By Richard Forberg
As we sit in horror witnessing the gross atrocities and indiscriminate destruction of a peaceful civilization by Putin’s “Special Military Operation” we are shocked and seemingly surprised at this turn of events in our supposedly post-colonial world, one with many international agencies to promote peace, tolerance and prosperity, plus special courts to capture and punish “war criminals.”
Still worse, we cannot comprehend how any large fraction of the Russian people can tolerate this being done in their name, nor for their benefit; much less how they can support it. Sadly, I think we are failing to see the obvious. We only need to look at Russia’s land-grab of Crimea in 2014. But let’s first look at our reactions to Russia’s brutality.
Like many, I hoped this war was only Putin’s personal agenda for self-aggrandizement, and that he is out-of-touch with the mainstream of the Russian people. We want to believe his support is limited to a few favored oligarchs, plus some loyal generals, henchmen and senior bureaucrats. We look to the day it all fails, Putin is widely disgraced within Russia, and the full force of the negative blow-backs are harshly placed upon him in the International Criminal Court.
We can wish. But so far, most likely many, if not most Russians have no problem with his strategy and behavior. We just have not been paying attention. And we easily forget that a majority is not needed to keep a “popular” dictator in power. Dictators need only a single digit of actual support for regime stability, because it is easily magnified by deceptive techniques and into the double digits, well-above 70%, after widespread intimidation and data massaging.
So next we ask: can a fair opinion poll of Russians be made by a research firm in the West? It turns out some groups have tried. The results so far are disappointing: 50% to 75% support the war, depending on how it is asked or framed. Life in most of Russia is still hard and they resent the West. Putin’s outrageous propaganda resonates easily. And we do not understand where the cracks and divisions are among his supporters. So, we will likely continue to under-estimate his support and well-honed KGB propaganda methods, as updated for his special brand of pseudo-democracy.
Now consider what happened when Russia seized Crimea in 2014. Was there any bad press in Russia? It is highly doubtful. It was a very popular and almost bloodless action. We in the West may have thought Russia was simply protecting the civil rights of the many Russian speakers and Russian Naval Base in Crimea – as Putin would have us believe.
However, the taking of Crimea occurred after months of popular protests in the streets against Putin’s hand-picked leader for Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, installed four years earlier. These protests were triggered by Yanukovych’s refusal to establish stronger relations with Europe and grew increasingly violent and deadly in February 2014. It is well-documented that Putin sent in Russia snipers and other agitators to create more bloodshed in the streets of Kyiv, where more than 100 protesters died. As a result, there was no organized Ukrainian government or prepared military to resist Russia’s take-over of Crimea which occurred only days later that same month, just after Yanukovych escaped by helicopter to Moscow to save his skin.
Not only is Crimea’s location strategic militarily for Russia it is also rich in energy resources. It juts out into the Black Sea, giving it rights and access to a huge expanse of the sea-floor for exploration and extraction. Russia thereby effectively took over about 80% of Ukraine’s developed oil & gas fields.
Russia also stole outright, and then simply continued operating, billions of dollars of equipment, platforms, pipelines etc. all of which belonged to Ukraine’s major state-monopoly for producing natural gas, which is also key input to the production of fertilizer for crops. Russia then proceeded easily, with no Western resistance or harsh comment, with the sales of that gas to the world market, but mainly to Europe, with some probably to Ukraine.
Russia is now focusing its war efforts to force Ukrainians to give up their land, from the Donbas Region to Odessa and on westward to the border with Romania, and possibly further, to control all energy wealth in the Black Sea. Russia’s strategy is clear: depopulate most of Ukraine via campaigns of mass murder, expulsion, starvation, wide-spread destruction, and forced relocation of some Ukrainians to work as slave laborers in Russia. They must squash all sources of resistance to gain full, reliable control of the country. Within a few years they hope to have Ukraine as a “peaceful” Russia province, gaining massive amounts of rich farm land. Eventually they may slowly re-populate the farms and the parts of the cities still standing, all with loyal Russians seeking much better and warmer land. Will the West be paying attention or care a few years from now? Putin clearly thinks not.
That is our challenge now: to recognize we have mis-understood Putin and Russia for decades and that raw power is what matters most now, if we care to save the Ukrainian people and nation. Diplomacy, negotiations, sanctions, vague threats, war crime tribunals, and our slow drip of military aid will not be enough stop Russia. Their alliance with China and the existence of many large neutral nations all hungry for energy will allow Russia stay on their war path for a long time.
To stop this the West will need to be committed for a long time, using every resource and strategic barrier we have, intelligently.