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Posts Tagged ‘Putin’

“What’s that you said?”

Putin might set a new trend in commercial office decorating: conference tables that begin at Chicago’s lakefront and end somewhere in DuPage County.

That’s an exaggeration of course, but so are claims that Putin’s insane. He’s neither insane nor irrational. For example, Putin knows what he’s doing is wrong. If that were not the case, then he would have no need to create false flag stories about British “crisis actors” staging fake Russian atrocities for the western media, and so on.

But Putin’s sanity and rationality are no guaranty that he’s going to win his war in Ukraine in any sense that we as Americans would understand. His military operations in Ukraine have failed very badly in any number of respects, and Russia doesn’t have the conventional military capacity to completely overrun Ukraine, install its own puppet leader in the old Soviet style, and hold the country.

Putin is a psychopath as opposed to just a typical insane or irrational person. A psychopath can plan things, understand his environment, and act so as to achieve his objectives. A psychopath knows right from wrong, but it makes no difference to him. He feels neither remorse nor regret about anything he’s done. Slaughtering civilians and children, bombing hospitals, whatever he deems necessary he’ll do, and he sees himself as above any conventional sense of morality. Killing someone is no more important to him than deciding whether he’ll have cereal or scrambled eggs for breakfast.

In short, Putin is the geopolitical version of the psychopathic, jilted ex-boyfriend who stalks his ex and won’t stop stalking her until he either gets her back or kills her.

His revanchist idea about dragging Ukraine back into Russia isn’t new. Pan-Slavism as a political ideology goes all the way back to the post-Napoleonic period, and one of its components is the common Eastern Orthodox faith. Americans have a hard time grasping things like pan-ideologies because in this country they’re usually doctrines of the political fringe (see, e.g., Proud Boys). However, neither Pan-Slavism nor any affinity for co-religionists has ever been able to completely extinguish the nationalism of the various individual states that comprise the Slavic world. Sure, Slavs of different nationalities fought under the Austrian flag in the 19th century, but that was because other factors were at work. To Slavs within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, domination by Hungarians (Magyars) would have been worse than domination by the Hapsburgs. In June 1914, Slavic nationalism and its desire to throw off the Austrian chains lit the match that led to World War I. Russia mobilized to protect its fellow Slavs in Serbia from the combined Austro-Hungarian and German Empires.

And just like the Serbians jilted Franz Josef, the Ukrainians have jilted Vladimir Putin. To Putin, Ukraine is the girl who used to be his. Ukraine used to admire Vladimir’s pecs when he went horseback riding with no shirt on. Then she started flirting with westerners. Next she held a wild street party where everybody wore orange. She threw Vlad’s good buddy Viktor Yanukovich out of her house, and for the last eight years he’s had to live in Vlad’s basement. Vladimir’s FSB even showed him a photo of Ukraine hugging NATO, and things might have gone further if he hadn’t stormed into Crimea.

So, like the obsessed, psychopathic ex who just can’t quit his old girlfriend, Putin will pursue her, no matter what. Putin is what you’d get if you turned Jodi Arias into Russia and Travis Alexander into Ukraine. Obsessed ex Jodi Arias killed Travis Alexander rather than let him leave their relationship, and in the same way Putin would sooner destroy Ukraine brick by brick than allow it to fall in love with the West and be a democracy. Like Jodi Arias and other obsessed, psychopathic ex’s, Putin’s bottom line is that if he can’t have Ukraine, then nobody can have Ukraine. That’s why Putin will keep firing missiles and artillery into Ukrainian cities. He knows at some level that he’ll never hold Ukraine in his arms again, but he can sure as hell make the country unlivable. That’s his way of killing his unattainable ex-girlfriend.

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Last week Putin began his blitzkrieg invasion of Ukraine. His war machine is using rockets and artillery against the much smaller, but more highly motivated, Ukrainian military.

