Thursday, March 31, 2022

An Unconventional Analysis of Putin's War on Ukraine

Whenever our corrupt media gloms on to a single narrative, treating it like a higher truth, it is always good to doubt it. Conventional wisdom is for the conventional. The truth is more often unconventional. 

In the stock market people talk about contrary sentiment. In assessing the state of play of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we ought to examine contrary sentiment. One is confident of only one thing, that the conventional narrative is wrong.

So says Bret Stephens in a New York Times column. Addressing the commonplace belief that Mad Vlad has lost his mind, Stephens suggests, quite correctly, that it is always a bad thing to imagine that your adversary is crazy. Among other things, it suggests that his behavior is erratic and unpredictable. If you have been in the camp of making wrong predictions about his behavior, calling him crazy makes you sound smarter than you are.

Anyway, as general principles go, this one is worth noting:

Then again, in war, politics and life, it’s always wiser to treat your adversary as a canny fox, not a crazy fool.

The conventional narrative has it that Putin is losing his war. His troop morale is in the gutter. His generals have been murdered or fired. His people hate him and hate his war. The Ukrainian people are fighting back valiantly and are winning on the ground. And the European Union has united like never before in their willingness to punish Putin, to punish Russia and to destroy Russia and all things Russian.

From that one would conclude that Putin has miscalculated. Stephens explains:

He thought Russian-speaking Ukrainians would welcome his troops. They didn’t. He thought he’d swiftly depose Volodymyr Zelensky’s government. He hasn’t. He thought he’d divide NATO. He’s united it. He thought he had sanction-proofed his economy. He’s wrecked it. He thought the Chinese would help him out. They’re hedging their bets. He thought his modernized military would make mincemeat of Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainians are making mincemeat of his, at least on some fronts.

Western commentators have suggested that Putin is insane. 

Putin’s miscalculations raise questions about his strategic judgment and mental state. Who, if anyone, is advising him? Has he lost contact with reality? Is he physically unwell? Mentally? Condoleezza Rice warns: “He’s not in control of his emotions. Something is wrong.” Russia’s sieges of Mariupol and Kharkiv — two heavily Russian-speaking cities that Putin claims to be “liberating” from Ukrainian oppression — resemble what the Nazis did to Warsaw, and what Putin himself did to Grozny.

Several analysts have compared Putin to a cornered rat, more dangerous now that he’s no longer in control of events. They want to give him a safe way out of the predicament he allegedly created for himself. Hence the almost universal scorn poured on Joe Biden for saying in Poland, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.”

A cornered rat-- we like that kind of invective because it makes us feel good. And we want to feel good. We want to feel that we are winning. We want to feel it even if it is not true. It suggests that the weak and decadent West can still flex some muscle, all the while, allowing Putin to level Ukraine.

The conventional wisdom is entirely plausible. It has the benefit of vindicating the West’s strategy of supporting Ukraine defensively. And it tends toward the conclusion that the best outcome is one in which Putin finds some face-saving exit: additional Ukrainian territory, a Ukrainian pledge of neutrality, a lifting of some of the sanctions.

Actually, I am not opposed, from a personal perspective, to something like a face-saving exit. As it happens, cornered rats and madmen do not accept face-saving exits. The Western attacks on Russia are not aiming at a face-saving exit. They are aiming to destroy Putin’s regime. The two are not the same.

Now, Stephens turns away from the media din and reports on a reminiscence by the New York Times’s Carlotta Gall. It concerns the Russian siege of Grozy and it seems eerily familiar:

The possibility is suggested in a powerful reminiscence from The Times’s Carlotta Gall of her experience covering Russia’s siege of Grozny, during the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s. In the early phases of the war, motivated Chechen fighters wiped out a Russian armored brigade, stunning Moscow. The Russians regrouped and wiped out Grozny from afar, using artillery and air power.

When Western military analysts argue that Putin can’t win militarily in Ukraine, what they really mean is that he can’t win clean. Since when has Putin ever played clean?

