Geopolitics and War

March 5, 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has done more to unite Europe and reinvigorate NATO than I could have imagined. Between getting the Swiss to abandon their financial neutrality in support of financial sanctions, Germany rapidly scaling its military spending, and now even rumblings about Finland joining the fold, NATO seems to have a new lease on life. I don’t think that is what Vladimir Putin intended, but we’ll see how long that lasts given Europe’s historic frictions. At least for now European nations have a common interest.

None of this is of immediate help to Ukraine, though. The numerical disparity between Russian and Ukrainian forces is fairly large — and not in Ukraine’s favor. Russia has the capacity to level Ukrainian cities which, at least when I’m writing this, appears to be Putin’s strategy. In the absence of Russian forces being welcomed with open arms and flowers, it seems the plan is to create a significantly depopulated buffer zone between Ukraine’s eastern separatist provinces and the Polish border.

Facts and motives are hard to divine in the fog of war, so getting a sense for the trajectory of this crisis requires a lot of guesswork. The effort is complicated by the ongoing information war supercharged by global connectivity and social media.

As of today, Russia’s invasion is progressing. The Ukrainians are fighting back, but they don’t have the capacity to hold off Russia’s military. NATO will take no action to defend Ukraine other than sending weapons to support Ukrainian resistance fighters. Europe will have to address the wave of refugees fleeing into Poland, meaning large-scale relief efforts.

There are a number of key themes to observe as Russia’s military invasion continues, some of which I’ll explore in greater depth as events develop:

On the ground in Ukraine – while Russia will overwhelm Ukraine’s population centers, the flow of arms from Europe to Ukrainian resistance fighters risks creating a new quagmire. Russia’s experience in Afghanistan comes to mind. Putin will respond with brutality – his actions in Chechnya provide an example. The sustainability of Ukrainian resistance is unknown for now, but it is likely Ukraine will emerge as a long-term conflict zone.

New Iron Curtain – the old divide is back, and perhaps deeper, with Russia and its oligarchs becoming increasingly isolated. Not just by physical borders, but financially and culturally.

Economic fallout – it’s all about commodities. Russia’s cash cow is oil and gas. Europe is in a bad short-term position thanks to its reliance on Russian natural gas, but this shock is likely to result in a greater push for adoption of renewables and energy independence, perhaps even a resurgence of nuclear power. Beyond energy, Ukraine and Russia produce other commodities such as wheat, and metals like platinum needed for industrial production. Whether there will be adequate supplies to support demand for core commodities is questionable, leading to significant price volatility and a number of possible externalities.

Wider conflict – winds of war are chaotic. The question is whether a larger war between the NATO nations and Russia is likely to occur. Will Putin make a move on the Baltic nations, which are NATO members? If that occurs, or if there is a border-zone incident between Russian and NATO forces, matters could rapidly escalate.

Information warfare – I see it rather likely Russia will scale its heretofore successful misinformation campaign. An initial flashpoint is likely to be an effort to use the refugee crisis to sow discord within Western European nations. The open question is to what extent cyberattacks will come into play. We don’t have a good playbook — at least one I’m aware of — for determining an appropriate response to such attacks. For a good read on that topic, I’d suggest The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage and Fear in the Cyber Age by New York Times national security reporter David Sanger.

There is a lot to unpack and I’m sure any number of additional themes and consequences will emerge from the chaos.

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