In this shorter episode of the Utilitarian Podcast, I talk with Samo Burja about the war in Ukraine. Samo is the founder of the geopolitical analysis firm Bismarck Analysis.
We talk about Western sanctions and their effects of Russias relationship to China, what a remilitarization of Europe will mean, whether Putin will be able to control Ukraine, avoiding nuclear war, possible tactics for winning the war, potential diplomatic solutions, the longer term implications of this war, and the importance of European energy independence.
Here is the transcript:
Gus: What is your current overall read of the situation?
Overview of the situation
Samo: I think that to a very significant degree, Russia is achieving a military victory with an unclear strategic outcome. By default, I would expect this to be a strategic defeat for Russia. However, it really depends on the stability and future of the systems Russia finds itself excluded from.
Just to give more of a concrete overview of the situation. Russia is now almost two weeks into the invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign, internationally recognized independent country.
The pretext for the invasion has been a political one focused on the alleged need for denazification of Ukraine and ensuring that Ukraine does not join NATO and other Western military alliances that might endanger Russia. That's Russia's perspective. The Western perspective is that this is essentially an imperialist project that Putin wants to just install a yes-man, as head of Ukraine, possibly outright fully annexing Ukraine.
I actually think that perspective has significant truth to it as does the perspective from the Russian side that Ukrainian membership in NATO is not acceptable. One of the realities that people often forget is the realities of existing balance of terror between the nuclear systems of the United States and Russia.
These are the only two countries in the world that have enough nuclear weapons and enough delivery vehicles deployed for MAD - mutually assured destruction - to be the viable equilibria. All other countries are merely in deterrence, right? So if the Russia or the United States has a nuclear war with France, France can inflict so much damage on the other country that it's not worth it, but the other country continues to exist.
If Russia and the United States have a war, neither country continues to exist .Modulo, let's say missile defense systems could change this. They're gone, right? So that's mutually assured destruction has been this equilibria that's been in place since the 1960s. So if NATO allows Ukraine to join, there'll be NATO missile installations eventually built in Ukraine.
And there'll be no easy way to tell whether those are purely defensive or offensive missile installations. If you imagine this from the Russian perspective. And then you might have hypersonic missiles, just a few minutes flight away from Moscow, and that can be considered, in the nuclear balance, an existential threat.
Imagine how strong the response would be of the United States, if the Chinese and Russians were to start installing hypersonic missiles in Cuba, a few minutes away from Washington DC, actually, we don't need to imagine this. We can go back to history to the original Cuban missile crisis with merely ballistic missiles that do not travel at hypersonic speeds, right? And that provoked a strong response from the US.
Sanctions - Russia and China
Gus: Do you think the current Western sanctions will push Russia towards collaborating more with China? Will it worsen Western collaboration with China?
Samo: I think the west is too economically interdependent to sanction China, the way it has sanctioned Russia. Russia's economy, at least if measured by GDP, is relatively small. It is however, a very important economy in that it is the key energy provider of Europe. Natural gas, but also oil, right? While the United States has an abundance of its own fossil fuels, it until recently has had to purchase heavy oil from Russia to mix with the much lighter oil that can be found in North America for the most efficient refining processes, right?
So even in America, the reason, one of the reasons gas prices are going up right now is that Russian oil can't be purchased. Means that it has to be purchased elsewhere. This heavy oil, that has to be mixed in with the lighter oil that can then be refined into all of the fuels we use and that the world uses, honestly.
The US does a lot of the world's refining, not just oil production, a lot of its refining as well. I think Russia has no choice, but to lean on China and China, I think honestly, from a policy and a strategic standpoint is the undisputed winner. Consider, all the China has to do is support Russia enough economically that Russia does not collapse, that Putin remains in power.
However, this is not a square victory for Putin, nor for Russia, the Russian state. Let alone the people, I'm not going to even comment on the hardships that they're enduring to the sanctions. They will become completely dependent on China. So in other words, China gets everything it wants, a humiliated West, a weakened set of international norms with regards to resolving disputes with force.
