Many of us — myself included — have been gobsmacked at Russian invasion of the Ukraine.
It is a move so insane that the TALIBAN recently asked Russia and the Ukraine to stand down and end the crises through ‘peaceful means’.
The Taliban know what they are talking about, because they did beat both Russia and America, but it took time. Nevertheless…
Russia (Putin) is afraid of one big thing: democracy on his doorstep — following the new world order that has gelled after the Soviet Union dissolved.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1994, a consensus formed around the world that the Western way of life was the right and natural order.
Russia tried to join that club, twice appealing to NATO for membership, in 1954 and 2000. They did seem more serious the second time, and who knows what might have happened if the matter had been pressed. But the matter was not pressed.
More recently, Putin asked that NATO stay out of the Ukraine — forever. That impinges on the sovereignty of a nation to choose its own future (Ukraine) and NATO would not give that assurance, so Putin — in his view — had no choice.
Now, with the rise of China as the flag-bearer of the ‘dictated society’, Russia’s profile has been eclipsed.
It is not, after all, a very wealthy or competent player.
In the global economy, Russia is a big gas station with nothing else on offer.
Comparing Russia with the largest country in the West, Canada, Russia comes out badly. Although its population is four times larger than Canada, its GDP is actually less than Canada’s. A Canadian earns about $45,000 a year; a Russian about $10,000. Canada has budget revenues of some $700-billion/year, v.s. Russia’s of $400-billion. Canadians are not only richer than Russians, but even at one-quarter of the Russian population their government has almost twice the spending power of Russia.
It gets even worse when you compare Russia against some American states. The Lone Star State of Texas has even fewer people than Canada, but its GDP is larger than Russia’s.
Heck, you can compare Russia’s size to some Western companies. After they invaded the Ukraine, the Russian stock market dropped $189-billion in one day. Capitalism can screw up worse than that with a single company: Facebook (Meta) plunged $232-billion in its worst one-day loss.
Russia does, however, have an army that has evidently recovered from its performance in Afghanistan. It seems to work more smoothly these days, combining military intelligence with striking power. It will try to use as little force as it can in the Ukraine, relying on local sympathizers and air power. Whether that will do Russia any good over the long term is highly unlikely, considering that the Ukraine now sees Russia as an occupying force of alien philosophy.
Swallowing the Ukraine is not as easy as it is for China to swallow the territory of the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs are isolated from world help in central Asia, and there are only 12 million of them (in a country of 1.4-billion). Swallowing the Uyghurs was like a lion eating a mouse.
The Ukraine has 44-million people, versus Russia’s 144-million. It’s a full one-third of the size of the animal trying to swallow it. It’s like a lion trying to eat a puma. Cuts all round.
The current conflict is what happens when you try to leave someone outside the tent, in the cold. As noted, Russia tried to join the NATO club. Not that this is NATO’s fault, or America’s fault…but if a broader view had been taken to embrace Russia when their Union fell apart, we might not see fighting today.
One of America’s best moves after WWII was the Marshall Plan: an ambitious, selfless act the revived the economies of friend and foe alike.
There was no such gesture after the Soviet Union broke up. Only a riff of triumphalism, and disdain.
It is important to understand the reason America and allies won the Cold War against Russia. Putin does not grasp this, and it is why he will fail again.
The West won the Cold War because in our economies and societies information flows freely between citizens and organizations.
95% of the economic progress since WWII has come from innovation — and innovation is a networked activity between parties! No open network, no innovation.
A constipated information flow like that in the Soviet Union shows up in weird factoid ways. The USSR, for example, was the last country in the world to stop using carbon paper.
What is carbon paper?
You youngster, you!
Carbon paper is a thin film of black inky stuff that you put between two or three sheets of paper. It allows you to make many copies of a document when you are using a typewriter.
At a time when the West was sending information by email and triggering a flood of science news, the Russians refused to let their people do that! They were restricted to carbon paper, because the government did not want to take a chance that thousands of copies of anti-Soviet editorial would come out of someone’s house: a student, an office, a soldier…
No matter what Russia does with the Ukraine, it will not allow the free flow of information.
Neither with China, incidentally, although China is big enough to exist in its own information-bubble, complete with separate Internet. China will take longer to fall.
But Russia — Russia is doomed. It is addressing the wrong problem. Today, security does not come from the barrel of a gun. It comes from continuing innovation, produced by a free flow of knowledge.
Even if it is subdued today, the Ukraine will be back. Freedom is forever.