Why a War Over Ukraine is Unlikely

The whole world is waiting nervously for developments in Ukraine.  Masses of Russian soldiers are engaged in "military exercises" near the Ukrainian border. "Siberian regiments" are being redeployed from the Far Eastern districts, just as they were sent to defend Moscow in 1941.

Russian propaganda stirs up the local population with a patriotic fervor, blaming Ukraine and the collective West for the heat of the international situation. The Ukrainian army, one of the strongest in Europe, is preparing to fight back, and the United States is planning to send eighty–five hundred soldiers to help the NATO countries in Europe. The bowstring is taut and the finger holding it can slip at any moment. The world is tense.

 Tense times in the Kremlin

Wars between countries have always started for fairly prosaic reasons: to seize someone else's land or wealth, out of lust for revenge, to proliferate their religion, ideology, or political influence. The cause of the current conflict, like a patchwork quilt, includes all these factors: from Russia's imperial desire to expand its holdings to a primitive passion to avenge Ukraine's willfulness. However, if we take a sober look at the situation, none of these reasons alone, or even all of them together, are enough to start hostilities. Even if war breaks out and Russia achieves its military goals, the price of victory will be too high, so is it worth the risk of a Pyrrhic victory?

Although Russia has always been ready to pay the price for its desires, are those individuals who are comfortably ensconced at the top of power willing to pay any price themselves?

A country of mediocrities

Just as in the U.S., which has had a mediocre government for the last year (see my essay on this topic), in Russia, mediocrities have been flourishing for a long time. Unlike America, this did not happen spontaneously: Russian rulers have always selected their subordinates on the basis of having a simpler intellect combined with a stronger loyalty. Having such lackeys, it is safer to rule.

In the not-so-distant past Russia was a country of outstanding achievements in many fields: from literature and art to science and technology. After the Bolshevik coup of 1917, the Soviet leaders deliberately pursued a policy of a negative selection: talented people were either killed, or driven into exile or, at best, forced to obey and serve. As a result of such selection, the quality of the people decreased, while the intellectual potential of Russia fell to obscenely low levels.

Now the country at all levels is governed by mediocrities. The collective IQ factor of the Duma legislative body hardly exceeds the level of a mental hospital. Vladimir Putin is now virtually out of business; he has delegated the routine functions of the head of state to his mediocre subordinates, himself becoming a Kremlin recluse. The real power in the country is not with him, but with those who have money.

If most of the rich people in the U.S. made their millions and billions through hard work, managerial skills, and intelligence, then almost all Russian nouveau riche got their money through financial fraud or by stealing it from the collapsed USSR. Ever since Stalin's time, the structure of the country's government has been modeled after the Mafia, where everything is ruled from the top by a "godfather". Any opposition to the "family" leads either to a physical elimination of the renegade or to his imprisonment.

Those who try to look into the affairs of the mafia and their possessions are eliminated mercilessly (many murdered Russian journalists, the attempts to poison Skripal, Navalny, and others).  The plundered country has long produced nothing but weapons. Alas, the weapons that they produce are based on the old Soviet-era designs, while most of the parts and materials are sourced abroad. All the supposedly newest weapon systems are nothing more than fiction to feed their own naive populace.

One of the reasons for this degradation is that there are very few highly qualified specialists left in Russia. Talented people try to find work abroad and leave the country at any opportunity. Huge profits from the oil and gas sales go to the pockets of those close to the trough, while the population gets only scraps from the table. The level of social and medical services, especially in light of the pandemic, is plummeting, and the prices of basic necessities are rising. Yet, the people there are still silent. For now.

The bad example

Potentially dangerous for the Russian authorities is the younger generation, infected with ideas of freethinking and unwilling to live the old way, like their parents. Unexpectedly, trouble came straight from the western and eastern neighbors where people resisted the corruption of their authorities (Belarus and Kazakhstan). This behavior could spread to the Russian population, too.

Of course, Belarusians and Kazakhs are not like the Russian people, who are used to a yoke and even love it.  Russia's rulers, while not of high intelligence, still understand that a bad example is contagious. That is what they fear most.

The Russian authorities see only two possible solutions to the problem: either to buy off or to scare. The first one: to buy off the people means showering them with handouts. Yet, there is no way to do that — where can they get these freebies? The second solution: to impose on the country some scary disaster, which may unite the people and sweep under the carpet all the lesser troubles. This solution is more realistic: a kind of a sluggish war, or at least the occasional international tension would do.

For this purpose, Russia has long cultivated the image of an enemy who wants to "enslave and rob" the kind-hearted Russian people. The U.S. is perfect for this role. Indeed, say the Czech Republic or Japan would be too small to fit the image of a scary enemy. The Russian people's memory still holds the horrors of past wars, so propaganda feeds them with a made-up fear of NATO, under whose wing the ungrateful Ukrainians are striving to hide. So, they want to say: we must unite against the enemy, tighten our belts, and show Europe and the U.S. our strong fist.

The military mobilization and concentration of troops along the Ukrainian border is carried out to create an illusion of danger and to show everyone and most importantly its own population that “we are ready”. However, it’s impossible to keep the bowstring taut permanently: either the bowstring will snap, or a finger will accidentally slip and an arrow will fly, and then there will be a real trouble. While the army is on alert, in a relatively short time it will have only two options: either start fighting or pack their duffel bags and go home. Which one will they choose?

The price of war

If they choose war, what will it lead to? Of course, it makes no sense to think about nuclear war -- even the nitwits in the Duma understand this clearly, although publicly they say otherwise. Only a war with conventional weapons is plausible. Such "trifles" as the deaths of many thousands of Russian and foreign soldiers and civilians are of little concern for them. The trouble, however, is that the price of war would be too high. If only with the usual sanctions, like those that were already imposed, that would be half the trouble. Say, if Russia is banned from getting high technology, China will always offer some replacement. If, say, the ruble value falls further, not a big deal — the officials already have money stashed anyway in dollars in various banana republics.

But there is something that is really scary for those in Russia who have money and power — the West can cut off the payment system SWIFT. That will be the really painful problem! All their credit cards, all payments, money transfers would stop working. They can't go to abroad because of sanctions, and they would not be able to buy anything from there with their own money. Billions of dollars will turn into nothing — it will be just impossible to spend them.  That price of war would be too painful to bear. Thus, they would not allow their "godfather" to do that, and if he suddenly loses his sense and starts a war, then they would have to get rid of him, and no security detail would protect him.


The Russian authorities need to show their own people the appearance of a victory. "Look," they want to say, "NATO, U.S., and Ukraine got scared and retreated. Our task is done, the enemy is fleeing, and therefore peace-loving Russia can withdraw its troops from near the border." For that propaganda, Russia needs on the part of NATO and the US at least a tiny concession or a semblance of such. The chatterboxes from the "Ministry of Truth" will magnify it out of proportion and sing their hymn to the wisdom of the Leader. I believe that is exactly what will happen in the very near future. Thus, there will be no hot war between Russia and Ukraine.

Nor will there be peace, but that's another story.

Photo credit: Russia.ru

Jacob Fraden emigrated from the USSR to the United States in 1977.  His website is www.fraden.com

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