Russia’s Future; Taiwan, Ambiguity & Ukraine

Two Commentaries by a widely-respected analyst:

Russia will not disappear
Gwynne Dyer — May 23, 2022

Russian President Vladimir Putin will almost certainly not be in power three years from now. The war he foolishly began in Ukraine has fatally undermined his political credibility among the Russian elite (and among a large though mostly silent part of the population). One way or another, he will be replaced.

He may even save everybody the trouble by dying before he can be removed. He definitely doesn’t look well, his behaviour is increasingly erratic, and rumours that he is suffering from some terminal disease abound.

Russia is not a fascist state, just a kleptocracy where the thieves and the thugs have taken power, but Putin’s personal behaviour does begin to resemble Hitler in his bunker in the final days, and Hitler too was very ill.

Putin knows nothing about military matters, but he is reportedly micro-managing single ‘battalion combat groups’ (about 1,000 men) in the currently stalled Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine, trying to retrieve a military situation that has sunk into stalemate. Very Hitlerian. So what will become of Russia when he goes?

Alexander J Motyl thinks it may just disappear. In an opinion piece in The Hill, the leading political website in Washington, Motyl, a political scientist at Rutgers University, suggests that “The Russian Federation could metamorphose into ten or more states, only one of which would be known as Russia. That would change the face of Eurasia forever.”

It certainly would, but it does imply the permanent demise of a state that has dominated northern Eurasia for the past four centuries (the first Russians reached the Pacific in 1647). It also ignores the remarkable homogeneity of that state’s population: 81 per cent are ethnically Russian, while none of the many minority group even reaches four.

There have been occasions, most recently during the civil war of 1917-22, when Russia was temporarily carved up into rival jurisdictions, but these interludes have never lasted long. The sense that there is a special Russian identity, even a unique “Russian civilisation”, always reasserts itself.

The break-up of the Soviet Union, by contrast, was permanent. The collapse of 1991 was actually the last phase of the decolonisation process that ended all the European empires during the latter half of the 20th century.

Decolonisation came late to the Russian empire and was harder to recognise, because Russia’s imperial possessions were around its own land borders rather than across the oceans. Nevertheless, it was the same process, and just as irreversible (as Putin has been discovering).

Russia is as unlikely to split up permanently as France or Japan. Motyl’s speculations on its break-up are wishful thinking, possibly motivated by the fact (unmentioned by The Hill) that both his parents were born in Ukraine.

It is understandable that Ukrainians might wish Russia to vanish, but that is not going to happen. So what will happen when Putin goes?

We cannot know yet what a genuinely post-Communist Russia would look like. Although it’s 31 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, almost all the people in senior political positions began their careers in the Communist Party. The ideology was dumped, but the administrative style and the factional struggles remain.

Moreover, one single man, Vladimir Putin, has dominated Russian politics for more than two-thirds of that time. It’s hard to disentangle what is intrinsically Russian in the way Russia has been run during that time from what was just part of Putin’s personality, but we are about to find out.

The default position is to say the Russians are somehow fundamentally different from other Slavs. After all, the Poles and the Czechs got real democracy and genuine prosperity after 1991, whereas the Russians got Putin, border wars, and (for most people) genteel poverty.

Gwynne Dyer

But there were two big differences that had nothing to do with “national character”, whatever that is. One was that all the former “satellite countries” of Eastern Europe immediately ditched their local Communist collaborators and got a whole new set of politicians, whereas Russia was essentially stuck with the old Commies wearing new hats.

The other difference was that the western Slavs experienced the change as liberation, whereas their former rulers saw it as a loss of empire that stranded tens of millions of Russians in places that were suddenly foreign countries.

It would have been unreasonable to expect these two sets of people to react in the same way, and sure enough they didn’t.

But it’s equally unreasonable to be convinced that Russians will go on behaving in the same ways when the ex-Communist ruling elite loses power (which may be imminent) and a new post-imperial generation takes over instead.

We have no idea what’s coming out of the box then. It could even be something good.

Gwynne Dyer: Taiwan: The Codger Misspeaks Again — or Maybe Not? — May 24, 2022

“Well, my dear, we didn’t know where to look. The old codger was getting away with it again, fielding the questions like a man only nine-tenths of his age, and then somebody asked him about Taiwan. He must have rehearsed that one, but still he blew it – big time. We’ll be picking up the pieces for weeks.”

President Joe Biden was speaking at a Tokyo press conference, looking not a year older than 79, and somebody asked him if he were “willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan if it comes to that?” Since the official US position on that question for many years has been ‘constructive ambiguity’, he was supposed to avoid both ‘yes’ and ‘no’.

Biden has been playing the international game at the highest level for longer than most people have been alive, and he should know the drill. Say how much he loves Taiwan and how devoted he is to its democracy. He can even mention that he’d be really disappointed and quite cross if China invaded it. But he mustn’t say what the United States would actually do.

Instead, with a loud clatter, the president of the United States jumped the tracks. “Yes”, he said, “that’s a commitment we made. The idea that (Taiwan) could be taken by force, just taken by force, is not…it would dislocate the entire region and be another action similar to what happened in Ukraine.”

Compounding his crime, Biden went on to express the hope that China was paying attention to how the US and its allies have responded to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“This is not just about Ukraine,” he said. China is watching to see if the Western response to the invasion stays strong, or if it loses focus as the war drags on. It must stay strong, because otherwise “what signal does that send to China about the cost of…attempting to take Taiwan by force?”
Quite a performance, and the headlines said things like ‘US would defend Taiwan militarily if China attacked’. But being an old codger has its advantages, and one is that people panic less when you make some apparently radical remark or commitment. They’re in doubt as to whether you just misspoke, or whether you really meant it.
Was Biden really sending a serious warning to China, but doing it in a way that did not compel China to respond directly? I suspect the answer is yes, because if you listen closely to what he said, he did NOT actually promise to commit American forces to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion.

He meant it to sound as if he had said that – warning that China would be “flirting with danger” if it invaded Taiwan – but there was no such definitive statement.

Moreover, the White House staff issued an immediate statement repudiating that interpretation of Biden’s remarks: “As the president said, our policy has not changed. He reiterated our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Maybe Joe Biden has just lost his marbles, but instilling a bit more doubt in the Chinese regime about his likely reaction in the event of a Chinese attack on Taiwan is not necessarily a blunder. ‘Constructive ambiguity’ requires both the ‘yes’ and the ‘no’ to be plausible, and the ‘yes’ has been losing credibility recently.

In the much more fraught case of the US response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Biden has been notably cautious in his actions. Before the invasion had even begun, he made it publicly clear that American or NATO forces would not intervene directly to defend Ukraine.

As the strength of the Ukrainian forces and the sheer incompetence of the Russian army became clear, his willingness to give Ukraine more advanced weapons in larger quantities grew. But his seemingly accidental asides about how Putin cannot remain in power never become actual policy. Every option remains open.

This is a man who has been around the block a few times, and he knows how the game is played. So if I were an adviser to Taiwan’s president, I would tell her the most important thing in the event of a Chinese invasion attempt is to make a good show of resistance in the first few weeks.

There is no more difficult military operation than an opposed amphibious landing, and China has no real-world experience of carrying out that kind of attack across 200 km. of open ocean. So if you can hold the invaders on the beaches for a week or two, American arms and supplies will start to flow in abundance.

But don’t expect US troops to help you directly. Biden is not willing for fight a war against China either. Consider Ukraine.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘The Shortest History of War’.

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