Putin the Pillager
Putin’s New Clothes (just like the old clothes)
Amid the terrible and tragic news from Ukraine, there is a basic question that many of us are asking ourselves? Why are the Russians doing this? Putin, yes. But why?
Putin’s stated reasons and goals for his attack on Ukraine can, at least to a point, be viewed as political, idealistic, or even nationalistic motivations (but see illustration above). The Russian assault against life, liberty, justice, and truth is very real for all Ukrainians. Should Putin have his way, Ukrainian democracy will certainly be destroyed. To achieve his aims, Putin must make certain that the Ukrainian government is be overthrown and replaced with a puppet government.
But why? Does Putin really believe that Ukraine is a threat? That Ukraine, if it ever joined NATO, would really invade Russia? Is his aim “merely” to extend Russian “ideology” and governmental rule, and to create a political boundary buffer against the West?
Maybe Putin really does believe his own lies and projected fantasies, if so, likely encouraged by his sycophants and media echo-chambers. I, personally, don’t think so. He is a cynical, brooding, nervous, and ruthless agent of his own power, steeped and trained and practiced in the most dastard KGB tactics and strategies, with vast resources to carry out his schemes. That is nothing new. He is nothing new, nor are his ideas and aims.
There is another way, and perhaps a sobering way, for us view Putin’s gambit: It has to do with good old-fashioned greed. Putin’s world view is centuries old. And he is the embodiment of how, in a very real blood and bullets way, out-dated ways can threaten us all over again. Let me give some examples.
The Neo(n) Gold?
Neon, not cryptocurrency, might well be the new gold. Neon is a required ingredient in the manufacturing of computer chips and circuits. Ukraine supplies 70% of the world’s neon. Imagine if Putin could acquire control of this supply, effectively using Ukrainian neon not only to bolster Russia’s faltering chip-making industry (controlled by Russian oligarchs, of course), but to derail chip making in Taiwan, Japan, U.S., Europe, U.K., and elsewhere. Without neon, the world will scramble to find alternative means of chip production, and the problems we face today with chip shortages will play even more powerfully into Putin’s hands. Russia could conceivably take the lead in chip manufacturing well before the rest of the world has any alternative means of production, methods that do not rely on neon. Meanwhile, electronics manufacturers could be forced to buy Russian-made chips (or components).
Even worse, many such chips could carry hidden payloads of malware (spyware, location tracking, data gathering, etc.). We’ve seen this before. So, not only would Russia corner or control the chip market, it could also extend its surveillance power into virtually every cellphone, vehicle, business, and home. The ultimate hacking coup. And let us not forget, neon is critical to combating global warming as it is essential to making the energy and carbon saving things that we need.
Where is the bulk of Ukrainian neon produced? Odessa. But the ultimate territory of conquest may well be cyberspace itself (think cellphone towers, networks, GPS, the internet, social media and email). Meanwhile, what emerging clean technology will be shuttered by, fall victim to, or become banned in favor of Russia’s cheap oil and gas? And, speaking of oil and gas…
Ports and Trade Routes
In the old days, whoever controlled roads, ports, and shipping lanes ruled. In Ukraine, the new roads are pipelines, and Russia wants them. Oil and natural gas flows through Ukraine to Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Turkey, and other countries (some of it passing through to countries even farther away). Control of these pipelines, and the imposition of new ones (constructed by Ukrainian forced labor, no doubt) would be the same as controlling important roads and sea trade routes. And, speaking of sea trade routes…
Ukraine has several major and many lesser ports on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov*. Control of these ports was lost to Russia at the breakup of the Soviet Union. Some of them were taken when Russia invaded the Crimea in 2014. Putin wants all of them. Russia will then have cheaper and more accessible ports capable of operating at much lower costs (higher profits to oligarchs!) than those located on the Baltic and Barents Seas. And those ports aren’t just for cargo ships.
With those ports well in hand, Russia will also have the ability to build major naval bases and warships to threaten the Bosporus, Istanbul, and the Dardanelles Strait. It is not inconceivable that Russia would move against these regions in order to project greater power into the Aegean and Mediterranean. Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Georgia could all be pressured “into the cooperation fold.” And with easier access to the sea and a multitude of ports and naval bases, Russia’s clients in the Middle East, such as Syria, would be strengthened both politically and militarily. After that? The Suez Canal?
