Transcript of Currents 052: John Robb on War in Ukraine

The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or John Robb. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.

Jim: Today’s guest is John Robb. John is returning guest. He’s our go-to guy on military stuff, intelligence stuff, and strategic stuff. Guess what we’re going to talk about today? Ukraine, with quite a bit of all the above. And by the way, those who want to know more about John and his thinking, check him out on Patreon. John Robb at Patreon. I’ve been a subscriber since I think he put the damn thing up. It’s been well worth the five bucks a month or whatever the hell it is I pay him. So if you want to hear more from John, check him out. All right, John, welcome back.

John: Thank you.

Jim: One thing I’d like to do is … Well, after we do a brief update on current status, I’d like to back up a little bit and try to be more forward looking than backward looking, if we could. A lot of people suggest that I ask you questions about how did we get into this mess? What could we have done differently? Truth the matter is, that’s in the past. There’s a reason we call it the past, and while we can learn some lessons from the past, I think it’s much more interesting to think about the future.

John: Right.

Jim: And I’m going to throw this out to you. Tell me what you think. But I believe that this event is a major hinge of history that we can, I think, reasonably say that this is the door closing on the post cold war world and something new will come into being.

John: Yeah, I agree with that. So history has restarted again. So take the Fukuyama quote and reverse it and say, okay, there are major trends underway right now. Major changes in history that are occurring. And history, that great engine, is moving forward. There isn’t just one system, one kind of heat death of humanity in place anymore.

Jim: Exactly. And as I like to say, that at these cusps, the degrees of freedom and system evolution tend to be a lot higher, right? The old assumptions, the old rigidities are in play. And where we may go is quite a bit less predictable than it was say in… the difference between 1996 and 1997, not that big. Difference between 2001, 2002, pretty big. I suspect that the differences here will be much larger than the differences between 2001 and 2002. That this is a much more significant change in the unfolding of our world. And I’d like to, as much as we can, talk about that, as opposed to the details of how we got here and what have you.

John: Yeah, it’s definitely unstuck. And when things get unstuck like this, a lot of things can happen that normally wouldn’t happen. The Quentin Tarantino thesis behind all his movies is that you have this system of laws, keeps everyone intact and then once you move outside of that, everything can go chaotic. And we’re in this chaotic zone, now that we’ve all departed that safety and security of a legal system that locks everything down.

John: And last weekend, I was talking with some really smart people about national defense stuff and predicting what would happen in the following week. And we were thinking, “Okay, Ukraine’s going to be invaded. What does that do?” And the thing we glommed onto almost immediately was that it’s basically a green light for China to go after Taiwan. Is that this demonstrates that Pax Americana is over and that the US really doesn’t have any cards to play. And that there are enough… There are sufficient number of countries that would actually not comply with any kind of embargo. Like we are already seeing with Russia. China’s already said that they won’t comply with any embargo of Russia. And that India said that they would play nice with Russia and there’s lots of other countries willing to do the same. So our systemic kind of response to aggression is over.

Jim: Yeah. And I think that’s important to underline this is that there had been, since World War II, a very strong international consensus is that cross border invasions must not stand. Now, of course, there’s been a few exceptions. But think about Iraq One, much smaller scale. Iraq grabs Kuwait by invasion, and the whole world rallied, including the Russians, actually, supported us on that. And we put together a big coalition and crunched the Iraqis in four days and put an underline under the fact that cross border invasions will not be tolerated. Of course, there’s lots of gray zones about internal stuff. Like the Rwandians meddling in the civil wars of the Congo, et cetera.

Jim: But in terms of cross border invasions to grab land, et cetera, that was a big no-no. Though, of course, it’s also worth considering that the US violated those rules twice in relatively recent memory. First, basically working with the Kosovo to pry it loose from Serbia. And we actually kicked the shit out of Serbia. People aren’t quite aware how intense the NATO attack on Serbia was, but it was almost all from the air, but it was quite powerful. Then of course the other, the great debacle in American strategic history was the attack on Iraq in 2003, where at least we did have the fig leaf color of law in that the first Iraq war ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty. And it is true, Hussein was in violation of the armistice in many points. And so the allies were legally within their power to move on Iraq and engage in regime change, which they did. But turned out to be not very wise and at least partially broke down the taboo against doing that.

