Putin Doesn’t Care About Today

An incredibly isolated Russian leader is not interested in running the country.

Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar explains “How Vladimir Putin Lost Interest in the Present” in a NYT op-ed.

Thanks to Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, Russia is now more isolated than it has ever been. The economy is under sanctions and international businesses are withdrawing. The news media has been even further restricted; what remains spouts paranoia, nationalism and falsehoods. The people will have increasingly less communication with others beyond their borders. And in all of this, I fear, Russia increasingly resembles its president.

[…]

Mr. Putin spent the spring and summer of 2020 quarantining at his residence in Valdai, approximately halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. According to sources in the administration, he was accompanied there by Yuri Kovalchuk. Mr. Kovalchuk, who is the largest shareholder in Rossiya Bank and controls several state-approved media outlets, has been Mr. Putin’s close friend and trusted adviser since the 1990s. But by 2020, according to my sources, he had established himself as the de facto second man in Russia, the most influential among the president’s entourage.

Mr. Kovalchuk has a doctorate in physics and was once employed by an institute headed by the Nobel laureate Zhores Alferov. But he isn’t just a man of science. He is also an ideologue, subscribing to a worldview that combines Orthodox Christian mysticism, anti-American conspiracy theories and hedonism. This appears to be Mr. Putin’s worldview, too. Since the summer of 2020, Mr. Putin and Mr. Kovalchuk have been almost inseparable, and the two of them have been making plans together to restore Russia’s greatness.

According to people with knowledge of Mr. Putin’s conversations with his aides over the past two years, the president has completely lost interest in the present: The economy, social issues, the coronavirus pandemic, these all annoy him. Instead, he and Mr. Kovalchuk obsess over the past.

[…]

In “All the Kremlin’s Men” I described the phenomenon of the “collective Putin” — the way his entourage always tried to eagerly anticipate what the president would want. These cronies would tell Mr. Putin exactly what he wanted to hear. The “collective Putin” still exists: The whole world saw it on the eve of the invasion when he summoned top officials, one by one, and asked them their views on the coming war. All of them understood their task and submissively tried to describe the president’s thoughts in their own words.

This ritual session, which was broadcast by all Russian TV channels, was supposed to smear all of the country’s top officials with blood. But it also showed that Mr. Putin is completely fed up with his old guard: His contempt for them was clear. He seemed to relish their sniveling, as when he publicly humiliated Sergey Naryshkin, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, who started mumbling and tried to quickly correct himself, agreeing with whatever Mr. Putin was saying. These are nothing but yes men, the president seemed to say.

[…]

Now he has really and truly come to believe that only he can save Russia. In fact, he believes it so much that he thinks the people around him are likely to foil his plans. He can’t trust them, either.

And now here we are. Isolated and under sanctions, alone against the world, Russia looks as though it is being remade in its president’s image. Mr. Putin’s already very tight inner circle will only draw in closer. As the casualties mount in Ukraine, the president appears to be digging in his heels; he says that the sanctions on his country are a “declaration of war.”

Yet at the same time he seems to believe that complete isolation will make a large part of the most unreliable elements leave Russia: During the past two weeks, the protesting intelligentsia — executives, actors, artists, journalists — have hurriedly fled the country; some abandoned their possessions just to get out. I fear that from the point of view of Mr. Putin and Mr. Kovalchuk, this will only make Russia stronger.

This is a more extreme version of what we’ve been hearing for months. And it certainly adds fuel to the argument Kingdaddy presented yesterday: Putin’s brutality is likely to escalate quickly.

In his August 2008 invasion of Georgia to unfreeze the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and his 2014 invasion of Ukraine to seize Crimea, Putin increased his prestige by masterfully playing in the gray zone. He understood that two longtime client states were moving closer to the West—indeed NATO had declared that both countries would become members of the Alliance at the Bucharest summit months before the Georgia invasion—and correctly assessed the United States would not risk World War III over these aggressions.

In seeking to seize all of Ukraine, he clearly overestimated the effectiveness of his own forces and drastically underestimated the resolve of Ukrainian leaders and people—and of the ferocity of the Western economic response. But, again, he was sure that the West wouldn’t go to war over this. Indeed, the US and NATO leadership repeatedly assured him of this ahead of time and multiple times since the war started.

Alas, while I study defense policy for a living, I haven’t the foggiest what the end state is here. Putin isn’t going to be deterred by sanctions and seems obsessed beyond reason on the matter of Ukraine. Is there any red line he could cross inside Ukraine that would trigger a NATO military response? Probably not.

Then again, to the extent Zygar’s depiction is accurate, I’m not entirely sure Putin will stop at Ukraine’s borders. And, unlike his predecessor, I believe President Biden is committed to Article 5 of the NATO Charter.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. drj says:

    Putin isn’t going to be deterred by sanctions

    Current sanctions aren’t about deterrence any more, but about (long-term) constriction and compellence.

    Is it possible to wage war abroad without an economy? We’ll soon find out, I think.

    Unfortunately, this could mean that Putin will ecalate further before defeat becomes inevitable.

