As with any saturated topic of news, one is always surprised that rather central issues about events in Ukraine continue to be overlooked. One should not be surprised, of course. Western media went through a shockingly ignorant phase between the Cold War's end and the catch-up years after 9/11. I am old enough to recall fashion writers being called up to cover the US invasion of Afghanistan, so intellectually impoverished had the news biz become in those intervening years. Gossip and entertainment dominated our attention. I recall spending the late 90s trying to interest editors in the build-up of radical Islamism around the world to no avail. Some thoroughly brave reporting by genuinely informed journalists has made a huge difference in Ukraine, not least by locals. But many of the foreign journos are youngish and don't possess the Cold War pattern recognition.
History and geography abroad were always weak links in US education anyway. And assigning editors tend to see themselves as channelers of the popular attention span, filtering out anything too unexpected. Too much intricacy or historical pattern awareness (such as the Kremlin's conduct down the centuries or decades) they discern dimly as something akin to conspiracy-style thinking. Hence, there wasn't much appetite for believing that the Russians would actually invade. Not surprising, then, that important threads of knowledge get overlooked even in a greenhouse media atmosphere like Ukraine. Here are three such issues:
Alcoholism among Russian troops. I have seen Russian soldiers in several combat theaters and they were always drunk. I even interviewed (for the Wall Street Journal) a tank commander on Georgian soil during the 2008 invasion and he was red-faced, slurry, and slow of speech. I witnessed a morning roll-call of tank crews – the officer in charge and the rest of his men were all wobbly. One could go on itemizing but there's no point. Everyone knows this to be true or highly likely. But it almost never gets acknowledged. Here's a rare mention of an instance when soldiers trashed a hospital's depot and stole all of the medicinal alcohol.
We all know about the scourge of alcoholism in Russian life, especially in the provinces. And no doubt for ill-trained young conscripts from remote impoverished regions suddenly confronted with fear and loathing, hostile natives and sadistic superiors, that are forced to choose between committing atrocities and being shot for refusing orders, vodka must be a sine qua non. Given sheer amounts combined with the consistent daily intake, the inability to handle complex machinery, and the inordinate stupidity (as in the Chernobyl complex), consider the implications. No doubt, the higher-ups know and indeed encourage the phenomenon. How else could they get the men to do their reptilian bidding? The ensuing war crimes should come as no surprise.
We haven't seen such brutal military realities in the West since the 19th century, since the Napoleonic wars in fact. It brings to mind the press gangs for the British navy, and the huge rum rations onboard ships to keep sailors from mutinying. And before that, the famous words of Frederick the Great to his troops, “Dogs, would you live forever?” In much of the world, especially in the Western alliance, there's been a huge advance in concern for the lives and living conditions of combat personnel not least in the form of sufficient pay and food in warzones. Russia's conscripts hail from places where such modernization never happened, even in civilian life. Here, in The Moscow Times, is a vivid description of their lives back home, “Collection of scrap metal was an honorable alternative to petty theft, though the metal had to be stolen anyway. Chances are you knew someone who killed someone. You sure knew someone who drank themselves to death (maybe it was your dad).”
Germany's mulish unhelpfulness continues to baffle everyone. We have all heard the various explanations for its reluctance to aid Ukraine more – realpolitik, corruption, and war guilt. Respectively, they fall into three categories:
A) Dependence on Russian fossil fuels and trade.
B) The shocking but longstanding phenomenon of top politicians such as Gerhard Schroder taking Russian money.
C) Wartime guilt over the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Certainly, all of it is true. You could add a variant of the old 'Ostpolitik', namely the theory that engaging with the Kremlin ultimately tends to civilize and ameliorate its bad behavior. But for some time now, none of these reasons have sufficed to justify (or explain) Germany's refusal to give Ukraine heavy weapons or its continuing enrichment of Moscow's coffers with the equivalent of petrodollars. So what else is afoot?
It's worth looking at the Saudi model. Over nearly a century, the West established a modus operandi for relations with friendly petrostates. We buy their oil, they buy our goods and invest in our economies, both sides get rich. We don't interfere too much with their internal affairs or regional power. In many ways, the more unitary and authoritarian they are, the better, because it means we only need to deal with one central power in each country to tap its natural resources efficiently. It requires a strong stomach, not to say extreme hypocrisy. Look at our relations with Venezuela. George W. Bush essentially sealed the Chavez regime in power by making a deal during the Iraq war disruptions: you give us uninterrupted oil flow, we leave you alone. Another example is in Nigeria where the central government has robed local tribes of their oil, giving very little back in return. Sometimes they revolt and horrors ensue such as Biafra in the 1960s but nothing changes. We allowed Russia to exploit this model to the hilt.
