Is Vladimir Putin now caught in a Chinese finger trap?
As bad as Joe Biden and his wretched allies in Europe are, they aren't anywhere near the level of trouble that Vladimir Putin is, as the latter's war on Ukraine drags on with no results.
Not only has Putin has not won his war, but he is now in hock to China, as another Chinese puppet-string actor, which is a wretched booby prize. China's help is likely to provide some comfort to Putin's economy in Russia for now, but it leaves Putin in roughly the same position as Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, who stays in power only due to Russia's patronage.
Richard Fernandez, via Twitter, has some observations:
What am I getting wrong? By starting the war Putin lost the gas sale of the century, ruined this year's wheat harvest and is in hock to China. Where's he making it back?— wretchardthecat (@wretchardthecat) March 6, 2022
It seems inescapable that, by going to war, Putin has undermined the system of oligarchs and strongmen of which he occupies the apex. From now on, the Chinese ambassador is the second most important man in Moscow. The longer the war the bigger he gets.— wretchardthecat (@wretchardthecat) March 6, 2022
As every bum knows, when you have to cadge drinks and mooch meals, you can pretend to be the big man but who are you kidding?— wretchardthecat (@wretchardthecat) March 6, 2022
Putin's the bum in that one because he's bumming favors off China — finance, wheat-buying, oil- and coal-buying, internet, help on bank and financial transactions.
Putin threw it all on the table when he opted to invade Ukraine, and he's losing his shirt. Russia's economy is ruined when it could have been so good what with all those gas sales.
And even with scorched-earth warfare, redolent of how he flattened Chechnya, he still doesn't have Ukraine in his pocket.
He made a bad bet and won't be able to unwind it without some stunning fumbling from the West or Ukraine, which could happen but most likely won't, given that the Europeans are getting pretty canny about how to move.
Worse still, the oligarchs who are the most important people in Putin's inner circle are starting to turn on him.
Oligarchs are being targeted with sanctions across the board from Europe and the U.S., and now some have begun speaking out against the war.
Here is one list of them:
- On Sunday, Oleg Anisimov, the head of a Russian climate delegation, apologized for the war at a major UN conference, Agence France-Presse reported.
- On Wednesday, Kremlin advisor Andrey Kortunov said he was "shocked" by the invasion and could not understand Putin's logic.
- On Thursday, Oleg Deripaska, founder of the Russian aluminum group Rusal whom the US sanctioned in 2018, said: "I've been asked not to say this, but I'm for peace," Russia's Dozhd network reported.
- The same day, Lukoil, Russia's largest private oil company run by the Russian-Azerbaijani oligarch Vagit Alekperov, called for a cease-fire.
And here is another:
"As a Russian citizen I plead with you to stop Russians killing their Ukrainian brothers and sisters. As a British citizen I ask you to save Europe from war," wrote [Evgeny] Lebedev, who is the son of oligarch and former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev. ...
Three other Russian business tycoons — metals magnate Oleg Deripaska, Alfa Bank founder Mikhail Fridman and banker Oleg Tinkov — also urged an end to the war.
Deripaska, who founded the Rusal aluminum company and is considered an ally of Putin, wrote on the Telegram messaging service that "peace is very important" and talks to end the war should begin "as soon as possible."
Tinkov, founder of Tinkoff Bank, on Monday posted on Instagram: "Innocent people are dying in Ukraine now, every day, this is unthinkable and unacceptable."
They still aren't ready to criticize Putin, but there's a desire there to get the war halted, quite possibly on any terms. That alone creates a rift between themselves and Putin.
Putin's clearly losing the support of this boyar-like business overclass that has dominated the country over the past 20 years in a second wave, following the 2003 jailing of rebel-oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and the exile (and later mysterious death) of Boris Berezovsky, which shook out the first wave of them. These characters, described by Herbert Meyer in his must-read 2014 essay here, are used to being at the apex of power, conditioned only on the requirement that they say "yes" to whatever Putin wants and don't criticize him.
But now that Putin doesn't look all that all-powerful anymore, what with the China hockery, and they themselves are being impoverished by sanctions, they can see that Putin is now just second-best in Russia.
That should provoke bitterness among this protected business elite, who are loathed by average Russians for their vulgar, lavish, grotesque lifestyles, described by Meyer.
Meyer noted in his essay that getting Putin separated from his oligarchs is key to getting Putin out of power:
If there is any lesson to be learned from studying European history — or from growing up in a Brooklyn school yard as opposed to, say, attending the most exclusive prep school in Hawaii — it's that thugs like Putin don't stop because they've been punished or because they see the error of their ways. Thugs have a high tolerance for pain, and they are incapable of changing their behavior. They keep going until someone takes them out — permanently — with a knockout punch.
That's why the objective of our sanctions strategy should be to get the Russians who've been keeping Putin in power, or tolerating Putin in power, to throw that knockout punch.
The key to forcing these Russians to act, and thus to making the sanctions strategy succeed, will be to rapidly widen the gap that already exists between their financial interests and Putin's political ambitions. Russia's corporate business leaders don't really care about Ukraine, or about Putin's lunatic dream of re-creating the old Romanov Empire. They fight in boardrooms, not on battlefields; they would rather launch a hostile takeover bid for Kaiser Aluminum than for Kiev.
It doesn't help that the oligarchs aren't just some Davos-style elite, but clearly have the support of the average Russians who don't want this war, either.
Over the weekend, Russian police announced that some 5,000 protesters across Russia were arrested for demonstrating against the war. That may look like a small number, but note that these protesters risked prison, including forced labor camps in the Siberian north, just for protesting — and they did it anyway. More than 7,000 have been arrested for other protests in the days earlier.
That looks like big trouble for Putin when the three factors are added up. The oligarchs hate him. The people hate him. The Chinese rule him. And everyone can see that he's starting to look like the naked emperor.
Meyer suggests that the West talk straight with these characters and lay down what they want to see happen:
Simply put, we should make clear to the Russian business executives and oligarchs who are the target of Western sanctions that Putin is their problem, not ours. These people may lack the spark of political genius or the high-minded patriotism that drove our country's Founding Fathers — but they aren't stupid. It won't be long before a bunch of them get together for a quiet conversation — perhaps in a Moscow board room, more likely on a yacht anchored off the Cote d'Azur — to, um, decide what might be best for Russia's future.
Since subtlety doesn't work with Russians, the president and his European counterparts should also make absolutely clear that we have no interest whatever in how these people solve their Putin problem. If they can talk good old Vladimir into leaving the Kremlin with full military honors and a 21-gun salute — that would be fine with us. If Putin is too too stubborn to acknowledge that his career is over, and the only way to get him out of the Kremlin is feet-first, with a bullet hole in the back of his head — that would also be okay with us.
That would definitely concentrate Putin's mind if he got wind of it.
The hard fact remains: Putin is starting to look trapped. What does he have for all this trouble? Nothing — certainly not Ukraine. News reports out there say he's going to get meaner and flatten everything he can find, but already the signs are mounting that he doesn't have the personnel to do it — Russia is reportedly recruiting Syrians for the dirty work since the locals won't do it. Russian tanks are reportedly punching holes in their fuel tanks so they don't have to finish the job of destroying Ukraine. It's also significant that the kinds of Russians being captured by Ukrainian troops are green recruits from the Muslim south, not the main centers of Russia, with less emotional attachment to the region, suggesting that the Russians don't have the crack personnel they boast of.
All in all, Putin is starting to look trapped — like he's in a Chinese finger trap — and can't get out. All signs are out there that this could end very badly for him.
Hat tip: Instapundit.
Image: Pixabay, Pixabay License.