    4
  2. SC_Birdflyte says:

    @drj: I’m in general agreement, but one thing we need to keep in mind: the harder the sanctions bite, the more Putin will have to keep looking over his shoulder. If the Russian military leadership gets worried over what a war of attrition will do to their forces, Putin could get a quick ticket to retirement – or to six feet under.

    2
  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    The only thing that may trigger a NATO response is if he were to deploy nukes in Ukraine. Moving the Patriot missile battery into Poland, might indicate that NATO could try and intercept a nuke attack.

    The best case, likely result, is eventually the Russians succeed in overthrowing the Ukraine government and installing a puppet. Ukrainians foment an insurrection, tying the Russian army down. Perhaps he can still move on Moldova and Georgia, but that would be Ukraine II.

    His army, already exposed as a paper tiger, is in shambles as is the economy. Putin can party like its 1979 and the economy will reflect that. While he certainly has the wherewithal in Russia to build tanks, guns and probably aircraft, he lacks access to the components of the advanced technology to be an effective modern army. And that is something he can’t import from China as they lack the ability to produce the most sophisticated computer subsystems (though they are working on it). It could take a decade for Russia to rebuild its military to not quite modern, while NATO will be beefing up and will have the most modern tech…

    Putin is soon to be 70, the condition of his health is unknown, though the current stress can’t be helpful. With any luck, Putin won’t live long enough to be a legitimate, conventional weapons, threat to the west. When he’s gone who knows what policies his successors may follow.

    Probably the greatest danger to the west, is that the next US president is Trump or some Trump adjacent character.

    10
  4. JohnSF says:

    There have been comments in various quarters of he media that a frustrated Putin might use a nuclear weapon on Ukraine.

    I’ve not seen any yet address this question:
    What if he does, and Ukraine still does not surrender?

    2
  5. drj says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    While he certainly has the wherewithal in Russia to build tanks, guns and probably aircraft

    I wouldn’t count on it. Even “basic” military production is dependent on foreign imports. Contrary to the Soviet Union, Russia is not militarily self-sufficient.

    2
  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    @drj:

    Russia has the ability to mine ore, produce steel and have machining capability, so they can produce weaponry of 1970’s/80’s vintage, which is what they currently have. That ability doesn’t provide an advantage.

    2
  7. MarkedMan says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    And that is something he can’t import from China

    Not to mention that a seriously weakened Russia will cause China to reconsider the their terms of cooperation with Russia. They thought they were allying with a near equal power. That is seriously in doubt.

    2
  8. JohnSF says:

    @drj:
    @Sleeping Dog:
    They may have some problems with machining.
    See this interesting thread by Kamil Galeev

    Owner of this (mining machinery) factory … engineer who worked for 20 years designing mining machines, has 41 patents, etc. BUT. What equipment do they use to produce these machines? An industrial machine MORI SEIKI VL-553 II – made by a German branch of a Japanese company:
    What Russia produces is produced on Western industrial machines, with Western technologies, Western software and with Western details. That ofc includes military industry which uses this all, too

    I’d like to see some quantitative analysis of numbers of western vs Russian or Chinese machine tools.
    But it fits from some anecdotal info from someone involved in auto parts production/distribution including Russian sourced at one time: Russia is heavily based on using purchased capital plant, and “kit assembly” posing as manufacture.

    Also some reports of shockingly low Russian value embedded in oil extraction/handling/processing/refining. Especially given so long in the business. Indicating fundamental problems with the manufacturing sectors.

    How long they could even to produce 70’s vintage models without massive Chinese capital input and technology to sustain production is debateable.
    T-34’s perhaps?

    1
  9. Sleeping Dog says:

    @MarkedMan:

    It’s difficult to divine what China will do regarding Russia, beyond exploit Putin for cheap oil and mineral resources. The only trigger point that China has with the west is Taiwan, the other issues are just business and both sides can finesse those. China appears to be as obsessed with Taiwan as Putin is with Ukraine, but will Xi be subject to the same type of wishful thinking that Putin was?

    It doesn’t appear that Xi is isolated in the manner that Putin is. His circle is larger and it seems he receiving a variety of inputs. Probably most important, China is seeking to build a 21st century mercantalist empire, while Putin is trying to recreate a 19th century colonial empire.

    1
  10. CSK says:

    There’s an interesting piece in Raw Story about one of the trucker convoy who believes Putin is “a good guy.” because “he’s taken out all the biolabs, child trafficking areas, adrenochrome harvesting areas.”

    http://www.rawstory.com/peoples-convoy-2656909634/

    Wait till you get to the part about the soccer ball.

    2
  11. drj says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Russia has the ability to mine ore, produce steel and have machining capability

    Well…

    Russia depends on imports for 70-80% of its construction equipment and machine tools. Equipment used for mining is especially important for resource development in Russia, and production efficiency of mine development and other activities could decline if replacement parts grow scarce.

    To give another example, Russia also imports the vast majority of its potato and sugar beet seeds. While these products are not subject to sanctions, how is Russia going to pay for them?

