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Putin’s Wild World of Unintended Consequences

He didn’t mean this to last more than a few days. Drop into Kyiv, install a new government, quick exit, no fuss.

He didn’t think western sanctions would slow him down even slightly. He never considered that sheer naked aggression would bring NATO together, not fracture it.

He never gave a thought to how the financial world would strangle his oligarchs, especially in “Londongrad,” where they’d been happily laundering their trillions and buying their mansions and soccer teams for twenty years, until the bottom fell out last week.

And he certainly never thought Ukrainians would fight like their lives depended on it, just because their lives depended on it.

But of all the consequences he never intended — and which were, let’s be honest, spectacularly stupid — there’s one that stands out, even in this sordid parade of bad choices:

Vladimir Putin has exposed, and in the most glaring terms, just how weak he is.

He has revealed to the world that, despite his unfortunate ability to blow us all to smithereens, he is in fact the weak leader of a weak country, with a weak military and an economy that will soon be on life support.

Western observers have to be astonished at the sheer incompetence, structural fragility, and misuse of resources they’re seeing. And why wouldn’t they be? After seventy-five years of strategic and tactical obsession with the legendary might of the Russian armed forces, they’re now seeing it for the sham it is. The chronic waste, rot, and sheer vulnerability are now plainly visible.

I am by no means qualified to weigh in on military matters, but even I can see the myths being busted. The Russian military is quite clearly heavy on hardware and light on brains.

Yes, they have the aircraft, missiles, tanks, and artillery to indiscriminately kill Ukrainians and destroy their property, probably for months. And I don’t mean to minimize the catastrophic reality of that.

But when it comes to boots on the ground, this army is not ready for prime time. Their soldiers seem to be mostly conscripts — kids too young, too poorly-trained, and too ill-equipped for any sort of armed conflict. Their command structure favors blind obedience over tactical initiative. Their leadership skills are suspect. Their communications technology is apparently a few upgrades behind.

Their logistical support seems particularly inept. We see that they packed just enough food, water, gasoline, and ammo for a week in the country, so we can expect that the stories of trucks running out of gas, tanks falling apart, and troops eating twenty-year-old rations will only grow over time.

The conventional wisdom in the West was that Putin had learned from Russia’s ten-year disaster in Afghanistan, and that he’d modernized his military. Supposedly, he’d equipped it with the latest technology, staffed it with well-trained, well-paid professional soldiers, and set out to build a new Russian empire, something along the lines of Stalin and Ivan the Terrible. In retrospect, given his savage violations of Chechnya, Syria, Georgia, and Crimea, we should have paid more attention.

But now that he’s facing an entire population of people willing and able to punch back, all the seams are showing. We’re witnessing a kleptocratic state choking on its own kleptocracy.

Details of anything Russian are always sketchy, but some reports seem to be saying that the aforementioned “modernization” of the military was mostly smoke and mirrors. That much of the budget for that modernization was in fact stolen by one oligarch or another, and that Putin might not even know it.

Is this such a surprise? We saw them do the same thing in the Sochi Olympics in 2014, when a $7 billion construction budget exploded to $53 billion, most of it pocketed by Putin cronies.

In a systemic kleptocracy, every corrupt player in the food chain takes a cut of whatever money is being skimmed, from whatever project is being scammed. Eventually, so many corners are cut that the project suffocates for lack of funding. Call it the Sochi business model.

Extend that model to the military/industrial complex — and the government spending that feeds it — and you can see how quality control might suffer. The fighter jets don’t get repaired. The spare parts don’t get delivered. The wrong ammunition goes to the wrong place. The troops don’t get paid, fed, or properly supervised. And a few thousand draftees die from collective incompetence.

But hey, as long as some oligarch gets his skim, so be it. Yachts are expensive, after all.

So is invading your neighbors. Which means that for Putin, the unintended consequences are now piling up and will soon start to sting.

We can now see, for instance, that no matter what is left of Ukraine when the bombing stops, there is no chance of a meaningful occupation. Russia simply does not have the resources to police a deeply hostile, seethingly resentful population of 40 million people.

We can also see that any Russian attack on a NATO country would be laughably ill-advised. The sheer mass of destructive firepower now trained on Russia would make short work of an army that is already overstretched and depleted.

No doubt there are, right now, NATO generals sensing new opportunity in Russia’s weakness. They’d be arguing for counter-strikes, not just in Ukraine, but in Russia and Belarus as well. I don’t see this as likely, but I have no doubt it’s being brainstormed. As are all the other options, including the crazy ones — nuclear, chemical, cyber — none of which can be ruled out.

It’s hard to miss Alexander Vindman on TV these days. You can see why he was in demand at the highest levels of government, and why smart people would want him in the room. He possesses — and can articulate — both a granular knowledge of the military weaponry and logistics now in play, and the perspective to help us look at options going forward.

I bring him up only because he has deftly identified the dynamic we now face in this conflict, which I’ll paraphrase:  

What seemed unthinkable a week ago is quite thinkable today, and what seems unthinkable today will be totally thinkable next week.

Last week, it was exclusion from the SWIFT system. This week, it’s no-fly zones. Next week, we can’t even think what might be thinkable.

This is worth remembering as Putin comes to terms with his unintended consequences. All his options are poor, most are devastatingly destructive. But they’re all coming from a position of real weakness.

The big question is whether he knows it. And what he might do about it.

Comments

  1. What worries me is that the counter-measures you mentioned are coming out of the pockets of the free world. When I buy gas I am enriching our own American oligarchs while supposedly bankrupting the Russian ones. Yet we are "suffering" as we pay inflated and extortionate prices for almost everything in the name of Ukraine's freedom. Could Putin, foul as he is, have thought this out? Could he win by losing? He is, it seems, fighting a world economic war while getting stalemated in Ukraine.

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