s sanctions are expected to be more complicated than those imposed by the E.U., targeting not just the individuals but also their family members and companies they own, according to a White House official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to reflect internal deliberations. President Biden said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night that the U.S. would join with Europe to “seize their yachts, their luxury apartments, their private jets.”
The Department of Justice on Wednesday also announced the creation of “Task Force KleptoCapture” to coordinate prosecutors and other federal investigators in the effort to prosecute sanctions against “corrupt Russian oligarchs.”
Russia’s billionaires control roughly 30 percent of the nation’s wealth . . . . and have about as much financial wealth stashed in offshore foreign accounts as the entire Russian population has in Russia itself, according to a 2017 paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Many of them have served at high levels of Putin’s government, or played an instrumental role in providing financing either for the Russian president personally or the Kremlin’s efforts abroad . . .
The greed of these oligarchs is mind numbing and, as noted, they are not innocents when it comes to supporting Putin. Already, Forbes is reporting that Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov's 512-foot yacht Dilbar, valued at nearly $600 million—has been seized by German authorities in the northern city of Hamburg. Hopefully, the mansions, villas and investments of these individuals and their families outside of Russia will likewise be seized.
Will the sanctions stop Russia's destruction of Ukraine? Perhaps not, but they may force Putin to rethink his megomania. Ideally, they could ultimately lead to Putin's overthrow. While Putin is striving to control information from apprasing average Russians of the true nature of his regime's misdeeds, as the number of Russian military dead increases, it will be harder to keep the truth from leaking out. Meanwhile, the growing economic pain will only too obvious on the streets of Moscow, St. Petersburg and other Russian cities as a piece in The Economist describes:
RUSSIA’S INVASION of Ukraine could yet become the biggest military action in Europe since 1945. It also marks a new era of high-risk economic warfare that could further splinter the world economy. The measures the West has imposed on Russia are so potent that they have triggered chaos in its $1.6trn economy and prompted the president, Vladimir Putin, to issue nuclear threats. The instant immiseration of a big economy is unprecedented and will cause alarm around the world, not least in China, which will recalculate the costs of a war over Taiwan. The West’s priority must be to win the economic confrontation with Russia. Then it must create a doctrine to govern these weapons . . .
That Russia did not take the threat of sanctions seriously at first is no surprise. In recent years they have been plentiful but ineffective. Reluctant to use hard power, America and Europe have reached for economic penalties instead. . . . . The deterrent effect has been weak, as malefactors have assumed that America would never apply “maximum pressure” on a big economy.
On February 26th that Rubicon was crossed, when sanctions were imposed on the world’s 11th-biggest economy. By making it illegal for Western firms to deal with big Russian banks, except in the energy trade, and expelling them from the global-payments plumbing, the flow of money across borders is seizing up. Action against Russia’s central bank means it cannot gain access to much of its vast $630bn pile of foreign reserves. Confidence has evaporated. The rouble has fallen by 28% this year as capital flees, threatening soaring inflation. Russian shares have dropped by over 90% in offshore trading, and multinationals are leaving. From Moscow to Murmansk, Russians are queuing outside banks.
The shock could lead to a coup or a cash-crunch that impedes the war machine. But Mr Putin could retaliate with his own economic weapons including strangling the flow of gas. . . . . One principle is clear, though: any Russian economic retaliation must be met by a more damaging response by the West that makes that act of retaliation irrational. Through its ability to stymie tech services and oil exports (from which Russia earns four times more than gas) the West retains the advantage.
If the West faces down Russia, and cements the new weapons’ deterrent power, the long-run implications will be daunting. . . . Autocracies will be most nervous: they own half of the world’s $20trn pile of reserves and sovereign wealth assets. While China can inflict huge economic costs on the West by blocking supply chains, it is now clear that in the event of a war over Taiwan, the West could freeze China’s $3.3trn reserve pile. Even some democracies like India, which has avoided condemning Russia’s invasion, may worry they are more vulnerable to Western pressure.
Today it is hard to park trillions of dollars outside Western markets, but in time more countries may seek to diversify their reserves by investing more elsewhere.