    How can a country afford tanks (even of the primitive kind), if it has a hard time growing basic food crops?

    The Soviet Union had shitty products, but at least they could (mostly) produce these without foreign imports. Russia is not so lucky.

    2
  12. Michael Reynolds says:

    As @drj says above, sanctions aren’t about deterring Putin, at least not now. There are two wars. Russia v. Ukraine and Russia v. the West. Putin’s losing both. He may eventually take Ukraine, but it will be a pyrrhic victory for him. Countries with a population of 144 million with an economy the size of Italy (and falling fast) do not successfully occupy nations of 44 million pissed off, armed people.

    The other war, Russia v. the West, Putin’s already lost. That’s beyond salvaging. Ukraine is degrading his military and we are destroying his economy. If we keep the sanctions regime in place we will retard Russia’s economy by decades, which will further degrade their military capacity. Putin’s value to the big dog in Beijing has dropped and will drop further. What Xi cannot avoid seeing is that the West can throttle Russia while still having plenty of power in the Pacific to make any move against Taiwan look very, very dangerous indeed.

    The single best thing we can do is keep all sanctions in place and permanently destroy Putin’s oil and gas economy. Help Europe to cut the cord, switch to more and more renewables and Russia will be down to China as a client, and there’s a whole lot of pipe that will need to be laid between the east slope of the Urals and China. I’ve believed for some time that Russia’s end game will be as a Chinese client state, China’s Belarus so to speak. The more Russia relies on China the more China will come to economically and demographically dominate Siberia, turning it into a Russian-in-name-only Chinese colony.

    All of which is awful for the Ukrainians, but actually pretty good for us. Ukrainians are dying, but we’re winning our war.

    5
  13. Kathy says:

    @JohnSF:

    I’ve not seen any yet address this question:
    What if he does, and Ukraine still does not surrender?

    For one thing, nukes lose their magical quality as enders and deterrents of any and all wars, and their use would become more frequent.

    Specifically in Ukraine, it depends on how much Putin would rather have a conquest which will need extensive rebuilding and investment, or a wrecked piece of land good for almost nothing. Also how much death and destruction Ukrainians can withstand and not give up.

    1
  14. OzarkHillbilly says:

    In “All the Kremlin’s Men” I described the phenomenon of the “collective Putin” — the way his entourage always tried to eagerly anticipate what the president would want. These cronies would tell Mr. Putin exactly what he wanted to hear. The “collective Putin” still exists: The whole world saw it on the eve of the invasion when he summoned top officials, one by one, and asked them their views on the coming war. All of them understood their task and submissively tried to describe the president’s thoughts in their own words.

    This ritual session, which was broadcast by all Russian TV channels, was supposed to smear all of the country’s top officials with blood. But it also showed that Mr. Putin is completely fed up with his old guard: His contempt for them was clear. He seemed to relish their sniveling, as when he publicly humiliated Sergey Naryshkin, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Service, who started mumbling and tried to quickly correct himself, agreeing with whatever Mr. Putin was saying. These are nothing but yes men, the president seemed to say.

    Boy, that certainly sounds familiar. I wonder why?

    8
  15. Jon says:

    @Kathy: Also probably not a great idea to nuke an immediate neighbor, given that wind exists.

    1
  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Sleeping Dog: I think Xi wants China to sit atop the 21st century world. You can’t do that if you are isolated. How much pause for thought that gives him, I’m not sure. For the time being the west would be hard pressed to do without China’s manufacturing base, especially in computer chips.

    1
  17. KM says:

    @JohnSF:

    What if he does, and Ukraine still does not surrender?

    There’s a good chance they’ll stand firm as the worst will have happened. He then does it again and the world freaks out with the gloves off. Radiation does not stay contained and will spread beyond the battlefield. Even if it was a “tiny” suitcase one, it’s gonna spread on the wind and irradiate well beyond it’s intended target. Russia and Putin-friendly areas are at definitive risk – those supposedly independent areas he’s there to help would suddenly have viability problems on their hand that might render them uninhabitable for years at best.

    Ukraine is valuable because of it’s resources, especially farmland. Nuking anything will absolutely affect crops and ruin it’s value. It would also make it a HELL of a lot harder to justify the war since they’re supposed to be “saving” Ukraine. Irradiating it is solid proof you’re the baddie here and would like cause some serious domestic problems. The military will be deeply unhappy as that’s their last card and he’ll have irrevocably screwed them by making it do AND die. If Ukraine stays defiant, then he’s destroyed everything for nothing and he’ll pay the price for it.

    1
  18. gVOR08 says:

    At NYT Ezra Klein has a podcast interview with Masha Gessen. They usefully address our question of whether Putin is rational.

    MASHA GESSEN: That’s exactly right. And, you know, I’m glad you actually mentioned this idea that Putin is unhinged and irrational because I don’t think it’s ever particularly useful to call somebody — a world leader or anyone else — irrational. But it’s much more useful to try to figure out in what world they’re rational. Putin is perfectly consistent in his thinking and his behavior. It’s just that the universe he lives in is what he describes quite openly — we just have to listen — and it is the pre-modern, or if you do take into account that it is 2022, the anti-modern, universe of imperial logic.

