What is Russia’s invasion all about?
Sorry, I think that is the wrong question.
In my experience, bullies act out of weakness and fear. And it is clear to me that Putin is acting as a bully. So, I believe the real question is, “What is Putin afraid of?”
If you look for answers to that question, you might see that Putin has a lot to fear, and his position is weak.
I think that he is clearly not afraid of NATO. You can see this is the case, because he has been talking a lot about NATO. He has been putting our attention on NATO in a way that looks suspiciously like it is intended to distract us from a shell game he is playing elsewhere. And after all, why should NATO be a bigger threat to Russia than Hitler or Napoleon? Hitler had some brilliant generals working for him, and Napoleon is still regarded as a military genius. But neither could take on Russia, and I am not sure it would be easier now than before.
No, I think this is really the first big war over climate change. I am not saying Russia invaded Ukraine because Putin was afraid of climate change itself, but because it is afraid of the world’s action to climate change. In particular, I think he is afraid of the preparations under way in the EU and elsewhere to address climate change.
Russia is highly dependent on foreign exchange. Interestingly, nearly two-thirds of Russia’s exports are oil and gas, the same products that the EU is trying hard to wean itself away from. The European goal on climate change for 2030 is to reduce climate emissions by 55% from what they were in 1990. This is particularly important to Russia, because the EU is the primary market for Russian oil and gas.
So Putin has a huge problem. How is Russia going to stay relevant in a world that is ending dependence on the two products that overwhelmingly dominate its exports? If we consider that question, we may see a word that expresses something important: “Dependence.”
Right now, the EU is dependent on Russian export products for its prosperity. Its goal for 2030 is to wean itself an amount of those products that may come close to, or even exceed, the amount Russia exports. Right now, Russia is relevant. In 2030, if the EU continues down its present path, Russian relevance could dry up completely. Russia could be the world’s first, greatest victim of climate change. And that is only 8 years off.
Putin may see that there is a window of opportunity to act to keep Russia relevant. But it will not stay open for long, so Russia must act. Putin has a real problem here, because apparently, nothing in his background taught him how to assess alternative approaches to problem solving. This means he has to find a way to maintain the status quo. And because he has the nature he has, that means resorting to pushing other people around to get them to do what he wants them to do.
Why invade Ukraine? If we look at a map of Russian gas pipelines delivering to the EU, we can easily see its importance. With the exception of the Nord Stream and Yamal-Europe (JAMAL) pipelines, everything goes through territories recognized to be part of Ukraine. Given how difficult it could become to provide security for these pipelines, it is easy to see why Putin would like to control that country.
It also seems clear that the EU and other countries have to react strongly to Russian aggression. An emboldened bully will not stop being a bully. Satisfying Putin will not prevent him from invading other countries.
To decide its actions, the EU, the UK, and the US should keep certain things in mind. One is that Russia is more dependent on the EU for gas and oil exports than the EU is for Russian imports. If the oil and gas stopped moving from Russia to Europe, the greatest damage would be to Russia, rather than the EU. And this is especially true because other countries would step up to help the EU.
Also, satisfying Putin for now will not stop the window for his climate action to continue closing. That beat will go on regardless of what he is marching to. So he will feel a need to find other victims.
There is a real opportunity for Putin to deal with Russia’s dependence on oil and gas sales without resorting to pushing people around. This is important for him, because climate change will eventually stop him even if no one else does. But with some foresight, Russian resources and industry could become vitally important in countering climate change. Russia could conceivably become the most important country in that battle. The problem is that for now, sadly, it is on the wrong side.