Could Ukraine be the first move in Putin’s grand imperial strategy?
Ukraine is rich in minerals and ranked among the world’s top ten producers of uranium, titanium, zirconium silicate, iron ore, gallium, germanium, manganese, and graphite. This represents a huge treasure chest as the world’s high-tech industries depend on many of these minerals. Like neon, control of these minerals would position Russia enhance its tech industries and to exert greater control over much of the world’s tech industries. And many of these minerals are vital to Russia’s military.
Basic rule of conquest: Control the food and you control the population.
Ukraine produces 10% of the world’s wheat. 8% of that is exported. Russia is currently the 3rd largest producer of wheat. Putin wants more. Russia covets Ukrainian wheat as its own agriculture continues to struggle. If history is any example, Ukrainians will labor to produce it, will not be paid, and will be required to transport it to Russia at no cost. Of course, this is not sustainable. No doubt eventually there will be little incentive for Ukraine to grow as much as it now does or to take care of the land. Hunger will result. First in Ukraine. But Russians at home will, at least for a while, enjoy bread prices that are subsidized by stolen wheat. In the meanwhile, wheat is just another commodity that Putin seeks to control for the benefit of Russia (or, really, for himself and his cadre of locusts).
Putin wants and needs forced labor to achieve his goals. Of course, it is an old tradition, practiced by rulers since as far back as memory goes. Not only labor to rebuild a destroyed Ukraine. The fact is that Russia cannot sustain its current kleptocratic economic system because profits from business small and large are siphoned off into various protection rackets (or “pay to play” schemes) run by the Putin and his fellow kleptocrats and oligarchs and that, rackets that infiltrate every marketplace and workshop, and from the mom-and-pop diner to the industrial park. Very little is left over for personal investment, educational expenses, clothes, home improvement, repairs, or food purchases. The black market thrives in Russia, and many criminal enterprises are supported, if not outright controlled, by Putin. Meanwhile, to buy stolen goods, food, auto parts, and counterfeits, etc., is the only option many working Russians have. Only the wealthy Russians can afford the real deal. As long as there are no real shortages, though, the peasants will remain calm. They would not bite the hand that feeds them, surely.
So, if Russia could introduce even cheaper goods, manufactured by even cheaper forced Ukrainian labor, then the oligarchs will profit and Russian discontent can be somewhat quelled (Let the good times roll!). And, of course, Ukrainian “malcontents,” rounded up as prisoners, will inevitably be brought into the least hospitable regions of Russia (think Siberia, e.g.) or given the most undesirable, hardest, and most dangerous work. Some might be put to work in Ukraine, as an example for their fellow Ukrainians to see. It will start with only few thousand, of course. The usual suspects such as subversives, so-called “Nazis,” saboteurs, guerilla resistance fighters, members of Ukrainian government, and ex-soldiers. Think, too, of journalists, artists, teachers, podcasters, cooks, and taxi drivers, too. And family members of, friends of, and classmates, clients, and clergy. Think labor camps. Think cattle cars. Think of other things…
Does Putin’s Invasion Thus Far Indicate an Intent to Pillage?
It looks like it to me. As far as I can tell, critical pipeline infrastructures have not yet been targeted in widespread actions. A destroyed pipeline would be very costly to Russia. Likewise for coveted facilities that produce neon or minerals. Ports are extremely costly to rebuild, if destroyed. It would be much more valuable to capture these assets relatively undamaged. So Putin’s desire to obtain these resources intact might be the reason why the Russian military has not adopted a scorched-earth campaign. At least not so far. Their aim of destroying the government of Ukraine, and replacing it with a pro-Russian regime would make sense.