Some of this fragmentation has become inevitable. But by applying sanctions to ever more countries over the past two decades, and now also raising their potential severity, the West risks pushing more countries to delink from the Western-led financial system than is desirable. That is why after the crisis in Ukraine passes, the West should aim to make clear how sanctions will be controlled. . . . And it should be made clear that economy-wide sanctions of the devastating kind being used against Russia are reserved for the worst acts of aggression and war. The West has deployed an economic weapon that was until recently unthinkable. It must be used wisely.
It's worth remembering in this moment of global crisis that Donald Trump's first impeachment was the result of Trump's attempt to blackmail Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky by withholding weapons and other military aid that Congress had already authorized. What Trump wanted was for Zelensky and the Ukrainian government to smear Joe Biden with false charges, potentially influencing the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
That crime was part of a much larger pattern, in which Donald Trump and his regime consistently acted as vassals for Vladimir Putin's regime and Russia's strategic interests.
Writing at the Washington Post, Colbert King reminds us of further history in this regard:
Maybe now that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is well underway, the implications of President Vladimir Putin's actions against the United States in 2016 will finally sink in, especially for Republicans in Congress. The Vladimir Putin who planned, staged and launched a large-scale war on Ukraine is the same Vladimir Putin who ordered an aggressive, multifaceted, clandestine campaign to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential electio n.
Putin's Ukraine goal: pull that country from the West and back into Russia's sphere of influence. His U.S. goal in 2016: undermine the democratic process, disparage and undercut Hillary Clinton and her campaign for president, and help elect Donald Trump.
The outcome of his Ukraine campaign is yet to be decided. His U.S. effort found full success. … The simple truth is that Putin believed Russia would benefit from having Trump in the White House, and he pushed his intelligence services to help secure that outcome.
How many people had privileged knowledge of the Trump administration's likely or certain criminal acts including and far beyond what took place with Ukraine? . . . U.S. Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, now retired, was one such person. While serving on the White House's National Security Council, Vindman filed formal reports in 2019 disclosing that Trump and his representatives were engaged in the aforementioned acts of political extortion or blackmail against the Ukrainian government.
Vindman was formerly director for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Russia on the National Security Council, and before that served as political-military affairs officer for Russia for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and as an attaché at the U.S. embassy in Moscow. . . . For his acts of courage and patriotism, Vindman would lose his military career and become a target of violent threats and other acts of retaliation. Those threats have continued to the present.
Vindman argues that Trump's coup attempt and other assaults on American democracy and the rule of law gave Vladimir Putin encouragement to pursue his illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Vindman also shares his concerns that the Trump regime's crimes against democracy are only a blueprint for a future fascist leader who will be much more effective and dangerous.
I did not fear the military coming down on the side of Donald Trump. I trusted that the military was going to be principled and do the right thing, and not be immersed or dragged into domestic politics. But I did have some fears about the president successfully rallying a fringe, extremely right-wing radicalized portion of the public to cause real harm to the peaceful transition of power. And to a certain extent, that did happen. It lasted hours and failed. I have seen such things in other countries. These events leave me deeply worried about the health of our political system.
The Ukrainians are fighting on freedom's frontier. They are warding off greater aggression by Russia in a region that is central to, if not the linchpin, for America's interests and democracy.
The other example is that Russia is more powerful with Ukraine than it is without it. America does not want to deal with a belligerent Russia, a country with a leader that has attempted to interfere with our elections, put bounties on American soldiers' heads and assassinated people on NATO territory. Do we want them to be even stronger?
Donald Trump has taken the Republican Party in a disastrous direction. Again, everything Trump touches dies. He's his own worst enemy. He is a stubborn ass who latched onto this idea that he will not criticize Putin. It's a test of his manhood. Trump is now going to continue to press that issue. It looks like the Republican Party is going to follow him.
With Putin and the Ukraine invasion, it is almost like the Republicans stepped into a trap. You could see the trap from a mile away if you were paying attention. The Republicans were cheering on this vile tyrant as he attempts to destroy a peaceful country on his border, a democracy, and now they're going to own that decision.
In my opinion, this is going to be an important theme for the Democratic Party going into the 2022 and 2024 elections. The Tucker Carlsons, the Donald Trumps, the Mike Pompeos, they and other Republicans are going to have to own this issue because they are the reason that Russia launched this operation.
The reason he acted now is not coincidental. Putin started building up his forces in the spring of 2021. This was weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection. Putin, like Trump, smells vulnerability and exploits it. Vladimir Putin perceived that the United States was distracted and vulnerable. He's been testing our resolve. He's been getting positive signals in that regard.
