For God’s sake, let’s talk about that regime change

Partha Chakraborty-

Partha Chakraborty

Change creeps up on you. A few months back I was elated to find a particularly fearsome crossing guard back in action one morning – that was a welcome sign that the pandemic was behind us. This morning I read of dog-walkers return to the bombed-out parks of Kyiv. Chaperoned by elderly residents – women and kids took refuge out of the country and men are away to the frontlines – dogs are having a field day in relative quiet after a long and harrowing month. As soon as Russia announced Kyiv was no longer the main objective, stores opened, traffic was back weaving around barricades, and cafes were handing out freshly baked croissants. A shadow of ordinary life has returned to Kyiv overnight.

Make no mistake, a full-blown war is still going on – from the outskirts of Kyiv where Russian forces show no sign of retreat to Lviv, where, barely fifty miles from Polish border, Russia just poured into a fuel depot a stone’s throw away from people’s homes. It is not going well for the invaders, over fifteen thousand Russians dead thus far, more in one month than the years Russia spent in Afghanistan. Russian morale has hit rock bottom, more than a handful Generals perished, Ukrainian partisans and soldiers are using their superior knowledge of the countryside to move behind Russian battlelines and strike with high lethality. Russians lack air supremacy, secure communication channels, and as some news reports point out, functioning GPS guidance for their missiles and aircraft.

After one month, the Bear has paused. It is not too far-fetched to think Russia will actually lose this war. Strategically, it is already a failure for Putin.

Putin claimed this “special military operation” was only designed to rid Ukraine of Nazis. Ukraine did have a Nazi problem as recently as 2014 in the guise of the “Azov Brigade’. Eight years since Azov brigade has been absorbed into the Reserves of Ukrainian Reserves, and its founder left to found another supremacist group. Azov brigade never had more than a thousand members, and by all accounts at most a tenth of them held Nazi sympathies; in comparison, Ukraine has a quarter-million soldiers in the army and fifty thousand in the Reserves. Azov brigade is not a problem here. The fact that he talked about weeding out Nazis as the official reason highlights who the intended audience was. Defeating Nazi Germany at a very high cost of life is the most significant accomplishment of the Russian State going back to Tsar era; USSR sacrificed a sixth of its population in four years during the Great War. Invoking Nazis is the easiest way to win popular support at home.

Putin claimed that Ukrainians are essentially Russians, he couldn’t be more wrong. Primary difference between Russians and Ukrainians lies not in language, culture or religion, they are reasonably close, but in political traditions. Ukraine was under the political and cultural influence of Poland till World War I, but the influence was primarily that of the West, garbed in Polish dress so to speak, instilling an intrinsic opposition to centralized power, a love for civil society, and freedom of speech. Perhaps Putin saw Ukraine as the ground of a civilizational war with the West – an idea goes back to an English geographer named Halford John Mackinder, who, in 1904, suggested that Ukraine held the key in a great power contest between Russia and Germany. With its grains, oil and coal, Ukraine had its allure to both Hitler and Lenin / Stalin. Perhaps Putin was fed the wrong image, or perhaps he created an echo chamber where the idea of Ukrainian sovereignty was never mentioned. Maybe it is just that in his “prison-yard” mindset Putin cannot allow anybody in his realm not to pay him obeisance. Whatever it is, Putin could not have a freedom-loving democracy on his border – that explains his so-far disastrous expedition. And no, there is no little girl waiting with a flower to welcome a victorious Russian brigade inside Ukraine.

By now Putin must have grasped at the severity of response and unity in Western resolve. His invasions in 2008 and 2014 did not provoke such a response, neither did the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, nor nerve agent attacks inside UK. If he learnt from history, this time is different. Thanks to deft diplomacy and leadership of the US – thank you, President Biden – the EU, NATO and the UN are essentially speaking in unison within structural limits. As importantly, the war has laid bare the rot in Russian the state and defense establishments. Bill Browder is an American British financier is the force behind Magnitsky Act and is a well-known target of Russian State vendetta, including repeated referral to Interpol and at least one arrest at international borders based on one such warrant (he was released two hours later). In a recent interview with Tunku Varadarajan of the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Browder, who has a wealth of lived experience in dealing with Russian state machinery, said “My estimate is that 80% of the military budget is stolen by Russia’s generals, because 80% of all budgets in Russia are stolen by the officials in charge.” The Journal writes “The army has been “gutted by all this corruption.” Money meant to pay soldiers has been stolen. The grunts, Mr. Browder says, survive by selling gasoline from the tanks they drive.” Ukrainian ground forces are finding Russian conscripts walking over to villages pleading for and pillaging food and gasoline, even if they are less than a hundred miles from the border. The vaunted Russian war machine is nothing but a ramshackle collective of unwilling and unprepared conscripts who were told to expect no more than a few days of fighting and a heroes’ welcome. Poppycock!