Honestly, four years from now after a Russian invasion of Ukraine, China chooses to resolve the Taiwan question with its own invasion. I think the outcry will be much less than the outcry over Ukraine.
A remilitarized Europe
Gus: Hasn't Putin's invasion of Ukraine unified the West and shown a strengthened resolve to resist this invasion from the European countries and the US?
Samo: I think it has certainly brought to the attention of Europe, the need to militarily rearm and for now a strong solidarity with the United States and with of course, Ukraine, which is being treated almost as if it was an ally, even though no treaty obligations exist to the country. So it's in service of the international order, right?
In theory, we're supporting Ukraine because it's being invaded by another country. But in practice, I think it's become very clear that this is the West versus Russia, right? It's no longer about the rules. It's, Russia has invaded our friend, and we want to protect this state or at least help it defend itself.
The negative version of this story is that we're willing to fight Russia to the last Ukrainian. The positive story is that we're helping a country that's under attack, right? That's the victim of an attack. And of course, both versions can, co-exist simultaneously in an institutional context with different, decision-makers using different logics to reach the same sort of outcome or the same policy.
However, remilitarizing Europe, if it just means strengthening the individual militaries of European countries is not squarely in the interest of the United States. Countries with sufficiently advanced and powerful militaries might pursue independent foreign policy, even outside of Europe, without the US's permission.
People often forget the pivotal moment when European states ceased to be great powers did not come from the Soviet Union or from Nazi Germany. It came from the United States. Britain and France intervened in the Suez crisis, with a paper-thin pretext of an Israeli-Egyptian war, to try and re-seize the Suez canal that had been nationalized by the Egyptian government. How did that end? Do United States threatened to crash the British pound and the British pulled out of the alliance and the French could not on their own secure military victory.
Okay. So whenever someone says that there are no conflicts of interest between European countries and the United States, it's good to remember that the United States actively moved during the Cold War on more than one occasion to counteract any independent European foreign policy. Turns out, that while democracies might share fundamental agreements about many things in terms of values, they're in less agreement, even when it comes to defense or foreign policy in general, let alone trickier questions such as trade policy, right? Obviously, there've been trade conflicts between the EU and the US.
So, if Germany re-arms or France, re-arms, perhaps for the next 10 years versus Russia, there's an alignment of interest. But at Germany or France, that's militarily strong enough to intervene on its own, will find other discordant interests with United States.
A simple example here is France and Turkey, both NATO members, already have conflicts of interest in the Mediterranean. And in fact already sponsor opposite sides in some of the civil wars of the middle east. In Libya, they armed and trained opposite sides of the ongoing civil war. When it comes to gas rights, disputed in the Eastern Mediterranean, France backs Greece, Egypt, and Israel. Meanwhile, Turkey, of course, backs its own claims and so on.
Will Putin be able to control Ukraine?
Gus: Will Putin be able to control Ukraine? Even if he secures a military victory, it seems to me that he would be unable to control a country of 44 million people and an enormous country in terms of land area. What is his strategic aim here? Why did he even invade Ukraine?
Samo: One can argue about the exact population numbers, right? Where, when we say 44 million I think this actually does not account for the many millions of people who, while formal residents of Ukraine, actually work and live in Europe, right? So there is a significant population of those.
Also Syria, I think, suffered an over 20% population reduction during the Syrian civil war. This is turning out to be a nasty, sluggish war that unfortunately is going to create one of the largest refugee crises of recent memory. So, unfortunately a lot of Ukrainians will be pushed out of the country, will have to flee the country. There'll be a lot of refugees.
Having said this I think we cannot underestimate the ability of Russia to set up puppet states that essentially do the governing for them. The most important example here is the Chechen Republic within the Russian Federation, that in 20 years went from the most costly war of independence of a pretty fanatically dedicated young population, to arguably one of the foundations of Putin's power. The current autonomous Chechen Republic that exists within the Russian Federation has been providing troops for the invasion of Ukraine, is under the thumb of a strongman that has very good relations with Putin and will remain Putin supporter for the foreseeable future.