John: Yeah. I mean, to a certain extent that our kind of horror of what Russia is doing to Ukraine is similar to what a lot of people felt when we were going into Iraq. And it didn’t seem justified enough. It seemed like it was made up. And proved to be largely made up as a reason for going to war. And it’s important to remember though that these, the big countries, Russia, China, and the US in particular, have the different rule set than everybody else. I mean, they have nukes. And Russia, in particular, has more nukes than any other country in the world and has about, I think about 18 times as many nukes as China. So, it is in a special space. You can’t challenge them physically. There’s not any rational reason anyone would want to put US and Russian troops in conventional engagement. It would be too much of a worry that would trigger a nuclear confrontation.

John: Yeah, the thing that was interesting to me about this conflict is that it gives us a really good insight into what is going to happen in the future with regards to where China and Russia are going. Both have seen networking and rapid technological change in this globalization. Set in motion a lot of chaotic impulses and a lot of problems internally. And they’ve been watching what’s happening in the US and our internal strife as a result of these disruptions. And to combat that, I don’t know if it was explicit on Putin’s part, but it’s definitely explicit on the Chinese part with [inaudible 00:07:33] work, is that they have created a kind of a master narrative. Which is very similar to what we saw in the cold war, but it reaches back in history. It fixes kind of a moral compass for them. And it’s an animating narrative that allows them to maintain cohesion and they use networking and other controls to kind of keep people within that box.

John: And their thinking is that that will allow them to continue to stay cohesive in a disruptive kind of amorphous world that we’re in right now, while everyone else falls apart. The problem is that comes at a cost. And in Russia’s case, that means seeing Ukraine as part of Russia. Not seeing their independence as legitimate. And that all came to the head, just recently, with Ukraine’s move to move into NATO. And that was the thing that would break the narrative. The narrative that they had constructed for themselves to stay cohesive. And that moved them to act. And not understanding or even giving any appreciation to the value of that narrative and how tightly they hold it is one of the big reasons why most of the Western analysts thought that the Russians were just bluffing. That they wouldn’t go for it. They wouldn’t try to take the whole country.

Jim: You have to admit, I thought it was kind of unlikely they’d go for it all in, until I read Putin’s speech on the 21st of February. I hadn’t followed it as deeply as experts did. But I said, from a gambler’s perspective, it seemed like the smart thing to do was to move some troops into the Donbas Enclave, work with the people there to attack the other two provinces that the Enclaves were part of, grab those, burst out of that, threaten Kyiv, and then pull back. Very similar to what happened to Georgia. I said, that’s almost a perfect play for Putin. And then I read that speech and I go, “Oh shit. This dude’s going to go for it.” He’s going to go for it.

John: This is annexation.

Jim: Yeah, he’s going to go for it. At least he’s going to carve it up and maybe leave a rump state in the west. But he’s going to grab a big part of it. And he’s certainly going to decapitate the current administration. He’s going to go for the Capital. All the classic 18th, 19th, and early 20th century ideas about what you do with hard power. He’s going to go for it. And he did.

John: Yeah. With those pincher movements coming from the South and the North, and one out of Belarus going after Kyiv and the one from the South coming from the Crimea, it looks like he’s going for the whole thing. And that the harder that campaign is, the more Russian lives lost in the process, the equipment, they’ve lost a couple [inaudible 00:10:14] grades worth of infantry fighting vehicles, a little more than a handful of planes. That makes it harder for him to just create a puppet state, which had failed before. Or even carve off the other regions. I think, the harder it is, the more likely he is to just completely annex it.

Jim: Yeah. Makes sense. So let’s take a pause there. And that we said we’re not going to focus on the past or too much on the present. Maybe let’s do take a little update on what you see going on right now in the short term unfolding of the campaign.

John: Well, I think the timing of the actual operation was opportunistic. Putin did the buildup and he worked the Western media. He worked perceptions. Got his rationale out there and waited for a response from the West. And he didn’t really see anything that would actually hinder his plans. And then he went for it. And the initial operation looked like it was an attempt to seize it quickly. Coup de main, is sending in a airborne operation to go take the Kyiv airport and turn it into an air bridge. And then surround the capital and quickly drive it to conclusion. But Ukraine obviously had done a lot more or preparation than anticipated. They were a lot better prepared and trained in order to handle the initial phases of the operation. And that long buildup period, allowed them to do that.

