What is a sober and clear way of understanding the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine as a whole?
This is the first of two 10-pointers on the invasion of Ukraine. This one sets the stage in terms of understanding the situation. The second one goes on to what can and should be done by the West and the international community.
After these two 10-pointers, I am sharing a more in-depth analysis of the situation.
1. Don’t mistake the West’s sociological failures for geopolitical weakness
NATO and the West has appeared weaker than they really are, geopolitically and economically speaking: with the failures in Iraq, Afghanistan (couldn’t even beat the Taliban, despite magnitudes greater military and economic might), unsuccessful interventions into Syria, a losing grip on influence over Africa, an internally quarreling EU, and internal culture wars leading up to the storming of Capitol Hill last year.
However, these failures are largely sociological failures, i.e. failures to understand and manage social and cultural forces, not signs of lacking economic and military prowess per se. Lack of sociological understanding has severely limited the capacity for the West, NATO, and the international community under Global North leadership to successfully intervene in different parts of the world, but it is still true that the collective powers of this larger network are much greater than those of Russia. And unlike targets like the Taliban hiding in vast mountainous terrain or goals like the creation of a new Iraqi state, Russia is a large target that can more easily and straightforwardly be resisted with conventional means.
Just for perspective, Russia roughly has a ten times larger defense budget than Ukraine, while the US defense budget in turn is about ten times larger than Russia’s, making up two-thirds of NATOs total. The NATO populations are larger, richer, better educated, and have better access to useful information (in a more “free information” system) than Russia, which means that they can find a myriad of ways of resisting even without engaging in a full-blown military conflict. So where ordinary citizens in the West are sending money and supplies, help to spread pro-Ukrainian information, hack Russian information infrastructure, boycott Russian commodities and some even join the Ukrainian army—ordinary Russians aren’t even told that there’s a war going on.
Russia is dwarfed in comparison with NATO and its partners: Russia has a population of roughly 144 million, 153 if you add its ally Belarus; NATO has 951 million, and if you add its European partners such as Finland and Sweden, and non European ones such as Australia, Japan and South Korea, it’s well over a billion — and then there’s the 40 million Ukrainians armed to their teeth ready to fight all incoming Russian invaders.
In economic terms, Russia’s economy is comparable to that of Australia (a country of 26 million), and highly dependent on the export of gas and oil, mostly sold to Europe — accounting for 30% of GDP and 50% of the government’s income. In comparison, the NATO countries make up more than half the world’s economy measured in GDP — and that’s without Japan, South Korea and Australia, the world’s 3rd, 10th and 13th biggest economies. Russia is number 11, just ahead of Brazil. Or was; after the Ruble hit the rubble last week, and with the continuation of the economic sanctions, it’s likely to be out of the top 20 this year.
In other words, the West looked weaker than it really is, which may have emboldened Russian aggression. As militaries are propped up around Europe in much larger economies and larger collective populations (with Germany taking a lead with major investments in its military that will give it the third largest military budget in the world, way ahead of Russia), the military advantage and initiative of an increasingly poorer and more isolated Russia quickly wane.
2. Russia looked stronger than it truly is
We have been accustomed to thinking of Russia as the heir to the USSR and leader of the Warsaw Pact, and thus as a dormant superpower. But since Poland, the Baltics, and other countries have switched sides, and the economic gap has widened, the new power relation between East and West has shifted far away from Russia’s interests.
In the late eighties, the countries of the Warsaw Pact had a population of roughly 400 million, versus NATO’s 600 million at the time. Its troops were based deep into Germany and Central Europe. As of such, the Cold War of the 20th century was a more equal confrontation than the one today between the 30 NATO countries (+ 20 or so strategic partners) and Russia and its Belarusian satellite.
Russia has impressed an image upon the world as an effective military force with its former successful operations in Georgia, Chechnya, Crimea, and Syria. But the scale and nature of the current operation are different: Ukraine is geographically the second biggest country in Europe, with a population a little less than one third of Russia’s, and it appears that Russia intends to conquer the entire country — something it never even tried with the invasion of the small country of Georgia back in 2008.
The Russian system has a vast intelligence deficiency. Basically, there are poor feedback loops of information, as information flows are curtailed in a KGB style. Lower-ranking Russian officers work on a strong need-to-know basis and their narrative is dependent on the Russian propaganda apparatus, which makes it more difficult for them to self-organize in the context of complex operations and the situations that face them. Apparently, Russian soldiers haven’t been told where they’re going and what they’re going to do. Secrecy like that may be a virtue in the KGB, but having clueless soldiers on a battlefield is a big weakness in any army — especially if they are going into combat. From what I see, it wouldn’t be surprising if the average Westerner watching the news has a better understanding of what’s going on than low level officers in the Russian army.