    And he looks at the West — and I think thinks that the West is irrational. He’s as aware — probably more aware than you and I are — of the hypocrisy of the norms proclaimed by the United States. But they seem totally absurd to him because they also don’t make sense, right? So here’s the United States that pretends to hold to ideas and values that make no sense, whereas he, Putin, has ideas and values that are rooted in history and he acts in perfect accordance with them.

    11
  19. Sleeping Dog says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I wasn’t saying he wants to be isolated, either personally or China as a country. Xi’s question will be, can he be the economic empire that he has been pursuing and capture Taiwan. The worlds’ reaction to Ukraine has shown that capturing Taiwan won’t be without consequences that are greater than have been anticipated.

    1
  20. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy:

    Specifically in Ukraine, it depends on how much Putin would rather have a conquest which will need extensive rebuilding and investment, or a wrecked piece of land good for almost nothing.

    See my quote of Masha Gessen @gVOR08: . It would be a RUSSIAN wasteland.

    2
  21. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:
    I follow what Gessen is saying, but exactly why does Putin think that turning Russia into a wasteland will benefit his imperial dreams?

  22. Kathy says:

    @Jon:
    @KM:

    Radioactivity wanes in proportion to the square of the distance to its source, same as all other types of radiation.

    The problem lies in what becomes of the uranium or plutonium core in a bomb. You get some transuranic elements and also lighter elements, all of which are highly radioactive and have varying half lives. In particular this is a concern when these remnants of the bomb attach to dirt, dust, and bomb debris (everything goes somewhere*). This is called fallout, and can spread hard radiation far from the explosion zone.

    You can’t make a bomb that has zero fallout. You can minimize it by detonating the bomb high in the air (the blast and thermal waves would still flatten and incinerate the target), or maximize it by detonating it at ground level.

    Fallout can also be spread by people and animals who survive the blast and flee elsewhere.

    All that said, I’ve no idea how persistent or widespread the radiation problem is after a nuclear detonation. Oh, and a lot depends on the yield of the weapon. A 50 kiloton bomb is not the same as a ten megaton one.

    *The popular image that a nuke vaporizes everything nearby is incorrect. If it did, we’d have less of a fallout problem.

    2
  23. KM says:

    @gVOR08:

    Putin, has ideas and values that are rooted in history and he acts in perfect accordance with them.

    Being “deeply rooted in history and acting in perfect accordance with that” doesn’t prove rationality – it means you are borrowing others “logic” and using the fact that it’s old as justification. It means you haven’t thought it through but use others’ authority to back you up. Several ideas have long history of being believed true but are easily disprovable such as miasma causing disease and the Sun revolving around the Earth.

    He’s a traditionalist and like most traditionalists conservative in the face of reason. He follows the notion that the Old Ways are best simply because they are Old, not because they work or make coherent sense. “Inconsistency of belief” is normal and human – the world is messy and the perfect is the enemy of the good. A huge problem Bible literalists run into is when they try to stay consistent with the dogma “it’s all literally true” and then real world logistics puncture gigantic holes in their stories. Putin’s assertions that imperialist logic and behavior still work in the modern world has the same problem because real world logistics – like oh say an invasion of your neighbor – doesn’t work the same way it did even 30 years ago. It’s irrational in that you cannot keep doing things the way you always have when the surrounding circumstances don’t work.

    3
  24. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Sleeping Dog: I wasn’t saying he wants to be isolated,

    I got that and was agreeing with you. What Xi *wants the most* would be at considerable risk if he were to attempt to “solve” the Taiwan problem. I just don’t know how he would weigh those risks.

    **caveat: I am not a Xi scholar and certainly can’t read his mind. If what he wants most is a unified greater China, that obviously changes the calculations.

  25. drj says:

    @gVOR08:

    Putin is perfectly consistent in his thinking and his behavior. It’s just that the universe he lives in…

    Well, that is the problem, isn’t it?

    Even the best logic isn’t going to help you if you depart from assumptions that have no basis in reality.

    Moreover, the problem IMO is not so much that Putin has a 19th-century mindset, it’s that his underlings feed him info that, while welcome, just isn’t true.

    Putin’s weakness is not irrationality as such, it’s his unwillingness (or inabiliy) to question his assumptions.

    And that’s why Putin isn’t – or rather, can’t be – a rational actor. Not because his mind is gone, but because his reasoning is based on wishful thinking.

    The good news, I guess, is that his rationality could reappear if reality somehow becomes inescapable again.

    2
  26. Sleeping Dog says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I just don’t know how he would weigh those risks.

    That’s the great unknown with Xi. There isn’t much evidence that Xi is as isolated as Putin and it seems that his circle of advisors is larger than Putin’s. This gives a greater opportunity for someone to play devil’s advocate and speak uncomfortable truths.

