Putin, Balance of Power, Richelieu, Lycurgus, the Ruble, and War

In “Putin, rodeo bull rider”, I wrote, “It is doubtful that he can [back out of Ukraine aggression]. Putin is riding a bull, and if he gets off, he will get stomped”, and,

” By now,  the oligarchs have gotten the message that, if they betray the rebels, some people who are handy with guns and have long memories will obtain what they call justice. It would be hard to distract these disaffected people, because it is hard to become fat, happy, and lazy in Russia. Life is just not that easy there.”

In “Putin’s Next Move; Winter in the West”, I wrote, “If he can’t back up because of political constraints, then we may more anticipate elements of surprise and creativity.” I’m quoting myself to encourage you to read the posts.  Russia is about to experience great pain. The reward of that travail, the  “Donetsk People’s Republic” is thin gruel for this.

If Putin’s body politic were as malleable as when he assumed the throne of Russia, he could just back out of Ukraine. The last chance for this may have been in July, when the rebels made an accusation of cowardice, covered by Time  in “Ukraine Rebels Call Putin a Coward After Russian Inaction.”  If Putin were to back out now, he would have to face down Igor Strelkov, a very dangerous man.

While an errant oligarch can be buried in the penal system, Strelkov cannot, because  he would recruit the jail.  With the loyalties he has accumulated, Putin could terminate Strelkov.  But Strelkov is more than just a face. He is also the tip of the iceberg of Russian nationalism. Nationalism is a primal force of both sociology and international relations. It is its own “first cause”, the prime mover. In consequence, once it springs into existence, it is very hard to destroy, because there are no causes to remove.

It appears that the Russians bear the mental legacy of their isolation from the West during the Soviet period. One indicator of this is the almost universal acceptance in Russia of Putin’s spin on events. Even without the information isolation of the Iron Curtain, Putin’s propaganda machinery seems to work as well as it did in 1952.  It out-competes all other sources because Putin has used Russian nationalism to rebuild the state identity lost with the breakup of the Soviet Union.

The land borders of huge and underpopulated Russia are not secure against an adjacent land power, flush with people, money, drive, and busying themselves with construction of their own national, celestial myth. People like that have to be stopped with guns. In a paper of  a few years back, I asked, “Who will pick up the gun for Russia?” Putin sought to tap the primal sources of nationalism, which appear to be myth and religion, though they are just window dressing for something else.

In any state, nationalism is the large scale manifestation of tribalism, which arguably is rooted in sociobiology. According to the Selfish Gene Theory of Richard Dawkins,  kin cooperate to propagate their shared, common genes, while discriminating against unrelated genes. It’s a selection process that competes with Natural Selection, which is this simple: A successful gene has consequences of behavior as if it has an “interest” in surviving. It is the reason one pack of dogs fights another pack of dogs, for the benefit of their respective genes.  The difference is, we humans decorate it with song and dance.

The imperative of the Selfish Gene, applied to international relations, has a snappy name, “raison d’État“, survival of the state, coined by Cardinal Richelieu. But Western Europe, birthplace of Napoleon and Hitler, is now quiescent. To us, it may seem permanently pacified. As much as anything can be permanent, this is actually plausible, since Western Europe seems to have evolved beyond the nation-state as the focus.

So it seems a misdirection that Russia should be so concerned with buffering its borders with the West.  The doctrine of “balance of power”, conceived by Machiavelli during a fractious period of small nation states trying to solve the map-coloring problem,  is dead in Western Europe. The Europeans are too conscious of their smallness. The equivalence of land with national wealth, which formerly meant anything that could be farmed, now has a very specialized meaning, of exploitable mineral resources.

But  balance-of-power and buffer states have been part of history since the ancient empires.  In  Richelieu’s time, when balance of power became the dominant theory of European foreign relations, it was such a universal assumption of reasoning that it could be discussed or written about without definition. Since world leaders, as a group, seem to be more influenced by history than novelty, perhaps it should not surprise us that Putin is beholden to the concept.

Achieving balance of power has always been  a devious endeavor, involving the sacrifice of  “principles”, which in the old days meant religion, and today means anything of moral value. Laid bare, the fundamental strategy is, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

But even with this moral flexibility, those who wish to practice balance-of-power today have a problem.  The strategy was practiced during a time when the world was a patchwork quilt of borders which defined communication and commerce. The patchwork still exists, but C&C have acquired an infinite-dimensional aspect, which means that everything is right next to everything else, regardless of physical distance of separation.

In the early part of the two-thousands, before he decided to revive the KGB term “Main Enemy”, which means the U.S., Putin announced that Russia wanted to be part of Europe. He may have had in mind that Europe could balance China.  Richelieu’s landscape, interpreted today, looks like this:

  • North America, Western Europe, Japan, and Australia are happily married. (It’s a  ménage à trois, but you get the gist.)
  • China is a socially active bachelor, wooing the maidens of the “third world”, and the merry wives alike.
  • While the above gaily play parlor games, Russia is the  Dirty Old Man. Behaving as if history had never turned a page, it fiddles with its cane, making an occasional pass at the maidens.

This is not a landscape in which balance-of-power can be made to function. The Russians repeatedly refer to the collapse of the Soviet Union as causing the loss of it, reviving the threat of the “Main Enemy.” Only China can balance the U.S. But from the military point of view, this is absolutely ludicrous.

China and Russia share a border 2,607 miles in length. The two countries fought a 7 month war in 1969. Until recently, the entire length of Siberia was traversed by just a single two-track railway. Now it has two lines, but both are close, in terms of military vulnerability, to the Manchurian border. On the north side of the border, there are about 40 million Siberian Russians, of a total Russian population of 90 million, with a large proportion of elder-folk, and a dislike of making babies. About 30% of the babies who do get made have various congenital problems. Not a very healthy situation.

South of the border, there are currently 1.357 billion Chinese, in what, given the standard of living, is a surprisingly healthy country, thanks to alternative Chinese medicine. This multitude of people need Lebensraum.  Even if military conflict between these two nuclear powers seems unlikely, there is another way, assimilation. China could assimilate Russia with no more difficulty than the belches from a meal of moo goo gai pan. The process might take a century to complete, leaving a few more Chinese with blue eyes.

This is getting too long. I haven’t gotten to Lycurgus, yet. But I will, and Ukraine is in the offing.

Stealing Putin’s line, I’ll be back.