In Other News – Putin’s Strategic Blunder, & More – 2/24/2022

February 24, 2022

Putin’s Strategic Blunder
While the world watches to see the depth and breadth of Russia’s assault on Ukraine as well as the West’s response, from a strategic perspective, this appears to be a massive overstep for Putin. His invasion of Ukraine is an uncharacteristic move for an individual whose leadership style has been predicated on cautious, deliberate, and calculated steps. His strength and influence have grown over the past decade largely through asymmetric and covert action. That gameplan has been seemingly cast aside with a display of unmitigated aggression taking place on the world stage. By upending the post-Cold War security dynamic, he has galvanized and strengthened NATO, bringing unity to an organization where there had been little in recent years. While Putin has made clear he can live with the economic isolation and resulting hardships that will fall upon the Russian people, it is the displeasure of everyday Russians and the oligarchs he should fear most. Should his campaign in Ukraine get bogged down and be accompanied by higher than “acceptable” casualties and costs, the support for his ruthless ambition will dissipate, and likely over time spell the end to both Putin, and his dreams of resurrecting the Russian empire.

Sanctions on the Horizon and Their Effects
The strength and heft of the power of international sanctions benefited from a major shift when the post-Merkel leadership in Germany agreed to halt the certification of the NordStream 2 pipeline. This demonstrated a newfound unity from NATO, and the willingness of Germany to withstand domestic discomfort to stand united against Russia. It also placed more pressure on Britain and the rest of the NATO partners to increase the severity of their sanctions. President Biden announced that Russian Banks are the next target, and U.S. companies will be prohibited from exporting electronics and computer chips to Russia, which will take away a key component to modern living, and for which Russia doesn’t have a domestic production capability. While likely very difficult to gain agreement among the participants, barring Russia from the SWIFT network is potentially on the table. If successful, this would serve to cut Russia off from the dollar and the majority of the international banking infrastructure. In addition to amassing more than $600 billion in gold-based reserves, through its “Fortress Russia” policy, Russia has deliberately sought to pursue self-sufficiency through more domestic food and medicine production, as well as economic diversification away from dollar-based transactions and towards the Euro and the Yuan. Anticipated sanctions will have a profound impact on the already sclerotic Russian economy, affecting economic growth, increasing poverty, spurring inflation, deterring investment, and possibly provoking a run on Russian banks as holders will want to flee the rapidly devaluating ruble.

Active Measures and Information Warfare
Putin’s intelligence playbook has been on full display in the lead up to this conflict. First and foremost, since 2014, Putin has been cultivating an ultranationalist narrative that in part promotes the reunification of an expansive ancient Russia, which includes by his account Ukraine. This narrative has been promoted in movies and films and integrated more and more throughout Russian policy documents. This position was driven home Wednesday night with Putin’s contemptuous dismissal of the notion that Ukraine was a sovereign nation. Following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and occupation of the Donbas Region, Putin’s efforts have been relentless in creating the false narrative that these two regions fervently desire to be independent from Ukraine. He has sent mercenaries into these regions to pose as independentist armies, run political campaigns and insurrection efforts to advance this political reality, and even staged fake terrorist attacks. Within Russia too, he has promoted the narrative that Russia is protecting ethnic Russians, and in the two days since their “declaration of independence,” has provoked a fake refugee crisis by ordering all people to evacuate these regions into Russia whilst conscripting every male over 18 into the new independentist armies. To add to the confusion, Russia launched a cyber-attack on Ukrainian government banking sites and started sending fake text messages to Ukrainian troops ordering evacuations. Russia has additionally used a wide-sweeping bot attack to disable Twitter accounts that had been providing a reliable crowd sourced accounting of events on the ground. The race is now on to determine how the narrative of the war in Ukraine will be told… but the truth is not on Russia’s side.