By Tom Arms
Putin has to go. But when and how? What will be the result of his Ukrainian failure in Russia and the rest of the world? How much damage will be inflicted on Ukraine and almost every other country before he is thrown out of the Kremlin?
Working on the assumption that the West will win (any other scenario is unthinkable), what will be the short, medium and long-term repercussions for the world?
The immediate consequence is Hell for Ukraine, pariah status and economic disaster for Russia and economic pain for everyone else.
Vladimir Putin expected Ukraine to fall into his lap like an over-ripe Slavic apple. It didn’t happen. They are fighting back with fierce patriotism which has shocked the Russian president and won global admiration.
Most of the world has rallied around with the toughest sanctions since World War Two and tons of military hardware—but no troops and no planes for a no-fly zone. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and the alliance is terrified of Ukraine escalating into World War III if NATO and Russian troops directly face each other.
So Ukraine is fighting on behalf of a Western Alliance of which it is not officially a member. It is fighting a war which is the clearest cut case of good against evil since 1939. It is a war that has been 70 years in the waiting.
In the short term, Volodymyr Zelensky’s brave army will probably lose militarily. The Russian army is too big. As I write this blog the tank column that has been inching its way towards Kyiv is fanning out through the surrounding forests for a major bombardment of the Ukrainian capital and Russian planes are increasing their attacks.
But a conventional Russian military victory would be a political disaster for Putin. His invasion has created a sense of Ukrainian nationalism which would lead to an insurgency war that would more than equal Moscow’s ten-year Afghan calamity, which in turn led to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The economic war would continue and Russia would be forced to retreat behind an unsustainable Soviet-style Iron Curtain.
There are reports that Putin has seen the writing on the wall. He has allegedly fired eight generals and turned on his trusted FSB to accuse them of providing him with faulty intelligence which led to his invasion order. The FSB is said to have responded by accusing their leader of creating a climate of fear so that reports were doctored to justify his political wish list rather than presenting evidential facts.
As we approach the Ides of March (the 15th), the scene would appear to be set for a palace coup. But who would replace Putin or dare to move against him? He has surrounded himself with group-thinking yes men known as siloviki (Russian for enforcer). They owe their positions and wealth to the pleasure of the Russian President and have been appointed because they bought into his autocratic anti-western paranoia harnessed to a messianic belief in Russian greatness. On top of that their actions, conversations and meetings are carefully monitored by presidential spies.
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The next possible source of revolt is the Oligarchs who are now being stripped of their vast wealth by Western sanctions. They too owe their position to Putin. Each has been chosen for their personal loyalty to profit from lucrative enterprises. Those who have strayed in their fealty have been stripped of their corporate assets and/or been assassinated. However, Putin is now weakened and a group of Oligarchs may take the view that the best chance of rescuing their baubles is to move against the president.
Next in line is Russia’s young people and intelligentsia. Thousands have taken to the streets to protest the war. An estimated 10,000 have been arrested. They face up to 15 years in prison for spreading “fake news” which is defined as any news not approved by Vladimir Putin. Most of this group never suffered from the closed Soviet society. They travel. Until this week they followed Western media. They go clubbing, eat-in street cafes and basically enjoy a Western lifestyle. That has disappeared overnight and they are angry.
But for the middle classes to successfully move against Putin they would need the support of Russia’s vast working class and all the signs are that they support Putin’s war—for the time being. The Russian proletariat has a long history of silent suffering under successive repressive regimes (1917 being the exception) and Putin’s stranglehold of the media ensures their loyalty.
But even if Putin is removed, what then? How does the rest of the world deal with the persistent and dogmatic Russian paranoia coupled with a messianic belief in its right to greatness with a strong leader at the helm? How do we change centuries of national hubris to bring Russia into the rules-based international order? There was a brief moment after the collapse of the Soviet Union when such a world seemed possible. But it was crushed by the dark Russian soul.
As Putin’s Russia implodes, the West is rising to the occasion. It had appeared weak and divided. Both Moscow and Beijing spoke openly of the decline of democracies and the rise and inevitable victory of autocracies. But Russia’s attack on the border of NATO and the EU has united and revitalised the Western Alliance. It now has an easily identifiable enemy and a justifiable cause.
Europe has united and backed with German resolve is marching towards proper security and defence policy. Long-time neutralists Finland and Sweden are considering NATO membership. Even Switzerland has joined the sanctions war. The US has—after four years of wavering under Donald Trump—recommitted itself to the NATO alliance. The bulk of the Republican Party has ditched its isolationism to unite behind a bipartisan war effort, leaving far-right Trumpists floundering.