There is blood on the Republican Party's hands. They were partially responsible for what is happening in Ukraine. Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump were basically as popular on Russian TV as they are here in this country. They're constantly being played there. What is the impression given? The United States is divided, and there's an opportunity there. So these folks now own it.
It is about power for Donald Trump. Trump yearns for the kind of power that Vladimir Putin wields. Putin is who Trump wishes he could be. Donald Trump just doesn't have the capability. He's not smart enough. He doesn't have the fortitude for that kind of behavior. He doesn't have the determination. Donald Trump just doesn't have a lot of those skills that Putin has, but that is who Trump wishes he could be. It is also why Trump is so fond of other authoritarian rulers, such as Kim Jong-un and Xi Jinping. But Vladimir Putin is Trump's favorite.
[A] patriot is somebody who actually puts the interests of the nation above themselves. That is the exact opposite of what many in the Republican Party are today — the exact opposite of Tucker Carlson, the exact opposite of Donald Trump. These are people who put their own interests ahead of the nation's. Such people usurp the symbols of the country while undermining it.
Tuesday, March 01, 2022
Beware, Vladimir Putin: Spring is coming. And when it does, you’ll lose much of whatever leverage you had left.
Before Putin invaded Ukraine, I might have described the Russian Federation as a medium-size power punching above its weight in part by exploiting Western divisions and corruption, in part by maintaining a powerful military. Since then, however, two things have become clear. First, Putin has delusions of grandeur. Second, Russia is even weaker than most people, myself included, seem to have realized.
It has long been obvious that Putin desperately wants to restore Russia’s status as a Great Power. . . . . he apparently wants to recreate the czarist empire. And he apparently thought that he could take a big step toward that goal with a short, victorious war.
So far, it hasn’t worked out as planned. Ukrainian resistance has been fierce; Russia’s military has been less effective than advertised. . . . Russia is looking less and less like an advanced nation.
The truth is that I was being generous in describing Russia as even a medium-size power. Britain and France are medium-size powers; Russia’s gross domestic product is only a bit more than half as large as either’s. It seemed remarkable that such an economically underweight state could support a world-class, highly sophisticated military — and maybe it couldn’t.
And Russia is starting to look even weaker economically than it did before it went to war. . . . Before the invasion it was common to talk about how Putin had created “fortress Russia,” an economy immune to economic sanctions, by accumulating a huge war chest of foreign currency reserves. Now, however, such talk seems naïve. What, after all, are foreign reserves? They aren’t bags of cash. For the most part they consist of deposits in overseas banks and holdings of other governments’ debt — that is, assets that can be frozen if most of the world is united in revulsion against a rogue government’s military aggression.
[W]inter will soon be over — and the European Union has time to prepare for another winter without Russian gas if it’s willing to make some hard choices.
As I said, Putin may well take Kyiv. But even if he does, he will have made himself weaker, not stronger. Russia now stands revealed as a Potemkin superpower, with far less real strength than meets the eye.
As noted, The Economist has several pieces that lay out how the world Putin thought he understood has transformed with amazing speed. The first piece looks at the sharp change in Germany's position on multiple facets. Here are excerpts:
From Washington, it can be hard to appreciate just how big the shifts are that we are witnessing in Germany, and so it helps to look back at where the country has come from.
As the German diplomat Thomas Bagger eloquently explained in 2019, Germany emerged from the fall of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, and the collapse of the Soviet Union convinced that it had finally landed on the right side of history. Democracy was sweeping across Eastern Europe, chasing authoritarian strongmen from power. What Vladimir Putin—a KGB agent living in the East German city of Dresden when the wall fell—has described as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century was a rebirth for Germany
Then came Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the growing realization that “Wandel durch Handel ”—Germany’s mantra of change through trade—was not working so well after all. China was still snapping up German cars and technology, but it had turned into an authoritarian surveillance state with global ambitions, as well as a formidable economic competitor.