A symbiotic relationship between political and business elites is nowhere more pronounced than it is in Russia, with Putin holding the string that makes everybody dance (or not). Browder claims Putin is worth north of USD 200 Billion, making him the richest in the world, even if none of it is held in his name. Browder arrives at this USD 200 Billion number by a rule of thumb – half of every Oligarch’s wealth is “held in trust” for Putin. Mr. Browder points out a conundrum that “you can’t be the most powerful person in Russia without being the richest person. It’s an alpha-male society on steroids”, he claims. In America “you can be rich and not have any political power, or you can be powerful and not have any money. But in Russia, you have to have everything.” That also highlights the vulnerability. “The moment he’s not in power, none of these handshake deals with the oligarchs will be respected.” The Oligarchs owe their wealth to Putin’s largesse, and even if they have to share half of it with him, they need Putin to succeed.

Oligarchs need access to the banks and the global economic system at least as much as they need blessings from the leader, and that is getting seriously curtailed, if not completely taken away already, by the West’s response. Seventy percent of Russian financial system had their link to SWIFT severed, rendering them de-facto inoperable, even if the biggest Russian bank escaped wrath so far. Oligarchs closest to Putin had their assets frozen, yachts taken away, aircraft impounded; the Central Bank losing access to “safe money” of over USD 350 Billion kept abroad. Scores of foreign companies have left Russia, including most of the aspirational go-to for the Russian upper middle class. By some estimates, over two hundred thousand of highly qualified Russian upper middle class have left for the country as the stores are without supplies and bank accounts inaccessible – a brain drain is definitely in the works. The Russian economy will lose at least a fifth of its GDP in the next twelve months, pushing it out of G 20, it will most likely default on Sovereign bonds.

Russian history is rich with similar tales of despots who pushed the country to a war under hyped-up premise, used underprepared conscripts as fodders in a grind-mill, so to speak, accompanied by high inflation, industrial unrest and an economy in a tailspin. Three times since 1900, these were followed by mass uprising that forced ruling tyrants lose much of their power, if not face execution. In 1904, after Japan attacked in the Far East, Czar Nicholas II underestimated his opponent. Japan massacred a quarter of his troops and sank or disabled most of the Baltic Fleet. Back home news of deaths spawned mass protests, which engendered bloody police response, followed by more unrest and labor strikes. “Russia would have ground Japan down and won, had the Revolution of 1905 not intervened,” claims historian David Wolff. During World War I the same Czar led Russia into Western battlefields with ill-prepared soldiers and inadequate materiel, pushing tens of millions out of their homes and an inflation that rivaled anything the world has seen before. The popular uprising forced the Czar to abdicate in March, and Bolsheviks came to power in November, Czar’s family was executed soon thereafter. Six decades later Soviet incursion into Afghanistan proved a mistake in both lives lost and reputation sullied, to be followed by a complete pull-out ten years later. Two years after that Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Putin’s Generals and minders may not have the power to move him, but Russian mothers most certainly do.

At the centuries-old Royal Castle in Warsaw, US President Biden delivered a passionate speech on the Russian invasion. “The days of any nation being subject to the whims of a tyrant for its energy needs are over — they must end”. “We must remain unified today and tomorrow and the day after and for the years and decades to come,” and “It will not be easy. There will be cost, but it’s a price we have to pay.”, But, in the end, “Ukraine will never be a victory for Russia”. Wrapping up his five-day European tour building a bulwark against aggression, Biden had a direct message for Putin. President Biden – he has previously called Putin “pure thug”, “butcher”, “war criminal”, “murderous dictator” – declared “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power”. The message appeared as if US is calling for a regime change, and that prompted the White House to follow-up with a clarification. “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” a White House official said.

By overplaying his hand, Putin has exposed himself – look Mama, no real economy, no great power either – and humiliated himself so much that even China, who declared four weeks ago that their friendship has no limits, is staying essentially on the sidelines. Any tactical use of WMD by Russia will come up as a desperate scratching by a cornered cat, not a powerful blow by a Bear in prowl. If any such attack does happen, Western sanctions on Russian Oligarchs will for sure become a permanent fixture, thereby taking wind out of Putin’s sail. Strategic use of WMD is still covered under MAD and most unlikely. Oligarchs cannot afford an uprising by Mothers, so to speak, as they need concentrated power to stay rich and buy survival. Since Putin is nothing but a facilitator in service to the Oligarchs, he is expendable. Yes, it is definitely not too soon to dream of a post-Putin Russia when, after months, even years, of suffering under the most stifling sanctions, Russian people rise up against the tyrant in Kremlin. Just like they did before.

“War is always a matter of doing evil in the hope that good may come of it”, said historian Liddell Hart. Putin, unwittingly and most certainly unwillingly, may do real good for Mother Russia by hastening his own demise as a despot. For God’s sake, let’s do talk about that regime change.