Autocracies will suffer. Putin has been regarded as a torchbearer by populist strongmen. If he goes down in flames it will embolden others to strike out against men such as Viktor Orban, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi, Nicolas Maduro, Mohammed bin Salman, Jair Bolsonaro, the Myanmar generals, Iran’s Mullahs and others. Syria’s President Assad will be especially vulnerable without his Russian protector.
China is likely to be an exception. It is rich and the Communist Party has successfully established control at every level of society and a pseudo-capitalist economy that is delivering a rising standard of living. An attack on Taiwan remains a possibility. But China watchers are dubious—at least at the moment. Xi Jinping has too much to lose by widening the war. Europe (including the UK) has told Washington that it would be reluctant to support an Asian war, partly because it wants to stay focused on Ukraine and partly because it needs trade with China.
But the West faces severe short-term sacrifices. Inflation fuelled by soaring energy prices is affecting every aspect of life. At the moment the American and European public is almost gleefully surrendering the relatively good life for the greater causes of Ukrainian freedom and democratic values. But how long will a West already exhausted by the restrictions of Covid continue to tighten its collective belt? Putin probably believes that his dour Russians can outlast the decadent West.
Energy will be the biggest winner and loser. Prices are being pushed up by Russia’s prominence as an international oil and gas exporter. Europe’s economy is almost totally dependent on Russian energy. That is why Moscow’s fossil fuels are currently exempt from European sanctions. That is a short term problem that has to be resolved quickly if only because Putin may turn off the taps at any moment. This week’s EU summit agreed to cut Russian imports by two thirds by the end of the year, but no more than that.
In the short and medium-term, climate change policies are being sacrificed on the altar of war. The world desperately needs energy. Increasing production in the OPEC countries and in places such as Norway, the US, fracking sites, Venezuela, Azerbaijan and Libya along with coal production from Australia, India and Poland are seen as necessary wartime fixes.
But simultaneously the West—especially Europe—has awakened to the need to establish secure home-grown energy sources. This means more investment in green technology and probably a German U-turn on its decision to ban nuclear power stations.
The war has raised issues about economic national security in a wide range of other industries ranging from steel production to wheat to microchips. President Biden has spoken in almost Trump-like terms about bringing industries home to protect America.
If 1930s style isolationism is a long term consequence of the Ukraine War then that would be unfortunate. It would damage free trade which has encouraged economic interdependence and for 70 years helped to reduce the spread of conflicts and raised living standards worldwide. Globalisation exports jobs and increases the dependence on other countries. But it also reduces consumer prices, lifts living standards worldwide and—conversely—reduces the chances of a conflict.
As usual, it will be the poorest who will suffer most because of Putin’s war—in the developed and developing world. Government finances have already been stretched to breaking point by the pandemic. Now they have to pay for increased defence spending, restructured energy policies, a refugee crisis and, eventually, the rebuilding of Ukraine. Taxes will inevitably arise. Money will be diverted from education, health and welfare to pay for more immediate needs. Infrastructure projects will be delayed. Borrowings will increase. Foreign aid will be cut. Growth and living standards, especially in the developing world, will falter after decades of improvement. Putin is to blame.
Tom Arms has spent half a century writing about world affairs. He is the foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain.”
Back in the halcyon days of the Cold War, both sides accepted a nuclear strategy called Mutual Assured Destruction which was gifted with the appropriate acronym of MAD. It had a simple basis: Both sides (the West and the Soviet Union) possessed enough nuclear weapons to wipe out the other (and the rest of the world). Therefore it was in neither’s interest to use their nuclear weapons. As mad as MAD sounds, it worked. No nuclear weapons by either the US or Soviet Union, or Britain or France were used throughout the Cold War. There were some almost incidents, such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Armageddon was always averted as MAD sanity prevailed. However, the problem with MAD is that it is built on the premise that the leadership in Washington and Moscow is led by rational people. Now the people in the West are seriously concerned because of doubts about Putin’s sanity. Three years ago there was concern about the mental stability of Donald Trump who famously said: “I can’t understand. If we have nuclear weapons, why don’t we use them? It appears that there is a growing need for a failsafe chain of command among the nuclear powers to avoid the problems of hubris-driven mental instability leading to a disastrous button-pressing incident.
