Uneasy lies the head…
February 25th 2022
Bryan Zepp Jamieson
Most of the discussion surrounding Putin’s move to invade and subjugate the Ukraine has been based on a realpolitik stance that Russia needs to have a “buffer zone”–a sphere of influence on its western flank that corresponds roughly to the Iron Curtain countries, the Warsaw Pact of the second half of the 20th century. The explanation goes that while Putin is never going to have Poland, half of Germany and the Czech and Slovenian areas under his control, he can subsume the Ukraine, possibly the Baltics, and in a fever dream, Romania and parts of Yugoslavia and rebuild much of the old Soviet empire.
The reality is a bit more complex. Russia is only a few bad harvests away from becoming a failed state. When the USSR collapsed, the economy collapsed with it, with the Ruble dropping to 2,500 to the dollar, about a 99.5% drop in value. Between 1991 and 1993, Russia lost nearly a third of its population—to starvation, to suicide, to drink. Boris Yeltsin took over the collapsed country in late 1991, inheriting a financial and social catastrophe that dwarfed the Great Depression of the 1930s.
By the end of 1993, Yeltsin had swept away the remaining pieces of the Soviet regime, including the Supreme Soviet and the Congress of People’s Deputies. He then issued a stock voucher program that permitted Russian citizens to invest in private businesses, part of a glowing image of a “free market reform” that would lead to wealth and plenty for all.
Didn’t happen. Russian plutocrats snapped up most of the vouchers, offering as little as 1% of face value in cash to desperate and starving citizens, which led to a vast concentration of wealth. And of course the “free market reform” was totally unregulated, which led to an economic gang-rape of Russia by the resident plutocrats—which already included the sinister and corrupt future trillionaire, Vladimir Putin—and western corporations.
Russia is a vast country, even now larger than the US and Canada combined. However, it only has 144 million people, and a GDP of $4.1 trillion. By way of comparison, California, with just under 40 million people, has a GDP of over $3 trillion.
But that’s misleading. A large percentage of that Russian GDP consists of money games amongst the plutocrats, and oil and gas alone make up a entire half of the Russian economy. In terms of what economists like to call “the Main Street economy” Russia’s economy is about the size of Romania’s. Russia never recovered from the 1990s, not in any meaningful way.
Russia under Putin is as viciously repressive as it was in the Soviet days, only under communism people at least got some food to eat and a roof over their heads. It was a shitty existence, no doubt of that, but it was better than what the average Russian faces now.
About the only other significant difference between the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia is that the flow of information isn’t as absolute as it was in the 60s, before satellites and the internet. So the citizenry get to hear about how deeply they are being screwed.
Putin is deeply unpopular in Russia. Only election corruption on a level Trump can only dream of keeps him afloat. He’s had to imprison, poison and murder political dissidents and opponents. He managed to install a puppet president in America, but the puppet turned out to be too incompetent to be of any real use other than as a huge intelligence leak. He also had a puppet in Ukraine, but again, he was an incompetent and the citizenry replaced him with someone willing to stand up against Putin. Much of the American puppet’s regime was devoted to trying to overthrow the non-puppet president of Ukraine.
There’s no hope the Russian economy will improve because just by himself he’s stealing an estimated 10% of it every year. His buddies take over half.
Invading Ukraine will make him look strong, and while the Ukraine is also just a few steps removed from also being an economic basket case, it does have vast stretches of rich farmland and other resources. He can at least pretend he’s doing it to improve the lot of the Russian citizenry, and some of them may even believe it for a year or two before reality crashes in.
It raises the possibility that other former Soviet Republics might take the implied threat posed by the attack on the Ukraine seriously enough to question if they might not be better off rejoining Russia as opposed to being bombed. Some of the nations are badly enough run that they may be considering it, and if nothing else, Putin might believe they are considering it.
If his gamble pays off, Putin buys time. He’s shrewd enough to realize that Biden can only go so far in imposing economic sanctions, and that ones that hurt the Russian plutocracy the hardest will exact a financial toll on the American economy, and American support for Ukraine is like Lake Winnipeg—very broad but very shallow. And of course Putin’s puppet-in-exile is still effectively the head of a national political party and he and the GOP are already propagandizing on Putin’s behalf.
Which leads to the real threat: that between trying to occupy the Ukraine and the growing discontent at home, he might soon be facing an organized and widespread revolt.
A former KGB apparatchik, Putin has to know that no amount of repression and propaganda and military might can save a regime that has lost support. The mighty Soviet Union died with only a handful of shots being fired simply because enough of the citizenry turned their backs and walked away.
He has nothing to offer his people, and even before this winter’s mad gamble, his position was becoming more and more precarious. Even as the blitzkreig rages across the Ukraine with blinding speed, in what should have been a moment of glory, he finds himself making wild, if veiled threats of nuclear war, and the head of his space program even threatened to crash the International Space Station into the United States, exposing the desperate madness that lies behind Putin’s actions.
The best Putin can hope for is that Ukraine doesn’t form an organized guerrilla resistance, and the same doesn’t happen at home. Otherwise, he is likely to die at the hands of the mob.
And if that happens, he won’t have any sympathy from the rest of the world.