But as Harold Macmillan once said during his tenure as British prime minister, “events, dear boy, events” have a way of challenging leaders in ways they could not have imagined. Scholz’s initial reaction to Putin’s saber-rattling was to play it down. Nord Stream 2, the Russian pipeline to Germany that had long faced fierce resistance from EU partners and Washington, was an apolitical “business project”
Scholz’s sudden about-face over the past week, as Russian troops rolled into Ukraine, was in part a reaction to the overwhelming pressure his government had come under—both within Germany and among Berlin’s closest allies—after weeks of foot-dragging. . . . . The moves are an acknowledgment that the world has indeed changed, that Germany must invest heavily in its own defense, that it must pay an economic price to defend its values, that it cannot remain a larger version of Switzerland in a world of systemic rivalries. In making them, Scholz has gone against the tide of his own party, that of the German business establishment, and what many assumed to be the preferences of the broader German population. And yet the parties in his coalition have backed him, and the German media are hailing his boldness. On the same day Scholz made his announcements, more than 100,000 people converged on Tiergarten, next to the Bundestag, to show their solidarity with Ukraine.
[T]he die has been cast. “Peace and freedom in Europe don’t have a price tag,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said last week. It is freedom over prosperity after all.
This type of transformation is not confined to Germany as laid out in a second piece in The Atlantic and now Russia finds its naval vessels blocked from exiting the Black Sea while once nuetral Switzerland has joined in the freezing of Russia's bank accounts. Here are some article highlights:
Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion has not simply elicited a resistance among Ukrainians that is inspiring the world. It has also triggered a set of geopolitical shifts that are astonishing in their scale and rapidity. The world is not the same today as it was last week, and while the course of Putin’s invasion and Russian policy remain uncertain, there will be no full reversion to the global status quo ante. The post–Cold War era that began in 1991 may have just ended.
Just days ago, Russia was widely seen in Washington, D.C., and major European capitals as a sullen and revisionist power, led by a president discontented with his country’s place in the world, but who generally chose pragmatism and opportunism over blundering savagery. This sentiment has transformed overnight, and Moscow is now viewed by Western leaders as a clear and present danger.
The world’s economies, save China, have combined to inflict harm on the Russian economy with remarkable speed, fomenting a financial crisis and enacting restrictions on Russian imports that will touch all of its citizens. The sanctions on Russia’s central bank alone may well force the country into a default on its sovereign debt. Previous worries about risks that could hurt countries pulling out of COVID-induced recession have been cast aside. So too have concerns that economic upheaval could provoke unrest inside Russia, with unknown implications.
Germany’s long-underweight military role and low defense budgets are also things of the past. . . . “We must put a stop to warmongers like Putin,” Scholz said. “That requires strength of our own.” In security terms, this may well mark the birth of a new, post–post–Cold War Germany.
Neutrality is on the wane, too. Finland and Sweden are firmly aligned with the West and against Moscow, and the invasion may tip them into NATO membership. Policy makers in both countries are openly discussing the possibility—hence Moscow’s preemptive threat—and for the first time a majority of Finns favor joining the alliance.
Even neutral Switzerland—Switzerland!—will freeze Russian assets as a result of Moscow’s aggression. “Russia’s attack is an attack on freedom, an attack on democracy, an attack on the civil population, and an attack on the institutions of a free country,” the country’s president, Ignazio Cassis, said over the weekend. “This cannot be accepted.”
The sudden shifts extend beyond Europe. The sanctions now imposed on Russia are global, with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, Singapore, and more joining the anti-aggression bloc. Turkey, which previously maintained warm relations with Russia, has denounced Moscow’s “unjust and unlawful war” and will block the passage of Russian warships through to the Black Sea. The UN General Assembly will convene an emergency session, for the first time in 40 years, to discuss the crisis.
With Putin demonstrating the brutal steps he is prepared to undertake in that pursuit, Beijing is now badly exposed. As numerous wealthy, powerful, and unified countries oppose Moscow’s aggression, China has sided with a reckless Russia that will be more and more isolated and impoverished.
The global treatment of Russia may well mark the most profound of all of these shifts. It’s the world’s largest country by geography, an oil-and-gas powerhouse with the globe’s largest nuclear arsenal. Nevertheless, a curtain is descending around it, disconnecting Russians from globalization’s benefits, such as trade, travel, finance, and technology. The result will be a poorer, more isolated, and weaker Russia. Governments are no longer trying to alter Russian behavior but are instead trying to diminish its ability to project power.
Lenin reportedly once said, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” This is one of those weeks.