Of course, being a military analyst is not the same thing as being a commanding officer. Keep in mind, our great military analysts did not do such a great job in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just a thought.

So, Gall continues with a plausible account of what Putin might do next:

“There is a whole next stage to the Putin playbook, which is well known to the Chechens,” Gall writes. “As Russian troops gained control on the ground in Chechnya, they crushed any further dissent with arrests and filtration camps and by turning and empowering local protégés and collaborators.”

Now, Stephens offers an alternative interpretation of the not-so-mad Vlad. What Putin really wants is Ukraine’s east, which contains massive natural gas reserves. Oh.

Suppose for a moment that Putin never intended to conquer all of Ukraine: that, from the beginning, his real targets were the energy riches of Ukraine’s east, which contain Europe’s second-largest known reserves of natural gas (after Norway’s).

Combine that with Russia’s previous territorial seizures in Crimea (which has huge offshore energy fields) and the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk (which contain part of an enormous shale-gas field), as well as Putin’s bid to control most or all of Ukraine’s coastline, and the shape of Putin’s ambitions become clear. He’s less interested in reuniting the Russian-speaking world than he is in securing Russia’s energy dominance.

Putin seeks energy dominance. It sounds plausible, at least as plausible as thinking that Putin is insane.

“Under the guise of an invasion, Putin is executing an enormous heist,” said Canadian energy expert David Knight Legg. As for what’s left of a mostly landlocked Ukraine, it will likely become a welfare case for the West, which will help pick up the tab for resettling Ukraine’s refugees to new homes outside of Russian control. In time, a Viktor Orban-like figure could take Ukraine’s presidency, imitating the strongman-style of politics that Putin prefers in his neighbors.

One does understand that Ukraine is fast becoming a Western welfare case. It has always teetered on the edge of complete insolvency anyway. 

Why is Putin leveling cities and killing civilians-- beyond the fact that the West is cheering Zelensky for refusing to surrender and thus to allow his cities to be razed to the ground, their peoples besieged:

More than simply a way of compensating for the incompetence of Russian troops, the mass killing of civilians puts immense pressure on Zelensky to agree to the very things Putin has demanded all along: territorial concessions and Ukrainian neutrality. The West will also look for any opportunity to de-escalate, especially as we convince ourselves that a mentally unstable Putin is prepared to use nuclear weapons.

And, finally, Stephens explains, if Russia gains what it wants in Western Ukraine, it will gain, not just energy independence, but energy supremacy. At that point, your sanctions will not count for very much. We note that Germany, having subjected itself to the stupidity of Angela Merkel, having shut down much of its nuclear generation capacity and having made itself dependent on natural gas, is now beginning to say that it must ration gas.

To the extent that Russia’s military has embarrassed itself, it is more likely to lead to a well-aimed purge from above than a broad revolution from below. Russia’s new energy riches could eventually help it shake loose the grip of sanctions.

There you have it, an alternative interpretation of the mind of Mad Vlad. One does not need to embrace the Stephens reading in toto. But, one does well to consider an alternative to the standard conventional narrative line.


David Foster said...

Interesting thoughts. But Russia has about 100 years worth of oil and gas reserves:

...and probably doesn't want to increase production too much, for fear of driving down prices.

So does does it really do Putin any good to acquire more? Perhaps one rationale could be ensuring that no one *else* develops it.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Of course, the time horizon of the energy resources depends on the market, who they are selling it to. And, as you say, controlling the market may be a good way to maintain pricing power.

Webutante said...

Wonderful piece, Stuart. My opinion is that this war is all about Russian energy monopoly, as stated, as well as NATO's unsavory eastern expansion and empire building.

Anonymous said...

I urge everyone to read this:

or listen to this:

AlphaOmega said...

Is there any reason to take notice of the fact that "energy stupid" Angela Merkel grew up in Communist-Block East Germany??


Mark Matis said...

Sure is a shame that this isn't a bi earlier in the winter when they could deal appropriately with the filthy EU swill by cutting off their gas supply and letting them freeze to death!!!