John: And some Western support got in there. So that failed, obviously, because the airport operation was rolled back and now it’s into a two major pincher movements. One is broken into two parts coming out of the Belarus on either side of Kyiv. They’re fighting on the outskirts. Some people think that it’s going to focus in on a house to house kind of urban siege, urban warfare. That probably was more of a World War II kind of viewpoint on things. I think now in the modern environment that the number of people and the rate at which we chew through supplies and how little is actually produced inside of cities, makes these cities extremely vulnerable to being cut off. It’s like packing a fortress full of people, wall to wall and then expecting it to withstand any length of siege. It just won’t happen. It’s not stocked. It doesn’t have weeks and weeks and weeks of material to burn through. So my guess is that they’ll encircle it. If they’re any good, they’ll encircle it and then wait for the surrender.

Jim: And possibly send special forces in to try to capture the leadership cadre.

John: Yeah. And if they push in, and anticipating everything, that the whole thing will fall apart, they could be surprised. But they may not be. The flight, and the number of people leaving is a good indicator today. After all the [inaudible 00:13:24] rhetoric of yesterday is a good indicator that a lot of the morale is deteriorating and the country is falling apart to a large degree. So yeah, my worry also is that as they’re… If the Russians do get bogged down in a couple of their pincher movements, that the… Coming mostly from the far Eastern part of the country, is that they’ll use a lot of firepower to unstick them. Meaning that they’ll start flattening things. That’s the Russian way. They’ll just flatten towns, flatten areas in order to wipe out the opposition to allow the column to continue forward. That’ll drive up casualties.

John: It can get very, very brutal. And also, there’s also people who have confirmed this, is that their Chechen troops who are acting as counter insurgent forces, operating in behind the Russian lines as they move forward. So basically, those guys are built for brutality in putting things down. So this could end up being a very brutal put down, but I think the thinking on this is it’s going to be a decisive put down. There’s not going to be… There’s no holds barred. They want the country. There’s nothing going to stop them from doing that.

Jim: Yeah. It looks like it… Unless the miracle occurs, look at the correlation of forces and the very good job from a tactical perspective that the Russians did by fully surrounding Ukraine, forced them to disperse their resources. And yes, they seem like they’re doing a surprisingly good job of stopping the thrust from the East. But unfortunately, all you have to do is allow breakthrough from one direction and you’re cooked in this kind of maneuver warfare. And it appears that actually two directions aren’t being defended very well. One is out of Crimea, Crimea up and more significantly, the two thrusts down from the North. I don’t see any sign that Russia won’t be able to encircle Kyiv here within the next 48 hours, probably at the latest.

John: The thinking on the forces coming in from the East is that they’re holding forces. So what you do is you advance across a broad front and you hold those forces that are opposing them in place so they can’t be repositioned. And as you start to encircle them, they start to panic. They don’t get the communications from the command staff anymore. They don’t get the supplies they need, because they’re burning through it at a rapid rate. And all of a sudden, they just break and run. But they’re far from being encircled yet. It’s on that way, but it looks like the Russians are focused mostly on encircling the big cities and then seeing if they can just force a full capitulation.

Jim: Yeah. That’s interesting. And I was looking at history. What are some potential tactics and strategies of the Ukrainians? One that kind of comes up? You look at the map, is, could the Ukrainians fall back to the West, right? Fall back and essentially have a much shorter line, not subject to intrusion from the flanks and defend the Western third of the country for a while, while they spin up an insurgency in the rest of the country. I don’t see any sign of that happening now. Of course, to do something like that, you had to reposition… You had to preposition logistics, support, ammunition, et cetera. And if they weren’t prepared to do that, there’s no ability to really do that on the fly.

John: Yeah. I think the bulk of their forces are clearly in the East and, East of the [inaudible 00:17:05], and they’re going to be stuck there. And they’re not going to be able to withdraw them. And most of the roads to the West are clogged with people fleeing, trying to get to the West. If you’re Ukrainian, and you had the foresight to leave last week, and get to the United States, that’s the moment you can just say, “Okay, I want to become a refugee.” And then you get the green card forever. Because as long as this, as a country, is under Russian control, you get that green card. Just, I think that’s a dominant strategy. I think that same strategy should be used by anyone. We see the similar motions in play for Taiwan. Take a trip, get to the United States, refugee status. Stay forever green card.