The EU Commission announced [over the weekend] this afternoon that the European Central Bank will deploy its most powerful financial weapon against Russian aggression. Several hours later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the Federal Reserve will impose sanctions of its own upon the Russian central bank.
Central-bank sanctions are a weapon so devastating, in fact, that the only question is whether they might do more damage than Western governments might wish. They could potentially bankrupt the entire Russian banking system and push the ruble into worthlessness.
Russia is also being hit by a partial cut-off from the SWIFT system. SWIFT is a messaging technology based in Belgium that allows banks to talk to one another in secure ways, enabling the safe and sure electronic transmission of funds. SWIFT is not a bank, nor is it exactly a payments system. It is instead a way to guarantee that money moves where it is supposed to go. Countries cut off from SWIFT, as Iran was in 2012, are effectively cast back into the precomputer era . . . .
Most of these conversions from rubles into foreign currency take the form of computer clicks that credit or debit the electronic ledgers of financial institutions. The deposit of rubles into a bank is a click. The sale of rubles for euros or dollars is another click. The arrival of the foreign currency into the Russian customer’s account is only one click more. Very seldom does any actual paper money change hands. There’s only about $12 billion of cash dollars and euros inside Russia, according to Bernstam’s research. Against that, the Russian private sector has foreign-currency claims on Russian banks equal to $65 billion, Bernstam told me. Russia’s state-owned companies have accumulated even larger claims on Russia’s foreign reserves.
Despite the relative scarcity of physical foreign currency inside Russia, all of these clicks can happen because Russians generally have confidence that their banks could pay foreign cash if they had to. If every Russian depositor—individual, corporate, state-owned—showed up at the same time to claim their dollars and euros, you’d have a classic bank run. But Russians don’t run on their banks, because they believe that in a real crunch, the Russian central bank would provide the needed cash. . . . . With $630 billion in reserves, there is no way Russia would ever run out of foreign currency. You’ve probably read that assertion many times in the past few days.
Not so fast, argues Bernstam. What does it mean that Russia “has” X or Y in foreign reserves? Where do these reserves exist? The dollars, euros, and pounds owned by the Russian central bank—Russia may own them, but Russia does not control them. Almost all those hundreds of billions of Russian-owned assets are controlled by foreign central banks. Russia’s reserves exist as notations in the records of central banks in the West, especially the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve. Most of Russia’s reserves are literally IOUs to the Russian central bank from Western governments.
Remember the saying “If you owe the bank $10,000, you have a problem—but if you owe the bank $10 billion, the bank has a problem”? We, the people of the Western world collectively owe the Russian state hundreds of billions of dollars. That’s not our problem. That’s Russia’s problem, an enormous one. Because one thing any debtor can do is … not pay when asked.
To finance its war on Ukraine, Russia might have hoped to draw down its foreign-currency reserves with Western central banks. The Russian central bank would tell the Fed or the ECB to credit X billion dollars or euros from the Russian central bank to this or that private Russian bank. That bank would then credit the accounts of Russian businesses or individuals. Those businesses or individuals would then pay Western companies to whom they owe money.
All of this requires the cooperation of the Fed or ECB in the first place. The Fed or ECB could say: “Nope. Sorry. The Russian central bank’s money is frozen. No transfers of dollars or euros from the Russian central bank to commercial banks. No transfers from commercial banks to businesses or individuals. For all practical purposes, you’re broke.” It would be a startling action, but not unprecedented. The United States did it to Iran after the revolutionary regime seized U.S. diplomats as hostages in 1979.
[I]f Russia’s foreign income slows at the same time as it is waging a hugely costly war against Ukraine, it will need its reserves badly. And suddenly, it will be as if the money disappeared. Every Russian person, individual, or state entity with any kind of obligation denominated in foreign currency would be shoved toward default.
Of course, long before any of that happened, everybody involved in the transactions would have panicked. Depositors would race to cash out their dollar and euro holdings from Russian banks, the Russian banks would bang on the doors of the Russian central bank, the Russian central bank would freeze its depositors’ foreign-currency accounts. The ruble would cease to be a convertible currency.
The Russian economy would close upon itself, collapsing into as much self-sufficiency as possible for a country that produces only basic commodities.
Russia imports almost everything its citizens eat, wear, and use. And in the modern digitized world, that money cannot be used without the agreement of somebody’s central bank. You could call it Bernstam’s law: “Do not fight with countries whose currencies you use as a reserve currency to maintain your own.”
