What if Putin is rational?

:: politics, doomed

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is horrifying. As well as the awfulness of what is happening to the people of Ukraine, Putin’s apparent irrationality is terrifying. What if he is not being irrational?

A strategy that the Russians have used against both Napoleon and the Nazis is to retreat further than anyone thinks is possible, accept more losses than anyone thinks is possible and then wait for the winter to do its work. Perhaps Putin is using a variant of this strategy. In particular perhaps he simply does not care whether he wins in Ukraine because that’s not what he’s trying to do: he’s not trying to annexe Ukraine, he’s trying to destroy the west.

The invasion of Ukraine will have significant economic repercussions:

  • sanctions on Russia will have very severe repercussions for Russia, but they will also have economic repercussions on the west which will be at least fairly severe;
  • oil and gas prices will go up significantly and the west is not anywhere near in a position to escape from fossil fuel dependency;
  • a lot of wheat is grown in Ukraine, and the harvest is not going to be very good this year, which will push up wheat prices and hence food prices.

So there will be catastrophic economic effects in Russia, but also severe to very severe effects in Europe and the west more generally.

In addition the attack is causing an enormous refugee crisis: as I write this more than 1.7 million Ukrainians have left Ukraine. I don’t know how many might eventually be driven out of course, but it might be of the order of 10 million people. Essentially all of those people are going to be driven west, into central and western Europe. This will be an enormous humanitarian crisis in Europe: bigger than anything seen since the second world war.

Well, in 2007–2008 there was a very significant economic crisis, and from 2011 to now there has been a civil war in Syria which has caused a refugee crisis. And I don’t think it’s controversial to say that one of the results of this was populism, authoritarianism and large-scale bigotry. These crises gave us Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and the johnsonites, and they gave us brexit and other disasters.

So what is this crisis going to give us? More of the same, almost certainly. Everyone loves the Ukrainians now, but when there are 10 million of them trying to find a way of living in central and western Europe a lot of people are going to like them a lot less: there is going to be a lot – a lot – of anti-Ukrainian bigotry. And while this is happening, food and fuel will be becoming far more expensive: almost everyone will be poorer, and in particular poor people, for whom food and fuel is a larger proportion of their spending.

And in the background, climate change will be doing its inevitable work: weather-related damage will be increasing, harvests will be poorer and refugees from areas becoming dramatically less habitable will be arriving in ever greater numbers. And people like me will be saying that we must therefore reduce our dependency on fossil fuels rapidly if we want to have a long-term future. But decades of denying the problem exists will mean we can’t do that, and the populist demagogues given power by the crisis in Ukraine will say we don’t need to do that anyway. And so things will get worse, and they will get worse faster than they were before the crisis. And we’ll get more populists, more authoritarianisms and more democracies will fail.

But populism and authoritarianism don’t work: populism seeks to provide simple, appealing, answers (‘send the nasty foreigners home’) to complex, unappealing, problems (‘how do we deal with climate change?’), and those answers are wrong; authoritarianism doesn’t even pretend to look for answers because the answer to all questions is ‘do as your told or you will be killed’. Both systems make a few people better off but almost everyone poorer. So once liberal democracies get replaced by populist or authoritarian regimes thing almost always get worse, and the forces which gave those regimes power become stronger: ‘if sending the foreigners home didn’t work, perhaps we should just kill them?’. And things thus get worse, and they get worse ever faster.

Thought of as a physical system, liberal democracies are not necessarily stable: they tend to fall off their plateau into nasty regimes of various kinds, which in turn cause things to move further down from the plateau, and so on. As has been obvious in the last few years, a lot of work is needed all the time to defend them. Even fairly small external kicks of various kinds can destabilise them, and there will always be people working within them to do the same thing.

So, perhaps Putin’s ongoing rape of Ukraine is not an irrational attack based on some toxic nostalgia for the USSR: perhaps it is an entirely rational attempt to do something else. Perhaps he does not really care what happens to Ukraine because that’s not what he’s interested in. Perhaps he is using the strategy that has worked for Russia before: accepting more damage than anyone thinks Russia can in order to cause, in the liberal democracies of Europe, lesser but still very significant economic damage along with with a vast humanitarian criss, with the aim of causing them to collapse. After all, he is not himself affected by the economic damage being done to Russia: it is only ordinary Russians who will starve. And he does not care about them.

Well, I hope I am wrong: I usually am wrong.