Overview:

Beyond the shock and horror of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, we need to be talking about this important question: What is Putin's endgame?

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Beyond exclamations of shock and horror, what we need to be talking about as Russia invades Ukraine this morning is Putin’s endgame.

Putin claims that he is de-Nazifying Ukraine, and that it is not, despite what the West says, a sovereign nation. I listened to one of his spokespeople on the news claim that it is not sovereign because the U.S. got involved in its electoral process. In February 2014, the Russian-backed President was overthrown by Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity and replaced with a pro-Western leader, followed shortly by Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

The details of this aside, where do you draw the line?

Russia meddled in both the U.S. and the Brexit elections, with mounting proof, so does this invalidate the U.S. as a sovereign nation? Can I just wander into the U.S. and plant my flag into their backyard because I decided they are not sovereign?

But really, Russia’s declaration that Ukraine is sovereign does not give them the right to invade.

As The ASEAN Post states:

Since gaining independence in 1991, Ukraine’s defining moments have been the 2004 Orange Revolution and the Maidan revolution in 2014. Both were huge, spontaneous popular movements that prevented Ukraine from slipping back under the Kremlin’s thumb. Against this backdrop, it is no surprise that Ukrainians now see NATO membership as their best chance of maintaining independence. Ukrainians have never been so unified in rejecting a geopolitical future defined by Putin’s Russia, which has become their mortal enemy. 

The invasion is surprising to many observers because the ongoing situation was thought to be a prime example of alpha-male saber-rattling. Putin posturing to see what he could get away with. “I’ll have Crimea. What are you going to do about it?” Nothing much. Less than a decade later. “I’ll have Donetsk and Luhansk. What are you going to do about it?” Nothing much.

Except he took it a surprising step further this time with an invasion of the whole country.

Perhaps there was a move to rush Ukraine into NATO. If that were to happen, there would be a larger problem for Putin and his imperialistic desires: If you attack one NATO country, you attack them all. If Ukraine were presently part of NATO, Putin would not be able to invade without the entirety of NATO militarily retaliating. And World War 3.

So it was perhaps now or never.

But that takes us back to the important question: what is Putin’s endgame?

It’s hard to say with any precision, but these fact-checked statistics* might be enlightening:

Why does Ukraine matter? Just a little info on the natural resources, economy, geographic location, and size of why it’s important to Europe and the global supply chain.

How the nation of Ukraine ranks:

  • 1st in Europe in proven recoverable reserves of uranium ores;
  • 2nd place in Europe and 10th place in the world in terms of titanium ore reserves;
  • 2nd place in the world in terms of explored reserves of manganese ores (2.3 billion tons, or 12% of the world’s reserves);
  • 2nd largest iron ore reserves in the world (30 billion tons);
  • 2nd place in Europe in terms of mercury ore reserves;
  • 3rd place in Europe (13th place in the world) in shale gas reserves (22 trillion cubic meters)

Ukraine is an agricultural country:

  • 1st in Europe in terms of arable land area;
  • 3rd place in the world by the area of black soil (25% of world’s volume);
  • 1st place in the world in exports of sunflower and sunflower oil;
  • 5th place in the world in bee production (75,000 tons);
  • Ukraine can meet the food needs of 600 million people.

Ukraine is an industrialized country:

  • 2nd in Europe and 4th largest natural gas pipeline system in the world (142.5 bln cubic meters of gas throughput capacity in the EU);

Ukraine is of utmost strategic importance—industrially, agriculturally, geo-politically.

Check.

The country also borders Europe.

Check.

Europe—or more accurately the EU—is Putin’s bogeyman. It offers Ukraine a shining political alternative to a nation looking to get into NATO and even the EU itself:

NATO and the European Union have been flirting with Kyiv for years. At the 2008 Bucharest, Romania, summit, NATO members promised Ukraine and Georgia membership one day. Former President George W. Bush had championed a more immediate path to entry but was rebuffed by France and Germany. Since then, Russia, by attacking both nations, has sent unambiguous warnings of the cost if they do.

The failure of either the alliance or the bloc to integrate Ukraine speaks to competing realities. On one hand, NATO and, to a lesser extent the E.U., aims to check Russian power and uphold the principle of national self-determination — that if Ukrainians want a democracy free of Moscow’s interference, they should be allowed to have one. But those lofty goals have been brought down to earth by recognition that the geopolitical realities and the need for a security balance in Europe effectively makes Ukrainian membership impossible as long as Putin sits in the Kremlin.