In anticipation of economic sanctions, Putin built a war chest of USD630 Billion. That sounds like a lot of money, but wars have a funny way of outlasting the money available to pay for them. With the ruble no longer accepted anywhere in the west, and with Russia cut off from every advanced funds transfer system, he may not be able to use that money. But even if he could use it, would USD630 Billion be enough to make a difference for Putin?

For some historical context to answer to that question we can turn on the Wayback Machine and revisit an earlier conquest of a hostile little puppy state by a Great Empire with an overwhelming military machine: the Anglo-Boer War of 1899 to 1902 in South Africa.

In 1899, Great Britain was the preeminent economic and military power of the world. London had not yet ceded to New York the title of world financial center. The United States and Germany had been catching up to Great Britain both economically and militarily, and in the latter sphere Kaiser Wilhelm II was determined to challenge England for naval supremacy. But England was still heads above the rest, and when European nations considered important policy choices they gave a great deal of weight to how Whitehall might react to the change.

From a geographical perspective, Russia today sees Ukraine, part of its “near abroad,” as a territory that it must dominate, if not control. In 1899, South Africa held an importance for Great Britain similar to that of today’s Ukraine for Russia. South Africa was key to maintaining a reliable and defensible sea route between England and India. Cape Town was the re-coaling station for steamships on that route. And although by 1899 the Suez Canal had already been open for about thirty years, England could not rely on it: it was owned and operated by France. If, in a conflict, France were adverse to England (which had happened a few times in the past), access to India through the Suez Canal would be lost.

Natural resources ran a close second to global strategy concerns. Within the fifteen years preceding the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer War, gold had been discovered in the Transvaal, and diamonds in Witwatersrand, making South Africa one of the richest spots on the planet. South Africa had become the leading source of gold in the world. The world was on the gold standard then, and because London was the center of world finance, England had a keen interest in the volume of gold in circulation and held in government reserves. Too little gold would unduly constrain commercial and industrial access to capital, while too much would risk metallurgical inflation. Europe had endured that type of inflation back when Spain was its most powerful country. The massive quantities of gold and silver that Spain imported from its possessions in central and south America caused more than a few monetary problems.

Russia now claims that ethnic Russians are being mistreated by Ukraine’s government, which Russia views as illegitimate. By 1899, the Boers had declared the Transvaal and the Orange Free State to be independent republics not subject to rule from London. The many Englishmen extracting wealth from South Africa’s mines in these new Boer republics were second-class citizens, without voting and other civil rights.

Today Russia worries about the consequences of having a successful fledgling democracy like Ukraine on its doorstep because it might give Russian citizens the idea that democracy might be worth a try. Similarly, in 1899 Britain viewed the newly declared Boer republics as an affront to its sovereignty over South Africa, and it worried about the effect such new little breakaway states might have on its subjects in other British colonies around the world. Would they start breaking away too? This was an early domino theory.

Just like Putin’s propaganda about the benevolent nature of rule from Moscow, the British in 1899 thought that British rule was a divine gift to all the empire’s subjects, even if some of those subjects were trying to persuade the Brits to leave by shooting at them.

Russia looks down on the people of Ukraine in the same way that Great Britain looked down at the Boers. Both Russia and England thought they’d have a splendid little war, that it would be over quickly, and that they would easily squelch these little republics.

But every present-day Ukrainian, like every Boer back then, was armed to the teeth and ready to fight. Sure, the Boers were not a regular army with chains of command and discipline in the ranks, etc. But, like Ukrainians today, that strategic weakness becomes a tactical strength when the irregular force is highly motivated and fighting against an outside invader on its home turf. The Boers would attack some organized British column moving through the countryside, and then melt back into the wilderness. The Ukrainians have already ambushed some Russian motor convoys. The Russians will also have to fight Ukrainians in urban environments, which is a nightmare for an attacking force. Think Stalingrad.

So how does all this tie in to Putin’s USD630 Billion war chest?

Well, in October 1899, the government of Prime Minister Robert Cecil, Lord Salisbury, calculated that England’s fine little war against the Boers could be “put through” for 10 million British pounds.

