Marx once said that history repeats, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. Marx may have had it backwards. The second Cold War has begun and it is clearly not a farce. Ukraine is a tragedy of growing proportions and the U.S. is failing to recognize a key aspect of revolutions: they are made by elites not by the masses.
Lenin knew that which is why after reading Marx’s treatment of the Paris Commune’s failure in 1871, Lenin took as his cardinal principal that a revolution must have a violent armed guard! Ultimately, Lenin’s view led to the success of the Russian revolution. America can learn that lesson too, but it must give up on current fantasies that limit its response to Russian aggression in the Ukraine.
Putin can win in the Ukraine, only if the U.S. continues to operate on the fantasy that strength is a weakness because it might lead to unwinable wars, or worse, to nuclear war. Why is this wrong? Because elites make and win revolutions, not the masses. The latter only enter the game after the elites have defined the rules. The Russian masses, as their German predecessors were in WWII, have been cowed by the power of the Russian Thug State and its Oligarch allies. Yes, there are protestors, but the strength of the Russian police state is such that the current masses are largely quieted by economic incentives along with brutal force and threats. They cannot be our allies in putting Putin in his place. Waiting for a revolt of the masses in Russia against Putin is a fool’s task. This is not a waiting game. Aggression never is.
That said, Putin does have vulnerabilities. His inept attack on the Ukraine reveals that the Russian military conscripts are like all conscripts: they have incentive and motivation issues. It also appears they are not well-trained in the art and logistics of “combined arms.” The invasion force is not up to the task Putin gave them.
Where else are Putin’s potential weaknesses? Very simply, with his co-opted thugs, the Oligarchs he has made wealthy with the resources of the Russian state. The Oligarchs run oil, energy, banking, mining, shipping, pipelines, etc. These Oligarchs have made vast fortunes. They have massive yachts, planes, multiple estates outside of Russia and bank accounts all across the globe, particularly in more hospitable climes! They have benefited hugely from their support of Putin. They will continue to be his henchmen in aggression until such time as their assets around the world are taken away from them, or the enlarged prospects of a nuclear war threaten both their lives and their property. They play a role similar to the Russian military who revolted against Khrushchev when that “madman” threatened the U.S. with the Russian Navy sailing to Cuba with nuclear-tipped missiles aboard on the way to Cuba in 1962. When the U.S. finally applies really tough measures on those Oligarchs, we may begin to see some moderation begin in the Russia’s aggression. Surely, Putin will hear about their confiscated assets. The Oligarchs want they and their families to enjoy their Putin generated wealth.
The Thug-Oligarchs are corrupted by the rewards of Putin’s total control of the forces of discipline within Russia. Corruption is legion in Russia. It affects the Police, the Army and the Scientists who tool Russian military expenditures with new ideas and techniques. That’s where U.S. pressure could be effective. It is essential if the US is to fight COLD WAR II. Nuclear destruction is two sided. One side can’t rule the roost.
By the way, it is not different in China. Corruption has a role there too. Remember Deng Hsiao Peng’s reply to the Peoples’ Army after they lost their attack on North Viet Nam in 1979. North Viet Nam kicked the Chinese Army in the groin. China lost more men in six weeks than the U.S. did in 10 years! As the new leader in China, Deng told his military, ‘go into business and I will get you modern weapons for a modern army!’ The Chinese Army did exactly that and Deng kept his word as well. So, their Generals are also part of the corruption-laden regime.
Corruption is like a pandemic. It doesn’t stop with a certain group—it invades the entire country. Chinese beneficiaries know that and that is why Ji Pin has been punishing some select beneficiaries. He can’t afford to have his own Oligarchs revolt. Consequently, selective punishment is meted out and that cows the rest of the corruption tribe. He may indeed lessen his present support of Putin because he can read the tea leaves of a toughened American response.
The U.S. has a problem in the application of this “Punish the Thugs” strategy. It involves a lot of very powerful people and their companies in the U.S. Take Apple for example, or the mainstay financial houses of Wall Street. They are beneficiaries of the global transfer of technology and capital to China (despite the hickeys now being taken in the Chinese Real Estate sector). Globalization cuts many different ways. Yes, it makes the supply chain more efficient. By that token, however, it creates industrial and commercial hostages who don’t want to lose their advantage, both from a corporate standpoint and from the personal rewards it brings to its major executives. We have just sketched another problem in American diplomacy: our own corruption with the Chinese experience. In our view, it silences much of Washington and New York intelligence that should know better!
