7 min read

Swallowing a Whale

Swallowing a Whale

"This European Union has faced its worst economic, financial and social crisis since World War II. And it is still struggling with the consequences. I have often used the Greek word 'polycrisis' to describe the current situation. Our various challenges – from the security threats in our neighbourhood and at home, to the refugee crisis, and to the UK referendum – have not only arrived at the same time. They also feed each other, creating a sense of doubt and uncertainty in the minds of our people."

–– Jean-Claude Juncker, June 21, 2016

Fears of a Russian military escalation in Ukraine continue to dominate the discourse, Russia Twitter, and the collective consciousness of people who like to bite their fingernails and dig into Transatlantic security, Eurasia, or all matters regarding Ukraine itself. Two of the most common debates revolve around defining Russian intentions in relation to its military movements and the prime causes of the regime's decision to take action now. What emerges are a series of unsatisfying distinctions that miss the forest for the trees. First, it's become far too easy to dismiss the role that political economy plays in manufacturing the current crisis. Second, a series of analytic mismatches and conflations arise to justify the dominant frameworks applied to make sense of what's happening. The balance of military power between Russia and Ukraine is confused with the strength of Russia's negotiating position and the decision to escalate or else risk further escalation is at turns taken as 'rational' or else evidence that the regime has the risks well in hand.

Yet a leader or elites can pursue a rational interest in an irrational manner and, more importantly here, make decisions within political and economic structures and constraints that exceed their capacity to manage risks and problems and preclude other viable courses of action over time. The causes of the current crisis are overdetermined because it's truly a 'polycrisis,' the result of a rolling cascade of interrelated crises that exceed the definitive dates generally used to signpost the current standoff. Regardless of the exact causes – I will mention a few of the "big picture" structures and ongoing factors I believe receive short shrift – one thing is clear: Moscow bit off more than it could chew when it went beyond annexing Crimea and opted to launch a war in Donbas. Now Russian elites are faced with an unpleasant prospect. Ukraine, no matter the outcome of a military operation in eastern Ukraine, will likely remain a state hostile to the regime in Russia. Arguing about Russia's preponderance of military power is of the utmost humanitarian importance, but it misses the plain fact that the regime badly blundered if it thinks it can swallow a whale. Even a devastating loss on the battlefield won't fundamentally change the political pressures facing the current and future governments in Kyiv, the will to recognize what is rightfully Ukrainian territory as Ukrainian, and future risks that Ukrainian governments invest in capabilities that pose a direct threat to Russia. The whale in question isn't Ukrainian territory or the Donbas – it's the sovereignty of Ukraine as a nation in the wake of past domestic and foreign failures on Russia's part.

Where I differ most in my thinking from what I feel comfortable calling the "mainstream" discourse on the topic is that I see the shadow of conflict as a political economy story first and a security story second, both of which are bounded by concentric circles of uncertainty. The crisis has deep roots and, if we're being honest, is probably best traced back to the psychological effects of the US invasion of Iraq and the Orange Revolution in 2004-2005. Transit fees, cheap gas contracts, gas cutoffs, and panics about basing rights aren't just tools to discipline national elites or cultivate dependencies. After all, the Ukrainian economic dependency in question was two-way – Russia's defense sector procurements similarly benefited from low-cost energy for Ukrainian heavy industry. They're means of mediating inter-state relationships in a manner that recreates the construction of the Russian regime domestically. But relying on the management of a variety of commodities whose prices are volatile, economic assets whose value is volatile and politically sensitive, and interpersonal elite relationships is a fraught business. These obviously aren't the only links holding post-Soviet Eurasia together. Markets and migration still do. But the approach to resolving the "Ukraine question" since 2013 has highlighted the discordant way Russian elites conceive of economics and security without fully grasping the contours of either category.