The danger to Putin’s plan is if the campaign to take Ukraine bogs down into protracted and costly siege warfare. Then a money-strapped Russia might decide to simply destroy Ukraine altogether and rebuild it the “Putin Way,” meaning only those parts that would be of use to Russia. The extra expense of maintaining an occupation force—that is, of suppressing the opposition of a hostile Ukrainian population—will certainly erode, if not cancel, any of Putin’s perceived gains. Ditto for the cost of constantly propping up a puppet regime and its enforcers. Obviously, this would be bad for all Ukrainians, because such invaders rarely have a sense of mercy. To pay for a such costly campaign, Putin may resort to what others have done in the past: new conquests elsewhere. Greed alloyed to desperation. Putin’s efforts are doomed to spiral into ever more dangerous acts of violence and despotism and aggression. Ultimately, over-extended, out of resources and money, and with China patiently waiting to pick up the pieces, Russia’s Putin-esque Empire would collapse, likely with violent turmoil. Right now, Putin doesn’t seem to care. And he doesn’t seem to care who goes down with him.
Of course, the future collapse of Putin’s dreams is of little consolation, right now, to Ukraine. As of this writing, any way you look at it, the outlook seems horrific. And, whichever way you see it, both Russia and Ukraine are running out of time.
I’ve given only a few examples of the old-fashioned motives masked by nationalistic rhetoric and jingoism. We are not deceived. The lives of Ukrainians are at stake. So, too, is liberty. And not just that of Ukrainians. Think about it the next time you fill up your car, enjoy a sandwich, or look at your device or cellphone only to wonder who might be spying on you. Right now, the only ones who can stop Putin are the Russian people. Whether any Russian is brave enough to even try, much less succeed, is the real question.
*As this was being prepared, news reached us that Kherson, a major port on the Black Sea, has fallen to the Russians. The port city of Melitopol was captured on February 25. Russian troops are now besieging the port city of Mariupol. It is likely they will soon move against the port of Mykolaiv. Then Odessa will be the next target.
From what I have been able to glean from various sources, Russian forces are not targeting assets of long-term value. That is, demolition activities, including air and missile strikes, artillery, etc., do not seem to be aimed at destroying key infrastructure listed in the article above. Major gas and oil pipelines that cross Ukraine from Russia that carry significant amounts to ports or other countries are being left relatively unmolested. Instead, gas pipelines, electricity power and transmission, and rail that serve Ukrainians, particularly in larger cities, ARE being targeted. The Russian forces seem intent on economic and political destruction. Administrative buildings, including government offices and service centers, are being targeted. They are attacking and/or capturing key roads and bridges, road interchanges, rail stations, and airports, along with shipping/port authority and dock control facilities. By capturing the nuclear power plants, they aim to cut off major power supplies to Ukraine. Choking off resources that Ukraine needs to survive (fuel, electricity, food, clean water, arms shipments, and supplies) will put increasing pressure on the Ukrainians to surrender. The Russians seem to hope that, faced with starvation, the inability to care for the sick and wounded, and dwindling military supplies, the Ukrainians will stop fighting and will “officially” agree to Russian demands.
Obviously, this is a serious misread of Ukrainians. Even if the Ukrainian government does capitulate, and even if the Ukrainian military “officially” surrenders, it is clear that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, already armed and spread all over the country, will continue to mount independent attacks on the Russians. It is very doubtful if there are enough Ukrainians that could be employed by Russia to effectively enforce security or to quell resistance fighters. So it seems too late for the Russians to have any hope of anything other than a long-term and costly Soviet-style occupation of Ukraine, requiring the guarding of assets that Ukrainians will target in order to deprive Russia of any benefits. In other words, it seems likely that Ukrainians themselves may begin targeting their own pipelines, port facilities, and other infrastructure rather than allow Russia to profit from the spoils of invasion.
That’s my updated assessment. Right now, the Ukrainians have dug in and are fortifying positions around Kyiv and other places. It increasingly appears that the Russians feel they have no choice but to reduce cities to rubble (as they did in Grozny and Aleppo) even though this flies in the face of any kind of common sense (or decency). Doubtless the Ukrainians have long been aware of this and have been planning accordingly. Meanwhile, and for a long while to come, every single day that Russian military forces remain within the borders of Ukraine will be yet another day that drains Russia of blood and treasure.
The Russians may technically win this war and capture Ukraine. But I think that it will go down and one of the most massive blunders in Russian history.