In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Graham Allison and Mikhail Gorbachev
As the press encomia declared: a man of vision. Yes—but whose vision never envisaged nor intended the great accomplishment for which we honor him. He dreamed of a revived Soviet Union that would demonstrate the superiority of Communist socialism over Western-style democratic-capitalism. No one was more surprised than he when the forces he unleashed led to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the emergence of Russia and 14 other newly-independent states (including Ukraine), and the end of the Cold War.
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The Congress of Paris
Though Ukraine’s efforts to stage a counter-offensive in the south continued to fall short of the city of Kherson as of Sept. 1, one might nevertheless ponder: What if the Kremlin’s unthinkable scenario happens and Russian forces in Ukraine suffer a major setback? Should that happen, there would be two realistic options for Putin to choose from: (1) escalate so that the setback fades in a larger campaign for larger purposes; or (2) cut his losses. Of these two options, the first one would be more probable, while the first one would be unlikely, but not impossible. If dealt a major military setback on the Russian-Ukrainian fronts, Putin may, indeed, decide to cut his losses, which already include 5,500 to 20,000 Russian soldiers killed in action and an up to 9.6% contraction in GDP this year.

Putin wouldn’t be the first autocrat to cut his losses after a major military loss. Russian emperor Alexander II1 (whose image, by the way, has adorned Putin's antechamber in the Kremlin) had to exercise that option in 1856. On March 30 of that year, the Russian monarch signed the Treaty of Paris, which, among other things, “obliged Russia to surrender southern Bessarabia,” according to Encyclopedia Britannica. In addition, “the Black Sea was neutralized, and the Danube River was opened to the shipping of all nations,” per the treaty, which ended the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), with which scholars of the current Russian-Ukrainian war may, perhaps, draw some parallels.
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One way geopolitics experts (and pundits) try to help the general audience size up a challenge posed by a less familiar country is to compare it to a better known country (or, in the case of an American audience, a U.S. state). That cognitive trick has been recently applied by Andrew A. Michta, an American political scientist at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. In an Aug. 7 commentary in the Wall Street Journal, Michta chose Germany to help readers size up the challenges posed by Russia to the West. “Russia and even China have nowhere near the West's resources, when measured in terms of gross domestic product, compared with the overall collective wealth the West commands. Russia's economy is only about two-fifths the size of Germany's,” he wrote.

Michta is more or less right—as long as he measures GDP at market exchange rates (MER), for instance, in current U.S. dollars or in constant 2015 U.S. dollars—see table below). But the inconvenient fact is that MER is not the only yardstick for comparative measurements of national economies, nor is it the most accurate, according to agencies like the World Bank, the IMF and the CIA, all of whom recommend relying on purchasing power parity (PPP) for GDP comparisons. As the CIA explained in one of its World Factbooks, “Market exchange rates are frequently established by a relatively small set of goods and services (the ones the country trades) and may not capture the value of the larger set of goods the country produces… The data derived from the PPP method probably provide the best available starting point for comparisons of economic strength and well-being between countries.” According to the IMF, PPP eliminates “differences in price levels between economies,” allowing one to compare national economies in terms of how much each nation can buy with its own currency at the prices items sell for there. Finally, as the World Bank explains, “Due to large differences in price levels across economies, market exchange rate-converted GDP does not accurately measure the relative sizes of economies and the levels of material well-being. PPPs make it possible to compare the output of economies and the welfare of their inhabitants in ‘real’ terms, thus controlling for price level differences across countries.”
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When scanning commentaries on post-Soviet Eurasia from English- and Russian-language sources, certain words or phrases stand out as fads that later fade away. So when RFE/RL described on July 30, 2022, a “bold prediction” by Russia expert Iver Neumann that we are witnessing “the beginning of the end” of Vladimir Putin’s regime, it seemed like one of the newest fads that have emerged after Putin’s decision to (re-)invade Ukraine in February. We decided to reaffirm that hunch as Neumann’s prediction began to gain traction in other media. With no skills or means immediately available for meta-analysis, we searched in Factiva, Google, Yandex and other open sources for “beginning of the end”+ “Putin” and “начало+конца”+ Путин.

The search revealed that proclaiming the beginning of Putin’s end was a trend long before his troops marched into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. In fact, the earliest such proclamation we found was made on Oct. 26, 2002: a column by Moscow-based sociologist Boris Kagarlitsky that asks in its headline whether the Russian authorities’ mishandling of the deadly hostage crisis at Moscow’s Dubrovka theater during the second full year of Putin’s presidency meant the beginning of his political end. 

In total, we have found 38 predictions of the beginning of Putin’s end made from Dec. 31, 1999, (Putin’s ascent to the presidency) to July 30, 2022, including 22 made before the invasion of Ukraine (Table 1) and 16 made after the invasion (Table 2).
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Despite the latest Western sanctions against Russia approaching their half-year point, Russia’s war effort in Ukraine rages on. How has Russia sustained its campaign in the face of what many major news outlets and at least one academic institution have called “crippling” sanctions? One possible answer: Russia’s economy is not as crippled as people think. Just last week, the IMF revised upward its annual projection for changes to Russia’s GDP, saying it would contract not by 8.5% but only by 6% this year (at the same time, the IMF downgraded its forecasts for global, U.S., EU and Chinese growth). The World Bank has likewise revised its 2022 forecast for Russian economic output, saying it would shrink by 8.9% instead of the 11.2% estimated in April. Russia’s Central Bank, meanwhile, cut interest rates to below pre-invasion levels, another sign Russia’s economy is doing better than anticipated. While the U.S. and its allies are focusing on the long-term impact of sanctions, a number of other indicators show that, despite sanctions, Russia’s economy is doing as well as—or better than—other major economies.

