Russian-style Titanic

(To Renato Scarfi)

In Ukraine, parallel to the fierce fighting on the ground, the battle for information is also becoming increasingly heated. To the images of hospitals bombed by the Russians, they reply that the victims are only actors, only to note then that those actors die from the effects of the bombing. As I have already had the opportunity to write (read "Pozor Rossii (Russian Shame)"), Putin's reckless adventure in Ukraine is increasingly proving to be a Hara-kiri political and military. And to think that, before February 24, Putin had managed the crisis with rare craftsmanship, as a talented chess player. He basically got everything he wanted. Today, however, it is held up to public mockery and with it, deservedly or not, Russia as a geopolitical entity and the Russians as a population.

He is not openly supported even by the main country which, until yesterday, proudly showed China as an economic and geopolitical partner. Indeed, there is no doubt that the adventurous experience of this war greatly unnerved the powerful Asian giant even if, as a seasoned and far-sighted politician, in the current crisis Xi Jinping has cynically glimpsed some possibilities to be exploited for the further expansion of Chinese economic and geopolitical influence.

Is it NATO's "fault"?

All this while some European observers are scrambling to "justify" the conduct of the Russian leader in some way, trying to reduce his responsibilities, attributing a part to NATO and, in particular, to its eastward expansion. Justifications that appear implausible and easily refutable given that the accession to NATO of part of the countries of the former Warsaw Pact did not take place in a forced manner but by the expressed desire and clear will of the protagonists.

The formula according to which candidates are invited to join the Alliance is just a way to indicate that this is not a hotel open to anyone who requests it, but that to access specific requirements are needed. Only those who in the nineties of the last century had enough springs on their shoulders could notice how, once the Berlin wall collapsed, some countries immediately asked for membership in the Alliance, in order to avert a dangerous "backfire" of Russian assertiveness on its territory. At the time, it seemed a premature race to many, so much so that only after a few years the first cautious adhesions were registered, followed by others in the XNUMXs.

Those countries, which knew the Soviet system well, preferred to live under the NATO umbrella rather than under the Moscow dictatorship. A choice that, in the light of today's Russian attitude, cannot fail to be fully shared.

China's opportunism

Returning to the strange Russian-Chinese relations, if on the one hand there is no doubt that Moscow is racing towards a dramatic one default economic (it failed to pay the coupons on the bonds that were due on March 16 to foreign investors), it is equally undoubted that the heavy economic consequences of the war and sanctions will force Putin to surrender hands and feet to the only country that can in some way allow him to maintain some national economy: China.

In the event of aid being granted, it is presumed that the Chinese leadership she will be careful not to be too generous, so as to keep her hand resting on the head of a Russia with water in her throat, ready to put pressure if it tries to get out of Beijing's orbit.

And, given that nothing is done in this world for nothing, Beijing for its eventual economic support at the right time will pass to the collection. The Chinese will then not be satisfied with what Russia predictably offers them, whether they are subsidies in the purchase of oil, gas, vodka or caviar, since China can easily buy them elsewhere, but it could claim the family jewels, tools capable of supporting Beijing's ambitions on the sea (read "The Chinese maritime strategy"). One truly dramatic scenery since it would be an effective qualitative leap, capable of modifying the strategic equilibrium in the Indo-Pacific (read "The Chinese challenge to US naval power").

However, it is still not sure that Beijing wants to provide the economic aid Moscow hopes for, antagonizing Europe. Even if it has not reached the desired conclusions, the meeting in Rome between the US and China has at least made it possible to understand that Beijing does not seem to have any intention of taking a position that could preclude Western markets. According to Eurostat 2020, in fact, the Russian market is worth 25% of the European market (trade of 145 billion USD against 580 billion USD). How much will it be worth after the eventual default? Very little. Not to mention the close economic relations (in this case different from geopolitical relations) that bind Washington and Beijing (an exchange worth USD 655 billion), with the one also interested in maintaining the supply of many of its products from the other. Substantial aid to Russia would risk ruining these relations for good.

Fractures in the magic circle?

A Russia, therefore, which, faced with a relatively relative military success (and at an enormous cost in terms of international image and human losses), risks default economic and geopolitical subjection.

It seems that this scenario is beginning to be understood in Russia as well. I am not referring to the manifestations of courageous dissent such as the one recently seen during a broadcast of the main television station. Brave but with quite limited effects. I am referring to the nervous manifestations highlighted by both Putin and some characters in his entourage, the only ones who can truly change the game that is dramatically being played in Ukraine. These are manifestations that make us think that we are moving something both inside the Kremlin and in the environments that matter.

Starting with the director of services and security, the same one who was blatantly humiliated by Putin during a famous summit meeting because he supported the opportunity to show a more dialogue position. Today it seems that he is pushing to end the fighting, bringing home the results obtained and avoiding further complicating Russia's economic and international situation. The conductor is of proven Putinian loyalty and, for this very reason, his opinion should (should have, ndd) have some weight.

Among the most conciliatory positions, the Russian ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs (1998-2004) must be added, who recently signed an appeal in which he hopes for a return to diplomacy and dialogue so that disputes are debated on the negotiating table and not fought in the field. Although he does not have a particularly important position, it is enlightening that he has exposed himself clearly and in a moment like this. Could it be a sign that, as a seasoned politician, he “smelled” the wind of change?