Would it truly be impossible to assemble a government of nationalist radicals drawn from Ukraine's own population, running puppet republics, fake little statelets like Donetsk and Luhansk? The Donetsk people's Republic and the Luhansk people's Republic, mind you, where two states that Russia helped create in 2014, but did not recognize as independent states, instead claiming they were part of Ukraine and trying to use them as a ways to control Ukraine.
Now they've been recognized as independent states and in fact, they might see incorporation into the Russian Federation as a sequential step. These two steps by the way, were already executed with Crimea, which briefly declared independence, was recognized by Russia and then immediately accepted by Russia to enter Russia. Note that there has been no insurgency in Crimea.
Of course, the rest of Ukraine is not Crimea, and 2022 is not 2014. I think a significant portion of the Ukrainian people, and they in fact have good reasons to feel this way, are now much more opposed to the idea of absorption into Russia, than the residents of Crimea were in 2014. The ethnic mix was also much more favorable to Russians and Russian-speakers in Crimea in 2014, than Ukraine is today.
Even if Putin cannot occupy all of Ukraine, he can certainly carve off territories in the east of Ukraine, can annex some of those territories and can pacify, through the laundering of oppression. Through a puppet government in a way that just is not legible to the Russian people, as oppression carried out by the Russian Federation. Can be handed off, delegated, outsourced to local strongmen. There are several new statelets that they could spin up.
Insurgencies in Ukraine
Samo: When it comes to insurgencies, insurgencies are a young men's game. Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, even during the fighting of the Vietnam war, these were all very young societies. With many many young men, men tend to be more violent than women for a variety of reasons, that could be recruited into various factions, be they ISIS, the Taliban. Honestly, at the end of the day, even insurgents we might sympathize with, say the Kurdish insurgency versus the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, right? We empathize and sympathize with the Kurdish pro-democracy agenda, but it was powered demographically by the same trend that powered ISIS years later.
So really, if the country is occupied, I'm not sure whether the insurgency really looks like Iraq or it looks more like the IRA. Occasional, very dedicated people, sometimes seeing themselves as freedom fighters, sometimes denounced by their enemies as nationalists, planting bombs in Moscow and St. Petersburg and occupied Kiev. But note how different that is, that type of insurgency, from what we saw in Iraq, what we saw in Afghanistan, what was seen decades ago in Vietnam. It could be possible to occupy and govern a shockingly large part of the country.
Gus: Specifically by carving out and outsourcing the governance of regions to...
Samo: To local elites.
Samo: In fact, if you're currently a Ukrainian governor and you expect Ukraine to lose the war and the Russians come in and they're like: " we'll keep you in power, we'll help you win fake elections. You just have to administer this thing. Your powers increase."
I don't know, it's treason, but I can understand why some people are choosing it.
Tactics for winning the war
Gus: I'm interested in tactics the West could employ to keep Ukraine independent without triggering nuclear war, where avoiding nuclear war would be the first priority. And one of these tactics could be sanctions, which are already employed. What do you think about paying Russian soldiers to defect and offering them EU citizenship and paying them a large sum of money to defect from the Russian army? Would this increase the risk of nuclear war?
Samo: I don't think this in itself increases the risk of nuclear war, and I think it produces severe problems for the Russian military. However, what people have to understand is that you still have to find a way to go west, and even if your entire unit surrenders and marches all the way to the Polish border, receives citizenship and checks, where does that leave your family back home?
Retribution against families is a countermeasure that I've not seen people think through with these proposals. And I think the Russian state is willing to undertake such countermeasures if need be. It would be a source of friction, but not enough to collapse the Russian army, because of those countermeasures.
Gus: Do you see any tactics that would be enough to collapse the Russian army and to repel the invasion of Ukraine?
Samo: I think the West can probably escalate to some degree, but not an unlimited degree. I don't know if you've heard about British soldiers arriving in Ukraine, that resigned from the British army the day before, and then volunteering to fight for Ukraine. The Russians are not unjustified in their suspicion, this is official state policy, and these are just British and Polish troops fighting under a new flag. And they do matter by the way, well-trained troops are needed to use modern military equipment. The Ukrainians, of course, have been using the military equipment, provided to them by Western powers. However, it takes a long time to train soldiers to use such equipment well.
