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With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, there have been many theories put forth as to his war aims and the motivations of Russia on this enterprise. Whereas the motivations of the US in its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were clear (although misguided in the case of Iraq), there’s some confusion as to Putin’s motivations in Ukraine - territorial expansion isn’t a “justification” that is usable, “denazification” is wrong from our perspective given that the leader of Ukraine is Jewish but there may be another definition of Nazi that Putin is using, and fighting NATO expansionism isn’t really a good case to be made when attacking a major European nation will inevitably lead to more nations joining NATO for protection. So, what is he up to? Well, we can look at this from a couple angles. One is the personality of the man himself. Putin was born to survivors of the Siege of Leningrad who were in their 40s (miracle child), who won the lottery literally in his youth and used it to buy a car for himself rather than help out his parents, and who’s lackluster career in the KGB and ability to skirt corruption scandals somehow lead him to the presidency of one of the world’s most powerful nations. The “street urchin rags to totalitarian riches” story is one which would give him a sense of himself as a “chosen one,” a “man of destiny” - and, in recognizing this, megalomania and narcissism must follow. A man who is born into nothing and achieves great power believes that he can do no wrong, even when he has been brutal to those around him, as it has, until this point, kept working out for him. Now, take a megalomaniac with a “chosen person” complex, and surround him with sycophants whose reports are the only intelligence feed he has - you’ve got a recipe for massive miscalculation. This is a narrative we’ve been going with - that this is a classic autocracy trap, with solipsism, nihilism, narcissism, and cronyism leading to a perfect storm of aggressive ignorance. But perhaps there is another viewpoint worth examining - that there is a strategy here, one which Putin may be using, to expand Russian influence and station in the face of The West by taking advantage of Western failures and rifts in the current world order. How might this be the case? Well, looking at the legacy of the Pax Americana since the fall of the Soviet Union in ’91, American and European nations have failed to take up the mantle of leadership in a meaningful way. Progress in achieving the global goals (MDGs and then SDGs) has been slow - and nations like China have used debt-trap diplomacy to exploit the peoples and lands of nations in need for their own benefit. The promise of an egalitarian and liberal world order that America & Europe set out to create after 1945, and which was supposed to prevail once we no longer had a massive communist enemy at the gates…seems to have been one which we didn’t care to fulfill with any sort of urgency. Now, if we look at the impacts of climate change and conflict on peoples of the developing world, and the reactions of the West to taking in refugees from those conflicts…it doesn’t look very good. Countries which are champions of “equality” are routinely struggling with taking in immigrants of color, whether in the US struggling to take in people from Central and South America or the EU facing a migration “crisis” of Syrian, Lebanese and African refugees. Which, we can explain, right? It’s a security risk, we don’t know how well they’ll integrate, we don’t want them bringing their “3rd world” to our “1st world”…oh, that sounds bad now, doesn’t it? Maybe we’re a bit racist here? Well, what if - Putin is taking advantage of that? For all the world to see, he called the largely white population of Ukraine Nazis, called those who help them Nazis, and started flagellating Ukraine with his armies to flush Ukrainians into the waiting arms of the EU. More than 5 million white Ukrainian refugees have been taken into the EU since the war began, when a few years back 1.3 million migrants of color entering Europe over the course of the year was a “crisis.” If we’re happy to take in white Europeans, but not happy to taken in migrants of color from other areas, it’s no wonder that support for the NATO / Western Values coalition seems to be on a decline at the UN - these points have been raised by Russia’s allies including Syria, and by a number of African nations as well which are becoming disillusioned - and the votes at the UNGA level reflect this shifting sentiment among developing nations. From 141 votes to condemn Russia’s invasion, down to 93 votes to remove Russia from UN Council on Human Rights, the moral high ground of the West is backsliding over these past few months in the global perception. And it gets worse: Africa and the Middle East are highly dependent on cereals imports from Russia and Ukraine. With Ukraine under attack, fields aren’t being tended to, and with sanctions on Russia grain and fertilizers can’t get out of Russian ports. This could lead to a mass starvation event across Africa and the Middle East, with nations such as Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Morocco, Libya, and others experiencing massive food shortages in a year where increasing global temperatures are already growing to lower crop yields. If Putin blames this on Western sanctions, the “racist” tendencies of the West (which we should note are more carelessness rather than malice…we hope) in combination with the starving of people will drive a political shift in these key regions which is decidedly anti-Western - a bunch of poor nations being starved by a bunch of rich nations while the rich nations aim to achieve their geostrategic goals is not a good look. Now, put into play that Russia does have a lot of ships and a lot of grain. If you’re Putin, your chess move here is to offer cheap grain and arms to whichever nations in Africa and the Middle East will play your game - and if we remember how hunger triggered the Arab Spring, Putin doesn’t have to restrain himself to only working with the regimes in power - he can knight any strongman populist he chooses in these nations to push through a more Russian friendly regime. And this isn’t mere speculation - in the past weeks, Russia has sent cargo ships laden with grain towards MENA region - freighters of stolen grain made calls in Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. And in the past week, Putin has met with the head of the African Union in Sochi to talk about how Western Sanctions are causing the problem and pledging that Russia will do its part to help them out. What we don’t know, yet - is at what cost? But what we must acknowledge, is that such tactics amount to a global siege. By seizing upon divisions between the developed world and the developing world which are very often along racial lines, by painting the Ukrainians as Nazis (white supremacists as the definition) and those who support them thus as sympathizers, and then showing the developing world that The West is a “Nazi sympathizer,” Putin is attempting to paint “the West” as hostile to developing nations, and the proof will come through the famines resulting from western sanctions on Russia. Then he plays savior and creates a bunch of vassal states, through which he’ll be able to expand Russian influence and access in an encirclement of Europe. While he doesn’t need to hold these territories, they will allow expanded Russian access to the ocean - as Russia’s only overseas naval facility is in Syria currently, forging strong alliances with African and Middle Eastern states could serve a strategic purpose as Russia seeks to regain its superpower status. It also would put pressure on vital economic arteries of the West, such as the Suez Canal - and what better way to control the West than by having a hold on the Suez and forcing trade around the Northern Passage? This is not only a shorter route from Shanghai to Rotterdam, but is entirely controlled by Russia. So, so far, we’ve got: -Putin makes the West look racist by laying bare a difference in the treatment of white people vs colored people -Putin’s war leads the West to inflict sanctions on Russia which are really damaging to food access in Africa, Middle East, SE Asia -Africa, ME, SE Asia are already looking at the West in a manner which is not only distrustful but now may grow hostile -Hungry countries aren’t going to accept that our security is more important than their daily bread -Political instability is likely to result from food and other material shortages -An offer of excess grains & arms to these nations by Putin could sway them in his favor and create a strategic encirclement of the EU -If Putin gains some control over Egypt and thus the Suez, he has the East/West trade route hostage; if he just creates political instability, it could cause another Suez crisis -If Putin can shut down the Suez, shipping routes must start to move through Russian water, giving him control of the sea lanes most vital for Europe -Putin’s war of choice can and is also impact fuel supply lines to Europe and fertilizer supplies to much of the world; this will exacerbate the food crisis and also damage economies and drive inflation If you can cut off food & energy to much of the world and have them pay (politically & economically) for it, then in Russia’s book, you do have a winning strategy if your goal is to gain more power and leverage on the global stage. So…this is a problem. The next question is…how do we fight it?
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