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More unintended consequences of Putin's war on Ukraine
I wrote last week that Putin is fighting two wars, not one: one in Ukraine, and another against his own people. I was wrong — I should have said four wars. In addition to the first two, he’s facing a political battle with his own elite, and he’s waging geo-economic war on some of Russia’s closest allies.
radically reshaping the structure of politics in Russia itself, in ways that could consolidate Putin’s authority for years to come, or possibly bring his rule crashing down.
In a nutshell, the cutting the titans of Russian business, politics and bureaucracy off from the West fundamentally deprives them of power, turning them, as I wrote, from “the protected constituents of a powerful political system” into “expendable salarymen and managers”, and cementing a system in which the elite serve Putin, rather than the other way around.
Admittedly, that’s a system that has been in the making for quite some time, and as Mark Galeotti pointed out this weekend in The Times, Putin has built around himself a security apparatus that he likely believes is sufficient to see off any challenge. But, as we’ve seen, Putin is capable of miscalculations, and as committed to power as Putin’s security men may seem, even they are unlikely to have signed up for a lifetime as pariahs. While I’m not arguing that a palace coup is likely, if there are any circumstances that might lead to one, these are they.
But Russia’s high and mighty aren’t the only erstwhile friends of Putin who didn’t exactly sign up for this kind of thing. Russia’s partners in the Eurasian Economic Union — Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan — now find themselves locked in a customs union with a country seemingly hell-bent on isolating its economy from the richest countries in the world.
Already, Belarus — which has participated directly in Putin’s war — is under American and European sanctions, contributing to a 19% drop in the value of the Belarusian ruble since the war began. The other three are not, but they might as well be. Armenia’s currency has dropped 8%, Kazakhstan’s 16% and Kyrgyzstan’s 18%. Compare that to non-EEU countries in the same neighborhood — Georgia’s currency is down 8%, and Moldova’s only 2% — and the price of friendship with Putin begins to come into sharper focus.
Now, Putin may be calculating that the role he has played in propping up Nicol Pashinyan, Alyasandr Lukashenka and Kassym-Jomart Tokayev will keep them at bay, and he may be right. But those leaders have their own elites and publics to keep at bay, and that may not prove so simple, as currency depreciation turns into inflation, and investors and trading partners shy away from markets seen as a potential backdoor into Russia.
All four of Russia’s EEU partners have seen their politics roiled in recent years by economically driven protest movements, often with the participation of powerful elites. Indeed, Lukashenka and Tokayev are only in power because Russia helped quell protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan, and Pashinyan owes his continued tenure in no small measure to Russia’s role in guaranteeing the cease-fire with Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh. With Russian troops and riot police tied up in Ukraine and dealing with anti-war protests across Russia itself, there are only so many fires Putin can fight.
This turn of events is all the more striking when we consider that Putin first invaded Ukraine in 2014 in order to maintain Russia’s geo-economic dominance in the post-Soviet space.
To be absolutely clear, the victims of this war are in and increasingly around Ukraine. More than 2 million refugees and countless more displaced, bombarded and besieged. Tens of millions of people — an entire nation — deprived of the peace and security that are their right. Numbers of innocent victims that we have not yet begun to count. But with enough support, Ukraine can win this war and its aftermath.
The Kremlin and its friends cannot. Russia’s president once sat atop a system of political and economic governance and a network of diplomatic, trading and investment relationships that, together, transformed Russia’s influence and his own into a truly global phenomenon. All of that is now undone. There is no victory for Putin.