How about that war? Huh?
Nobody saw that coming. Go figure.
Exactly how or why the war started, and what the motivations are is a bit of a mystery. When you look at it, there doesn’t seem to be a precipitating incident. Relations had not worsened. There was no crisis. Instead, Russia calmly builds up troops along the border for several months, assuring that everything is business as normal, and Whoops! Invasion!
To be fair, Russia has been invading Ukraine since 2014, when they took over Crimea and set up the phony Donbas and Luhansk “People’s Republics.” Since that time, there’s been ongoing low level terrorist attacks and fatalities arising from Donbas and Luhansk. So this seems to be a continuation of Russian aggression starting in 2014.
But why now? The situation’s been reasonably stable for eight years. It’s not like any of the conquered areas were destabilizing or boiling over. It was an unhappy state of affairs for Ukraine, but Russia was still sitting pretty. It’s not like the Crimeans were revolting.
There were some issues in Crimea. The Ukrainians cut off the canal that supplied water, and Crimean farmland was undergoing desertification. But that wasn’t yet a crisis, and the Russians had invested in desalinisation.
On the lefty side, there’s the theory repeated and regurgitated this is all NATO’s fault. Basically, the idea goes, NATO’s relentless expansion as a warmongering alliance relentlessly enlisting new members has pushed Russia into a corner. Expansion has left Russia no ‘comfort’ space, and therefore, it’s defending itself by invading Ukraine.
Okay, got to call bullshit on that one. NATO’s last eastward expansion was 2004 – eighteen years ago. That’s when Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia joined. Call me crazy, but if the expansion was eighteen years ago, I’m not convinced. What? The Russians didn’t notice? Nobody gave them the memo? The mail was really slow? Seriously.
Now, to be fair, there were NATO expansions in 2009, and one in 2020. But these were former Yugoslav Republics, not eastward expansion, but well away from Russia, to the west of existing NATO members like Greece, Bulgaria, Turkey, Romania. The last expansion was Macedonia, a landlocked postage stamp country between Greece and Albania. Yeah, I’m sure that Macedonia joining NATO sent shock waves through the Kremlin. Whatever.
Ah, but the Russians were terrified of Ukraine joining NATO. Because apparently, they’d talked about it in 2008, fourteen years before, and NATO said no. It hadn’t really moved since then. And given the 2014 situation, it wasn’t going to move any time soon. Fast Fact – turns out you can’t join NATO if you’re embroiled in territorial disputes. So Ukraine wasn’t eligible 2014-2022, and wasn’t going to be eligible for the foreseeable future.
And let’s be serious. NATO? They’ve got to be kidding. NATO? The organization that went into Afghanistan with twelve different commands? The organization whose members are notorious for underfunding their military? NATO? It’s not a great big scary monolith, it has no agenda, its completely reactive at best, and mostly, it reacts like a herd of ADHD drunken cats. It’s not exactly a threat.
Truth is, if Putin and Russia were scared of NATO, they wouldn’t have moved at all. It’s the perception of NATO’s weakness and disunity that Putin is acting on, not it’s strength and aggression.
So what is it?
Well, Putin has made no secret that he doesn’t see Ukraine as a real country. He told this to Bill Clinton back in 2008. He’s repeated it many times since, most recently just as he was invading. Ukraine isn’t a real country. It’s not a real nation. Ukrainians are not a real nationality or a people. He claims that they’re just a pretend pseudo-state invented by Lenin.
That’s not good. Basically, his position is that Ukraine is ‘terra nullia’ – unclaimed, unowned land. Ask the indigenous peoples of Australia and North and South America how it turned out for them when Europeans started declaring their lands terra nullia?
Heres’ a clue – if Ukraine is not a real country, and Ukrainians are not a real nationality, then as far as Putin and Russia is concerned, they have every right to correct Lenin’s mistake and retake those wayward lands.
It was going to happen.
The lesson Putin took from 2014 was that it was going to be easy. The Ukrainians had been weak, divided and disorganized, the Russians had swept them aside and taken what they wanted? Why not?
Still, why now?
Between 2014 to 2019, Ukraine was governed by Peter Porochenko (sic), a Ukrainian nationalist, and doubtless quite hostile to Russia. But then, Volodomir Zelensky won the election, with a stunning 73% of the vote. This is where it gets a little weird – Zelensky was a Russian speaking Ukrainian from the eastern part of the country, and part of his campaign was repairing the broken relations with Russia. He was opening the door, but Putin didn’t seem interested in any kind of dialogue or reconciliation.