Of course, there is clearly a negative side to the state of the Russian economy, from shrinking imports to plummeting equity indices. But getting a full picture means looking at positives and negatives. Here are some of the positives, which have been underreported in my view, to help our readers have a more complete picture when forming their opinions on Russia’s economic performance in the wake of sanctions.
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Putin and Kirill in church
This week, Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed in his written address to the Tenth Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that he “believe[s] that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and we stand for equal and indivisible security for all members of the world community.” Interestingly enough, there was no such coupling in Putin’s address to the previous NPT Review Conference in 2015. In fact, “indivisible security,” which has become one of the Kremlin’s favorite principles when expressing grievances vis-à-vis the West, was absent from that 2015 address. Perhaps this new coupling indicates that Putin wants the world to know that according to Russia, preventing nuclear war should be indivisible from ensuring that no country can enhance its own security at Russia’s expense. If so, that would not be inconsistent with Putin’s and his team’s efforts to implicitly threaten the use of nuclear weapons over the West’s assistance to Ukraine.

It would, perhaps, be just as interesting to know what Putin, as a practicing member of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), may believe when it comes to nuclear war. For clues on that, one can read Dmitry Adamsky’s profound “Russian Nuclear Orthodoxy” volume. Or one can skim the statements on the issue, gathered below, made by the ROC’s leadership and Putin’s apparent confessor. These statements, gathered from various sources, indicate that the ROC has nothing quite as extensive, long and thoughtful as the Catholic Church’s just war theory in general or Catholics’ views on nuclear weapons. Overall, if these statements (and blessings) are any guide, the ROC appears to be significantly more tolerant of nuclear weapons than the Catholic Church.
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Lavrov in Ethiopia, July 2022
As the West’s increasing punitive measures bear down on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is in Africa this week, trying to develop economic ties and rally political support from governments there. Why Africa? For one, the continent is forecast to become the world’s “next growth miracle.” As important, not one African country to date has imposed sanctions on Russia, and when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the African Union via videolink, only four African heads of state reportedly attended. While some analysts and Western officials claim that Russia is isolated, the inconvenient fact is that condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine is far from universal. The U.N. resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was met with abstention or outright opposition from countries accounting for about half of the world’s population, while the resolution to remove Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council was abstained from or opposed by nations representing a whopping 75% of the world’s population.
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What’s the latest on Ukraine? Top security officials ousted: Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has suspended two senior political allies—the country’s Security Service chief and prosecutor general—alleging they had failed to prevent treasonous collaboration with Russia among scores of their subordinates. Announcing the decision in his nightly video address on July 17, Zelensky said more than 60 employees of the two agencies had “remained in the occupied territory and are working against our state,” according to the official English translation of his remarks. He added that 651 criminal cases involving treason and collaboration had been initiated against prosecutors, detectives and other law-enforcement officials. “Such an array of crimes against … the national security of the state and the connections detected between the employees of the security forces of Ukraine and the special services of Russia pose very serious questions to the relevant leadership,” Zelensky said, promising that the “inspection of law enforcement agencies” would continue. While Zelensky initially only suspended spy chief Ivan Bakanov and Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova, Ukraine’s parliament approved their dismissal on July 19. Both were considered Zelensky loyalists, and Bakanov is a childhood friend of the president’s.
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Russian tank damaged by Ukrainian troops in Mariupol
This week’s reports that Russia’s invasion seems to be “entering a more aggressive phase” throw into stark relief one recurring theme in analysis of the Ukraine war: the prediction that Russian forces will soon exhaust their capabilities, reaching what the famous Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz described as a Kulminationspunkt, or “culminating point,” of attack. In his book “On War,” Clausewitz defined this as a “point at which the forces remaining are just sufficient to maintain a defensive, and to wait for Peace.”

Below is a compilation of such predictions, beginning in March 2022. Some were made that month, and may have rested on a looser definition of culminating point than Clausewitz’s original, predicting that Russian forces would not be able to sustain their offensive on the many fronts of their initial invasion; indeed, by late March, Russia started moving troops away from Kyiv, marking Moscow’s new strategic focus on eastern Ukraine.

However, the predictions continued even as Russian forces made advances in the east, most recently capturing nearly all of the Luhansk region that remained in Ukrainian hands. If nothing else, this timeline reaffirms the truism that making predictions can be an ungrateful business, particularly amid the fog of war.
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Since it began in February 2022, Russia's war in Ukraine has remained a top news story around the world. From polls that give insight into the Russian public's attitude to the war, to the problem of negotiating peace and bringing the war to an end, our top 10 reads of 2022 so far attempt to address the many complicated questions surrounding Russia's invasion of Ukraine and what comes next. Check them out below. 
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