About three hours after putting pen to paper, we find that Russian President Vladimir Putin announced ‘special military operations’ directed against Ukraine.
This announcement led to thinking about motivations.
War is politically risky, and it is expensive. In conversation with a friend and colleague of mine over previous days, the discussion centred around what possible use a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be for Moscow. Russia is not the Soviet Union. The Soviet state was the world’s second-largest military superpower. The Russian Federation is not even a shadow of this former international behemoth. However, Russia has inherited the USSR’s nuclear weapons, so despite its small economic footprint relative to its territorial size, the country remains consequential.
From an economic rationalist perspective, war is bad for business. At least in the short-term disruption caused. In previous weeks leading up to today’s military hostilities, Western capitals were preparing an economic response to any likely Russian military operation against Ukraine, with sanctions being an appropriate deterrent. Putin, after all, leads a kleptocratic oligarchy. Money, therefore, is a valued currency to dictators and democrats alike, the international balm for a good life. This philosophy is true for those who think like this. However, for those who think of power, money is simply a means to an end, not an end in itself.
The imposition of an initial package of sanctions on Moscow after declaring the ’independent republics’ of Luhansk and Donetsk was no deterrent. The loss of the ‘valued’ Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline was no deterrent. So what does this tell us about Putin and his inner circle? It tells us that we are fighting the wrong war with the wrong tools.
Putin aims to change the situation on the ground with military force. His motivation was always about security and the European balance of power, not economics. Whether that is because the People’s Republic of China is supporting Russia behind the scenes or not is irrelevant. What is essential is that NATO and the US were deaf to Putin’s concerns about NATO expansion and a democratic, Western armed Ukraine sitting on his border. We in the West deluded ourselves into thinking that modern government officials in all countries are guided by trade, commerce and market forces. We will be deluding ourselves with this notion into the short-to-medium term before we rediscover that strategic and political power is critical and that economics should be in the service of the national polity. Like Russia, the People’s Republic of China sees the world in terms of power politics. It is good to be rich, but it is also good to be powerful. With power comes money through intimidation or conquest. History is replete with this lesson. A lesson that liberal internationalists and economic rationalists refused to learn and are now having difficulty understanding or explaining.