The West can escalate, provide more troops to some extent, maybe a few tens of thousands, maybe provide military equipment, logistic support. Ukraine is still losing territory daily. I think the best tactic could be to withdraw the Ukrainian military, basically from the eastern half of the country, and try to keep the western half independent. This would give you both a staging ground and time to let the Russian sort of overextend themselves because we've already seen they've had trouble with logistics.
If this persists for a few months, you could possibly over a few years of continued heavy Western military support train up enough Ukrainians. Because again, there's not an unlimited pool of Western troops that you can pretend are Ukrainian troops. Be enough to start pushing back into Eastern Ukraine and reclaim some, but not all of Ukrainian territory.
If I was Ukraine and this again, this might actually increase the risk of nuclear war. It really might. I would be seriously considering whether we have the nuclear material lying around to test a new atomic bomb and then test that atomic bomb.
Gus: So, becoming a nuclear state and signaling to Russia that you are now a nuclear state.
Samo: Yes, I would not, I would not strike any Russian target with this test atomic bomb. And the reason for that is that, almost immediately I feel, would produce a counter response from Russia. Also importantly, it would justify to Russia's population, the waging of a nuclear war, because it would be, "well they struck first".
Gus: Wouldn't attempting to develop nuclear weapons be incredibly risky in itself? Even if you're simply testing or demonstrating that you have the ability.
Samo: I think it would be extremely risky. I think it is one of the few things that would give a conventional invasion like this pause. The risk of course, is that you test an atomic bomb and then the Russians are like, "see, they were developing weapons of mass destruction", which we know is uh, you know, it's compelling reason to justify an invasion of a country.
I do think that I would not advise it, but I however, could see this preserving the integrity of the Ukrainian state. I think the best one is a measured retreat to the west of the country, plus heavy Western support. I do think a no-fly zone should not happen, right?
A no-fly zone should not happen. Because what a no-fly zone amounts to is a promise to shoot down Russian planes that enter that area. And as soon as you have Russian and NATO planes shooting at each other, the path to escalation, it's not clear where it stops, right? Importantly, because these planes are not easily replaceable. Planes lost in conventional fighting over Ukraine, in fact alter the nuclear balance, right? Bombers, fighters. These are vehicles that are capable of delivering nuclear warheads, right? In fact, were designed to be capable of it. So there's a real sense in which it's adjacent to nuclear war.
There's maybe a small version of the no-fly zone that could happen. You could take a few regions of Ukraine that the Russians don't care enough about and in fact is more trouble than it's worth. And declare a limited, no fly zone over there. I don't know how stable that would be, but I could imagine Russians, out of an abundance of caution, just not flying there. Uh, this could not be done over Kiev. I think they are set and determined to capture Kiev unless the Ukrainian government surrenders and negotiates some sort of treaty where they agree to never ever join NATO, and they agree to give up some of their territory.
Potential diplomatic solutions
Gus: Do you think territorial concessions to Putin are necessary for him to not lose face and not escalate? Is there a diplomatic solution in which you give Putin a symbolic victory and maybe promise to lift sanctions eventually and thereby deescalate the conflict?
Samo: I could see Putin accepting, and Russia's government accepting, a deal where they gain territory, basically connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland. So that's a significant chunk of Ukrainian coastline by the way, as well as Luhansk and Donetsk. And having this be the new, internationally recognized border between Russia and Ukraine. This would, of course, set a very unfortunate precedent for world politics, because it would mean that internationally recognized borders can once more be changed through conquest.
Perhaps that's inevitable, but I do think there is a variant of this that could preserve an autonomous Ukrainian state. The big question is, does this state become stronger in the long run? Does it develop a stronger military? Ukraine is much stronger now than it was in 2014. If it has another 10 years to build up its defenses, especially with European help it might in fact be more than capable of repulsing a future invasion.
