Yet Another Non-Expert Opinion on the Russo-Ukraine War

14-Mar-2023 Like this? Dislike this? Let me know

Disclaimer: The author is not an expert in this space.

Why is Russia in conflict with Ukraine? I believe the answer is simple and sadly predictable given the events following the dissolution of the USSR in 1990-1991 for these two reasons:

  1. Russia will not be relegated to "just another European state" in the International Order and this means maintaining a superpower military presence -- which is jeopardized by Ukraine not being fully committed to partnership with Russia and non-alignment with NATO due to the warm water naval base at Sevastopol.
  2. It is important to understand the psyche of Russia in the context of European imperial and military operations in the past 200 years, mainly that Russia keeps getting overrun by France and Germany -- which happen to be the largest economies of European NATO members.

The International Order, 1945-1990

It is possible to write an entire book on the International Order but to simplify it here, let us define it as a global pecking order based on just two key measurements: economic strength (GDP and trade agreements) and military strength (deployable military assets [especially nuclear assets] and alliances), These are two critical ingredients that drive the influence of a country in both world affairs and internal economic growth.

Until 1990, the International Order was basically the US (NATO) and the USSR (Warsaw Pact, plus various socialist states around the globe); it was a two player game. In 1990, the USA had 10 times the GDP of Russia, and France, Germany, and the UK each had at least twice the GDP of Russia. But perhaps more important for Russia, it had a nuclear arsenal, an air force, and a navy to rival the USA including nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. It had a "border buffer" of Soviet Socialist Republics to insulate it from an easy land-based attack. The economic superiority of the West, at least in raw numbers like GDP, could be countered with ideology around socialism and the collective, fair benefits of a globally harmonized socialist construct -- albeit slow to fully realize.
The International Order was basically the same group of 10 or 12 countries that had been on the list since reconstruction after World War II; notably, Japan and Iran put up very impressive growth figures -- but they were definitely not military superpowers.

And at the time, although China was nuclear capable, it was only starting down the economic path architected by the great Deng Xiaoping. India? South Korea? Basically not even in the same ballpark.

The Dissolution of The USSR and New Problems For Russia

There were two main new problems with the breakup of the USSR:

  1. Starting almost immediately, Estonia, Latvia, Lituania, Czechia, Hungary, and of course Poland -- the birthplace of late 20th century call for reform and detachment from the USSR -- declared themselves independent republics. Within a year, Bulgaria and Romania, key Eastern bloc satellite states on the western shore of the Black Sea also became independent. Owing to the fact that all these countries had been overrun or otherwise subjugated in the Soviet era, they began to align military alliances with the West and by 2004, they were extended membership into NATO. The impact on the psyche of Russia with these developments cannot be underestimated. In just about 10 years, Russia not only lost its border buffer but those states joined NATO, perceived as the enemy of Russia, intent on its destruction.

    It is the author's belief that the USA by itself has very likely never had a good reason to pre-emptively destroy Russia. In short, what is the point? The rationale for invasion is even less. And this has become even more true in the past 40 years with globalization: "trade, don't invade". Trading for resources is vastly less costly, more flexible, and obviously less deadly than fighting for them. And truly, the same could argued about Russia's rationale for doing the same to the USA. Russia struggled to keep their border satellite states fully aligned with Moscow's agenda; how could they invade, subdue, and manage a country on the other side of world that is larger than all of Western and Central Europe plus the Nordics combined? The core historical issue is not about the USA and the USSR, nor capitalism vs. communism; it is about the Concert of Europe and the reduction of global influence of the old Imperial Russia.

    But the USA is part of NATO and who is in NATO? France and Germany. And history -- modern history at that -- demonstrates that indeed France and Germany did on more than one occasion initiate war with Russia. So it is not unreasonable that given this military alliance, Russia feared that (for example) if Germany would try it again, or if Latvia challenged an eastern border, this time it might have the backing of the USA. That is a threat that requires a substantial demonstration of a strong retaliation -- nuclear options. The author believes that the probability of this happening, however, has decreased decade-over-decade since 1970s and now, in 2023, the doctrine of "trade, don't invade" -- in a sense, economic war -- has surplanted physical war. Look at what China is doing in Africa. They are not invading; they are making billions in capital investments in return for minerals and other resource rights.

  2. Most of Russia is a vast, inland region of emptiness. As a result, following WW2 and the creation of the USSR, various activities and installations were championed in other SSR states. Excellent examples include:
    With the formal dissolution of SSR-oriented ties to the Russian SSR, Russia now found itself with important assets outside of even indirect control or separated by great distance.