Positions more like a dove than a hawk that seem consistent with what was demonstrated during the pre-crisis phase by another long-time diplomat such as Foreign Minister Lavrov, who had given the impression of privileging dialectics. However, given Putin's propensity to (literally) eliminate dissent, Lavrov then chose to "go like a stick in the wind" and to adopt more tough behaviors, no one knows how much is dictated by conviction and how much by necessity.

Another signal comes from diplomacy that should not be underestimated. On March 16, during the mass officiated by the Pope against all wars, according to what was reported by TG1, the Russian ambassador to Italy was seated next to the Ukrainian ambassador.

These authoritative positions are opposed by the current Minister of Defense, who seems to have asked Putin to tighten the operations (hence the request for support, including military support in Beijing) to reach an outcome that can make us forget the numerous and disproportionate human losses and, perhaps, allow him to keep the chair. He supported Putin in wanting to flex his muscles and show that Moscow had the capabilities to confront NATO, but the only effect obtained was to highlight the (too many) weaknesses of the Russian military apparatus to the world: severely flawed logistics (striking the lack of fuel for the tanks and food for the infantry), lack of coordination between departments (where some didn't even know what / where the goals were), poor preparation of the infantry employed (apart from the elite sectors), inconclusive aviation (which despite the superiority of means has not managed to obtain complete control of the skies).

Some observers object that this could be caused by the prudence of planners, who do not want many civilian casualties. But this still caused many casualties among the inhabitants and resulted in significant losses on the Russian side, not only of material but also of personnel. Not only newcomers to the use of weapons, but also among the fallen and prisoners it seems to include many high value-added departments such as paratroopers and special forces. Expert combatants who cannot be effectively replaced with a few weeks' training. And this only taking into account the main technical-military aspects.

From a political point of view the results are, if possible, even worse, given that the war on Ukraine has revitalized a NATO in crisis, reuniting the allies and bringing the quarrelsome Turkish ally closer together, and ha restored light to the faded figure of Biden, which has regained internal consensus. In Europe, albeit a collateral victim of its own sanctions, the war has made it possible to break down the (ideological) long-term resistance and to trigger a commitment to increase arms resources to at least 2% of GDP (Germany even beyond).

In practice, a King Midas on the contrary who, without a decisive change in the situation on the ground, could see his position compromised and become the scapegoat of a war whose costs will in any case be excessive compared to the objectives achieved, and risking having to voluntarily resign resignation and spend a lonely old age in a remote dacha in the steppe.

Putin in a cul de sac

That the difficulties are beginning to produce effects in internal dynamics is also demonstrated by Putin himself, who arrested two senior intelligence and security service leaders, accused of not having adequately "oiled" key political elements of the Ukrainian political structure to support the invasion (and to have pocketed the money made available to bribe them). The arrest obviously infuriated a large part of the security apparatus. An event that leaves room for speculation on the fact that Putin may no longer have the strength of the past and that his political survival may now be tied to a thread. When you are really strong, in fact, there is no need to advertise the arrest of senior security officers. You replace them in silence and move on. Apparently Putin felt the need to send a message Urbi et orbi that he is the boss. But this, in times of war, is a sign of weakness, not of strength.

Today it is located in a cul de sac from which he does not seem to be able to find an honorable way out. He does not want to become Xi Jinping's valet but has come to a point where he cannot yield unless he has something to show as a trophy. But the extent of what can be "sold" as a victory can be scaled down with the passage of time and the price to pay to achieve it increases. And the current price already appears (too) high.

The arrest of the two executives of the FSB's "fifth service" could, therefore, be the beginning of a showdown and / or an attempt to prepare the narrative with which, in the event, to present oneself to internal public opinion as a victim of incompetent characters or apparatuses. If this is the case, there may be other "replacements" in the future.

How to get out?

In all of this the possibility of can not be underestimated dismissal of President Putin and all the leadership that wanted war in Ukraine, through a forceful action carried out by dissenters. A scenario that, after the inevitable initial setbacks, could lead to the immediate cessation of hostilities, even if on both sides the deaths on the ground could represent a heavy burden and a considerable obstacle to a rapid definition of any subsequent peace agreements.

Not only that, a change at the top of Russia, even if it should be the subject of careful international evaluation, could in part mitigate resentment towards Moscow, allowing you to save part of your image and allowing you to not to enter an orbit of Chinese geopolitical subjection, pushing away even darker scenarios.

Furthermore, should such a scenario be realized, it would also open up the possibility (certainly fraught with difficulties) of bringing Russia back to the West, removing it from the Chinese embrace, involving Moscow (despite its deplorable actions) in a kind of "plan Marshall ”for the reconstruction of a Ukraine not deployed but with certain assurances of independence and security. A possibility that, with the due limitations, could also be evaluated with a Putin in power, albeit heavily downsized.

At the moment, however, it seems that Putin has decided to escalate the fighting, carrying out naval bombardments against Mariupol and bringing together reinforcements from Ossetia, Armenia and other districts distant from the Black Sea, in support of an offensive whose outcome does not seem obvious, while its resources are running out and the default economic is approaching (for the payment of the coupons on the bonds, Russia has obtained a month of "grace", under penalty of total economic and financial isolation).

The hope is that common sense prevails on the part of all the actors before the irreparable and that the ball will soon return to diplomacy. Any hypothesis about the future of the conflict at the moment can only be cataloged as speculation.

Photo: Kremlin