“How joining NATO and the E.U. became Ukraine’s unattainable dream,” Anthony Faiola, The Washington Post

To me—and this may be because I warned people about this back in 2016—this has a lot to do with the EU.

I asked my friends and family who were so vociferously wanting to leave the EU, “You do realize who your friends are here? The two biggest players who support Brexit and the break-up of the EU are Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. You need to think about whether you’re on the right side here.”

My attitude has not changed, and my initial point is as prevalent now as it was then.

Putin meddled in the U.S. election and in Brexit because he is a clever man and a wily strategist. He is stoking up culture wars in the U.S. by dividing the country and sowing confusion. At the time, at Trump rallies, there were people wearing t-shirts saying “I’d rather be Russian than a Democrat.”

Job done. Confusion, discord, and division sown.

Putin is in bed with the Russian Orthodox Church—atheism is definitely not the “state religion” anymore. It doesn’t serve his conservative purposes. He is using the Church to exact his cultural cleansing of feminists, LGBTQ, the marginalized.

Putin (and Trump) desperately wanted and still want the EU to fail. It’s a zero-sum game. The loss of EU power is their gain in the marketplace of international political ideology.

The EU borders Russia and Ukraine. There is an existential threat to Putin and his warped fascistic communism, beaming from across the border, attracting adherents, promising and bribing citizens away from the clutches of this updated Soviet-era ideology. And the existential threat goes both ways.

Essentially, Putin needs to cushion his own empire from a dalliance with democracy.

Check.

Ukraine is, it seems, the present-day battleground for the new Not-So-Cold War.

The rouble is tanking and the Russian central bank has been buying them up to avert a stock market collapse. Sanctions are flying in thick and fast from all over the world.

But surely Putin understood that his actions would produce crippling economic sanctions of the strongest sort? Yes, these sanctions will hurt the West, too. Perhaps he thought he would take everyone down, that this would all hurt the rest of the world as much as it would hurt Russia.

Then again, does “the rest of the world” include China? Because these old bedfellows might well find solace in each other’s company. And strength. Russia already has energy deals with China and can cushion economic blows with loans from their neighbor.

It could be a shrewd move in fully pitting the East against the West, now that China is the global megaforce it has become in its odd amalgamation of communism and capitalism.

Check.

One hardly thinks, given its strategic importance, that Putin wants to flatten Ukraine. Rather, he wants to suffocate it. This will entail Russia taking control of all the infrastructure it can.

As The Financial Times reported:

“I suspect this will be a stop-go operation: two to four days of advance, pause and recoup to assess the situation — militarily, politically,” said Mathieu Boulègue, research fellow at Chatham House’s Eurasia programme. “Next steps depend on acceptable casualty rates for the military — but that is an internal Russian decision.”

“It looks like a maximalist approach, but could be a deception strategy to merely take the Donbas,” he continued, referring to the eastern region of Ukraine occupied by Russia-backed separatists.

“‘What is the end game?’ Russia’s multipronged assault on Ukraine,” Henry Foy, The Financial Times.

Perhaps it is just about old-fashioned power. Putin might just have grand imperialistic designs not too dissimilar to Hitler’s. Speaking of which, it is worth taking note of Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk’s words:

For years I have been reluctant to compare any dictator to Hitler, or any war to the second world war. The comparison, to me, seemed exaggerated, even vulgar.

But what other analogy is there? With no reason, in an act of pure madness, an old-fashioned air assault has been inflicted on a neighbouring country.

I said that to my Russian colleague, and tried very hard not to show how my voice was trembling. She asked for forgiveness again.

There is a famous phrase ‘4am Kyiv is bombed’. Every Ukrainian and Russian kid knows it. That’s how the announcement of the German bombardment of Kyiv in 1941 sounded.

And here we are: 24 February 5am Kyiv is bombed by Russia.

Power. Grim, bare-chested, bear-wrestling power.

Check.

*CORRECTION Feb 24, 2022: When first posted, the list of statistics supporting the global importance of Ukraine included some claims that were inaccurate or outdated. Those claims have been removed.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...