Columnist Richard Fein: Vladimir Putin — ‘What, me worry?’

By RICHARD FEIN

Published: 03-26-2023 10:23 AM

Is President Vladimir Putin of Russia worried about the failure of the Russian military in Ukraine? Much like Alfred E. Neuman of Mad magazine fame, he may not be worried at all. Here are some reasons:

Putin has a high measure of public support

There are tens of millions of Russians — the so-called “Putin Majority” that has backed him for more than 20 years — who believe the president’s claims that they are in an existential fight against the “collective West” that’s using Ukraine to destroy Russia. It’s a propaganda message driven home daily on state television, which ignores the fact that the attack Putin ordered a year ago was utterly unprovoked.

Millions of Russians are tuning out the war, certain they can’t influence events. They focus on survival amid pressure to display the requisite degree of “patriotism.” It’s a passivity born of generations of life under authoritarian rule.

Those who demonstrated against Putin in the early days of the war are now dead, in jail or intimidated into public silence.

Even the exodus of educated people may be good for Putin. The hundreds of thousands who have left were potential opponents. Now they are gone without having the trouble of putting them in jail. Lost brain power can be purchased from a large supply of very bright people anywhere in the world . They can work from home, so to speak, while getting paid by Russia.

Putin has the support of the Russian military

Despite repeated defeats the top military leaders continue to follow his orders. This includes sending poorly trained soldiers into battle, massive attacks on civilians and kidnapping Ukrainian children for deportation to Russia. When one general is sacked, another gladly takes his place.

Putin doesn’t care about military casualties

He is an ex-KBG officer. Such people don’t have a humanitarian conscience. Hundreds of thousands of his soldiers are convicted criminals who were released from jail on condition of joining the army. Dead criminals are a net plus for society and reduce the expense of maintaining prisons. Other dead solders are not ethnic Russians. They come from outlying parts of the country. Besides, in the Great Patriotic War ( World War II), the Soviet Union lost millions of soldiers and even more millions of civilians. Current casualties are not great by comparison.

Sanctions imposed by Western countries aren’t hurting the Russian economy all that much so far

In fact , the International Monetary Fund estimates that in 2022, there was a three-tenths of one percent increase in gross domestic product. One reason is that Russia sidesteps Western punishments with help from its friends. Trade lost with the West is being offset by increased trade with other countries. China and India are happy to buy, at steeply discounted prices, the Russian oil the West has embargoed. India announced that its trade with Russia has grown by 400% since the invasion. Some knowledgeable analysts believe that Russia’s imports may have already recovered to prewar levels, or will soon do so. In any event, there are ways to get around sanctions . Iran has been under sanctions for decades. The Iranian drones Russia uses to pound Ukrainian cities contain American computer chips. It is Ukraine’s economy that has been devastated by the Russian military assault. Its economy has shrunk by 30-40% since the war began.

Russia is not diplomatically isolated

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U.S. officials point out that 141 of 193 countries voted at the United Nations to condemn Russia after the invasion. But two thirds of the world’s population live in countries that have not condemned Russia, including China and India. In recent weeks, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been welcomed in nine countries in Africa and the Middle East. Russia and China have conducted joint naval exercises with South Africa.

A long war may favor Russia

The population of Russia is three times larger than that of Ukraine. Hundred of thousands of additional men can be drafted and thrown into battle even if they are poorly trained. In a war of attrition, quantity becomes a qualitative advantage. If the war continues past 2023 it is possible that the Western countries will reconsider the extent of their commitment to Ukraine. At enormous cost in lost lives Ukraine might recapture the land it lost in 2022. However, Russia considers the land in captured in 2014 to be an integral part of Russia itself. The West is not likely to support Ukraine in recapturing that territory at the risk of a major escalation that might include tactical nuclear weapons.

Putin lives in an information bubble of his own creation and with the delusion that he is going to be a contemporary Peter the Great. Although Putin may not be worried now there are many reasons he should be. That will be the topic of a future column.

Richard Fein holds a master of arts degree in political science and an MBA in economics. He can be reached at columnist@gazettenet.com.]]>