Jim: Yeah, though I do suspect that while this will embolden China, China probably won’t move on Taiwan in the short term. And I think the reason is that Russia may well be at its peak relative to power to Europe right now. They’ve just finished major modernization and redevelopment of their military doctrines, et cetera. They’re quite capable. Their population’s only just beginning to decline. Oil and gas are still producing a lot of money. But the correlation of forces in the years ahead, don’t [inaudible 00:18:27] look so good. Russia’s population will be dropping rapidly. Oil and gas may become less significant economically. And maybe finally Europe is waking up to the danger here, and will start to re-arm. So Russia was under time pressure. This was near the optimal time to do this. China continues to be growing in power, growing in puissance, and [inaudible 00:18:50] believe their view is that the US and the West is declining. So time is on their side. So there’s no real reason to rush it.

John: I’m not quite sure about that, is that China is definitely retrenching to a large extent because they see the difficulty in modernizing once you’re modernized, or advancing quality of life and keeping cohesion. And that their population continues to decline even though they have released people from the burden of a one or two child policy. It’s still just falling off like crazy. That means fewer young men for the military and those young men that you do have available have four grandparents. It’s like everybody… The whole family’s focused on that one individual. And that they’re not going to be really happy about letting them go into the military to fight. As long as you still have large rural populations, you probably get enough people willing to actually do the fighting. And I don’t know how long that’s going to persist.

John: So I do think also that China’s opportunistic, is that they see this kind of break in the system. It’s fluid right now. That any kind of pressure that they put on Russia will diminish from any pressure they can put on China. And that if they take Taiwan… And both, there’s this fascist biology metaphor that both of them are using, is that… Both Russia and China are using, is that you want to accumulate all the pieces of your body that were lost, and become a cohesive whole. And any piece that’s not functioning correctly, you reform it and bring it back into cultural alignment. Like they’re doing with the Muslims and, the Uyghurs, forcing them to renounce Islam. And then you’re doing with Hong Kong, forcing them into the cultural framework.

John: And then now with Taiwan, it will do the same. And the big trump card they have in that is if they take Taiwan, then they have Taiwan semiconductor. And they say, oh, basically to the West, if you help Taiwan or impede this operation, that will impede the time to get Taiwan semiconductor back in producing. Because they produce half of all the world’s chips, 80% of the world’s advanced chips. They’re starting to diversify it, but it’s going to take a long time to do that. So basically they hold the world hostage and say, “Okay, if you resist us on this, it’s going to take longer.”

Jim: Yeah. By the way, those semiconductor plants are sitting ducks for ballistic missiles, right?

John: Right.

Jim: [crosstalk 00:21:22] very soft targets.

John: And what they’re telling the heads of these companies and the companies in Taiwan is that don’t resist us. We just change the government and you can do business just like you did before, a hundred percent.

Jim: Of course it’s not true, but…

John: You’ll back in production. Yeah. I know you, a couple years later, those guys disappear obviously, but that’s the line initially, is that your families can still control the companies that you currently own.

Jim: It’ll be interesting to see if that soft network warfare is sufficient to break the will of Taiwanese. But let’s go back to Ukraine here. Now, so, and back to the evolution of this conflict. So are you comfortable with the assumption that probably Russians win a decisive victory here in less than two weeks probably? And are able to establish a puppet government at a minimum, perhaps annex parts of it, et cetera? Does that seem like a reasonable scenario to you?

John: Yeah, I think so. It’s certainly more are costly on the first day. It’s also teething pains for them to operate the kind of big military operation that they’re running here.

Jim: Yeah. The inevitable frictions of war, Clausewitz, right? Somebody would say, “Whoa, they didn’t launch all their attacks at exactly the same time.” I said, “Frankly, the fronts are so separate, doesn’t matter. There’s no interior lines, the ability to switch forces between one front and the other. So if they’re off by a couple hours, doesn’t matter.” And frictions of war, shit happens. Right? So it seems to me, the Russians are going to win. So let’s say they do. Let’s take the scenario. Russians total victory in less than two weeks. Then the next big, big question is, will a modern society be willing to go into active insurgency?

John: Yeah, I think that’s tough. And one of the things I’m working through and Jordan Hall was working through the same thing and I’ve been doing it for years on this whole idea of kind of the virtuals and the physicals, was the most current framework of that. I have all these like network tribes that I’ve kind of been defining, is that the virtuals tend not to be willing to fight physically. And we saw that to a certain extent in Afghanistan. You had a population that doubled in 20 years, and it was a lot of young people who grew up with a lot of USA pouring in, and they did a lot of stuff online, and they were doing a lot of actualization of their potential and the like, through online, and the like. And when it came to actually fighting, there was lots of people complaining. “I’m not going to have my future.” I’m not going to be able to do this or that.