The Reevalution of Global Marxist-Leninism

By 2014, both the global economic and military landscapes had changed significantly:

Even Vietnam, perhaps "The" textbook example of US/USSR cold war proxy conflicts, managed to grow its GDP from 6.5B in 1990 to 233B by 2014, a staggering 36X growth compared to Russia's 1.6X. In 1986, after 10 years as a unified socialist state and enduring both economic war from the West in the form of embargoes and military conflicts with (ironically) communist China and neighboring Cambodia, Vietnam gave up and began to adopt reforms echoing those being promulgated by Deng in China.

What became abundantly clear is that most "communist" countries reimagined/revised/reevaluated Marxist-Leninist ideals in the framework of a market economy with liberal reforms -- including Russia. Russia and China and Vietnam (c 1975) now bear little resemblance to their "communist" roots. They are now mercantilists, global industry builders, and global traders. The oligarchs of Russia and the many billionaires in China would likely have been an anathema to Lenin and Mao.

The importance of this reevaluation is that the value of the realization of a USSR-led global socialist movement was significantly diminished, if not outright eliminated. This profoundly changed the influence and economic alliance component of post-USSR Russia, enough to change the International Order.

The Final Straw: Euromaidan

If not for the Euromaidan movement in 2013 and the "Revolution of Dignity" in 2014, Russia might have held back just a little while longer. But with the ouster of a pro-Russian administration and a new administration that was looking for much stronger ties with the West, Russia could not sit still any longer. The fate of the Black Sea fleet in Crimea was at stake. There was no way Russia could not be in 100% control of its only warm water naval base. On the pretext of an abundance of ethnic Russians in that region wishing to unite with Russia (not untrue, but levels of support vary) and "reports" of ethnic violence in the region, Russia annexed Crimea.

The Final Final Straw: The Zelenskyy Administration and Courting NATO

An independent Ukraine was marginally acceptable. A West-leaning Ukraine was practically unacceptable. Ukraine as a member of NATO? This would mean that with the exception of Belarus, Russia would be surrounded by the "enemy" border-to-border. A NATO-aligned Ukraine could easily position all kinds of arms to threaten Sevastopol, again effectively denying intended use of the port. This is a non-starter for the Russian military strategic agenda. Russia launched a so-called "special military operation" which under reflection appeared to try to accomplish two things:

  1. Wipe out the Kyiv leadership and replace it with a Moscow-aligned leadership. This in part explains the initial assault on Kyiv which is geographically irrelevant to the Sevastopol problem.
  2. Secure more of Eastern Ukraine to increase the width of the land channel from inner centers like Kursk and Voronezh to the Sea of Azov and, indeed; if possible, push the Russian border all the way west to the Dnipro river to absolutely control both access to Sevastopol and all of the Sea of Azov.

Vladimir Putin and The International Order

Putin did not immediately inherent the situation following the dissolution of the USSR; he came to power 10 years later in 2000. Between 1990 and 2000, the International Order had already changed. China's GDP went from being a somewhat more than half of Russia's to over 4.5X larger. India was 1.8X larger and nuclear capable. Putin was determined not to let Russia slowly slide into being a minor player and in some ways, his oratory especially over the past year with the Ukraine conflict reflects this -- just not directly. He cannot say "We are losing power and influence and face in the International Order and I am not about to lose our warm water port so therefore as a Russian global strategic asset I am taking over Crimea." But he can -- and did -- say "This effort (the 2022 invasion) is a response to an existential threat to the Russian motherland as the West continues to try to dismantle and chip away at our great country." It is up for debate as to whether further change in the International Order is an "existential threat" to Russia itself but the author suggests that Putin and many inside Russia believe so. To them, Russia is a global superpower to be respected and feared, not a country with barely more impact than India (for example). The recent brokering by China of new ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia, although irritating to the USA, most definitely is a indicator to Russia that China has superceded them in the International Order.

There are also at least two different opinions about what "chipping away" means. Imperial Russia under Peter The Great in the early 18th century followed by Catherine The Great significantly expanded Russia's borders even after several defeats (ironically including the Crimean War in 1855) so that up to the eve of the Russian Civil War between 1917-1920, the area included what we now know as the Baltics, Poland, Ukraine, and Moldova with probably bits of Romania. Plus Finland and vast areas of Asia which are out of scope for this article. Putin's words make sense if this is the area he is referencing as that which the West is chipping away but most inhabitants of those regions would certainly not agree, "West" or no "West". Certainly the Baltics would assert no, they are not being chipped away from the Russia (or the former USSR) but rather being liberated from occupation by it. "Chipping away" could also mean alliances, not just borders, and military and economic alliances are the main inputs in the International Order.