By the time peace was finally negotiated in May 1902, the British government had spent more than 217 million British pounds on its war against the Boers. That was enough to bring down the government of Lord Salisbury, which was replaced by that of Arthur Balfour. To get an idea of how much money that was at the time, it represented 12% of the entire gross national product of the United Kingdom – then the world’s leading economy – for the preceding year.

Were we to apply that same percentage to the 2020 GDP of the United States, today’s leading economy, that would be 12% of USD20.94 Trillion, or about USD2.51 Trillion. That would be not quite twice Russia’s entire GDP of USD1.483 Trillion. So Tsar Vladimir could well find himself a bit short on funds as his Ukraine war drags on, and that’s without any consideration of what happens when no other country in the world accepts your currency.

If Putin had read up on the Anglo-Boer War, there’s no way to know whether he would have changed his mind about invading Ukraine. But at least he would have learned that it was possible, and even likely, that Russia would get Boer-ed.

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NYC Substation

The New York Times today reported that Russian hackers had gained access to nuclear plants and electricity grid controls, and would have been able to shut off the power in the United States at will.

That is deadly serious stuff.

More amazing still, it was the Trump Administration, that leveled the accusation against Russia. Putin may regard that as an act of disloyalty by Trump, perhaps triggering his release of kompromat on the Donald.

Perhaps he’ll announce a 25% tariff on Steele dossiers.

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Putin - exasperated

Yes Vlad, oil prices are all the way down there.

About this time last year, the Sparkspread pointed out that Vladimir Putin had overlooked Energy Rule Numero Uno when he re-annexed Crimea to Russia sixty years after Khruschev gave it back to Ukraine. That rule is that energy is all about infrastructure. So, before you invade a country with the ultimate goal of ruling it (and therefore, of necessity, administering it in one fashion or another), you should make sure you understand the target territory’s energy infrastructure.

This is something Putin notably forgot to do. Crimea has four power plants that aggregate to a rather puny 327MW in nameplate capacity, but demand in Crimea ranges from 850MW to 1250MW in winter, depending on the severity of the season.

The math is easy. More than 80% of Crimea’s commodity electricity supply is under the control of Kiev, and Kiev, being the capital of Ukraine, takes a rather dim view of Volodya’s revanchism.

The maps are pretty easy too. The little Isthmus of Perekop, which connects Crimea to Ukraine, is a chokepoint with two main transmission lines that supply the Crimean peninsula.

Crimea-electricity--638x539

Electric transmission lines into Crimea

Wait… Did we say that Kiev controls the electricity supply? Not so fast. Over the past week or so, saboteurs have blown up power lines in southern Ukraine, which have plunged Russian-annexed Crimea into an energy crisis. About 2 million Crimeans are now relying on emergency generators. This proves the point the Sparkspread made last November: Crimea depends almost entirely on Ukraine for energy.

And that’s not Putin’s only headache. Under Russian law, using drafted Russian soldiers outside the borders of Russia requires the soldiers’ consent. (Of course, “Russian law,” along with “moderate rebel” and “limited nuclear war,” enters the language as one of the 21st Century’s new oxymorons.) The fighting in Ukraine produced about 2000 dead and 3200 wounded Russian soldiers. Hmmm… How to explain that? Injured in training? That’s a tough sell. That many dead and disabled soldiers in a war of choice presents a fundamental question of political sustainability of the conflict at home, even if home is a totalitarian state. Vlad might give a call to Dubbaya if he has any doubts.

Oil prices stayed low. U.S. and European sanctions started to affect the Russian economy. Just as von Schrotter described Prussia as an army with a country, Russia can be imagined as an army with oil fields and natural gas reserves. But under sanctions, drilling for new reserves and maintaining the production equipment on existing fields became far more difficult. Putin’s oil oligarchs and their apparatchiks have had their hands full trying to maintain Russian oil production in both quantity and quality.

