Ukraine – Putin Can’t Afford to Lose Even One Battle. He Also Can’t Hide The Horror of War Behind Brown Skin and Turbans.

More reasons why Putin’s best interests lie with avoiding war.  Does he understand where his best interests lie?  I have no idea.  He wouldn’t be the first leader to do something stupid and ill informed.  But we do know it would be stupid.

If Putin “wins ugly” in Ukraine, he loses.  The world has gotten used to the “surgical,” low-casualty, effortless ease of the United states invading Afghanistan or Iraq.  Putin would have to match that apparent ease militarily.  He is almost certain to fall short of that bar.  Just one lost battle risks making Russia look like a 2nd rate power. In basketball terms, never get into a 3 point shooting contest with Steph Curry.

Militarily, the US has set a ridiculously high bar that “everyone” just expect all top-tier nations to clear.  We will benchmark Russia against the seemingly effortless US war-fighting playbook.  Cool videos from precision missiles.  A few unlucky American dead and wounded.  Confusion and abject terror on the opposing side.

The US has picked on weak targets.  The Ukraine is a pretty well guaranteed to win a few battles along the way.  It has the latest anti-tank missiles.  It will have the best satellite and signals intelligence NATO can offer.  Against that backdrop, consider this imaginary news piece.

Reuters Feb 28, 2022:  Russian public opinion is reeling from viral TikTok videos after a missile ambush incinerated all 31 tanks and 93 crew of the 6th Tank Brigade.  Unexpectedly high casualties overall are casting a pall over the Kremlin’s efforts to portray the invasion as a success.  It is also raising questions about the true competence and capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces.

Just a few “lost” battles and Russia ends up looking like a 2nd rate power.  Even if they win the war overall.   The Ukrainians, the US, and (hopefully) Putin know this.

Putin’s other problem is best said plainly.  Putin’s forces would be be killing, maiming, and displacing White People –   “people who look like us.”  Not only in US/European eyes, but in the eyes of ordinary Russians.  The US’s lopsided wins on the battlefield didn’t come with a sympathetic (to the West) counter-narrative.  The other side’s view was ugly – thousands maimed, killed suffering, and displaced.  But the other side’s view was obscured by brown skin, turbans, and other marks of foreignness that gave “us” license to de-humanize the suffering of those “others.”    It will be a lot harder for viewers to deny the humanity in the Ukranian TikTok videos…

The last 20-30 years of conflict have hid behind a long history of “colonial war” narratives.  People of a certain age (like me) have seen all those movies.  A few hundred plucky British or French troops with Maxim guns mowing down thousands of howling  Brown-skinned “turbaned natives” – with colorful costumes and heapfuls of overt racism served to accompany.  A lot of US “War in the Pacific” and “Cowboys and Indians” movies fit this trope.  Russia has is own “War in the Caucuses/Asia” equivalents.

Unfortunately (for Putin), the Ukraine is largely made up of… White People.  They don’t wear turbans.  The viral TikTok videos of tearful refugees and sobbing children will all be White People wearing normal White People clothes driving normal White People cars in normal White People settings. People with family and personal ties to Russia and the (huge) Ukrainian community in the US.

Those videos will be seen and the humanity will stand out. Their stories are likely to be “heard” in a way that dying, desperate Afghan/Iraqi stories were not.  This is an ugly truth.  But lets hope Putin understands it is true.

As a thought exercise, ask what Putin would actually get from invading Ukraine?  What would define “victory” in his terms?  A few more chunks of the Eastern Ukrainian Rust Belt?  Uneasy control of Odessa?  A long land corridor to the Crimea that he’d have to defend?  He’s definitely not getting the NATO climb-down he keeps asking for.

A final note.  I think a lot of (traditionally Republican) investors are investing their politics here.  They see Biden, the Democrats, and the Europeans as wimps.  They see Putin as “strong” and they secretly – shhhhh! – admire him for it.  So the markets are over-weighting the likelihood of invasion.  We may well get an invasion, but the weightings of the bet seem wrong.  Every day that drags by without an invasion is also going to make the current market negativity seem less and less reasonable.

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