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This Ukraine Thing Could End Very Badly-- For Everyone. Is Putin Insane?


James Clapper: "I personally think he’s unhinged. I worry about his acuity and balance."

Everyone I know asks me what I think is going to happen in Ukraine. How do I know? I have opinions but no more facts to base any conclusions on than anyone else. The Atlantic's Derek Thompson turned to someone who knows more about than I do, political scientist Paul Poast, and asked him how the crisis is going to end. Poast is an Associate Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Chicago, specializing in international politics. He's written 3 books, The Economics of War, Organizing Democracy and Arguing About Alliances.



Thompson wanted to know how Putin's attack will play out, not just for Ukraine but also for Russia, Putin himself, Europe, China and the Atlantic Alliance. He started his interview by asking Poast what happens if the attackers bogs down into a painful quagmire. "There are already protests across the country, Thompson noted. "Russian celebrities have spoken out against the war. Russia's stock market has tanked. Russia’s currency has cratered, and the pain might be just beginning if sanctions bite down on oligarchs and businesses. Tell me what you see as plausible and implausible about a scenario in which Russia reassesses this invasion and dramatically scales back its ambitions."


Poast agreed that "there’s already a lot of resistance. The Ukrainians are fighting for their country. They are probably more motivated. They have more morale than the Russian troops. These would all be contributors to making this very tough for Russia to accomplish. The big thing is how would Putin respond? It could lead Russia to scale back, maybe even recognize this was a bad idea, perhaps going all the way out of the country or at least going back to the eastern provinces. But also, it could lead Russia to lash out further." Putin doesn't care that he's hated. Russians do care that their country is isolated and despised-- but Putin doesn't care about them either. Like Trump and other aging autocrats, he is crazy and uncaring.


As you saw in the video, Poast thinks the most likely scenario is Russian-imposed regime change in Kyiv. Thing is, if last week, no one outside of Ukraine had ever heard of Volodymyr Zelensky, today he is an international hero. Terms like "admired," "inspiring," "brave" and even "beloved" are routinely attached to his name now, everywhere in the world. Very different from how the world sees Putin. Removing him-- let alone murdering him-- will be a public relations nightmare for Putin.


Poast said that Russia would like to make Ukraine into another Belarus-- basically a client state/puppet regime that take orders from the Kremlin. It's not as drastic as "state death," a term that describes annexation, "exactly what Russia did with Crimea... If you really look carefully at his words-- and, to be honest, I don’t even think you have to look that carefully at his words-- it very much implies that he’s thinking about making Ukraine part of Russia, as he has this desire to re-create this Soviet Union and a new Russian empire... [T]his desire to re-create the Russian empire, that shouldn’t end with Ukraine. There are other states, former Soviet republics like Moldova, Belarus, and Georgia-- a country that Russia invaded in 2008. These countries are independent states that used to be part of either the Soviet Union or the Russian empire. So, this next scenario envisions that Putin’s objective is to only start with Ukraine. And once he successfully conquers Ukraine, the next step is to go further and bring these other former Soviet republics into Russia and to truly re-create the Russian empire."


The real nightmare is what happens if Putin decides to reabsorb former parts of the Russian empire that are NATO members-- Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and... Poland. That means World War III. "He could do this for any number of reasons," speculated Poast. "He could want to rebuild the empire. He could be overconfident from success in Ukraine. Perhaps he feels like the resolve of the West is not very great. But if that happens, if he attacks a NATO country, it triggers Article 5, which is a mutual-defense clause stating that an attack on one is an attack on all. If that happens, then other NATO countries would come to the defense of that NATO country, and that ends in a war between the United States and Russia."



