“Eight months into the war, Ukraine is now on the offensive. Their forces seem better armed, better trained, and better motivated, and most military analysts are predicting further Ukrainian territorial gains before the onset of winter. Russia’s partial mobilization looks like a logistical mess. Only four countries voted with Russia in the latest United Nations General Assembly vote condemning its attempted annexation of Ukrainian territory.
An underrated source of power in world politics is a reputation for effectively wielding power. This means Russia is in serious trouble.
What was supposed to be a lightning-fast decapitation of the Zelenskyy government has turned into a costly conflict with an opponent out-fighting and out-thinking Russians on the battlefield. Even before the recent strikes on civilians, Putin was forced to acknowledge that key partners like China and India had started making noises indicating dissatisfaction with the war.”
“Russia very much wants to remind friends and foes alike that it still can project destructive power. And while bombing civilians seems to have minimal military value, Russia might believe it to be an effective signal that bolsters its nuclear threats. After all, the logic runs, if Russia demonstrates that it is unconcerned about the norms and laws governing the use of conventional force, that sends a message that it is likewise unconcerned about the norms and laws governing the use of nuclear weapons.
And the more credible Russia’s nuclear threat is, the more it can rely on that tool as a form of coercive bargaining.”
“Even autocrats need to placate supporters among what political scientists call the “selectorate” — the people or group who, in practice, select a state’s leader. In a democracy, the electorate is the selectorate; in a more authoritarian regime, the selectorate is smaller and murkier. Regardless of regime type, a ruler needs to command a winning coalition with the selectorate.
Who are the actors in Putin’s coalition? A recent Institute for the Study of War (ISW) analysis of Russia’s information space concluded that there were three key pillars of support for Putin: “Russian milbloggers and war correspondents, former Russian or proxy officers and veterans, and some of the Russian siloviki — people with meaningful power bases and forces of their own. Putin needs to retain the support of all three of these factions.”
The reverses on the battlefield in the east and south of Ukraine cost Putin some support among his selectorate. According to the Washington Post, “A member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle has voiced disagreement directly to the Russian president in recent weeks over his handling of the war in Ukraine.” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told the Post that was “absolutely not true,” even while acknowledging, “There is disagreement over such moments. Some think we should act differently. But this is all part of the usual working process.”
This jibes with the recent public criticisms by Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Evgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary organization, about the way the war has been prosecuted. ISW reported similar discontent from nationalists and military bloggers.
As ISW writes, this dissension has a feedback effect that erodes Putin’s standing: “Word of fractures within Putin’s inner circle have reached the hyper-patriotic and nationalist milblogger crowd, however, undermining the impression of strength and control that Putin has sought to portray throughout his reign.”
Striking Ukrainian civilians with missiles makes sense for Putin within this domestic context. After the bridge attack, there were calls from Russian nationalists to escalate the conflict. They want the gloves to come off in the fight against Ukraine, advocating for ever more brutality. The rocket attacks against Ukrainian cities will placate Putin’s nationalist supporters for the time being, and allows his subordinates and surrogates to make the case on television that they are responding to reverses on the battlefield. Putin’s promotion this week of Gen. Sergei Surovikin, known as “General Armageddon” for his brutality in Syria, will also bolster his standing with nationalists.”
“Daniel Kahneman won a Nobel Prize for his research with Amos Tversky demonstrating that most humans do not make decisions based on rational choice, but rather use a collection of cognitive shortcuts known as prospect theory. A central tenet of prospect theory is that individuals will be risk-averse when they are winning, and risk-tolerant when they are losing. In other words, when someone faces a setback relative to the prior status quo, they are more willing to take risks in an effort to “gamble for resurrection.”
This seems to describe Putin’s behavior over the past few months.”
“the West should hope Russia’s actions are explained by Putin’s individual psychology. Both the international and domestic explanations suggest that Putin will double down on aggressive actions. At the global level, Russia keeps getting humiliated by UN General Assembly votes. At the domestic level, Putin will need to amp up the barbarism to maintain nationalist support as Russian fortunes in Ukraine continue to deteriorate.
Only Putin’s reputed procrastinating tendencies suggest a return to Russian lethargy in adapting to Ukrainian military successes. It would be ironic indeed if the greatest gift Russia can give Ukraine is Vladimir Putin’s torpor.”
