Thursday, December 18, 2014

Russia's "interesting position" gets a little more interesting

Back in August (when the Guns of August were thundering in the eastern parts of was still nominally "Ukraine") over at MilPub my buddy Al wrote about the Curious Case of Russia. He noted that:
"The Cold War was primarily a standoff between two military powers. The Soviet impact on, and involvement in, the world's economy was negligible. Probably one of the major reasons the USSR collapsed. It was Soviet military, and the resultant political power, that we wanted to keep in check. We are now dealing with a new Russia, and that new Russia has become an economic player far greater than the old Soviet Union. Now, when Russia rattles it's political saber, there are economic ramifications of concern. Yet we still seem to be stuck in the Cold War mentality that Russia is always to be opposed."
and quoted an editorial from one of the Athenian newspapers that in their opinion "...a "stable and powerful Russia" is a key ingredient to global economic security."

I'm kind of intrigued by this for several reasons.

One is that it tends to reinforce my suspicions that the rump-Soviet state is, in fact, what I called it back in August: "...a lot of the Soviet weaknesses...overlaid...with 1) a thicker layer of corruption and 2) an excessive, almost-Nigerian-level of extraction resource dependency." The Post article makes an interesting point, that:
"There's one way, and only one way, that this ends: with capital controls. Or, in plain English, by making it illegal for people or companies to turn their rubles into foreign currency. That would get rid of the selling pressure, and let the ruble settle at a new, lower equilibrium. Putin, though, is loath to use capital controls, because his political base—the oligarchs—wants to move their money abroad, whether that's to their London or New York hideouts."
So the "tyrant" is an economic hostage to his political condotierri, another little reminder of the old saying about doing anything with bayonets (or in this case, the long knives of your criminal crony-capitalist "pals"...) except sitting on them.

The other is that it gives me a nasty little cat-smile remembering all the Usual Idiots who were fulminating about how manly Vladi Putin was and how the United States needed a sharp dose of his shirtless manly manliness to counteract the emo-girly-man Kenyan Usurper.

To quote O'Brien from the Post: "At this rate Putin will be riding around shirtless because he can't afford one anymore."
Perhaps the single most worrying part about this is the reminder that Russia - still a major Eurasian power and a nuclear one at that - is neither stable nor as powerful as it thinks it is.

This isn't to talk up my own country, whose political response to the Great Recession has been to double- and triple-down on the great shift to oligarchic meanness and stupidity that characterized the fucking Hoover Administration, but to note that for all that my country seems to be overrun with morons who think that "government is the problem" that if you deliberately set things up to govern badly it will be badly governed. And that after a bad government the next-worse idea is to turn the levers of power over to a bunch of rich pricks whose only concern is their own profit. That's the sort of thing about the incoming Republican Congress (as expressed recently in the loathsome Wall Street Welfare rider to the cromnibus spending bill...) that makes me sleep poorly at times.

But I don't think I'd be sleeping nearly as well if I lived in Gdansk, or Tallinn.


Ael said...

Wait .. are you suggesting that if conditions deteriorate some more, Russia might decide to make a grab for Poland?

FDChief said...

Probably not Poland itself. But the Baltics? Possibly; Putin has said as much off and on, and he needs the circuses even more now that he's going to have trouble supplying the bread.

And that would make them neighbors to the Poles again, and I know if I was a Pole how I'd feel about that.

Ael said...

Well, Russia and Poland already share a common border, but I think you misread them. Russia is desperately trying to hold onto her sphere of influence, rather than trying to expand it. I think Ukraine is all about drawing a line (The west ignored earlier warnings and a much sharper warning in Georgia).

Big Daddy said...

I forget whether it was the NYT or BBC but somebody explained Putin's attitude as function of his position pre-1990. Putin wants to restore the "glory of the Soviet Union" because he was high enough up in the nomenklatura to reap the benefits but not high enough up to know how rotten the system was by the late 70s. So Putin thinks Gorbachev and Yeltsin sold out the great Soviet empire and it's his job to restore it (plus top up his offshore bank accounts).
Putin may be making noises about the "oppressed" Russians in the Baltics, while conveniently forgetting why those Russians were there but I think he prefers saber rattling to overt action there. Unlike the Ukraine, the Baltics are full NATO members which brings a lot of serious consequences if Russian troops cross the border.

FDChief said...

Problem with the "drawing a line" idea, Ael, is that Putin has said, repeatedly, that he wants to put the old USSR back together to the extent possible, and the eastern Ukraine seems indicative of that. To grab back Crimea was one thing; the Donetsk region play seems more like it was an attempt to move forward, not push back. It's what BD says; he really DOES think like a "Great Russian" or a Soviet apparatchik.

But my main point here is simply that we tend to think of Russia as a "Great Power" because...well, because we always have. But in a lot of ways Russia 2014 is fucking Nigeria or Zimbabawe or Venezuela with nukes. And that is NOT a good thing.

Ael said...

Well, any country that has thousands of nuclear armed missiles is a great power in my book. Furthermore, their literacy rate is about the same as Canada's or the USA's. This does not put them into Zimbabwe's corner. And this month is hardly a good month if you want to compare endemic corruption, rule of law or the triumph of the oligarchs.

The way I see it is that Russia was 'losing' Ukraine. They then took back 'their' naval base and coldly decided to break Ukraine, even at great cost to themselves.

I don't see Russia gaining anything over setting fire to eastern Ukraine. In fact, I expect them to bleed a lot of blood, treasure and goodwill there (This ulcer will be an anchor on them for a long time). However, their calculation was that doing nothing would have been worse. It was a lesson aimed at the rest of their vassals: If you break loose from us, we will break you, even if you ultimately succeed in getting away. It was also a message to the West: if you steal part of our sphere, all you will harvest is ashes.

FDChief said...

Unsurprisingly, Ukraine has now decided that the enemy of their enemy is their friend:

This entire clusterfuck should really have been avoided by BOTH sides. The Russians should have negotiated a better devolution of the former republics, with the "Russian" parts of them staying with the old USSR to avoid Sudetenland situations just like this. And the West should have avoided giving former republics encouragement to buck the Russians; weren't the lessons of Hungary in '56 and southern Iraq in '91 sufficient? You don't encourage people to fight the power if you have no realistic way to support them other than risking a war you don't want or can't fight.

What a damn mess.

Ael said...

Well, Putin is going to have to carry the industrial museum of east Ukraine for a long time. It was his call and he is going to have to live with it.

And I can sure understand why the rest of Ukraine would like to join the EU and NATO. What I am still having problems with, is why the EU or NATO would say 'yes'.

I mean, giving aid to Ukraine looks to be an efficient way to turn American/German taxpayer money into yachts on the Riviera (and not much else). Furthermore, Ukraine is going to need a *lot* of aid.

Where is the payback to the West?

FDChief said...

Ael: I have no idea why NATO and the EU want to get involved in this hot mess. The whole notion of including a former Soviet republic (with its baggage of internalized corruption and social instability) within a notional-defense-pact that supposedly requires its members to automatically come to the military aid of any member attacked seems like an invitation to a no-win slapfight, to me.

I'd stay as far as possible from this disaster-in-the-making, if I was an EU bureaucrat. But apparently I'm not sitting at the cool kids table on this one...