There are also significant problems with the effectiveness of the Russian military apparatus. Here, the devil is in the detail: Yes, Russia has many tanks, artillery pieces, and aircrafts, but how effectively these can be used all depends on how well-oiled the entire apparatus is. And serious cracks are showing in the facade of how well this military operates in practice: Analysts have reportedly been “shocked” at what they observe. Russia has a lot of fighter jets, for example, but their efficiency is severely hampered by inexperienced pilots and lacking munitions. The same can be said about tanks running out of fuel. And if we are to believe the content of this article, Russian troops in Ukraine have even been overheard complaining about lacking logistical support and even been talking back emotionally against orders given. There are even reports of Russians sabotaging their vehicles to avoid going into battle.
Given that resistance to the war is strong even within Russia, the position of the Russian government is currently not a very strong one and is likely to grow as sanctions take their toll, possibly breaking the country’s economy— at least not in the long run.
3. Russia is to blame — but understanding it is crucial
Western media, and international media at large, do a fairly poor job at bringing nuance and understanding to the Russian side of this cruel equation. For instance, we are continuously informed about Ukrainian civilian losses, as well as Russian losses of military personnel, but the media is vague, silent, or unrealistic about Ukrainian military losses. We should have no illusions about the impartiality of reporting.
It stands to reason — and viscerally feel — that Russia is an unlawful aggressor in this situation. But to seek to understand Russia (and, in the longer run, even to accept and forgive) is not to condone the actions of its government. For citizens around the world, both of these traps must be avoided: A. relativizing and condoning a criminal war of aggression, and B. falling into a clichéd, black-and-white narrative that hinders productive measures and responses because there is no real understanding.
The better analysts, leaders, and the public understand the Russian side of the matter (not, note, its state-sanctioned propaganda, but the dilemmas faced by its people and leadership), the more hope there is for a shorter war and viable future relationship.
4. Putin is acting more “rationally” than it appears (but he is just about to lose it)
Much ink has been spilled to gauge the sanity or insanity of the autocratic Russian President. If you listen to some of the more astute analyses out there, it becomes clear that the Russian leadership are in a long-term decline and may feel that their hand is forced in the matter:
- If Ukraine joins NATO and the EU, with more than 40 million people switching sides, Russia will no longer be a geopolitical powerhouse. If Russia could add the former Soviet republics, Russia could double its population. And if they could submit the biggest of these, namely Ukraine, to Russian rule, the likelihood of the remaining ones following suit would be that much greater.
- If Ukraine joins NATO, and there is already an ongoing conflict in Donetsk and Luhansk, the country could risk being attacked by NATO forces as “an attack on one is an attack on all”, and that would be from a very wide front of 2700 kilometers in Ukraine.
- Geopolitically, because of the large steppe that stretches from northern Europe and widens towards the Ural Mountains, Russia becomes harder to defend from Western attacks the farther its zone of military control is pushed eastwards. Ukraine joining NATO would more or less leave Russia at the West’s mercy.
- As long as Ukraine is not under Russian control, Russia loses income as it has to pay tariffs on gas pipes passing through the country.
- Ukraine has found its own gas deposits and could soon be a real competitor to Russia’s main income. And if all of a sudden there would be a democratic alternative to Russia’s gas, the West would be likely to trade with the former.
- Ukraine controls the water flow through a canal that goes down to Russian-controlled Crimea, and this region is so dry that its 2½ million inhabitants are currently a big economic drain on Russia, as Ukraine has refused to open the canal.
Taken together, the Russian leadership’s days are numbered if they do not seize control over Ukraine.
Of course, the truly rational course of action would be to peacefully dismantle the current rule, democratize the country, diversify the economy, and become a trusted member of the international community. But as the leadership is invested in the current imperial project and could suffer grim consequences if they lost power (due to corruption, crimes, and so forth), it is “rational” from their perspective to take the gamble and try to seize Ukraine.
However, as the situation becomes increasingly dire for Putin and his allies, we are seeing that emotional over-reactions and acts of desperation may increase, as telling signs of mounting romanticism and paranoia suggest.
5. Putin is acting more ideologically than we think
That there is a certain “rationality” in Putin’s actions does not preclude that these are also ordered according to certain earnestly held ideological sentiments.
One such source of ideological reasoning is the kinship and shared historical roots of Russia and Ukraine (Russia was in effect founded in Kyiv, and before the Soviet era, Ukrainians were even referred to as “little Russians”). This closeness and sense of shared belonging may cause Putin and many others to feel a sense of betrayal if Ukraine chooses a path that leads away from the Russian Imperium.
The second major ideological position is simply to view the Imperium (and its zone of influence) as inherent to the Russian national identity. Thus, upholding an order where this Imperium is maintained and strengthened is viewed as a natural duty of the leadership of Russia — and a sense of humiliation before one’s own people would be felt if the Imperium is weakened during one’s rule. For instance, Russian citizens largely supported the annexation of Crimea and reported feeling renewed pride as a result of it.
6. Putin has difficulties understanding democracy
One of the miscalculations of Putin’s decision to attack may have to do with the workings of democracy. The Ukrainian President, Zelenskyy, had dismally bad poll ratings just before the attack, and people were also expressing low trust in their country’s institutions — which may have given the impression that Ukrainians would accept or even support a toppling of its government: “a war against the administration, not against the people”.
