Okay, I don’t know why anyone would care about my perceptions of the conflict in Ukraine and its wider effects any more than they would care about someone else’s, but here goes anyway. Excellent background is found in this paper, which is written by a Ukrainian, but is consistent with a number of things I have read on Putin’s worldview over the years, including an excellent article in the weekend Wall Street Journal. (ISW Paper)
When you read about Putin and read the “thinkers” he supposedly relies on, it is apparent that he is simply delusional and in the grip of a fantasy that he could rebuild a Russian empire, with overtones of racism about the superiority of the Russian people and Russian culture. Given that Russia has for centuries had a series of horrible governments and has at times insisted on visiting those forms of government on other countries, i.e., the Soviet Union, not sure why they would have any pride about their society.
In any event, my personal reading is that Putin is getting old and running out of time to act on his delusion, and it is possible he has undisclosed health problems which create even greater time pressures. He also apparently surrounds himself with yes men and fellow-delusionists, which as we have seen in the prosecution of the invasion, isn’t exactly a recipe for success in any venture. And the West has given him little reason to fear significant pushback, basically ignoring past adventurism on his part, buying his products to fund his fantasies, and appearing to be both culturally and politically weak to Putin and his inner circle.
Fortunately for Ukraine and the rest of the world, Putin is also a master kleptocrat and rewards his buddies with similar kleptocratic opportunities. This means that much state spending, potentially the majority of it, gets siphoned off to the personal pockets of the inner circle. Military spending is included in this kleptocracy and we see the result–poor equipment, poor maintenance, ill-paid and equipped troops, no supplies, no logistics. So with, on paper, a vastly superior military, Russia is being pummeled. The value to the rest of the world is immense, as Putin does not and will not have the means to rebuild the equipment he is losing, and the Russian military reputation is destroyed. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help Ukraine which is being randomly destroyed and looted and its citizens slaughtered.
At this point, it is clear that especially since there clearly will be a continued flow of Western aid to Ukraine, Russia cannot conquer the country. I suspect much of the country will end up with more substantial air defense and counter-artillery capabilities which will make it impossible for Russia to pummel cities even from a distance. Russia may be able to hold on to some slice of eastern Ukraine, but I believe even that will be difficult. The truth is that the people who live in the Donbass, what is left of them, want nothing to do with Russia. A few years of incompetent and corrupt Russian control ensured that. And Ukraine has no reason to voluntarily cede territory to Russia. As long as Putin is in power, he will attempt to hold the territory, but will face an increasingly sophisticated guerrila campaign against his forces.
So militarily we are headed for somewhat of a stalemate in part of Ukraine. The real disaster for Russia is economic. The number of customers for Russia’s primary exports–oil and gas–will dwindle dramatically. Within two to three years, Europe will not need to buy and will not buy those products from Russia. Other producers will eagerly step in. The same will occur with other commodities exported by Russia. Putin will have effectively cut the country off from major export markets, meaning that the few customers the country has left will demand even lower prices. China already gets enormous discounts and India buys from Russia primarily because of lower prices.
Putin can talk bravely and demand payment in rubles and make noises about being independent of the West, but he has doomed Russians to a drastic decline in their standard of living and ostracization by most of the rest of the world. The continuing barbarism by Russian forces in the invasion will only deepen the antipathy to all things Russian. And on the one hand I feel for the Russian people, who are being victimized by lies, propaganda and theft on the part of their leaders. On the other hand, if a people are too dumb or too fearful to recognize what is being visited on them, they are reaping what they sowed.
I would like to believe Putin will shortly be deposed, or meet an even more deserved fate. But he has so entrenched himself and made it so difficult to reach him, that this will be hard. Only if things go so badly that he cannot continue to buy off the security forces will he likely be in real danger. And while some fear what might come after Putin, it couldn’t be worse and whomever it is will be severely constrained by lack of any financial and economic resources.
So I believe the most likely outcome is some ongoing, more limited military conflict, coupled with removal of Russia from most of the world economy, leading to great pain for the Russian people. If Putin is gone, things could get better. As long as he is in power, Russians will suffer and the world will be anxious about his next deranged action.
A good thing that has occurred is that the world is now fully aware of what an evil monster this person is and there will be no more ignoring or appeasing his delusions. Europe will strengthen its defenses and will cut off reliance on any Russian products. And at some point, hopefully Russia is forced to pay for the damage caused to Ukraine and its leaders are put on trial for the obvious war crimes they have committed. That would be real justice.