Vladimir Putin is not afraid of Joe Biden, the newly-woke U.S. military, the Keystone Kops at the NSA, CIA or sundry other alphabet organizations right down to BIPOC and LGBTQ, or his speechwriter “doctor” Jill, or the yes-men (er, persons) in the White House. The Kamala Kackle gives him pause, but he has people to handle her.
No, Putin is not afraid of any of them. In fact, it’s that collection of nitwits that tempts him.
Here’s what he’s afraid of, for good reasons.
First, war is semi-obsolete in today’s global economy. Just as China doesn’t want war with the United States, which is its biggest manufactured goods customer, Russia doesn’t want war with western or even eastern Europe, which are its biggest oil and gas customers.
Say what you will about the perils of globalization, but it does discourage war. Bombing your customer or even your customer’s neighbor is bad for business.
Second, Ukraine is not defenseless even if it doesn’t get much help from NATO. Ukraine could field a couple hundred thousand soldiers. Even if they aren’t great soldiers, they aren’t bad, and soldiers fight notoriously well when defending their own land, cities and families.
Russia would still win their little war with Ukraine, but the Russian casualties would be non-trivial. Moreover, they would then have to defend the conquered Ukraine against urban terrorists for decades.
Putin is popular in Russia, at least compared to the laughingstock pariah we call Joe Biden in America, but Russians still remember the catastrophe of their last foreign adventure in Afghanistan. And since then, they’ve grown accustomed to a better standard of living and less authoritarianism. Ordinary Russians may be nostalgic for the glory days of the Soviet empire, but they have little stomach for the hardship of it.
Third, economic sanctions against Russia could really hurt them. Not just ordinary Russians but Putin’s oligarchy. That’s another aspect of that global trade system.
Finally, there’s not really much in Ukraine worth taking. Ukraine is not a treasure trove of oil and gas or high tech or rare earth metals. Putin would find better war booty a thousand miles south in the Middle East (though he has to be careful there – Israel is small but fierce).
Look at what the Soviets got out of their occupation of Eastern Europe. Nothing but headaches.
So, what is Putin doing with all this saber rattling? Two things. The first is that he just enjoys rattling his saber. This guy is a natural tyrant with a raging Napoleon complex. I’m sure he looks back at his KGB days as the best of his life. What other world leader poses for vanity shots shirtless on horseback? (I know that John Kerry and Barack Obama posed shirtless on sailboards, but surely you see the difference between riding a horse bare chested and tip-toeing on a sailboard in swim trunks.)
Like a boy with a BB gun, Putin is enjoying himself playing army. And unlike that boy with the BB gun, he’s also drawing the attention of the world. He was born a hundred years too late for a spectacle like marching on Paris, but right now he’s getting all the attention of such a march without any of the effort of actually marching.
Putin imagines himself an International Man of Mystery, sort of like Austin Powers but shorter.
The other thing is that Putin is profiting from all this. The prospect of war between Russia and allies of NATO threatens oil supplies. Most of Russia’s oil exports go to Europe but oil is of course a worldwide commodity and so shortages one place affect supply and prices everywhere.
The price of oil is at a multi-year high, and jumped another $3/barrel on Friday. Russia exports about 5 million barrels of oil a day. That $3/barrel jump in the price on Friday, alone, generates another $15 million/day for Putin’s oil buddies. Like OPEC, they remember well the depths of COVID when the price of oil actually went negative for a few days. They’re savoring today’s financial and emotional payback.
They’ll keep up this drama because there’s every reason to and no reason not to. But they won’t invade Ukraine. They’re not foolish.
Somewhat comically, there’s been a surge of new subscribers to theAspenbeat since I was voted “Mr. Aspen” by the readers of the Aspen Times. There’s nearly 800,000 now. Join them with a free subscripion HERE or just send an email to theAspenbeat@gmail.com