John: But far fewer people actually willing to actually fight the Taliban. It’s not like the Taliban were an overwhelming force. It’s just that there weren’t enough of the people, the vast number of people who were in the cities willing to fight to defend the city, or defend the country. And we’re seeing that to a certain extent with Ukraine. You see these young guys packing trains going West, trying to immigrate. Trying to get out. In interviews with young guys who, they’re all of fighting age, and young women who are of fighting age who aren’t willing to actually stay there and do the hard physical stuff. And it does kind of point to maybe of a long term problem in the US, is that if we become too much on… If the country tilts too far towards the virtual side, that there is a vulnerability to a Taliban like insurgency. Not necessarily religious, but it becomes more and more vulnerable to that. It’s just that the guys with guns won’t be a post. There’ll be a lot of people squawking online. And a lot of people complaining about it and saying how terrible is it. But they’re not the ones that are willing to go out there and do the fighting. They’re asking other people to go out and do the fighting for them.

Jim: Yeah. And may not, it be just the physical versus virtual. I’d suggest that it goes back long before virtual even existed. If you look at where were the insurgencies against the Nazis, for instance. Well, yeah, there was a little bit of token resistance in France. There really wasn’t very much. Very little anywhere else in the West. But on the other hand, and at that time, still very pre-modern Yugoslavia and Ukraine, there was bloody intense insurgencies. There were 20 SS divisions in Yugoslavia trying to hold down the Partisans there.

Jim: And if we look at Iraq, that was a still, even though relatively wealthy, still a pre-modern society, tribal, literally in many ways. And there was quite virulent insurgencies there. Various of them fighting amongst each other as well as we know. And Afghanistan, I would argue that Taliban are an insurgency. And again, Afghanistan is a significantly pre-modern country to this day. And so I would suggest physical versus virtual might be less significant than modern versus pre-modern. Pre-modern people are still willing to fight. Maybe modern people are not willing to take on the difficulty, particularly, of a civil insurgency.

John: Yeah. If you look at it more like a continuum, that modernity actually becomes more and more abstract. And we’re at a kind of level of hyper abstraction right now, where most of our conversations are taking place. The whole memetic cycles, and how we talk now is all in abstractions. And that there’s this long tale of people who haven’t migrated into that. And they’re still working in the physical world and or balancing the two. It may be more of a function of just this rapid technological advancement and this kind of… You know like when a physical object approaches a black hole, and it gets stretched out it [inaudible 00:27:37] atom thick? It’s this one long line of atoms. Or molecules, it’s like that. We have this kind of continuum of people that are getting stretched out and to basket them is tough. I do think there is a strong aversion to doing things physically for a lot of people in the virtual space. They won’t even leave their house.

Jim: Yeah. And yeah, again, language that our friend Jordan Hall tends to use, the [inaudible 00:28:09] simulation. They’re deeper and deeper, deeper into it. And if it gets bad now, wait until a whole generation grows up in the metaverse.

John: Yeah. I wrote a thing on that a couple months ago called the virtual middle class. And that that would actually be the solution set that would be kind of imposed on us for climate change. [crosstalk 00:28:30]

Jim: That’s Mark Andreson. Yeah. Mark Andreson and that whole bunch I call Neo-feudalist. He basically says, yeah. Yeah. They may have a job as a delivery boy for their local Chinese restaurant, but they have a palace and a Lamborghini in the Metaverse, and so they’re satisfied, right? Fairly bad, in my view. But that is potentially a road forward. Let’s go back to Ukraine now. Let’s pull the… We talked about insurgency, even though that’s been part of the state of the American strategy. I think I’m with you. It’s going to be hard for modern people to take the step and engage in a real insurgency where especially, like you point out, Chechens enforcing the local order. They’re going to take you out, pull your fingernails out. And skin your wife alive in front of you, and things like that. Modern folks probably don’t have what it takes to fight against that. So let’s assume the insurgency doesn’t really happen either. And Russia is able to either completely absorb or partially absorb and turn into a puppet state Ukraine. What happens next?