Russia, according to the White House, has prepared chemical weapons for use in Ukraine. Moscow claims that Ukraine has done the same. Ridiculous says both Washington and Kyiv. If the latter is to be believed then Putin is preparing a false flag operation whereby Russians claim they have been attacked by Ukrainian chemical weapons and respond with chemical guns blazing. But what chemical weapons? The Soviets at one time had the world’s largest biological and chemical weapons store. In fact, an estimated 65,000 were employed in the deadly business. Then along claim the 1973 Biological Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention which banned these instruments of mass destruction. At the time, Russia had nearly 40,000 tons of chemical weapons. In 2017 the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reported that Moscow had destroyed its “declared” weapons stock. Then came the 2018 Novichok attack in Salisbury on former GRU agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter followed by a similar murderous attempt in 2020 on Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. In 2021, the CIA reported that Russia was back in the chemical weapons business, or, it had never really left it. This week’s White House announcement about the spectre of Russian chemical weapons leaves an important unanswered question: Is Russian use of chemical weapons a red line for NATO? If not, why mention it?
In other Russian news, Vladimir Putin has signed a decree increasing payments to retirees and pensioners in order to secure the backing of that crucial section of the population where most of his support lies. It is not coming from the young and middle classes who continue to demonstrate. There are reports that 10,000 protesters have been arrested. Duma this week has passed a law threatening 15-year prison sentences for anyone who spreads “fake news” which is basically defined as anything not approved by the Kremlin. They have also blocked all Western media. Companies such as the BBC are resorting to short wave radio broadcasts. Both Aeroflot and foreign air carriers have stopped all international flights into and out of Russia. The rouble has lost half of its value. Foreign companies are severing their links in droves and the government is on the verge of defaulting on its loans for the first time since the end of the First World War. The Iron Curtain is falling again.
Meanwhile, there are reports that Putin is furious at the progress of the war and looking for scapegoats. He has allegedly sacked eight generals and claimed that he was fed fake intelligence by the FSB. Sources within Russia are saying that a frightened FSB fed him the intelligence he wanted. A rambling Twitter feed from an alleged FSB agent named Igor Suslov claimed that Putin has led the country to disaster; it was on the brink of collapse and predicted famine by summer.
On Tuesday President Biden announced that the US was banning imports of Russian oil and gas. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had already said the same and Britain’s Boris Johnson said it would cease Russian imports by the end of the year. In itself, this is not a big deal. The three countries are not big users of Russian energy. That honour falls to continental Europe which buys anywhere between 30-50 per cent of its energy from Russia. If they banned Russian oil and gas their economies would overnight grind to a half. The Anglo-American-Canadian move is more political optics—a gesture to show that they are tightening sanctions on Russia’s big exports as a substitute for the no-fly zones requested by Zolodomyr Zelensky. Biden and co are giving their public an opportunity to make sacrifices for Ukraine, which according to Congress and opinion polls they want to do. But for how long. The pandemic and political instability energy prices were rising before Putin attacked. Since the Russian tanks crossed the border they have soared. This affects cars, air travel, rail travel, food prices—the entire worldwide economy.
Oil and gas prices are set internationally. There are alternative sources, but they will take at least six months to come on stream and in many cases several years. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have spare capacity. But they are allied with Russia at the moment and angry with Biden’s withdrawal of support for their war in Yemen. The UAE ambassador in Washington appeared to break with his OPEC ministers when he announced on Thursday that the emirates would start boosting production. But there are reports that he is in conflict with his oil minister. Oil could flow from Iran but is being held up by the Iran Nuclear Accord. The West may have to reach an accord with Maduro’s Venezuela to tap into that country’s massive resources. Norway, Libya and Azerbaijan may also be persuaded to increase their production. The US can increase its production but not enough to fill the gap on its own. Britain has a few drops of oil left in the North Sea. All these alternatives will take time to negotiate new agreements, alliances, arrange shipping contracts and build infrastructure. Tighten the belt. Turn down the thermostat. Mothball the car. It is going to be tough.
The British are being simultaneously lauded and panned for their response to the Ukraine Crisis. When Zolodomyr Zelensky—the Western world’s new icon of democratic freedom—addressed the Mother of Parliaments by cyber link this week he personally thanked Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The reason was that the UK has led the West in supplying weapons to Ukraine before and after the invasion. Something like $390 million worth of military aid has been despatched so far to Kyiv. To date, these have included small arms, body armour, anti-tank missiles, javelin missiles and personnel to train Ukrainians in their use. This week Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said Britain was also sending Starstreak laser-guided surface to air missiles designed to shoot down enemy aircraft. At the same time, Home Secretary Pritti Patel is under heavy attack from the public and every political party (including her own) for what is being described as a heartless bureaucratic muddle related to allowing Ukrainian refugees into Britain. While the rest of Europe is waiving visa requirements, Britain started off by saying they would admit 200,000 refugees and then constructed so many obstacles that their refuge offer became a sad joke. Pritti Patel has been reluctantly dragged towards a more open-door policy for the refugees, but it still falls far short of what is on offer from the EU.