Thompson: What are you seeing on the ground so far that makes any of the scenarios most likely?
Poast: We’re still very early. But one thing that has jumped out at me right away is the number of casualties on the Russian side. If the numbers are accurate, there have already been several thousand fatalities, with similar levels on the Ukrainian side. To put that in perspective, in most wars we’ve studied, you see about 50 battlefield deaths a day. To have a war with well over 1,000 fatalities tells you how intense the fighting is. This is an extremely intense war. That intensity, I think, is both a function of the speed and scale by which Russia has gone about carrying out their campaign. But it also points to the resistance, and there’s going to be growing resistance by Ukraine. It is absolutely devastating what we’re witnessing.
I’ll tell you how my expectations of this conflict have evolved. I’m very much on record for saying that I thought Putin would invade. But I thought this would be a limited invasion. I thought that he would take small slices of territory in eastern Ukraine. I had to update over the past week, as I heard his rhetoric, saw this large mobilization, and realized this was going to be a large invasion.
Given the size and scale of this invasion, coupled with the rhetoric, I really do think that his objective is some form of annexation, or full conquest of Ukraine. That is the scenario he is most seeking out now. When I combine that with an analysis of Russia’s operational ease, I think the most reasonable thing that we could be expecting right now is regime change in Kyiv.
Thompson: Tell me what you are looking for in the next week to determine the most likely outcome of this crisis.
Poast: Two things. First, how is the actual military campaign going? Does Russia seem like they’re achieving quick success? That will tell us whether full conquest is still likely. And second, watch Poland. I really do think that Poland could be the flashpoint. What does the refugee situation in Poland look like? What is Russia saying about the refugees? Are there any hints about whether Russia is planning any kind of move against Poland? Anything along those lines would bring us closer to the nightmare scenario of war against NATO.
...What makes this a very scary scenario-- what makes a war between the great powers more likely than it’s been in 80 years-- is that Putin might feel at some point like his back is against the wall and he has no other options, so he lashes out in desperation. In our discipline, we call this “gambling for resurrection.” You’re worried you are going to be deposed, and the only way to save yourself is to take a high-risk gamble. Otto von Bismarck in the 19th century called it “committing suicide for fear of death.”
There is a useful analogy with Pearl Harbor. In the late 1930s, Japan had invaded Manchuria and was engaged in a war with China. And the U.S., which was supporting China at the time, imposed an oil embargo on Japan. We squeezed the Japanese government until they realized they only had about a year and a half of resources left. They were desperate to stop the oil embargo. So, they took the gamble of Pearl Harbor and paid for it with a costly war in the Pacific. I think we have to consider a question: If we apply similar economic pressure to Russia, could Putin make a similar decision to what Japan did in 1941?


So... speaking of putting Putin's back up against the wall, in the same magazine, columnist David Frum wrote that The EU Commission announced this afternoon that the European Central Bank will deploy its most powerful financial weapon against Russian aggression. Several hours later, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the Federal Reserve will impose sanctions of its own upon the Russian central bank. Central-bank sanctions are a weapon so devastating, in fact, that the only question is whether they might do more damage than Western governments might wish. They could potentially bankrupt the entire Russian banking system and push the ruble into worthlessness.


And here we bump into the limits of central-bank sanctions as a financial weapon: A weapon that altogether crushes an adversary’s banking system may be just a little too powerful. The West wants to administer penalties that cause Russia to alter its aggressive behavior, not to crush the Russian economy. The central-bank weapon is so strong that it might indeed provoke Putin into fiercer aggression as a desperate last gamble. So the next question is: Is there any way to use the central-bank-sanctions weapon more incrementally?
Perhaps there is. Western banks do not need to freeze the Russian central bank’s accounts altogether. They could put the Russian central bank on an allowance, so many billions a month. That would keep Russia limping along, but under severe restraint—asphyxiation rather than sudden strangulation. The West could not prevent Putin from spending foreign currency on his war or favoring cronies in the distribution of foreign currency. But the restraint would rapidly make the terrible cost of Putin’s decisions much more rapidly visible to every power sector in Russian society. It’s not the full blow, but it might hurt enough-- and of course, the full blow could be applied later.
The central-bank-sanctions tool will also deliver a humbling but indispensable lesson to Putin. Putin launched his war against Ukraine in part to assert Russia’s great-power status-- a war to make Russia great again. Putin seemingly did not understand that violence is only one form of power, and not ultimately the most decisive. Even energy production takes a country only so far. The power Putin is about to feel is the power of producers against gangsters, of governments that inspire trust against governments that rule by fear. Russia depends on the dollar, the euro, the pound, and other currencies in ways that few around Putin could comprehend. The liberal democracies that created those trusted currencies are about to make Putin’s cronies feel what they never troubled to learn. Squeeze them.


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