John: Well, then they’ll focus on what they have to acquire next. Belarus, probably more on a peaceful side. Any kind of peaceful acquisition. I’m not sure they’re going to actually touch any of the Stans. Those are kind of low value. And they’re not from the long historical perspective, part of Russia. Maybe Kazakhstan, because of the oil.

Jim: They had their opportunity. They came and went real quick there. So they seemed to be happy, as long as they have a somewhat friendly state in Kazakhstan, they don’t seem to feel any need to grab it. But of course, where the rubber really meets the road is in the Baltics, right? Here we have three small countries. Two of which have substantial Russian minorities. They don’t have a land connection to… Do they have a land connection to Poland? Yeah, they do. There’s a land connection between Lithuania and Poland. Tiny, tiny little countries. Russians have owned them on and off at various times. And yet, they’re full members of NATO, right? So.

John: That’s the difference. Yeah, that’s the key thing, is that they don’t want to trigger NATO. Because that will get US troops and European troops in place. And the whole idea of having US troops in Europe really wasn’t so much on defending Europe. It was more to act as a trigger for nuclear weapons. [crosstalk 00:31:04]-

Jim: Tripwire strategy, right?

John: Right.

Jim: That, yeah, if they came over and launched into… With our 50,000 or a 100,000 troops in Europe, we have to do something and while we may be slow to arise our anger, you really don’t want to piss the US off for a long term conventional war, because we’re pretty good at that.

John: Right. If you lose enough troops, or you lose that carrier battle group that’s defending, [inaudible 00:31:29] in the Taiwan straits, that should be sufficient to be a trigger to initiate the use of nuclear weapons. Maybe at a tactical level, but that would then spiral out of control and cause everything to blow up. Is that [crosstalk 00:31:42]-

Jim: Or alternatively, we gear up to world war II level and just fight a conventional war, and eventually grind them down.

John: Yeah. I just don’t… Everyone would, I think, rightly so, has been too scared to actually go down that road, is that we’ve kind of convinced ourselves in order to justify the spending on conventional weapons that we do spend, that could [inaudible 00:32:08] potentially a scenario, but I’m with Ike. If we followed Ike strategy, we would’ve saved probably 20 trillion dollars over the years on defense spending, is that if you go towards a conventional conflict between superpowers that have nuclear weapons, it’s a no-win. The chances of blowing up the planet and losing everything is too high. And both sides know that. That’s speaking well of humanity, and that we’ve stayed away from in the past. So yeah, I don’t see US troops engaging. I do think though that the Russians will drive hot insurgencies, potentially. A lot of little green men in the Baltics. But I don’t think that’s actually good to avail them of much. Hot invasion, no.

Jim: Okay. So you’ve [inaudible 00:32:58]… So let’s say we… And I agree with you. Clearly, the soft absorbs in a Belarus has been going on for a long while, right? They actually have a treaty which has a soft union, and with Putin having bailed out the Belarusian dictator just last year. Leverages increased now. Guess what? A bunch of Russian troops are there now, too. Which actually is new. There weren’t any Russian troops there until recently. So let’s assume they assume Belarus and Ukraine, either directly or through as puppet status. So now we have a Russian frontier, effective frontier with NATO all the way from the Black Sea on up. Then what happens?

Jim: I’ve seen some conversation online that the Fins are now seriously considering applying for NATO membership and Sweden. At least, there’s the beginnings of a conversation that Sweden may feel that the time is right to apply for NATO membership, both of which of… Finland’s case, it was kind of enforced neutrality as a winking and nodding deal with the Russians, or Russian would leave them alone during the Cold War in return for relatively subservient neutrality. But seems reasonable that with the world divided again to a new equivalent of a cold war, something… Not the same as, but something analogous to, might make sense for Finland in particular to flip and become formally aligned with the West.

