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Russia? Maybe, but I think not.
I’ve seen one theory kited that it was part of a grand plan by Russia to weaken Germany severely, thereby destabilising the EU and making its constituent territories vulnerable to conquest. On the other hand, the countries that have previously suffered Soviet rule would be extremely resistant to reliving a similar experience; I should imagine that Poland, for one, would fight almost to the last citizen.
Besides, if we are to believe Hillary Clinton, Putin is a right-wing nationalist, not a Communist. He has a stated interest in defending the rights of ethnic Russians who found themselves stranded in foreign countries following the collapse of the USSR, but even in the Baltic States they are a minority – about a quarter of the population in Estonia and Latvia, only 4.5% in Lithuania.
However, a 2014 survey of Russian citizens (possibly instigated by Putin) expressed concern about discrimination against Russians in these three states, which has worsened recently: there and in Poland, there have been reports of destruction of Russian monuments, and symbolic gestures of this kind can be a precursor to more direct persecution. Topping the list of victimised Russian expat communities was Ukraine.
One wonders whether the US would have waited eight years before military action to defend American citizens abroad who were under sustained attack with shot and shell. Even so, it seems obligatory for everyone in the West to say clearly and repeatedly that Putin’s intervention was foolish, criminal, inexcusable etc; instead of inevitable, however deplorable.
Is Putin a nasty piece of work? Would a sheep last long as the leader of a wolfpack? Even Ivan the Terrible seems to have started out fairly reasonable until the boyars poisoned his beloved wife. But if you think Putin is bad, consider who (or what junta) might replace him if he is overthrown. Let’s try to be realistic, not moralistic.
Russia has less than half the population of the United States and about double the land area. It is reasonable to suppose that she has her work cut out to hold on to what she has, especially facing a hugely populous China in the east, keen for lebensraum and envious of the wood, water and mineral resources of Mother Russia. Tibet has been abandoned by the British to China and its fate; Beijing is also eyeing disputed territory in northern India.
An alternative reading of Putin’s strategic aims as far as his Western borders are concerned, is that they are twofold:
- Putin needs to be seen by his support base, his voters, to defend Russians, their culture and religion. A leader who fails to act on behalf of the 25 million ethnic Russians living in the 14 non-Russian republics is not much of a leader. Mixed in with that is an element of hurt national pride following the fall of the Soviet Union; if that seems trivial, think how the humiliation of Germany after WWI helped the rise of an emotionally stunted loudmouth who ruined Europe and killed tens of millions of Russians.
- More practically, the bulk of Russia’s population lives in the western part and the trade routes along the Volga and Don are vital internally and also as a connection with foreign countries to Russia’s south and east. The Volga runs into the Caspian Sea which is bordered by Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Azerbaijan as well as Russia itself.
The Don flows into the Azov and thence to the Black Sea, whose shores Russia shares with the EU’s Bulgaria and Romania, as well as Georgia, Moldova, Turkey – and Ukraine.
Ukraine’s maritime borders on the Azov and Black Seas are therefore strategically vital. If an enemy occupies these areas he threatens Russian naval and commercial shipping. There is a reason, I think, why the neo-Nazi ‘Azov’ Battalion is so named.
All might have been well if Ukraine had remained non-aligned, or even agreed to regionalisation as per the Minsk proposals; but the application – recently repeated by Zelensky – to join the EU and NATO lit a match between Putin’s toes.
Surely it is reasonable to say that Putin has more to gain from peace and economic development than from the waste and bloodshed of war. Russia built Nordstream 1 to bypass potential interference from Ukraine (where major gas lines transit and two spurs cross in the Donbas, and which charges heavily for allowing their use), Belarus and possibly other third parties.
Germany has enjoyed economic advantage because the US and NATO have largely provided her military protection, but also from a long-term contract with Russia for cheaply priced gas. These are two factors in why Germany is (or was, until now) such an economic powerhouse and major sponsor of the EU. The second pipeline was to expand capacity. Germany and Russia as trade partners: win-win.
Germany has been persuaded to support Ukraine, but given the foregoing context, reluctantly one imagines. Now whether the story about broken Nordstream 1 pumps is or isn’t true, the sanctions against Russia prevent Siemens fixing them and at the same time certification of Nordstream 2 has been blocked. These are problems, but temporary ones, and could be used by both sides as levers in negotiations, with the prospect that an agreement might be reached and business as usual resume.
Not now, after the explosions; and not for a long time to come, if ever. The blow is devastating: US shipments of liquid natural gas – heavily priced and twice as CO2-producing as piped gas – can only satisfy some 10 per cent of Germany’s needs, and even then only when suitable port and processing facilities have been developed to receive them. The new Baltic pipe, owned by Poland and Norway, is said to be able to provide only another 10 per cent or so.
That’s assuming it all goes to Germany. The competition for gas energy supplies is going to become a sort of game of musical chairs, with the shortages inflating prices internationally. Even the UK could be facing cutouts.
This stands to ruin not only German industry but her agriculture – her imports of fertiliser are already dropping. Stand by for widespread food shortages and supply chain disruption all round.
So, cui bono; who benefits?
In 2019 the Rand Corporation stated baldly, ‘the United States is currently locked in a great-power competition with Russia.’ Turning Ukraine into a Vietnam soaks Russia’s resources and hampers her ambition to create a Eurasian EU using the trade routes along the Volga and Don and between the Caspian, Azov and Black Seas. And if Russia were to fall like Iraq, just imagine the feeding frenzy.
Will crippling Germany work as some allege is the intention, i.e. to cancel the possibility of Germany making a separate peace with Putin? These clever-clever plans have a habit of going wrong. In fact look at the trouble the CIA has sometimes caused for the US as well as its targets: the Gulf of Tonkin, the Bay of Pigs, Iran-Contra, the Gary Powers/U2 ‘just one more overflight’ messup that halted the growing rapprochement with Russia under Khrushchev and drove Moscow into the arms of its hawks.
Is it really so important to be a dog in the manger, to stop other countries and blocs becoming more prosperous? If so, why did the West feed the Chinese dragon and immiserate its own peoples?
To reverse the quotation from Hamlet, ‘Though this be method, yet there is madness in’t.’
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