So to sacrifice some territory right now, to sacrifice some territory now, to be able to defend yourself in five or 10 years, that is a choice that many countries and many leaders have historically had to make.
Longer term implications
Gus: What are the longer term implications of this war? Is this an outlier event or is this a return to regular wars in Europe?
Samo: I think this is the first of many mid-sized frozen conflicts that has thawed. We have this term for a frozen conflict, such as the balance of power that exists between Serbia and Kosovo or the balance of power that existed a few years ago between Azerbaijan and Armenia. And we know how that frozen conflict resolved, right?
What's happening right now is US global hegemony is receding. As US hegemony recedes, every single conflict with the US entered an area, stabilized a conflict but not resolved it, all of those areas have the conflicts reopening. And most of these were relatively small, like Armenia and Azerbaijan or possibly the Ethiopian civil war, et cetera, et cetera. However, some of these are now mid-sized or large frozen conflicts, things that were never quite resolved one way or the other, where the calculus of power is unclear.
One of the most fundamental things that people have to keep in mind is that if everyone knows the outcome of a war, there's really no reason to fight a war. You might as well negotiate a settlement, that's more favorable than the war for both sides. Wars are often undertaken out of uncertainty, political uncertainty, both domestic and international uncertainty.
And then the uncertainty is resolved. One way to think of it is that war is computation with tanks, right? That calculates the new, real balance of power. So, as US hegemony recedes globally, I think there will be more wars. Not necessarily in Europe, though I predict there will be wars in the following parts of Europe:
I think the Mediterranean, there will be one, there will be some large wars fought in the Mediterranean as there will be a new balance of power between European countries that aspire to be Mediterranean powers, especially France, and to a much lesser extent, Spain and Italy versus Eastern rising powers, such as Turkey.
You can also count Israel provisionally on the Western side, even though it's not really even though it's not really geographically, a European country. And I think there'll be wars in all of the former Soviet spaces because the balance of power is going to be more and more unfavorable to the American side as the US slowly and inevitably has to withdraw from the world because it's relative economic and political weight is smaller.
So I'm not talking about an absolute decline. It's just that the very fact that China has risen means that even if Russia continues to grow weaker in the future, possibly due to sanctions, possibly due to political instability, et cetera, et cetera, China can still start projecting power all over the place.
And unilateral US decisions can no longer happen, right? There's no longer this uncontested world order. Let's remember that if Europe were to intervene in the Yugoslav wars without the US in the 1990s, not much would have happened. The US actually decisively intervened in a European conflict. It wasn't Germany, it wasn't France, it wasn't Britain.
So these countries, maybe they'll develop an appetite for intervention, but even that introduces the possibility once more of conflicts between the United States and its Western allies. So even if the US chooses to make its Western allies more militarily powerful, this just will bring forward all of these strange conflicts of interest that have been buried. For example, France has a whole neo-colonial sphere of influence in West Africa that has never been fully resolved with US interests in the region. How does that play out? Unclear. For now, another regional frozen conflict.
Gus: Is developing energy independence key to weakening Russia?
Samo: I think developing energy independence is an absolute necessity for Europe's economic development. There are two possible architectures with technology, as it currently exists. One is a very nuclear-heavy approach where all of Europe basically follows the example of France and it builds nuclear power plants, and it has cheap power that can then be converted as needed to, even do things like heating homes during the winter.
The other one is the attempt to find enough natural gas reserves in the North Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean to power Europe So supplanting Russian natural gas with natural gas from these regions, this could be done with fracking. For example, Britain has vast fossil fuel reserves that could be accessed with fracking.
However, for obvious reasons, this has been, you know unacceptable from an environmental and political standpoint, to successive British governments, and in fact the British population as a whole. Energy dependence of the EU on Britain would be a funny outcome of Brexit, wouldn't it? But probably better than energy dependence on Russia.
Gus: Samo, it's been fantastic to talk to you. Thank you so much for coming on the Utilitarian Podcast.
Samo: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure discussing these topics.