John: Yeah. Agree. Also, since both countries, both Russia and China are all completely run by absolute dictators, people who have big egos and Putin certainly has a massive ego. He’s purportedly the richest man in the world, given his ownership of Russian interests, maybe less so today. But he was just recently. And that achievement mindset, the hyper achievement mindset, sometimes it’s like, “Okay, I check off that. I’ve become so wealthy. Now I’m going to restore Russia to its historical borders.” And that’s a legacy issue. And I see Xi to a certain extent, kind of pushing in that direction, that I’m going to restore the historical borders of the Chinese people. Is that there is a kind of a legacy achievement drive. I’m going to die, and when I die, I want to have the guy who is credited with restoring Russia and restoring [crosstalk 00:35:32]-

Jim: Yeah. That was when I read Putin’s speech of the 21st of February. And I said, [inaudible 00:35:35] right. He really… And the speech was actually very well written. I couldn’t imagine a recent US president, certainly not the current incumbent, even reading such a speech and getting to the end, because it was quite detailed, quite analytical. And it laid out a theory of all the harms that had been done to Russia, all the way… Way the hell back, and all of our triumphs, all of our wonderfulness. And yeah, he’s going to add himself to the cannon the Terrible, Peter the great, and Catherine the great. It’ll be Vladimir, the great.

John: Oh yeah. There’s a huge component of ego in this, is that you’re comparing yourself to historical figures. You have a historical narrative. And that you want to achieve that. How do you transcend time? Is you become a historical figure, and rather than just a [inaudible 00:36:25]. Oh, here’s a present. Right? It’s like, here’s a [crosstalk 00:36:28]-

Jim: Okay, so now let’s take the next step. Right. There was another guy like this. Good old Adolph, right? Who initially was talking about reunifying the [inaudible 00:36:38]. But guess what, it got out of control.

Speaker 3: This is the producer speaking. In this last short stretch of the episode, Jim ran into some audio issues, and had to switch to a different microphone. The quality will be a bit lower.

Jim: So let me rewind to right where we were, which was okay. We’re a year or two from now. Russia has won in Ukraine. Probably per our best guess. No major insurgency. No highly kinetic hot insurgency is underway. They’ve absorbed Belarus either directly or in a very strong puppet fashion. Let’s say Finland has joined NATO. Maybe Sweden too. Probably NATO’s woken up. But anyway, where are we? What’s the world look like once we’re at that point?

John: Well, we’ll have Russia running probably insurgencies into the Baltics, but I don’t see them as critical to kind of restoring this Russian heritage. And that we’re going to see China and Russia, that… I do think that China will go after the Taiwan. So it’s the combination of the two would be kind of, China and Russia as a [inaudible 00:37:53] work against US power and PAX Americana. Keep it shattered. And that’s going to have repercussions in terms of the US’s ability to cut agreements and get things done around the world.

Jim: What do you think about the reaction from our allies? Will this change of events produce more coherence within NATO or less?

John: To a certain extent, but at the end of the day, they’re still relying on Russia for energy, and Ukraine has foodstuffs and other things that they supply [inaudible 00:38:27] and minerals. If this ends quickly, within a year or two, the appetite for sanctions and continued hostility with Russia is going to diminish. There’ll be all sorts of carve outs for different industries. I mean, Belgium was even trying to get initial carve out for diamond trading with Russia. Yeah. Everyone’s going to want carve outs. And with the big guys outside of that treaty, or outside of that kind of sanctions regime, China and India in particular, I don’t see it holding over the long term. US might be the only one left holding it together. And it’ll be back to business as usual without the Ukraine, and without Taiwan.

Jim: With Finland aligned with NATO. And then probably, but some, I would imagine, increase in defense spending by the NATO allies, Germany and France. Particularly Germany, who’s been the big lagger. Still down like 1.2% in GDP.

John: Yeah. I don’t think that’s going to increase much. If they don’t feel directly threatened, they’re just indirectly threatened, I don’t think it’s going to change how much they actually spend on defense. And they’re suffering heavy duty population loss right now across the board, in all the countries. [inaudible 00:39:57] birth rates are way down. And fewer and fewer people actually want to even get involved in the military, and do anything associated with it. And so, they have other priorities. They’re like running into the same problems everybody else is running into in terms of, it’s hard to maintain cohesion in the face of this kind of network chaos that everyone’s facing. I do think that Russia and China, as they start to fully develop and they take over those near territories, their ambitions will change and they’ll start to focus more on influencing and abroad, and extending their influence. And it will be a pretty aggressive posture. So [crosstalk 00:40:43]-

Jim: So that [crosstalk 00:40:43] look more like a real cold war where it was essentially ideological, not just national interest.

John: Yeah. Will it get back to spheres of influence we had prior to the Cold War? Like the great powers kind of spheres of influence? Will that be carved out? Would that be kind of institutionalized? I don’t know. But they’re going to focus more on becoming more dictatorial in terms of how they treat their internal populations in order to kind of lock down dissent and stop it from causing them the kind of chaos they’re seeing [inaudible 00:41:20].