  27. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @drj: And that’s why Putin isn’t – or rather, can’t be – a rational actor. Not because his mind is gone, but because his reasoning is based on wishful thinking.

    Just got to say that that statement applies to 100% of the human population in varying degrees. We all engage in wishful thinking from time to time. Hell’s bells, that’s what makes lotteries so popular.

    4
  28. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Sleeping Dog: Here’s hoping he learned from Mao’s own disastrous isolation.

    2
  29. JohnMcC says:

    @JohnSF: Nagasaki

    1
  30. drj says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Just got to say that that statement applies to 100% of the human population in varying degrees.

    No doubt.

    However, that qualification you added at the end is doing quite a lot of work here.

    1
  31. Modulo Myself says:

    It’s worth pointing out that Russia is not mystic-drenched country. It’s not North Korea and hasn’t been stuck in some dogmatic strongman echo chamber. Russia is filled with consumerism, exactly like everywhere else. (Or it was.) Russians know about hiphop, tiktok, and sneakerheads. They’re not singing anthems to the dear leader. They’re being polled by polling agencies and Putin’s is having data filtered to him, and he has, I think, no fucking clue what Russians really think or want.

    This is partly his doing–he orchestrated a political culture in which every party and statement could be a false flag. Putin used to have Vladimir Surkov as a chief advisor, and Surkov is a novelist, kind of a bleaker Russian Don DeLillo as well as having been the strategist, I guess, behind the curtain. IF you read Surkov’s novels, there’s a journalist being paid to write one article and then a counter article to create controversy for a public who knows the orchestration is occurring, or a Muslim convert to the Russian Orthodox church fanatically arguing which faith is better with a Russian convert to Islam, all while doing huge amounts of coke. Russian society is a cynical farce, not some pre-modern mecca for Rod Dreher.

    All we really know is that Putin is isolated, and maybe without the people who created his state.

    1
  32. Modulo Myself says:

    The edit button is out of commission–it’s Vladislav Surkov.

  33. Lounsbury says:

    @Jon: Most likely scenario of a first usage would be airburst, not ground strike. @Kathy: By definition, irradiated animals etc are not fall out. An airburst will produce irradiation in effect area for exposed surfaces, but not fallout as significant effect depending on height. Small yield airbursts assuming properly executed (strong assumption given what we see w Russianmilitary) wouldn’t pose long range fall out problems, but on flip side wouldn’t be effective except against exposed people outside.

    Such calculations might be a first gateway step to tactical usage.

    2
  34. gVOR08 says:

    @KM:

    Being “deeply rooted in history and acting in perfect accordance with that” doesn’t prove rationality – it means you are borrowing others “logic” and using the fact that it’s old as justification. It means you haven’t thought it through but use others’ authority to back you up. Several ideas have long history of being believed true but are easily disprovable such as miasma causing disease and the Sun revolving around the Earth.

    All true. But most people live according to “normative” beliefs, dictated by religion or culture, and don’t much question them.

    On top of our supposedly objective understanding of the situation, understanding Putin’s worldview has to help in predicting his actions and trying to influence him. If he shared our belief system he’d have applied for EU membership years ago.

    2
  35. JohnSF says:

    @gVOR08:

    If he shared our belief system he’d have applied for EU membership years ago.

    But would he want the humiliation of being told to F.O. by the EU?

    Oh, they wouldn’t literally say that, but look how cagey EU has been with Ukraine.
    And Turkey has been on the doorstep since 1987, and no closer to admission in reality.
    A candidate state has to meet a lot of criteria, be in a position to institute the acquis communautaire and not get blocked by any member.
    Every state has a veto.

    Not a hope in hell.

  36. Kathy says:

    @Lounsbury:

    Irradiated people and animals are not fallout. but those near enough the blast area can pick up fallout on their skin, hair, clothes, etc., and bring it along outside the irradiated zone. So can vehicles, for that matter. there are decontamination protocols for that.

  37. just nutha says:

    @JohnSF: If only to establish that there’s more than one nuclear madman in the world, I would note that if Putin uses nuclear weapons (why only one? in for a dime, in for a dollar), the goal might well be to make sure that there isn’t a Ukraine left to resist. Or maybe I should have said “might as well be.”

    2
  38. MarkedMan says:

    Just as a data point: China has a much more compelling strategic reason to seize Taiwan than Russia has for Ukraine. 90% of the most advanced IC’s are made in Taiwan. This is why the Intel announcement about building a chip facility in Ohio is such a big deal.

    3
  39. Kathy says:

    @KM:

    Being “deeply rooted in history and acting in perfect accordance with that” doesn’t prove rationality

    Oh, often it denotes the exact opposite. There are a number of customs and practices that were common in the past, but are obsolete, dangerous, or dangerous and counterproductive today.

    Back when the problems of piracy off Somalia were all the rage in the headlines, I heard people proposing, in all seriousness, that governments in Europe and the US should authorize privateers to go after them.

    That’s also how you get people to seriously believe they don’t have to pay income taxes because they are unconstitutional, and other bizarre, antiquated notions.