Autocratic leaders generally have difficulties understanding the game boards of more democratic countries (just as people in democracies have trouble understanding the mechanisms of autocratic systems). While Ukraine is by no means a perfect democracy, it still leans strongly in that direction, and as such, it is quite natural for its people to dislike and distrust its current leader. In fact, that’s the whole point: in a democracy you’re free, if not even obliged, to complain about your leaders and swap them out at the next election. Democracies are imperfect and built on compromise and constant slight dissatisfaction. That does not mean that their peoples wish to topple the state and system as a whole! Apparently, Ukrainians turned out to be willing to sacrifice their lives to save their current freedoms and democratic rights.
In fact, one is reminded of Voltaire’s old saying: “I hate your opinion, but I am willing to die for your right to express it.”
7. Ukraine is not Iraq
While direct intervention into Ukraine by NATO and allies may risk too dramatic escalations of the conflict (see the next 10 points list I publish), the Western experience of failures in Iraq and Afghanistan does not translate well to the current situation.
Simply put: Our possibilities of doing good in this situation are considerably larger. In Iraq and Afghanistan, there were no functional systems and countries to “revert to” once their respective tyrannical leaderships were ousted. This led to the “sociological failures” I mentioned above. In this case, the situation is more comparable to that of Germany or Japan after the Second World War — there is a real country that can coalesce and thrive. Or, at least, the conditions for such a post-war revival appear to be much better.
Hence, supporting Ukraine, even militarily (if done prudently) is likely to be a productive and sustainable path for the country and the world around it.
8. The conflict is partly a climate- and water conflict
Interestingly, as is the case in so many matters these days, and as is so often overlooked, the Russia-Ukraine situation is partly aggravated by climate change.
Not only has climate change affected Russian crops and thus further destabilized the country’s exports of wheat to the Middle East, which contributed to spiking food costs in that region, and thus helped spark the Arab Spring and, thereby, the Russian intervention into Syria some years later — which built up momentum for a more confident and aggressive Russian leadership.
It is also the case that the perpetual drought on the Crimean Peninsula has arguably been caused by climate change, which has made Russia yet more eager to seize control over the canal that the Ukrainians have blocked since the annexation of Crimea.
This point is perhaps auxiliary, but important nonetheless as it helps to underscore that a world without climate security is more likely to spiral into a world of geopolitical insecurity.
9. The war stands between petrostate military-industrial complexes and renewable energy
Despite the above-mentioned damages to Russia by the hands of climate change, it is also true that Russia is the only major country that would actually benefit from climate change in the long term. Or, rather, the same may be true of Canada.
A warmer planet is one where the temperate zone on the northern hemisphere would climb further northwards, which would unlock untold areas of agriculturally viable lands within Russia, while making other countries more dependent on its exports. Considering that Russia has fewer large coastal cities, and that it is also too far away from the North Atlantic Gulf stream to feel the effects were it to stop (as one theory on climate change predicts), its position in the world would likely be strengthened by further climate change.
Given that Russia is more or less currently a petrol-state, and that there is a close connection between the fossil-fuel incomes and the military and a limited number of oligarchs, we can see that Russia is passionately unmotivated to seeing a transformation into a decentralized and renewable energy system around the globe.
If Russia loses some of its initiative on the fossil-fuel market, and other countries become less dependent on its exports, the current centralized power structure (a patrol-state military-industrial complex) would risk falling apart.
Thus, I don’t feel that it’s too far a stretch to claim that the current conflict is, more than incidentally, a struggle between the maintenance of petrol-state interests and energy transformation.
Interestingly, centralized power jives well with centralized political power, just as decentralized power grids open pathways for greater dispersion of decision-making. A post-petrol world is a freer world, which is worth striving towards, even if the end is not yet in sight.
10. No Liberal order — no Post-Liberal order, either
Lastly, let us simply note — all of us who believe in and work for developments of society that go beyond the Modern capitalist-liberal mainstream — that our dreams of an ecological, equitable, and effectively governed future cannot materialize if basic human rights and international law are curtailed. If big countries with big sticks can coerce smaller neighbors, if media is controlled and weaponized, if gangster-like oligarchies threaten security, poison opponents and put dissidents in jail, there will not be possibilities, freedom, and will enough to experiment boldly with what comes next in the evolution of human societies.
If we cannot sustain the liberal world order, we should not expect to be able to create new, post-liberal (post-capitalist, protopian, metamodern) world orders either. The current attack on freedom is decidedly non-liberal, but it has nothing to do with post-liberal potentials of desirable future societies.
Hence, even for die-hard critics of the Western mainstream and its institutions, it makes sense to stand with Ukraine, with the suffering of its people, and against unlawful state aggression.
The potential to find pathways ahead from the dead-end of our civilization dramatically decreases if Putin gets his way and gets to violently perpetuate a non-democratic petrol-state.
Hence, I suggest that we stand with Ukraine — not only for the sake of our brothers and sisters in that country, but also for the future of the world.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.