The U.S. possesses a peculiar kind of Capitalism. Nominally, we worship the efficiencies Capitalism brings to capital and labor markets by inducing innovation stimulated by the prospect of profits. But, in dealing with a non-democratic state, all too often, American capitalists recruit the local, corrupt foreign politicians, generals, and advisors to the main foreign political heavyweights, in order to gain entry and advantage in the foreign country. Deals get done by who you know rather than what you know. Exports of our industries that can serve a market of a billion and a half people are important. Who gets there first with whatever special advantages the Chinese partners can bring, is often the most important aspect to a deal.
In such corrupted-market environments, real economic risk is also limited by who you know, not by what you know. Concessionary capitalism is often the way of the world in the global market. Breaking the backs of the already corrupted Chinese will be far more difficult than in Russia. There are more than a few. China is a much bigger economy and its tentacles into American industry and finance are far more intricate and run deeper. Russia is a small boy with a big nuclear punch, but its economics are definitely small scale. It is largely a raw materials producer with competitors. Americans buy few if any final products from Russia and produce very little in Russia for export back to the U.S. China is a different animal all together.
For this reason, the implications of Russian aggression into the Ukraine are highly important to understand when it comes to a possible Chinese takeover of Taiwan by military means. The U.S. doesn’t have a lot of time to prevent that eventuality. It most re-arm Taiwan to the teeth and make perfectly clear to the Chinese that Taiwan will be defended even if it takes American direct intervention. Being coy with a Thug is not a good policy. Be direct and clear, Washington! Sanctions don’t prevent aggression. Certainly, that follows from the Russian experience.
The U.S. may be getting negative feedback from its most important strategic partner in NATO: Germany. The Germans want to limit their response and ours too. The Germans are already hostage to Russian corruption. Half of their petroleum-based energy is Russian in origin and Germany has achieved (or should we say re-achieved) a huge presence in the current Russian economy. The German counterpart companies will not easily disengage in their Russian adventures. In fact, despite their sympathy with the suffering Ukrainians, they probably have to be pushed to disengage.
Germany’s Russian adventure is a century old. It started in the early 1920’s when Germany was facing the draconian Reparations of the Versailles Peace Treaty. And, it started up again after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. German business has strong connections and strong profit positions coming from its Russian agenda. The Germans have in fact been stronger in their resistance to Russian aggression than many here in the US expected. That is a pleasant surprise, but we should be warned, however, that such financial interests are powerful incentives to avoid a further Russian confrontation.
Perhaps more surprising is the extent of German cooperation with the U.S. in trying to tame Putin. But, don’t bet on a long game in that arena from Germany. It is now a major hostage of Russian energy resources as well as a continuing supplier of industrial materials to Russia. The German nuclear power industry has largely been shut down. Petroleum based energy counts more in Germany than in the U.S. That mistake cannot be addressed in Germany for many years.
There are reports from Vienna showing a possibility of a new Iranian-nuclear control agreement and the release of sizable amounts of Iranian crude oil. It might be a winner politically for the Biden Administration (in its efforts to slow inflation), but it works adversely in Cold War II. The Iranians have repeatedly shown that any such agreement offers them cover for refining more nuclear material and perfecting suitable delivery missiles. Iranian ambitions in the Middle East have not changed, but the temporary allure of more crude oil and possible a lower price at the American gas station is alluring to some American politicians who will shortly have to face their voters. Signing an agreement with the Iranians can make the U.S. a hostage to the Iranian Mullahs bent on mischief of their own making.
The characteristics of Cold War II should determine American Strategy. The first characteristic is Time! The war in the Ukraine will not be over quickly. Russia is not going to just quit tomorrow and stop with its debilitated attempt to take over the Ukraine. There are other Russian targets as well in their geopolitical gunsights. All of the areas that used to be constituent parts of the old Soviet Union are up for grabs, now or in the near future. The U.S. has to plan for a long war, and it must start by arming its allies thoroughly with whatever they need to defeat a Putin attack. The difficulties the Biden Administration has today are nothing they could face in the future, if American unwillingness to confront Russia now continues during this recent aggression.
Our national interest is for a complete stop of the Russian invasion as quickly as possible with the Ukraine being returned to its former free nation status. Without forceful and immediate aid from the U.S., that is an impossibility. This Administration cannot afford to lose this opening battle of Cold War II.