Vladimir had to weigh the costs and benefits of his Crimean campaign. Better to cut his losses on Crimea, leaving matters to the resident separatists, and focus on a new adventure.

Like Syria, maybe.

This past February, Putin and Peroshenko, Ukraine’s president, inked the Minsk II accord, which at least implemented a cease-fire, more or less. Peroshenko had to recognize his country’s loss of certain territory in Ukraine to pro-Russian separatists, and the deal allowed Putin to pull the Russian army out without too much loss of face. Putin’s proxy war through Russian-leaning separatists continued in full swing, of course, but since the Russian pull-out the separatists’ battles have not yielded any significant territorial gains beyond what was already obtained through Minsk II.

Kiev is not in control of rebuilding the transmission lines in Ukraine. Ethnic Tatars, whose parents and grandparents were forcibly deported by Stalin at the end of WWII, and Ukrainian nationalists have blocked repair teams. So far, authorities in Kiev have not tried to force the issue.

Putin is now accusing Ukraine of “torturing” Crimeans with the power cuts. Russia has responded by cutting coal deliveries to Ukraine. Coal sales are one thing, but he hasn’t shut off natural gas yet. Russia needs the natural gas revenues as much as it ever did, but escalation is always possible. But if Putin presses too hard on Ukraine, he’ll just unite Ukrainians against him politically.

As the winter sets in, this should provide some great political theater.

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Crimea-electricity--638x539

For the moment, at least, the lamps are going out all over Crimea, rather than all over Europe.

The Daily Beast reports that Ukraine temporarily cut off power supplies to Crimea today (Wed., 12/24).  According to Kiev, the Russian-controlled peninsula has not curbed its power consumption during a power crisis. While Crimea is controlled by Russia, it receives its power from Ukraine.

via Ukraine Cuts Off Crimea’s Power – The Daily Beast.

As shown in the map above, and as pointed out in an earlier post, Crimea is an energy island, something that Putin evidently failed to take into account before trying to realize his revanchist fantasy.

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Ahhh, for the happy days that were, back when Hillary offered a reset button to Russia:

Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, uses middle finger on then-Secretary Clinton's Reset Button, ca. 2009

Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, uses middle finger on then-Secretary Clinton’s Reset Button, ca. 2009

Putin and Lavrov must be wishing they could revisit that day (and that Lavrov had used his index finger instead).

Putin is hoping that an interest rate hike from 10.5% to 17% in a single day — a sledgehammer blow to the Russian economy — will stop the freefall of the ruble. It did, but only a little bit: from 67/1USD to 61/1USD.

But like most dictators, Vlad doesn’t see the big picture, and since only sycophants can survive in the inner circle, no one second-guessed his decision to have the Russian Central Bank finance a USD10.8 billion loan to Rosneft, Russia’s oil giant. Rosneft is also the most heavily indebted big company in Russia and a Putin fiefdom. Now Vlad will get to study first-hand what Keynes meant by “animal spirits” as Russia endures en masse runs on banks and the population stocks up on hard assets to hedge against a currency on its way to worthlessness.

The psychology of Russian leadership has always spun on a single axis, namely, what they see as Russia’s unique place in history. First, Christian Rome fell to the barbarians and Europe entered the dark ages. Orthodox Christianity then made its stand in Constantinople for about a thousand years, but Mehmet II put the kibosh (a term of military art in that region) on Constantinople in 1453. After that, it fell to Holy Moscow to serve as Defender of the Faith against both the barbarians and the corrupted faith of the Latin West.

Of course, there was a gap of roughly seventy years during which the secular religion of Marxism displaced Orthodox Christianity, but the mission remained the same: spread the word around the world. Things have now come full-circle as Putin’s Russia has re-aligned itself with the Orthodox Church.

 

Former KGB Colonel embraces Alexeii II, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch of Moscow, ca. 2008.

Former KGB Colonel embraces Alexeii II, Primate of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch of Moscow, ca. 2008.