    @JohnSF:

    Out of sheer curiosity, would the US as is now qualify to join the EU?

  40. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Kathy:

    A congress critter from TX has proposed authorizing privateers to capture oligarch yachts. Not a good idea.

    2
  41. JohnSF says:

    @just nutha:
    Assuming one nuclear weapon for every city over 100,000 that’s around forty warheads.
    And assuming they kill everyone in those cities that’s 4 million dead.
    Leaving roughly 40 million to go.

    It’s not so easy to kill a nation.

    1
  42. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Sleeping Dog:
    Letters of marque? I don’t know, I kind of like the idea.

  43. JohnSF says:

    @Kathy:
    Nope.
    Its the body of laws that’s the problem.
    The acquis.
    With the best will in the world, it takes candidates years to sort that out.
    And that’s setting aside the massive constitutional and legal problem of each US state having a formally separate legal system, so you’d have to harmonise at federal and state level.
    Eeek!

    And the small matter of not qualifying as European geographically.
    Morocco applied in 1987 and was turned down on that basis.
    (Whether Cyprus actually qualifies is a bit iffy, LOL)

    Hopefully the US does qualify as a stable democracy. 🙂

    Membership requires that candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union. Membership presupposes the candidate’s ability to take on the obligations of membership including adherence to the aims of political, economic and monetary union.

    (Right now the UK would have trouble with re-applying, on certain grounds. Mostly regarding being a PITA)

    3
  44. Lounsbury says:

    @Kathy: No. An airburst will not generate “fallout” in an appreciable manner unless there is ground contact of primary blast that irradiates and sucks up matter to, well, “fall out” . Repeatedly using fallout as you do is wrong. Irradiated contamination =/= fallout.

    It’s perfectly plausible to plan for an airburst sans fireball ground effect, for just EMP for example or overpressure and have no real fallout concern. This may be fairly ineffective against protected military but perfectly useful for EMP and pressure blast effects on soft non military targets or exposed infantry.

    So, again, nuclear usage =/= fallout.

    A first plausible use by Putin would be precisely tactical airbust set for thermal and overpressure effects but without appreciable fallout even locally.

    That’s the gateway usage

    Of course as escalation occurs… hard targets require ground strikes. And voila.

    2
  45. Gustopher says:

    Is there any red line he could cross inside Ukraine that would trigger a NATO military response? Probably not.

    The rumbling for a no-fly zone is getting into respectable Foreign Policy folks as Russia is bombing evacuation corridors, so I wouldn’t assume that there is no red line.

  46. just nutha says:

    “…then he’s destroyed everything for nothing and he’ll pay the price for it.”

    Even tho I don’t want to seem critical, when I read a statement like that one, my question is what “price” is anybody going to exact that Putin will care about?” I’d love to believe in a world where justice is meted out to those who deserve justice, but I live in a world where Donald J. Forking Trump can get elected to office, commit crimes and then get acquitted by a band of cronies.

    What’s this “price” and who’s going to collect?

    2
  47. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    P/V Michael Reynolds and P/V Sleeping Dog, do have a nice ring to them. 🙂

    P/V= Privateer Vessel

    1
  48. just nutha says:

    @CSK: In much the same value system as “it is better to rule in hell than serve in heaven,” some people will accept that ruling over a wasteland empire is preferable to ruling a non-empire. I’ve said about Republicans that they’re content with ruling over the ashes of a once great nation over merely living in a great one. Putin is cut from the same cloth. Being in charge is what matters. In charge of what doesn’t matter: utopia/dystopia, potayto/potahto.

    3
  49. JohnSF says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    That’s why Xi should fear the potential endgame of the US and EU reaction to Russian actions: Strategic autarky in vital industries.
    Full economic disconnect from Russia; with the potential for the same for anyone prepared to partner Russia.
    Use of compelling power to dominate key strategic resources.
    Ten years from start the clock?

  50. CSK says:

    @Michael Reynolds:
    Letters of marque. It sounds so swashbuckling.

    1
  51. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    The single best thing we can do is keep all sanctions in place and permanently destroy Putin’s oil and gas economy. Help Europe to cut the cord, switch to more and more renewables and Russia will be down to China as a client, and there’s a whole lot of pipe that will need to be laid between the east slope of the Urals and China.

    The problem with that is that China is transitioning to renewables faster than anywhere else. They’re already the leader in use of renewable energy (though their messed up grid means it doesn’t always get to where it’s needed), and they’re on pace to take an even greater lead.

    China doesn’t want Russia’s oil. They want access through Russia to the west–where they can sell stuff.

    @JohnSF:

    How long they could even to produce 70’s vintage models without massive Chinese capital input and technology to sustain production is debateable.

    It should be pointed out that looking for help from China isn’t going to get them very much. China depends heavily on German machines to make the molds and second-level machines used to make stuff. I’ve been in a whole lot of Chinese factories, and the work floor is dominated by German machinery.

  52. just nutha says:

    @JohnSF: “Assuming one nuclear weapon for every city over 100,000 that’s around forty warheads.
    And assuming they kill everyone in those cities that’s 4 million dead.”

