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Putin "wins" Russia election, but at what cost?

Putin "wins" Russia election, but at what cost?
| Ian Bremmer | Quick Take

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

A Quick Take to kick off your week. Want to talk about things Russian. We, of course, just had an “election” that Putin “won.”

There is no opposition to speak of in Russia. If you're running against him and allowed to run, that means that you are considered acceptable to the regime and you're basically there to play against the Harlem Globetrotters. What was it, the senators, the generals? I can't remember what it was called, but that was the group that was there to make the winning team look good. Of course, you know, Putin is not as much fun to watch as the Globetrotters, but he certainly is politically talented and of course, it's important for him to show that he has an historic win with historic turnout better than anyone before in Russia, not quite Turkmen in Turkmenbashi in Central Asia, not quite Aliyev levels in Azerbaijan, but strong enough for Russia.

It's not just about his ego. It is important as a messaging function to the Russian people that he is seen as a legitimate leader. And, you know, there are others around the world that are prepared to play that game. Already so warm congratulations from Narendra Modi in India, who's strong enough domestically and geopolitically that he can say pretty much what he wants to and get away with it. Still a little sad that he felt it was worth doing that. Even sadder to see that from Pope Francis, who has been putting his thumb on the scale in favor of Russia vis a vis Ukraine in the war in the past weeks, the Vatican tried to walk that back, but he was one of the first, apparently, according to Russian state media, to congratulate Putin. Normally, you wouldn't believe Russian state media, but in this case, Pope Francis could very easily say that isn't true. So one assumes that it is.

But nothing good here in terms of the war vis a vis Ukraine. Putin feels domestically quite stable. That's true politically. It's also true economically. The Russian economy is not performing well. The growth we're seeing in the Russian economy is because of the war economy, which is a massive piece of what the economy represents today. But they're losing lots of human capital. If you look at places like Armenia, Georgia, you see that those economies are booming right now because all of the talented young Russians are leaving and they're going there to work. Great for those tiny countries, not so good for the Russian Federation, but none of this is a threat to Putin, is a threat to the Kremlin, nor is the war in Ukraine two plus years on, in part because of the consequences if you dare oppose it publicly, in part because Putin, while throwing hundreds of thousands of troops into the front, many, many of whom hundreds of thousands, are casualties now, an estimated minimum 300,000 Russian casualties in this war, but most of them are not coming from the major cities. A lot of them aren't even Russian ethnically.

They're coming from the middle Volga and Siberia and they're poor and disenfranchised. And, you know, it's an easier way for Putin to keep this going. Also, large numbers of prisoners that were furloughed and given some money to be sent to the front lines, treated very badly by the Russian army and also many that have come from other countries, including Kazakhstan, for example, Cuba, Nepal, other countries that have sent some of their citizens that to make some money too quick money, and some of whom have been engaged in human trafficking. So that's what's going on inside Russia.

In Ukraine, the war continues not to go well. The Ukrainians are losing some territory. They only have one real line of defense behind the front lines. The Russians have had three. They're much better dug in. And also the Ukrainians are having a serious manpower challenge, a serious ammunition challenge, and don't have the military equipment at the high level that they really need to continue to fight. That is starting to change for the near term. There's been more ammunition sent by the Europeans in the past couple of weeks. And there's also, I think, increasingly very likely that the Americans will give an additional package. I'm now hearing $60 billion for 2014 that should allow the Ukrainians to mostly maintain the land that they presently occupy. That's where we are for 2024.

Or what about after that? It's only getting more challenging not only because of the US election, but also because the Ukrainians are a much smaller country and it's harder for them to raise the personnel. It's also a democracy, even though they've pushed off their elections and it's much harder for Zelensky to get away with doing the kinds of things that Putin is doing on the ground to his own country.

All of which means ultimately, it is hard to imagine the Ukrainians winning. It's also hard to talk about the Ukrainians winning. I understand that that's something that we want to do from a morale perspective. But, you know, when we talk about people that have gone through rape, we don't talk about winners. Even if the rapist was captured and imprisoned. We talk about survivors, talk about people that go through cancer and guess you can beat cancer, but you're really a cancer survivor. And what's happened to the Ukrainians with the war crimes and the torture that they have been through, is survival. And even if they were to get all their land back, you couldn't say they won the war in reality. Say if they survived the war and Russia is still there and they have to maintain their defenses and they have to continue to have the capacity to do so. And this is not a matter of one or two or three years. It's a matter of a generation, certainly as long as the Russian regime continues to exist in its present form, I do think that it's possible for Ukraine as an entity to truly survive this war.

NATO allies continue to say that they have a role in NATO, that they are being welcomed, but they haven't given them a timeline. They really should, and they need to provide hard security guarantees until that timeline of the remaining territory that Ukraine presently occupies. The French President Macron has been talking about that, if the Russians are able to make more gains, the Americans, the Germans have not, the Poles, the balls certainly have.

There needs to be more alignment on that in the run up to the NATO summit meeting in July, I believe it is in Washington, DC. There's also needs to be capacity for the Ukrainians to continue to pay for their own economic rebuilding. And that is a significant effort that right now the Europeans are providing more than the United States is all in economically.

And that includes the cost of military support, something we don't hear as much about as we should in the United States. But that doesn't mean that's going to continue. And the pressure and stress over time is only going to grow. But I do think that there is still such a window and it is good to see that a strong majority of Republicans and Democrats in the United States are continuing to focus on this issue, even as the Middle East gets more time and more attention. And that, I think, is ultimately I mean, Trump has said very clearly he doesn't want any money or support for the border because he wants that to continue to be a disaster for Biden, something that people to vote for him for in the run up to November. But when we talk about the Ukraine war, Putin has not tried so hard to say no more money under Biden. He's instead said, if I win, not another penny. So the pressure is there. We'll see where it goes. Clearly, we are talking about a de facto partition of Ukraine, but the ability to help the Ukrainians survive this and the impact that will have on NATO more broadly and on American allies around the world, like Japan, South Korea, you name it, Taiwan.

These are all long term very, very important precedents that are going to be set on the back of whether the Americans can indeed continue to stand up for themselves and for their allies and helping the Ukrainians defend themselves.

That's it for me, and I'll talk to you all real soon.


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