Small wonder why Putin believes the fall of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century,  or that Putin’s regime adopts anti-gay legislation. American strategists should change their perspectives and look at Russia not just as an aggressor in the Caucasus for economic reasons, but as a country on a mission ordained of God. Putin draws some lessons from this man:

 

Emperor Nicholas I, Czar of All Russias, ca. 1850

Emperor Nicholas I, Czar of All Russias, ca. 1850

During the Crimean War (Wait! Did you say Crimea?), Nicholas I, who first called Turkey “the sick man of Europe” and was perhaps the most reactionary of all Russian czars, relied heavily on religious sentiments to motivate not only his own population but all Slavic nationalities in Asia Minor and the Caucasus in the fight against France and Great Britain. Moreover, his Russian soldiers fought even though they were serfs who wouldn’t be liberated until 1861.

So, expect Putin to blame Russia’s ills on the decadent West and its sanctions, and to draw closer to the Patriarch of Moscow in order to portray Russia’s present struggle as just another phase of its divinely ordained purpose on Earth.

But with the reset button off the table, this is the only button Putin has left:

The only button now available to Putin and

The only button now available to Putin

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Yes Vlad, oil prices are all the way down there.

Yes Vlad, oil prices are all the way down there.

The NYMEX light crude composite index hit $56.38 today and may go lower still. Vlad needs it above $100 to balance the Russian budget. Just as Prussia was said to be an army with a country, Russia is an oilfield with a country, and as oil sinks so goes the ruble:

 

The famous inverted hockey stick phenomenon.

The famous inverted hockey stick phenomenon.

Maybe that Crimea business wasn’t such a good idea after all.

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Volodya Putin in deep thought

Volodya Putin in deep thought

Putin seized Crimea, but lately he hasn’t been banging his pots and pans too much about cutting off the natural gas supply to Ukraine, even though Russia claims Ukraine owes it up to $38.4 billion for previous purchases. While the figure varies, it seems only to have increased after the EU and the International Monetary Fund confirmed they would assist Ukraine in paying the debt. Still, Czar Vladimir has sent his troops and tanks rumbling back and forth across eastern Ukraine.  Crimea has become Putin’s 21st century version of the Sudetenland, with Russian speakers standing in for Hitler’s Sudeten Germans, or “Volksdeutsche.”

Czar Vladimir is not in a position to threaten Ukraine with a natural gas shutoff because he overlooked Energy Rule Numero Uno before seizing Crimea. For a rule so easily stated, it’s surprising how many decision-makers forget to consider it:

Energy Rule #1: Energy is all about infrastructure.

From electric transmission lines to natural gas pipelines or railroads, if you can’t get the energy from the source to the load, you can’t use or control the energy.

To see what dear Volodya (the Ukrainian variant of “Vladimir” is “Volodimyr,” from which both Russian and Ukrainian derive the masculine diminutive “Volodya”) missed, let’s take a look at some maps. The first shows the natural gas supply lines from Russian into Ukraine:

Gas pipelines in Ukraine

Gas pipelines in Ukraine

Two things are worth noting. First, a vast amount of Russia’s natural gas pipelines to Europe flow through Ukraine. Threatening Ukraine with a natural gas shutoff would impede flows to European customers, reducing much needed revenues. Russia depends on the sale of oil and natural gas to fund itself. European customers might resell to Kiev, or Kiev could tap into the lines. Second, Crimea’s natural gas supply comes in from Ukraine, not Russia, so cutting off Ukraine would only hurt Putin’s Volksdeutsche.

Now let’s take a look at electricity transmission lines serving Crimea:

 

Electricity transmission in Ukraine and Crimea

Electricity transmission in Ukraine and Crimea

 

The Crimean peninsula has four thermal power plants with an aggregate nameplate capacity of 327 MW. But these were built during the Soviet era and their functional capacity is in the range of 100-110 MW.  Crimea also has substantial wind and solar generation facilities, but these are intermittent and seasonal. Demand on the peninsula ranges from 850MW to 1,200MW in winter. Net, Crimea depends for more than 80% of its electricity requirements on transmission from Kiev.