There is one exception to the rule about reserves as notations: About $132 billion of Russia’s reserves takes the form of physical gold in vaults inside Russia. Russia could pledge that gold or sell it. But to whom? . . . . Only one customer is rich enough to take significant gold from a sanctioned nation like Russia: China.
Would China agree to take it? And if China did agree, would it not demand a big and painful discount for helping out a distressed seller like a sanctioned Russia? How exactly would the transaction occur? Would China be content merely to take legal ownership of the gold and leave the metal inside in a Russian vault? Doubtful.
And here we bump into the limits of central-bank sanctions as a financial weapon: A weapon that altogether crushes an adversary’s banking system may be just a little too powerful. The West wants to administer penalties that cause Russia to alter its aggressive behavior, not to crush the Russian economy. The central-bank weapon is so strong that it might indeed provoke Putin into fiercer aggression as a desperate last gamble. So the next question is: Is there any way to use the central-bank-sanctions weapon more incrementally?
Perhaps there is. Western banks do not need to freeze the Russian central bank’s accounts altogether. They could put the Russian central bank on an allowance, so many billions a month. That would keep Russia limping along, but under severe restraint—asphyxiation rather than sudden strangulation. The West could not prevent Putin from spending foreign currency on his war or favoring cronies in the distribution of foreign currency. But the restraint would rapidly make the terrible cost of Putin’s decisions much more rapidly visible to every power sector in Russian society. It’s not the full blow, but it might hurt enough—and of course, the full blow could be applied later.
The central-bank-sanctions tool will also deliver a humbling but indispensable lesson to Putin. Putin launched his war against Ukraine in part to assert Russia’s great-power status—a war to make Russia great again. Putin seemingly did not understand that violence is only one form of power, and not ultimately the most decisive. Even energy production takes a country only so far. The power Putin is about to feel is the power of producers against gangsters, of governments that inspire trust against governments that rule by fear. Russia depends on the dollar, the euro, the pound, and other currencies in ways that few around Putin could comprehend. The liberal democracies that created those trusted currencies are about to make Putin’s cronies feel what they never troubled to learn. Squeeze them.
One report noted that Russian oligarchs have already lost over $100 billion in assets. The noose needs to be tightened further so that these individuals must decide between Putin and being ruined financially. Similarly, average Russians need to conclude their "great leader" is crazy and needs to go. Here are highlights from The Economist:
ON MONDAY, as financial markets began trading in Asia, the value of the Russian rouble collapsed. The cause was harsh Western sanctions introduced over the weekend. In effect these freeze Russia’s foreign currency reserves and begin to lock Russian banks out of the SWIFT network for arranging international transactions. . . . In mid-morning in Moscow, the Russian central bank raised its key interest rate from 9.5% to 20% in an effort to stem the rouble’s slump, and the country’s finance ministry ordered companies with foreign-currency revenues to convert 80% of their income into roubles.
A plunging currency makes imports of everything from cars to medical products dramatically more expensive. External debts, much of which are denominated in dollars, will be more difficult to service. The rouble’s decline will further reduce the falling quality of life for the Russian middle class, and it will harm any company that has to pay for overseas goods and services.
Any ban on foreign investors from getting out their money could sour what little is left of the country’s reputation as an investment destination. Over the weekend, Russian citizens queued outside banks to withdraw their money. Panic about the stability of Russia’s financial system could yet lead to bank runs.
As a huge exporter of oil and gas, Russia would usually gain from higher energy prices. But the plunge of the rouble suggests that the extra revenue from commodity sales is expected to pale in comparison to the damage done by sanctions.
[R]ecent international sanctions mean that banks overseas will hesitate to participate in any workarounds that could violate incoming sanctions. In 2020, when the American Treasury Department imposed sanctions on political and security figures in Hong Kong, even Chinese banks in the territory would not hold accounts for those who had been targeted. The reason is that they were fearful of losing access to dollar-denominated payment and settlement.
If the weakness of the rouble endures and efforts to prevent capital from leaving the country continue, the financial damage to Russian businesses and livelihoods could be lasting. The diversification of Russia’s economy away from commodities would have been set back by years. Just as Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has made himself a pariah by invading the country next door, so the Russian economy could end up being isolated, too.