It is always hard to rally support for major offensive actions that will likely result in large numbers of casualties. Putin reached deep into the national fear reservoir by claiming that the 2022 "special military action" was to "de-Nazify" Eastern Ukraine. Perhaps no other statement could so rally Russian nationals to the cause, reviving images of the invasion of Nazi Germany into Russia to open up the Eastern Front of the European theater which ultimately led to approx. 25 million Russian casualities of which most (upwards of 19 million) were civilian. No country suffered more casualities than Russia.


Nuclear & Naval Capacities, 2023

          fission  fusion  navy  missile_subs  carriers
  china   1964     1967    MR    7             2
  US      1945     1952    G     14            11
  Russia           1955    MR    11            1 (4 decommd)
  France           1968    LG    4             1
  UK               1957    MR    4             2
  India            1998    R     2 under cons  2

GDP (in billions US$)

Sourced from
  Country   1990   1995  2000   2005   2010  2012   2015   2020  2021 
  US        5963   7639  10250  13039 15048        18206  21060  23315
  Russia     516    395   259     764  1524  2292   1363   1489   1778
  China      360    734  1211   2285   6087        11061  14687  17734
  Japan     3132   5545  4968   4831   5759  6272   4444   5040   4940       
  France    1269   1601  1365   2196   2645         2439   2639   2957
  Germany   1771   2585  1947   2846   3399         3357   3889   4259
  S. Korea   283    566   576    934   1144         1465   1644   1810
  India      320    360   468    820   1675         2103   2667   3176
  Brazil     390    769   655    891   2208         1802   1448   1608
  Italy     1181   1174  1146   1858   2136         1836   1896   2107
  Canada     593    604   744   1173   1617         1556   1645   1988
  UK        1093   1346  1666   2544   2491         2934   2704   3131
  Indonesia  106   202    165    285    755          860   1058   1186
  Vietnam      6.5                                   239    346    366 
  Top 20 in 1990
US   	                $5,963,100M		1.9%	
Euro zone [+]	1990	$5,880,688M			
Japan [+]	1990	$3,196,556M		5.6%	
Germany [+]	1990	$1,598,640M		5.3%	
France [+]	1990	$1,272,433M		2.9%	
United Kingdom [+]	1990	$1,195,372M		0.7%	
Italy [+]	1990	$1,170,839M		2.1%	
Canada [+]	1990	$596,089M		0.2%	
Iran [+]	1990	$581,008M		13.6%	
Spain [+]	1990	$535,652M		3.8%	
Russia [+]	1990	$516,814M			
Brazil [+]	1990	$455,335M		-4.2%	

China [+]	1990	$396,590M		3.9%	
India [+]	1990	$326,608M		5.5%	
Australia [+]	1990	$323,815M		-0.4%	
Netherlands [+]	1990	$321,405M		4.2%	
Mexico [+]	1990	$290,402M		5.1%	
South Korea [+]	1990	$283,280M		9.9%	
Switzerland [+]	1990	$265,911M		3.7%	

  Top 20 in 2022
US                      $25,464,500M		2.1%	
China [+]	2021	$17,744,640M		8.1%	
Euro zone [+]	2022	$14,045,493M		3.5%	
Japan [+]	2021	$4,932,556M		2.1%	
Germany [+]	2022	$4,072,004M		1.8%	
India [+]	2021	$3,176,296M		8.7%	
United Kingdom [+]	2021	$3,131,378M			
France [+]	2022	$2,782,777M		2.6%	
Italy [+]	2022	$2,010,339M		3.7%	
Canada [+]	2021	$1,988,336M		5.0%	
South Korea [+]	2021	$1,797,810M		4.0%	
Russia [+]	2021	$1,778,530M		4.7%	
Australia [+]	2021	$1,635,255M		3.6%	
Brazil [+]	2021	$1,608,080M		4.6%	
Iran [+]	2021	$1,589,869M		4.7%	
Spain [+]	2022	$1,399,355M		5.5%	
Mexico [+]	2021	$1,297,661M		4.7%	
Indonesia [+]	2021	$1,187,319M			
Netherlands [+]	2022	$992,854M		4.5%	
Saudi Arabia [+]  

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