Authoritarian Russia's lies and the risk of escalation against NATO
Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody, Ian Bremmer here. And a Quick Take for you starting off the week. Once again, we're 10 weeks in and I wish I had something, anything good to say about the war in Ukraine. I'll find something for you by the end of this, but most of the signals are really heading negatively and very quickly.
The Russians are taking more territory in Donetsk and Luhansk, the focus of this second phase of their special military operations as they call it. The Ukrainians, having said that, are ramping up their attacks inside Russia. And we're seeing a lot of sabotage, a lot of fires, some strikes across the border. One of the explosions in a tank regiment was outside of Moscow. So this isn't coming from Ukraine directly, but maybe it's sympathizers inside Russia.
We're not, of course, hearing anything from the Russian government explaining any of this, nor should we expect to. Looks like the Russian army chief of staff was actually injured by a Ukrainian strike while he was on the front lines, but on the Russian side.
The goal for the West, the United States and NATO should be, and must be withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine, all troops to begin with from the February 24 lines of conflict, which means all of the Donbas, and let's keep in mind that Russia denied, they lied about it, but they denied having troops there before February 24th. So if you're going to have an agreement, they have to leave. Crimea was frankly, always a place with special status. There was a Russian base in Sevastopol when Ukraine was independent. It was an autonomous republic. It had its own parliament, with a Russian tricolor above it. No one's going to agree with the Russians that they get it. The Ukrainians certainly aren't about to, but you could have a frozen conflict, and Crimean status can be sort of indeterminate.
But that should be the goal of the West, of the United States, NATO allies, and other aligned countries. The goal cannot be destroying Russia's military. That's not going to happen. It's not remotely in the cards. But many from the West are increasingly acting as if it can.
One of the reasons why I expect that we are going to see a general mobilization from Putin when he makes his big speech on May 9th, we are moving in that direction, is to prove to the West that they can throw far more troops and far more money at the outcome on the ground in the Ukraine than the Americans and its allies are going to be prepared down the road to fight against.
And I'm not against suggesting that this means that the goals should be different than what I just expressed, but rather the idea that the West is going to significantly destroy a military that is 10 times larger than that of Ukraine, with huge numbers of nuclear warheads, and other are shorts of advanced weapons. They're using their long-range missiles against Ukraine, but a lot of the broader military capabilities they have in war fighting against the West, they aren't using. Space-based weaponry, for example, I mean all of this kind of thing, cyber capabilities.
And the Americans and the Europeans are not going to destroy that without risking World War III. Everyone seriously understands this, but increasingly in the media and in the political space, you get a lot of people that are very patriotic and flag waving, and they want the Americans to sort of drive the Russians off the map. And that's just not going to happen.
I saw Adam Kinzinger and others from Congress putting forward an effort to get congressional authorization for Biden to put American troops on the ground in Ukraine if weapons of mass destruction are used by the Russians. We don't want weapons of mass destruction to be used. It will be a disaster, and it will further isolate Russia, not just from the West, but from other countries as well.
Having said all of that, Biden has made clear, and rightly so in my view, that the United States will not send troops on the ground to Ukraine to fight against Russia in any circumstances. I think that's absolutely the right call. And I think that Congress needs to back them up on that. I don't want the United Kingdom making those sorts of statements either. It's very dangerous.
Okay. What about Russia? Well, for now, I don't see any movement. And I think it's important for us to all recognize that the Russians still really don't feel the war. The sanctions are not significantly biting the average Russian yet, in part because the Russians have reserves they're willing to spend. And also because energy prices are really high and they're still selling energy, oil and gas to Europe. They're still selling all of their exports to everyone that isn't basically an advanced industrial democracy.
And so that means it's going to take a while; the sanctions are going to bite in terms of Western goods. They already are, wealthier Russian in the urban centers; but more broadly, I think it's going to take much longer than the level of escalation we're expecting in this war over the coming months.
And until then, what we see is Russian people who believe that Russia is winning, that NATO started the war, that Ukrainians are Nazis whose main function is to tell lies about their own motherland. And when Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister came out in the last day comparing the Zelensky to Hitler and saying that the biggest antisemitism in the world are Jewish. And in the same way that Zelensky is Jewish; Hitler had Jewish blood in his background. And this is an astonishing, vile, disgusting, racist comment from the foreign minister who I've known well over the years.
And when he was ambassador to the UN, was one of the most respected and capable diplomats in the UN, and any ambassador from Western countries back then would've said that. Has functionally become a war criminal who needs to be imprisoned. It's so painful to watch. And yet what he is saying is frankly important for people to see, because it's what is being piped through state media in Russia every day and night. And it's what the average Russian believes.
And as a consequence of that, I think that a majority of Russians would much rather believe all of those lies than face any personal culpability for the state of affairs in Russia. Disinformation works that way, and not just in a country like Russia. We've experienced some of that in my own country, in the United States, but Russia is not in any way a dysfunctional democracy.
It is an authoritarian state. That's increasingly becoming a police state. And the state of affairs is increasingly reverting to 1937. It's getting decidedly Stalinist in Russia. And that is an incredibly dangerous place for such a powerful and well-armed country to be. And as a consequence, I fear that next week is looking very ugly indeed, that as we see the Putin speech on May 9th, on Victory Day, is frankly something I fear that all of us are going to need to watch, and very carefully, and see just how much Putin is prepared to take this war to NATO, and how much of his personal domestic credibility he's willing to risk.
A general mobilization of some 150,000 additional Russian soldiers called up in a few months to fight the war in Ukraine, and to fight a broader war that Putin sees is against NATO would be a very risky thing for him to do medium term in Russia. And if he decides to make that step, that is, it shows a lot more resolve and a lot more willing to take downside to ensure that he gets what he wants in Ukraine. It's all not where we want this conflict to be.
I will say one piece of good news is that my friend, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres had a successful trip in Moscow and Kyiv and got out alive, especially since, while he was in Kyiv, the Russians were actually bombing it, which is you know, just again, shows the state of affairs right now, but actually made progress, made a breakthrough on the humanitarian front, with the Russians agreeing to allow civilians out of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, which has been under siege now for the better part of a couple of months. They have gotten civilians out through the ICRC, the Red Cross.
Interestingly about only 100 have left so far, despite the fact that on the ground, the ICRC is seeing that the Russians in the operation have actually fully respected the agreement, one of the only times I can say that about Russia in the last 10 weeks.
So I'm kind of wondering why we haven't seen more civilians get out. We should watch that carefully. Is it because there weren't as many as we thought. Are they petrified? Are they scared? Is there disinformation saying that they're not actually safe leaving?
I mean, again, the human conditions there are abysmal. Or the worst possible case are the soldiers from the Azov Battalion hold up there actually keeping some of them as hostages unless they are allowed to leave as well. This is all speculation, but we certainly need to know what the hell is happening to these civilians. And I think we should all be very deeply concerned because the conditions at this point on the ground are those of a concentration camp. So anyway, I mean even the good news has the dark lining at this point. And that has pretty much been par for the course when we're talking about the war in Ukraine.
So that's it for me. I hope everyone's well, I'll talk to you all real soon. New book's coming out, "The Power of Crisis," just a couple weeks. I'll start talking about that a lot more, but for now, let's all, you know, think good thoughts about those that are still stuck on the ground in occupied territories in Ukraine, and particularly in the Azovstal plant. Talk to you soon.
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