Putin’s Ukraine Gambit

Originally sent to VIXCONTANGO subscribers on November 13th, 2021

Putin looks back in anger at Ukraine very often. It grates on him. He feels that Russia has been wronged yet again by the West and he thinks the time is now to do something about it. I am sure the 2014 events when the Ukraine government was captured by pro-Western forces caught him completely by surprise, but in his mind this story is far from over. In a rather lengthy recent articlePutin writes his expansive thoughts on the situation in Urkaine and gives a historical background and context with which to justify the invasion of Ukraine to the Russian people. I happen to complete agree with the history presented in that article which is about as factual as it can get. Long story short, Ukraine is a land of 2 types of peoples – Eastern Orthodox Christians (Russians and Belorussians) and Catholics (Lithuanians, Poles and Germans). Ukraine borders Poland to the West and Russia to East and Belorussia to the North. Putin divides Ukraine into Russians, Belorussians and Ukranians with the “Ukranian” label encompassing native Tatars as well as people of Lithuanian, Polish and German heritage. Putin clearly puts Belorussians in the same group as Russians.

To understand the ethnic composition of Ukraine you can look through its history. In the beginning from 800 to 1200s, you had the emergence of Old Russia (Kievan Rus) and Ukraine was basically the center of that kingdom with Kiev being the capital. At some point, there was a Grand Duchy of Lithuania in 1200s which was one of the biggest countries in Europe and the Western part of Ukraine was part of that Kingdom. Russians were pushed back to Moscow. Ivan the Terrible was the king who moved the capital of Russia from Kiev to Moscow. Later, there was a big Polish kingdom in 1500s and again Ukraine was part of it. Russia fought a series of wars with the Ottoman Empire, England and France (Crimean war) and captured majority of what is modern Ukraine (even though Russia lost the Crimean war itself) in the 1800s. As is often the case with Russians, they may lose a war but win the long term geopolitical conflict and that is certainly what happened with Ukraine. Ukraine was viewed as a border region by the Russians. The name “Ukraine” in Russian literally means “outskirts”. “Ukrainians” are therefore people sent to guard the border.

To go back to the present, the Ukrainian society is fundamentally divided among these longstanding religious and ethnic lines. On one side you have Russian and Belorussians who are Eastern Orthodox Christians and on the other side you have a compilation of Lithuanians, Poles and Germans who are Catholics. In fact that group of Germanic Catholics in Ukraine was one of the worst perpetrators of the Holocaust in WW2 where they killed about 1.5 million Jews in the span of a year. To this day Ukraine is one of the most prominent countries that votes down anti-Holocaust resolutions at the UN regularly. There are a lot of neo-Nazis in Urkaine and they are the people the US government affiliates with in this conflict with Russia.

If you look at the 2010 election in Ukraine between the Putin backed Januckovich and Western backed Timoshenko, you can clearly see the ethnic delineations of the country. The south of Ukraine right next to the Black Sea is all ethnic Russians while the north of Ukraine and particularly closer to Poland is let’s call it “ethnic Ukrainians”. Obviously, the seat of the Russian Navy is in Crimea so the surrounding regions all work for the Navy and as you would guess are packed full of ethnic Russians. Crimea is the equivalent of Baltimore. It doesn’t get any more American than Baltimore and similarly with Crimea and the surrounding regions – it doesn’t get any more Russian than that. Thus the south of Ukraine is not really “Ukrainian” and Putin wants to correct that mapping wrong. In the article Putin says that geographic regions of the former USSR were not drawn along ethnic lines but along economic lines and thus when the USSR fell apart the borders of Ukraine that the USSR mapped for administrative purposes really weren’t reflective of ethnic realities. Which is true.

Further, Putin accuses the Ukrainian government of trying to convert ethnic Russians and stops them from exercising their religion or learn the Russian language. That is obviously demagoguery but the “freedom to exercise religion” doctrine should sound familiar to any student of history. Defending the rights of Christians to exercise their religion was the foreign policy doctrine of Tsarist Russia which was used to wage a series of wars against the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s which resulted in the formation of series of states in Eastern Europe – Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Moldova, etc. Russia also has another doctrine of strategic defense which is to put a number of Russian affiliated states between itself and the West. The sudden switch of Ukraine is a total no-no for Putin. He says that “anti-Russia” Ukraine is not an option.

It is a foregone conclusion that Putin is going to move to annex the “Donbass” – the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk – to Russia. Putin has amassed 100,000 troops on the Ukrainian border. The question is whether he will proceed further. Some people argue for a “Land Bridge to Crimea” path of invasion which will also annex the regions of Zaporizia and Kerson. Others argue for blocking off Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea completely which means annexing Odessa and Mykolaiv. And fourth option is obviously invading all of Ukraine and converting the government. Of all of these, the path of least international resistance is Donbass, but I highly doubt the West can do much about a “Land Bridge to Crimea” scenario or “Blocking off Black Sea” scenario. These are areas that are vast majority Russian that want to be back into Russia. You should have seen the lines of people getting Russian passports after the Crimea annexation in 2014. If I were to bet, I’d put the odds of “Land Bridge to Crimea” at well above 60% and “Blocking off Black Sea” at 40%. Donbass is a 90% scenario here.

It is inevitable that Putin will exploit the current American weakness on the international stage to reclaim what he feels are true Russian territories such as southern Ukraine. The American government foray into promoting gay rights and calling white people “inherently evil” has very big repercussions in Eastern Europe and Russia. There was a tug-of-war conflict between social conservatives and Western oriented Russians over the past 3-4 decades and this foray into LGBTQ rights that started under the Obama administration has handed a decisive victory to social conservatives in domestic Russian politics. Ironically, Putin is actually a Western proponent inside Russia. Putin is the most Western friendly face Russia can produce. If Putin is replaced, he will be replaced by a far bigger conservative. This is something Americans don’t really understand – Putin is the best the West can get in Russia. As you can imagine, if I say Putin wants southern Urkaine, the real Russians want all of Ukraine. However, I don’t think a full blown Ukraine invasion is in the cards. West Ukraine doesn’t want to be Russian and is not Russian. That is a battle of high cost and little reward. Russia is much more interested in the Black Sea properties and that is where they will go.

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