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War with Ukraine will mean demise for Russia as a geopolitical power

Commentary

Peter Zeihan

Geopolitical Strategist
Video Library |

More than one hundred thousand Russian troops are stationed at the Ukraine border. They’re carrying out exercises, making threats, and tapping the global mercenary community to recruit thousands of fighters.

What in the world is going on here? When you break it down into geography and demographics, the situation does not look good for the Russians if these leads to war.

The Russian territory is almost impossible to defend. There are large swaths of arctic territories and desert zones and a border that actually got bigger when Russia achieved its independence in the Soviet collapse. The Russians also only control four of the nine corridors along its international borders. If they can conquer Ukraine in its entirety, they go from four to six, but that’s still not all of them.

On the demographic front:

Russians have half the population now that the Soviet Union had at its height.  People who were born in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse when the country was in free fall are today’s draftable population and tomorrow’s draftable population, which means that every soldier that the Russians lose marching on Kiev and beyond or occupying Kiev and beyond is one that they can’t replace at a minimum for a decade, probably ever. We’ve known for a long time that the Russian population was going terminal because their demographics have been so bad for so long. Eventually you just run out of people. The Russians are almost there. And so the Russian population, the Russian youth population has become a finite resource that is not going to regenerate.

How does the U.S. figure into all of this?

The Biden administration is discovering just how desperate the Russians are. And if you marry that to an understanding of their demographic decline, United States might actually have a vested interest in a Ukraine war because if Russia commits a couple million troops to the conquering and pacification of Ukraine, that’s the bulk of the army. And if Russia can be drawn into a bloody war of occupation, Afghanistan-style, in Ukraine, a country with few natural borders, so rebels can filter in and out of everywhere all the time, Russia will be facing a protracted conflict that it can never emerge from.

Peter Zeihan here. Hello from Colorado where it is finally winter. And we’re getting winds that are like 50 miles an hour. Go fig. Anyway, on the topic of places that are cold and breezy, let’s talk about what’s going on in Russia and Ukraine. At present, the Russians have moved over a hundred thousand troops to the Ukrainian border region. They’re carrying out exercises. They’re making overt threats about what can and cannot be done in the broader area. And they’ve tapped the global mercenary community to recruit thousands of fighters to throw at Kia.

You know, this is not what we would consider neighborly behavior. Now the Russians have said that we will draw our groups and de-escalate if Russia has given the right to dictate the security conditions and military posture and size in equipment loads for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, the Slovak Republic, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Montenegro, Turkey, and Germany.

And I probably missed a couple in there, as well. Now, the question is what are the Russians thinking? Because that’s kind of a big ask list? Well, the problem with the Russians has always been geography. 

Here’s one my favorite maps from my first book, The Accidental Superpower. It shows how the Russian territory is almost impossible to defend. Now the green area, that’s where almost all Russians live. That is the nice part of Russia, where you are unlikely to have your nose freeze off your face in say, May, this is where most of the food is produced. Once you get into the blue, off in the north, you’re getting into Arctic territories. No one’s gonna live there, but it’s also difficult to defend. And if you go to the south, you get into desert zones. No one’s gonna live there, but it’s very difficult to defend.

Now, when Russia got its independence in the Soviet collapse, its borders actually got a little bit longer, but its population was cut in half. And so the Russians have to defend a very, very large stretch of territory with very, very few people, relatively speaking. If geography helps them out, it gets easier. Now these are the anchors that under ideal conditions the Russians would like to forward anchor in because then they can rely on bodies of water or mountain chains to reduce the amount of territory that they have to have large static defenses. And when you have a smaller population relative to the size of your country, that’s essential. So if they can forward anchor, then these are the access points that they can crowd troops into to limit invasion options cuz the Russians have been invaded through all of these blue zones throughout their history, many cases multiple times.

Now, when the Russians found themselves independent from the Soviet Union, they only controlled one of these nine corridors. With the invasion of Georgia in the early two thousands, they went from one to three. With the conquering of Crimea from Ukraine a few years ago, they went from three to four, and if they can conquer Ukraine in its entirety, they go from four to six. So from the Russian point of view, this is not an academic exercise. This is an issue of national defense.

Now, for those of you who are wondering, how hard can this be? Remember, the Russians have half the population now that the Soviet Union had at its height and for a frame of reference, Russia’s a very big place. And the Americans with their population could never pretend to have a stacked defense strategy like the Russians need to for their territories. It’s just getting things from a to b, especially in war time is difficult. And so the Russians need to be able to concentrate. That’s ultimately at its root. What this is all about.

Well, that raises the question. If this is so important to the Russians, as the Russians define their own interests, why haven’t they acted yet? Well, like all things in international relations, why exert effort and blood and treasure if somebody will give you something for free? Russians are very good at playing poker. They like to think they’re good at chess. They’re not. We’ll get to that in the second.

This is a game of poker. The Russians are hoping to convince the world to give them security preeminence, not just in Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union, but the entire former Soviet sphere. And in that environment using diplomatic guarantees to guarantee their security.  Do it on the cheap. That’s what they’re after here. That might have worked, but Russian policy over the last 20 years has really undermined the case for that. Now back when the Russians started to see Ukraine as a problem in the two thousands, they took a lot of steps to split the Ukrainian identity among those pro-Russian Ukrainians, the Russian ethnics within Ukraine, and the pro-Western Ukrainian so that, Ukraine was kind of just this mess of a place. It didn’t really have a strong identity. If it didn’t have a strong identity, it could never have a strong economy, much less a strong military. And in that environment, Ukraine was messed up, could not be an invasion launchpad into the Russian space, but then Putin overplayed his hand. He started dabbling more aggressively, and he tried to turn Ukraine as a whole into a pro-Russian client state, kind of like what the Russians have successfully achieved with Belarus or Armenia. And in doing that, Putin launched an invasion of Ukraine to capture the Crimea and the provinces or large portions of the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk in the Donbas War of about seven years ago. Well, call me crazy, but you invade a country, and the people tend to notice. And so now not only do we have pro-western Ukrainians, but the pro-Russian Ukrainians have turned anti-Russian, and even the Russian ethnic who still live in Ukraine are looking at Moscow, kind of down their nose.