We can talk in circles about NATO and how the ghost of NATO memberships past haunts the political imaginary we're hostage to at the moment. It was an association agreement with EU that would reorient Ukrainian industries towards EU markets and begin to apply EU standards to a crucial industrial base for the Russian defense sector. Ukrainian elites would have new opportunities to fleece the Europeans and have greater access to markets that, in the aggregrate, are far more lucrative so long as they retained their assets and mono/oligopoly advantages in Ukraine and the freedom to place their money in foreign accounts as they pleased. They say that houses leak from the roof down, then Russia's insecurity follows the same logic. Once elites are pulled too far outside of the permission structure acceptable to Moscow, problems emerge. When Obama quipped that strong countries didn't have to invade their neighbors to keep them on your side, he was speaking to the structural flaw of Russia's dominance in Eurasia: the deflationary, sclerotic economic system first held together by the Kudrin system and then repurposed by late Putinism to smash the political power of the middle class and any wannabe Little Lord Fauntleroys like Dmitry Medvedev or, bless, perhaps even Mikhail Mishustin. If Russia consumed more, it'd be a hell of a lot easier to convince your neighbors to sign up to a trade zone powered by a core consumption economy enabling others to specialize beyond their Soviet, resource, or labor inheritances. It might also have a more secure society in which the state's deformations and failures of markets ceaselessly monetize and prey on the precarity countless Russians face.

That's also why this overly rigid conception of security – one that many of the best analysts we currently rely on for military analysis rest on – drives me crazy. The "economy" is not an abstract series of inputs upon which national power rests. A hoard of currency reserves doesn't mean an economy is in strong position to weather what comes next. In fact, it can must as much mean the economy is far too weak relative to its potential because of the short-sighted tradeoffs made to sanctions-proof things. If the decision is taken to escalate the use of military force in Ukraine, we should see such a decisions as a reflection of economic weaknesses and Russia's inability to provide anything other than hard security 'goods' in Eurasia anymore as much as paranoia, imperial ardor, or whatever term de jure is preferred. I was particularly struck by the rapid response to events in Kazakhstan. Given Russia's influence in this instance appears contingent on regime security for elites collectively trapped in a deflationary cul de sac of Russian, Chinese, and European construction, then perhaps the metrics for influence don't make as much sense as we'd like. Providing a hammer to beat down nails also works better when you create and recreate insecurity whether through military action, the enforcement of elite agendas from abroad, or stagnation. When you derive your power from intervening on behalf of one elite to fight others after years of building fissure points, complaints, and unequal, inadequate growth, maybe that isn't quite the power play the security set seem to think it is.

Polycrisis is the best word to describe what's happening as we're dripfed the news about how diplomacy has apparently failed. So long as 'security' is derived from these highly volatile, contingent sources of 'power', conditions of regional stagnation inevitably heighten insecurity over time. We complain today about Gazprom not selling Europe enough gas, but prices and supply go up and down. They don't convey a power possessed in the way sitting on a nuclear stockpile does,  high prices and supply shortfalls can only be wielded and for a short time at that. Today's energy crisis, the accelerated militarism of US foreign policy under Trump, a post-Merkel Germany, China's growing boldness and economic troubles, there are expanding rings of problems that feed each other and leave a dense fog around Ukraine-Russia and all that the topic carries. Uncertainty comes with the territory when you cover Russia. People on the ground often have just as little an idea as you do from afar figuring out what the hell is happening. Personal sources are always constrained by the institutional chaos of the country, statistics just as often fail to capture what isn't measured in the first place, pollsters can't deliver reliable snapshots of the public 'mood', and more. Russia specialists and Russian specialists across disciplines work in conditions of constant uncertainty. No wonder we struggle communicating with news networks or the public what things are 'really' like. The crisis of Russia punditry, as Jeremy Morris captured perfectly, reflects some of the same problems we see making sense of why today's security crisis "is what it is."

It feels cheap to say that today's events continue to be a post-script to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it feels true. The Soviet collapse was its own kind of polycrisis, from oil market crashes to debt overhangs to inflationary budgets failing to break interest group impasses to national elites and opportunists seizing their moment. I've got no idea what to expect. Prediction is foolish. But perhaps we can do better drawing from more than one well to understand why it's a crisis, why now, and why insecurity has become a parasitic foundation of regime politics in Russia and its neighborhood by choice.


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