But there's an additional dimension, one never mentioned. The Russian Federation, like the Soviet Union, remains a wobbly geographical construct. Given the chance, it too would fall apart. The Caucasus, Chechnya et al would secede. As would Tatarstan and even Siberia, among others. Nobody in the West wants the infinite headache of containing the innumerable conflicts that would ensue – as happened when the Soviets collapsed. The civil wars, the population exchanges, or the nightmare of making new trade deals, especially over oil, with each new fragile statelet. Think about it. Building new pipelines? The nuclear materials that would filter out? So from the time of Bill Clinton onwards, the Western alliance took a Moscow-centric approach toward the entire geo-space. Putin saw and exploited the West's dilemma. Here’s a Twitter thread by Casey Michel, a top American expert and author, that chronicles what I mean.
Remember that, for centuries, especially during the Great Game years, this has been the operational principle of Moscow's foreign policy: strategic depth. You create endless outward buffer zones to keep the inner core from fragmenting. Once you let, say, Georgia grow too influential, it will take the Caucasus with it and Astrakhan will follow, and then Tatarstan and Bashkiria and so on. Poor Tbilisi, as a pro-Western democracy, thought it would get more support during the 2008 Russian invasion. It didn't happen. In fact, the West had bought into Moscow's traditional geo-strategy. Inexorably, Putin’s invasion of Crimea, Donbas, and the whole of Ukraine followed. That then is the big underlying dirty secret of Germany's and indeed the West's hitherto somnolent reaction to Putin's serial aggression. It's time, finally, to address the bigger picture issue of letting Russia dissolve down to natural stable proportions.
Acts of sabotage proliferate daily inside Russia. No one claims responsibility, most observers credit Ukrainian guerillas operating behind the lines. The Kremlin naturally blames British SAS commandos for fear of giving credit to Ukrainian bravery. As an extra benefit, the disinformation implies that it really is Russia vs Nato. But, no, the conceit won't survive scrutiny. As far back as April 1st, Ukrainians hit targets in Belgorod allegedly by helicopter. Still, we've seen a recent spike in the rate of mysterious fires and explosions. A research facility here, a military academy there. No doubt the SAS and others have provided help, training in explosives, stealth approach, quick extraction, and the like.
As a sustained campaign, though, the risks soon outweigh the benefits if the targets don't furnish major strategic gains. Blowing up fuel supplies in nearby Bryansk makes obvious tactical sense and the ground war continues to unfold Kyiv's way. But there's no referee to blow the whistle and end the hostilities at any point; this could go on for years as it has in Syria. Sadly, the long-term attritional scenario favors Moscow because relentless missile strikes from afar, even randomly aimed across the country on Kharkiv, Lviv, newly regained zones like Kherson, must take its toll. Putin will simply prevent Ukraine from resuming normal life for the foreseeable future.
This is where the sabotage campaign inside Russia can change the balance. Perhaps it's the only thing that can. The seemingly scattershot targeting makes sense if you consider the full implications. It brings the war home palpably – Moscow cannot obfuscate the incidents forever. Psychologically, the population will begin to feel the anxiety of defenselessness, wondering what will happen next and where. They will inexorably question the competence of their leaders and lose trust in the news propaganda. Russia is a big place, hard to guard across multiple time zones. Within the elite, cracks will appear, as they already have. First Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was distanced (some reports said arrested), next he appeared briefing Putin while the latter gripped the table manically. Various intelligence chiefs keep getting the treatment. And now it's emerging that Russia's military chiefs are incensed that they're constrained, not allowed to mobilize the entire country for full-scale war. They blame their rivals among the elite, especially the intelligence services, for pushing a more targeted campaign, one that plays to the army's weaknesses.
In short, Putin's regime displays the hazards of any despotic rule in extremity – mutual distrust, paranoia, indecision by an ailing boss, savage infighting. Putin himself will surely resist a total war approach since it will put the generals in a position of central power capable of challenging his own. They could oust him. That then is the benefit of a wider deeper strategy of sabotage within Russia, where power groups begin to doubt each other, where the center questions regional loyalty, and where the enemy within becomes the focus. It won't be long before the ethnic groups start bridling under the pressure. Ultimately the monster will eat its tail, as they always do.