So, if Volodya were to cut off natural gas supplies to Ukraine, he would simultaneously shut off electricity to the Crimean Volksdeutsche he purports to love so much.

Transporting natural gas overland to Crimea is no easy matter either, completely apart from the economics of building the requisite facilities and the losses on LNG conversion and reconversion:

530 km from Rostov to Dzhankoy

The route from from Rostov-on-Don (A) to Dzhankoy (B)

 

It’s about 530 kilometers from Rostov-on-Don (A), through Mariupol, to Dzhankoy (B), the nearest large town on the Crimean peninsula. About 400 of those kilometers are inside Ukraine. So let’s take a look at our next map, which shows the concentration of Russian-speakers in the areas en route between these two points:

Blue means more Russian speakers, gray means fewer

Blue means more Russian speakers, gray means fewer

The concentration of Russian speakers (and those who voted for Yanukovic) thins out as one approaches the isthmus connecting Crimea to the Ukrainian mainland, and it doesn’t rebound until one is on the peninsula itself. So if Volodya did want to supply Crimea with energy resources trucked overland, he would have to organize convoys and defend them from potential guerilla attacks and sabotage in hostile territory, just at the U.S. did in Iraq and Afghanistan. This would require Russian troops to secure the route, and those are long-term, not short-term deployments. This presents at least two additional problems for Volodya. First, if he has to move Russian troops from other posts, those areas (think Russian frontier with Chechnya) become less safe. Second, he has to contend with the potential reaction of Russian families whose sons/daughters will be coming home in body bags in order to satisfy his territorial ambitions.

Why wouldn’t Volodya build a natural gas pipeline across the Kerch Strait, which connects the Black Sea with the Sea of Azov and separates Crimea from the Russian mainland by a mere 1.9 kilometers at its narrowest point? This can be done, but the area is seismically active, which presents difficulties for any infrastructure (the Nazis tried but failed to bridge it during the Battle of the Kerch Peninsula in WWII). An even greater difficulty is the shallowness of the strait. At 59 feet maximum depth, any subaqueous pipeline is vulnerable to attack, with the explosive impact of a charge inversely proportional to the depth at which it detonates. Further, that would take money, and given Russia’s economic travails and the impact of sanctions, a pipeline to Crimea would be a tough sell even for Volodya.

Next time, Volodya, a leader who likes to use energy as a weapon, may want to think a little further ahead before he annexes territory, especially regarding energy infrastructure.

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Spent Nuke Fuel (No Swimming Allowed)

Spent Nuke Fuel (No Swimming Allowed)

Nuclear Energy Insider reports that Ukraine has begun building a central storage facility for spent nuke fuel:

Ukraine constructs Central Storage Facility for spent nuclear fuel | Nuclear Energy Insider.

How embarrassing would it be for the United States if, on the competent handling and storage of spent nuclear fuel, Ukraine makes more progress in two years than we’ve made in the last fifty.

Of course, Ukraine also has an incentive to become more energy independent. His name is Vladimir Putin.

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Cut of natural gas supply to Europe? We'd never do that!

Cut off natural gas supply to Europe? We’d never do that!

 

Now that Putin’s troops are rolling into Ukraine under a Novorossiyan version of Operation Himmler, Western Europe has to consider the prospect of Putin cutting off the natural gas supply as soon as it gets a bit chilly. He can’t do that without a substantial cost to himself because Russia is less a country than it is a petroleum and natural gas field with a government and military perched on top.  Sales of oil and natural gas prop up Russia’s social safety net and keep the price of vodka within reach of the average citizen.

Still, Putin has been willing to pay these costs (e.g., sanctions, travel restrictions on high ranking Russian officials, international opprobrium, etc.) so far, and there’s no reason to believe that he won’t continue to pay them — or make the Russian people pay them. Remember that Dostoyevsky had Russians specifically in mind when he said that the problem with mankind is that it can get used to anything.

 

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