    Your math seems faulty. Are city populations in the Ukraine limited to 100,000/city? If some cities have more than 100,000 but the weapons kill everyone, it only a minimum of 4 million dead. I suspect that if you kill everyone in the 40 largest Ukrainian cities, you’re going to put a big dent in the population.

    Of course, you won’t kill the population of a city with only one nuclear weapon, but that’s a different calculation altogether. And you can create a hellacious refugee problem by flooding the West with refugees contaminated by fallout/exposed to radiation–again another issue from the hypothetical.

    1
  53. Mu Yixiao says:

    Another difference when comparing Putin to Xi is the intent.

    While a part of Xi’s desire for Taiwan in a “unified China”–and, to an extent “expanding the empire”–those goals have a very real and practical side to them that is the more powerful motivation.

    If Taiwan falls under the control of Beijing, that gives China control over the entire South China Sea. That control means not only control of the shipping lanes, but control of the resources in and under the ocean. Fishing rights are a major contention in the area, and China can certainly use the food.

    And, of course, controlling the SCS would be a big FU to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, and several others. But that’s just vinegar on the dumplings.

  54. CSK says:

    @just nutha:
    Let’s call the whole thing off.

    Seriously: I get your point. But I’m not sure if Putin has grasped that w wasteland is a wasteland.

    1
  55. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @drj: As it was intended to. My point being that we all suffer from bouts of irrationality at times. Take me for instance. I actually operated for over a year under the delusion that I, by sheer force of will might somehow someway save my first marriage. That sucker was dead and buried for a long time before I accepted it.

    2
  56. JohnSF says:

    @just nutha:
    You are correct.
    Stupid of me.
    So, Russians would only need to kill about 20 to 30 million, after destroying the larger cities.
    Much easier job.

    The point is, destroying a country entirely takes a lot of effort, even with nuclear weapons.
    And is also utterly insane.
    Talk about “make a wasteland and call it peace”.
    The collateral damage to Belarus and Russia from actually eradicating Ukraine, using hundreds of warheads, and multiple near ground detonations, would be colossal.

    Putin simply cannot get what he wanted by military means.

    The problem is going to be getting him and perhaps more importantly his associates, to realise that.

  57. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JohnSF: That’s why Xi should fear the potential endgame of the US and EU reaction to Russian actions: Strategic autarky in vital industries.

    There is a big difference between Russia and China tho. Russia has energy and wheat exports. Price spikes in either or both will be uncomfortable for the West but not debilitating. China on the other hand has it’s fingers in a whole lot of Western economic pies. Cutting China off from the world economy would be like a leg amputation without anesthesia.

    In other words it is far too likely to harm us just as much as them.

  58. JohnSF says:

    @Mu Yixiao:
    Access through China to the West?
    If China plans on using the Trans-Siberian Railway, or a possible link via Xinjiang, they really need to look at the economics.
    If you can ship, you ship.
    TSR container costs are double that for seaborne.

  59. JohnSF says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    That’s why it would take several years minimum, more like several decades, to achieve.
    You are talking about massive levels of “on-shoring” require; enormous amounts of capital and training of workforces.

    Much better to avoid it if necessary.
    It’s a war-type measure, if “Cold War 2” cannot be averted, and China refuses to cut Russia adrift.

  60. dazedandconfused says:

    I’m not entirely sure Putin would stop at the border of Ukraine, but after the display of his military put on in Ukraine I think it unlikely.

    We must be careful not to step into the mindset of Dick Cheney’s moronic “1% doctrine”, that if there is a 1% chance of something happening we must act the same as if it’s a 100% chance. The escalation ladder becomes an escalator.

  61. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JohnSF: I doubt very much we will punish any China – Russia trade. At this point I think Xi is just reassessing the positives of any relationship with Putin’s Russia. I suspect he is finding that there really isn’t much in it for China, but again I don’t know what he’s looking for..

  62. just nutha says:

    @CSK: I seriously believe that whatever thought process he engages it stops at “rule.”

  63. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:
    I’m quite certain he will stop, at least as regards NATO members.
    Attempting to fight a NATO grade military would result in any Russian forces committed being torn to pieces.

    Russia might still attempt to annex Transdnistria, but thats’s it.
    Short term.

    The problem is, that a Russia that regards itself as having hegemonic rights is too dangerous to be tolerated as a neighbour long term.
    It’s military ineptitude is not guaranteed to be a permanent feature.
    Therefore it must be eliminated as an effective threat.

    2
  64. JohnSF says:

    @JohnSF:
    OTOH, if Russia is willing to adjust to a non-hegemonic attitude to neighbours, then everyone can relax, and get on with peaceful relations.
    The difference is like Germany in the 1930’s (or 1900’s) and Germany today.
    One was a horrifying and unacceptable danger, the other a friendly associate.

    1
  65. JohnSF says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    Not “any”, perhaps.
    And certainly not at first.
    But if Russia does go full genocidal rogue, or perhaps just holds Ukraine by conquest and terror, then once we are positioned to do so, it will become a question of China having to choose.

