Morale: Reality And Risk In Russia

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August 18, 2016: Russia is having second thought about its efforts to dismember Ukraine. The official reason for getting involved was to protect ethnic Russians who became Ukrainian citizens when Ukraine became independent in 1991 (along with 13 other parts of the defunct Soviet Union). Russia pushed the idea that NATO secretly financed and helped organize a coup against a corrupt pro-Russian president in Ukraine. At first Russian leaders and more Russians believed this myth but by early 2015, more than a year after Ukraine was first invaded, it became apparent to most Russians that Ukraine was not some artificial NATO invention. By late 2014 Ukrainian forces fighting in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) against Russian sponsored troops and Russian regular forces was most notable for high number of volunteer battalions. These volunteer units comprise about 20 percent of the 50,000 armed personnel Ukraine has sent to the Donbas and were noticeably more motivated to fight than the Russian troops or Russian supported rebels. In effect the Russian attack on Ukraine did not cause Ukraine to fall apart (as the official Russian line went) but actually unified Ukraine and made it stronger.

In the meantime Russia became weaker. By mid-2015 Russian leaders were openly admitting this. The Russian prime minister (Dmitry Medvedev) recently gave a public speech before the Russian parliament, details of which were distributed nationwide by the state controlled media. Medvedev admitted that the military operations in Ukraine had cost Russia over $100 billion so far and would probably cost more before it is all over. He also mentioned that the sanctions made it impossible to borrow abroad. Russians also know that over $150 billion in cash held by Russian businesses has left the country because the owners felt this money would be safer abroad. Medvedev told Russians to expect the current economic depression caused by all these Ukraine related losses will probably continue into 2016.

What is interesting about this speech is that Medvedev is a close ally of Russian leader (since 2000 in one form or another) Vladimir Putin who is the one who ordered the attacks on Ukraine. Both Putin and Medvedev still maintain that Russia is in the right and is merely responding to NATO and American aggression. But both men also know that a growing number of Russians are beginning to doubt that and also doubt if the effort is worth the cost to the Russian economy. In Russia it is typical and traditional to alert the population to a major change in policy with a confessional speech like this. Depending on the public reaction the government will go ahead and make major changes, or back off.

It appears many Russian leaders now believe the Ukraine effort might be made to work after all. But this involves a risky bluff. Russia has been sending more troops to new (or temporary) bases on the borders of Ukraine and East European nations that recently joined NATO to gain a measure of protection from Russian aggression. Russia is threatening an invasion or Ukraine and perhaps other nations as well. This idea has not gotten beyond the “let’s make preparations and see what happens” stage. Russia is a place where things often go from bad to worse so this gamble, no matter how risky, might become a reality.

 


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