Putin has done something that nobody in the west could have ever achieved and that no one in Ukraine was able to achieve. He created a pan-Ukrainian identity. So if there was a war now, the Russians would not be welcomed. They’d have to fight their way all the way to the western border. And they’d have to fight an occupation war the whole way. And of course, for years to come. So far from creating, being a low cost target now. Now it’s mid to high cost.

The second big thing is now that we actually do have a Ukrainian identity, we actually do have a Ukrainian military. Now compared to what we would consider a real military, it’s still pretty much a joke. There’s no way that the Ukrainians and the Russians could go man to man, tank to tank. The Russian military out numbers it by like a factor of five. It’s probably ten times as effective. And on the battlefield, excuse me, the Ukrainians would just be wiped out, but it wouldn’t be the complete rollover that it would’ve been ten years ago, especially since the United States, since the Obama administration has been supplying the Ukrainian military with anti-tank Javelin missiles, which launch, go up, and then hit the tank from the top where the armor is weakest.

They’re very easy to operate. If you can play a phone game, you can fire a javelin missile, and their man portable and shoulder launched. So if Putin decides to order an invasion, we’re no longer in a situation where you can conquer the entire country in three months. A year, maybe, but not three months. The Russians would have to fight the whole way. They would have casualties, a lot of casualties not just in the initial invasion, but for years to come, and it’s that years to come casualties situation where things get sketchy for the Russians and really change math.

Here’s the Russian demographic structure, children at the bottom, retirees at the top, men on one side, women on the other. Normally, this should look like a pyramid because you’ll have lots of children, fewer young adults, fewer mature adults, fewer retirees. But between Stalin’s purges, Brezhnev’s and Khrushchev’s mismanagement, World War I, World War II, genocide, the post-Soviet collapse. We’ve had ebbs and flows in the Russian birth rate that have probably turned terminal.

Now, if you look down at the bottom of that for the zero to 10-year-old children, it’s widened out. Some of that is true because a generation ago we were in the late eighties and the Russians were trying out perestroika and glasnost. And there was this optimism that the stagnation of the previous 30 years might be coming to an end and the birth rate went up and so we got a baby boom. That baby boom is now represented by people who are in their thirties. So there’s an echo generation for the 10 and unders. But a lot of it is just fabricated because the Russians have been doctoring their data starting about 10, 12 years ago. And a lot of these children have just really just manifested on paper and nowhere else.

We don’t know what the real number is. We do know it’s not that big, but look up a couple categories for the 15- to 30-year-olds. See that huge cut out. These are people who were born in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse when the country was in free fall. This is today’s draftable population and tomorrow’s draftable population, which means that every soldier that the Russians lose marching on Kiev and beyond or occupying Kiev and beyond is one that they can’t replace at a minimum for a decade, probably ever. We’ve known for a long time that the Russian population was going terminal because their demographics have been so bad for so long. Eventually you just run out of people. The Russians are almost there. And so the Russian population, the Russian youth population has become a finite resource that is not going to regenerate.

That’s a problem. So, what’s changed? A Russian war in Ukraine today would draw higher costs. It’s no surprise that the Russians started moving troops to the Ukrainian border when the Americans allowed those javelin missiles to be redeployed to the conflict zones. November of 2021 is when we saw them being used in fury in the conflict zone to good effect for the first time. That’s when the Russians started making these demands cause they realized that not only is the demographic situation turning against them, and not only has the geographic situation always been against them, but now there are being tactical changes on the battlefields out, down in Donbas. And that raises the possibility of Ukraine becoming militarily functional, and maybe having an affiliation with a NATO Alliance, putting NATO forces east of the Carpathians in a way that the Russians could never, even at their height, have a chance of defending against, that’s what the Russians are terrified of.

That’s one thing that’s changed. The second thing that’s changed is that the math of the United States is evolving.  On purpose, inadvertently, don’t know. The Biden administration is discovering just how desperate the Russians are. And if you marry that to an understanding of their demographic decline, United States might actually have a vested interest in a Ukraine war because if Russia commits a couple million troops to the conquering and pacification of Ukraine, what’s the bulk of the army. And if Russia can be drawn into a bloody war of occupation, Afghanistan-style, in Ukraine, a country with few natural borders, so rebels can filter in and out of everywhere all the time, Russia will be facing a protracted conflict that it can never emerge from. This is an issue of core national strategy for the Russians, and they are now finding themselves trapped. And if the Russians do commit, this is the last war that the Russians will ever fight because they won’t have a military that’s capable of deploying away from Ukraine.

There is no theater that is more important to the Russians than keeping Ukraine in Russia’s orbit. At its closest point, the Ukrainian border is less than 300 miles from Moscow, and there’s not a single geographic barrier between those two areas. Russia can’t ignore this. And so what has truly changed is for the first time in the post-Soviet era, the Americans have a vested interest in Russia, actually invading someone. Will they? Don’t know. There’s a lot of decisions to be made right at the top, right in the Kremlin. But if they don’t move now the Russians themselves have set into motion actions that will guarantee Ukraine will fall out of their orbit one way or another. We are looking at the end of the Russian Federation as a geopolitical power. That’s it for me until next time.

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