    In those circumstances the momentum will be toward a Cold War that squeezes attempted neutrality.
    If China merely engages in some profiteering at Russia’s expense, no real problem.
    If China sustains a genocidal enemy, it becomes an enemy in its turn, at a time of our choosing.

    1
  66. Kathy says:

    @Lounsbury:

    we’re kind of talking over each other.

    An air burst produces little to no fallout.

    In detonations closer to the ground which do produce fallout, people, animals, and vehicles can carry it out to other areas.

    I don’t think we disagree about any of this.

    1
  67. Kathy says:

    @JohnSF:

    I suspected it was so.

    Geography aside, it would be a good thing to build more integration and interdependence globally, along the lines of the EU within Europe. This seemed to be the trend in the 90s, but it never really took off past trade.

  68. JohnSF says:

    @Kathy:
    Well, UK has applied to join the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) despite our being on the shores of the Pacific Ocean last I checked. 🙂

    Maybe the OECD could be adapted towards such ends in time.

    The problem is the invertible tensions between global efficiencies and co-operation (or elite/corporate advantage), and pressures for local benefits and accountabilities. (or or privileges).
    Depending on who you ask.

  69. gVOR08 says:

    @JohnSF:

    If China plans on using the Trans-Siberian Railway, or a possible link via Xinjiang, they really need to look at the economics.
    If you can ship, you ship (by ship)

    Some days ago there was a little discussion of Russian logistics in Ukraine, noting that Ukrainian rail lines are Russian wide gauge (1520mm). As are other ex Russian dependencies including the Baltics. China is “Standard Gauge”, 1,435mm. So everything has to be transshipped at the border.

  70. wr says:

    @Kathy: “I don’t think we disagree about any of this.”

    That’s no reason to stop arguing about it. This is the internet, for god’s sake!

    7
  71. JohnSF says:

    @gVOR08:
    Oh yes.
    Of course; forgotten the gauge issue.
    Russian used to have some quite clever systems for variable gauge rolling stock.
    And swapping wagons onto different bogies.
    Used to be used a lot at the old Comecon borders between Russia and Poland and Romania, IIRC

    Still, I think the rule of thumb is waterborne is always about 25% to 50% cheaper, depending on the details of the goods handling.

  72. Kathy says:

    @JohnSF:

    I like the way Europe has integrated, allowing for free flow of goods, capital, information, and especially people.

    To be sure there have been problems. To be sure, there were problems before this move, and there will be problems after it dissolves (nothing lasts forever).

    But can you conceive a war within the EU, when even without sanctions it would wreck the whole economy of the warring countries?

  73. dazedandconfused says:

    @JohnSF:

    “Must be eliminated as an effective threat” captures Dick Cheney’s 1% doctrine perfectly. We’ve been for partitioning here and there, Yugoslavia, Sudan spring to mind. The Russians can’t be expected to meekly accept the role we have selected for them in the world. Just sayin’.

    Putin’s successor might be more sane than he has become. If he or she is, it might be wise to start things off with a bit of respect.

  74. JohnSF says:

    @dazedandconfused:

    The Russians can’t be expected to meekly accept the role we have selected for them in the world. Just sayin’.

    Perhaps not.
    Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or Fascist Italy determined they would not “meekly accept” either.
    But thy found that neither would other accept their arrogated right to conquest and imperium.

    There are two main ways for a threat to end.
    By far the preferable one is for the attitudes of the nation concerned to change, both among the people in general, but above all among elite groups.

    Thus, Germany is no longer a threat.
    Japan is no longer a threat.

    Both have shifted to a positive sum game attitude as a basis of international relations.
    The entire EU project is based on providing a structural basis for mutually beneficial co-operation and trade.

    If instead, the Russian state continue to assert it’s right to dominion over others, then it a threat.
    And due to it’s size, an very dangerous one.
    The Great Russian ideology that has spread among the ruling groups is one very close to fascism in it’s justification of ascendancy by force of the dominant status of the chosen “nation”.
    Closer to Spanish falangism or Japanese supremacism than the German or Italian variants, but the family resemblance is plain.

    It provides an ideological underpinning to other group interests, and can justify almost limitless claims to “rightful” power.

    A clear test will be in the ongoing attitude of Russia to Ukraine.

    If it is prepared to treat Ukraine as an equal, and respect its sovereignty, then that is an indicator of a change to a more constructive position.
    And deserving a cautiously positive response.

    On the other hand, if Moscow continues to assert right of dominion over Ukraine, that Russia has a privileged status in relations with other independent nations, that will be a very bad sign indeed.

    Russia and it’s leaders are entitled to the respect they deserve.
    If representatives of a civilized state, they are entitled to that accorded to any.
    If as leaders, sane or insane, of a barbaric neo-fascist imperium, they can go f@ck themselves.

    (And incidentally “our partitioning” of Yugoslavia and Sudan is nonsense. The group dynamics that undermined both states was nothing “we” could create or control.)