It’s tempting to want to dissect Zelensky’s foreign or economic policy, to see if it posed some kind of threat or challenge to Russia. But so far, no one has gone down that road. Whatever was going through Putin’s mind, it didn’t seem to have much to do with what the Ukrainians were doing or not doing.
Maybe Putin’s just been working on it since 2014, putting the pieces in place. There’s some evidence for that. Putin’s worked very hard to “sanction proof” the Russian economy, which suggests that he’s been planning this for a while.
I suspect the worldwide Covid Pandemic may have thrown off his timetable and pushed the invasion back a bit. It’s hard to launch an invasion during a plague, armies on the move are historically extremely vulnerable to pandemics, and the civilian population isn’t in shape to keep the logistic support going. Having to deal with the Pandemic also sucks up a lot of thinking, planning, management.
It’s likely that without the Pandemic, Putin would have probably invaded during Trump’s term. Certainly he was encouraging Trump’s hostility to Ukraine. It might be interesting to go back and look at the footprints, see if Putin was putting moves in place just before the Pandemic.
Like I said, when you’ve got someone declaring you are not a real country or a real nationality, an invasion is inevitable.
But there’s an interesting wrinkle that no one is really talking about much.
Or technically, oil and gas. Petrochemicals.
Y’see, Russia is now a petrostate. Literally, that’s pretty much all they have going. Russia’s industrial base has been withering way since the 1990’s. Most of their industry, most of their manufacturing is obsolete and uncompetitive. They have no electronics industry. No chips, no microchips. In the 60’s they were cutting edge, in the 70’s struggling to keep up, in the 80’s falling behind… and then after the breakup of the Soviet Union? Free fall. Turns out that “economic shock therapy” is a disastrous way to manage a country, that klepto-capitalism by gangsters and shysters, robbing the assets of the Russian state, and building empires of corruption, do not lead to prosperity, or even stability.
When the dust settled, Russia found it had only one real asset: Petrochemicals. They were the largest natural gas exporter in the world. Second largest oil producer in the world. And they had a ready market in Europe. Petrochemical exports were vital to what was left of the Russian economy. And they were pretty tasty for a corrupt kleptocracy, there’s a lot of graft to be made off the industry, getting your cut, getting on the take.
Most importantly, petrochemicals were vital for Russia’s foreign policy influence and standing. As long as they kept those pipelines going, a steady reliable supply of natural gas, they wielded a big stick in Europe. As Europe became dependent, they wielded a bigger and bigger stick.
Right now, that’s one of the reasons that the sanctions aren’t working so well – they exclude natural gas exports. Germany’s economy is that dependent. If the Russians turn off the taps, the German economy and industrial base literally collapses.
Bottom line, Russia is incredibly wedded to its Petrochemical export industry. Any challenge or threat to that is literally a major threat to Russia.
To that end, Russia cooperates with the US in keeping Iran and its natural gas export capacity bottled up. The Russians fund Green parties and environmental movements through the west, opposing fracking, undermining nuclear power, etc. That sounds like crazy conspiracy stuff, but seriously, follow the money. Russian foreign policy, and covert policy, is devoted to protecting Russian gas exports by supporting anything that undermines alternatives.
Which brings us to Ukraine.
Which has been discovered to have the second largest natural gas reserves in Europe. Proven reserves of over a trillion cubic meters, and with as much potentially as five trillion cubic meters. And there are huge natural gas fields just offshore in the Black Sea, south of Ukraine.
Now, the thing is, Ukraine has not done much with its natural gas reserves. In fact, up until the hostilities of 2014, it was an importer of natural gas from Russia. Russian pipelines run through Ukraine into European markets in the Balkans.
But the thing is, if and when Ukraine starts to exploit its natural gas, then it has the potential to be a major competitor to Russia, in its key economic and national security sector.
Ukraine’s natural gas reserves were beginning to be drilled and exploited in 2013/2014, just prior to the uprising that kicked out Yanukovych. Since then, Ukraine’s potentials have expanded. Crimea’s potentials are explored. And the Black Sea reserves have become potentially more important. Estimates back in 2013 were that Ukraine would become independent of Russian natural gas within ten years. Well, that timetable has probably been moved by events in and following 2014. But the industry consensus seems to be that Ukraine was poised to become a major producer and major competitor within the next couple of years.
So perhaps this is the real reason for the timing. Putin’s acting to take a competitor off the board, and to gain control of those key gas fields in the Black Sea and Eastern Ukraine, the very places that he seems bent on taking permanent control of.
Something to think about.
This whole thing is just a resource grab.