John: And I don’t see the US getting more stable over time. So in four or five years, we could become even more unstable as a result of divisions and internal flights fights. So, yeah. I don’t know if… I don’t see any kind of attractor inside the United States that brings people together and gets us to act as a more cohesive unit. If Xi and Putin both see us as a power in decline, that decline… And if they’re right, that decline will continue in the next four or five years. And I don’t really have anything I can say to gainsay them, or contradict them on that.

Jim: And so that over the say, five year time horizon, China and Russia will both be flexing their muscles, proving where they can, grabbing what they can, building more oppressive, even regimes internally, something like that.

John: Right. Their thinking is that, to the cohesive, go the spoils, right? So if they can maintain their cohesion, they can continue to increase their influence and their economic and military might. And that if the US continues to lose cohesion, it’s going to find itself more and more absorbed in internal conflicts to the exclusion of all else. And you’re already seeing the kind of do DOD shift to internal counter-insurgency and different… The focus on extremist terror and the like. And even though the numbers, like from the ADL, who certainly not biased in this regard, show that domestic extremist killings are down below where they were in 2013. So, they’re at the lowest level in at least our recent history, yet there’s this ramp up to go after what they considered domestic extremists. And that the domestic extremists are now… If the Canadian trucker example, plays out is that they’re focusing more on the systems disruption, which it hurts the kind of network that connected economy and people who are relying on those deliveries to maintain their isolated existence going… Makes them very vulnerable. And they’re very vulnerable to that. And that can cause lots of disruptions in chaos in the future. So if they keep on moving towards systems disrupt, that’s a bad sign.

Jim: Okay. Now what about… Now china has institutionalized its tyranny though, with Xi, the institutionalization is turning more towards one person power. But Russia, the tyranny is not really well institutionalized. It’s around a call to personality, and a group of self-serving oligarchs, et cetera. What do you see as the trajectory for Russia going forward?

John: Yeah, Russia’s model is different than the Chinese in that, a lot of the connections that keep Putin in power are behind the scenes. It’s like cross ownership. It’s the corruption and behind the scenes that allows him to become the richest guy. And that they keep this tight ruling group and their companies and everyone’s financial interest in this kind of tight ball, that the rest of the country doesn’t necessarily participate in. That’s their basis for continuing the rule.

John: They’re the biggest piece in… Biggest cohesive piece inside the country. And that they focus most of their efforts instead of locking everyone down to a very specific way of viewing the world like China is doing. A very strict morality based on Confucianism, based on historical patterns and that they want to reinforce. In Russia, it’s more about disrupting everybody who’s outside of that circle. So you’ll have protests, but then you’ll have counter protest. And then you’ll try to fork those existing protests. And you’ll try to create that kind of chaos, even inside the country to prevent anyone else from successfully challenging [inaudible 00:45:40]. And it’s a different kind of model, I guess, that maybe reflects more kind of the Russian historical progression. But it’s using networking in a different way in terms of how they rule.

Jim: Okay. Well, so it sounds like [inaudible 00:45:57] Yeah, you don’t sound too optimistic about the correlation of forces over the short to medium term.

John: Yeah. I see some countries being vulnerable who are in the cross-hairs right now. Big question is, whether or not this will be a green light for foreign adventurous by Russia and China. And I don’t see that in the short term. Though, it could be something that we’ll see more often if the US continues to prove [inaudible 00:46:31] in the face of this new muscular stance on China and Russia’s part. So maybe resource grabs. I don’t know if it would be in the Middle East, or may be in Africa. But that could be in the five to 10 year horizon.

Jim: All righty, John. [inaudible 00:46:53] I think we’re going to wrap it there. Good tour of the horizon of what’s going on in Ukraine today in the short term. What may happen in the medium-term, what that may mean in terms of a new boundary, essentially, between Russia and NATO. But probably no nuclear war. I guess that’s something to be said for at least.

John: Yeah. I think people still are acting in a restrained fashion with enough restraint to kind of avoid that. There’s still a lot of people out there that don’t understand the basics of operating within a nuclear constraint. They’re talking about conventional war, and adventures that shouldn’t happen, because they could serve as triggers for nuclear war.

Jim: All righty. We’ll wrap [inaudible 00:47:37] there. I’d like to thank you for your astute analysis, as always.

John: All right. Thanks Jim.