“A Putin victory would mean the empowerment of a brutal regime committed to wiping out Ukraine’s culture and civil society. Inside a Russian-controlled Ukraine, millions would need to submerge their ethnolinguistic identity, which has been deepening its roots over the 30 years since Ukraine won its independence from the Soviet Union. For millions of Ukrainians, Russian rule would therefore create the stark choice of cleansing themselves of their ethnicity or being ethnically cleansed. A Russian victory would further mean that the initial exodus of six million Ukrainians would be followed into Europe and elsewhere by the flight of many additional millions for whom life is intolerable.
This puts into clear relief the stakes in Ukraine’s courageous struggle against Putin’s Russia. It is the reason why the West’s commitment to arming Ukraine must not flag. Failure to support Ukraine and pressure Russia would not only permit nascent genocidal practices, deepening a mass humanitarian and human rights horror; It would embolden an aggressive, increasingly repressive Russia to menace other neighboring states. We cannot allow this to pass.”
Is the war in Ukraine the fault of the West? John M. Owen IV. 2022 3 21. UVA: Miller Center. https://millercenter.org/war-ukraine-fault-west How Russia’s Attack on Ukraine Threatens Democracy Everywhere McGregor McCance and John M. Owen. UVAToday. 2022 3 2. https://news.virginia.edu/content/how-russias-attack-ukraine-threatens-democracy-everywhere [New School]
“When Chairman Mao Zedong visited Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in the winter of 1949, he was very much the junior supplicant. Stalin packed him off to wait for weeks in his snow-bound No. 2 dacha, 27 kilometers outside Moscow, where the humiliated and constipated Chinese leader grumbled about everything from the quality of the fish to his uncomfortable mattress.
When the two Communist leaders did get to business, Stalin bullied his way to a very favorable deal that put Mao on the hook to buy Russian arms and heavy machinery with a loan on which Beijing would have to pay interest.
Seven decades later, the power dynamics reveal a radical reset. Shortly before invading Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to the Winter Olympics in Beijing to proclaim the “no limits” friendship with China’s Xi Jinping, but there’s no doubting who the real superpower is in that duo these days. China’s $18-trillion economy is now 10 times mightier than Russia’s. Beijing will hold nearly all the good cards in setting the terms of any financial lifelines from big brother.
As Russia faces a sharply contracting economy under sanctions and an impending oil embargo from Europe, China is the obvious potential benefactor for Putin to turn toward.
Xi shares Putin’s hostility to the West and NATO, but that doesn’t mean he will be offering unalloyed charity. Xi’s overriding strategic concern is China’s prosperity and security, not saving Russia. Beijing is likely to buy at least some oil diverted from Europe, but only at a hefty discount from global benchmarks. China will only help Russia to the extent that it doesn’t attract sanctions and imperil its own ability to sell goods to rich countries in North America and the EU.”
“For years, Chinese officials have been quietly lobbying their Russian counterparts to cut arms sales to India, which has had a sometimes bloody border dispute with Beijing.
Between 2017 and 2022, India was the largest arms export market for Russia, followed by China, according to statistics from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Fighting Indian soldiers armed with Russian equipment may not be fun for China, but it’s certainly a lucrative business for Russia.
Before the war, “Russia was very stubborn and [would] say, ‘Oh, you’re not in a position, China, to dictate us our choices to whom we sell weapons. But I think that China will be in this position probably five years down the road,” said Alexander Gabuev, an expert on Russia-China relations with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank.
India, for its part, is trying to keep an open relationship with Putin. New Delhi, like Beijing, is snapping up cheap oil, even though it’s also eager to maintain strong ties with the U.S.”
“Tactical nuclear weapons are often called “battlefield” or “theater” weapons to distinguish them from much more powerful strategic nuclear weapons, but they are far more destructive than conventional weapons. During the Cold War, tactical nuclear weapons had yields ranging from tens or hundreds of tons of TNT to thousands of tons. These weapons came in many forms: gravity bombs, short-range missile warheads, anti-aircraft missiles, air-to-air and air-to ground missiles, anti-ship and anti-submarine torpedoes and even demolition devices or mines. Reportedly, the smallest tactical weapon in the Russian nuclear arsenal has a yield of about one-third the size of Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs, or equivalent to about 5,000 tons of TNT.
There are a few ways that such a tactical nuclear weapon could be used to fire the kind of “warning shot” envisioned in Russian military doctrine. These options come with increasing degrees of risk for the U.S., Ukraine and its allies, and for Russia.”