Putin’s War Aims, Lucidly Explained

     An improbable story about the fast-changing news business in the West. 

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It is becoming clear to dispassionate observers that, after surprising successes in its defense of Kyiv, Ukraine is losing hope that its troops can reverse gains that Russia has made in the east of the nation. A three-correspondent team yesterday put it this way in The Washington Post (subscription required):

[T]he overall trajectory of the war has unmistakably shifted away from one of unexpectedly dismal Russian failures and tilted in favor of Russia as the demonstrably stronger force.

In a speech Thursday to Russian entrepreneurs in St, Petersburg, marking the 350th anniversary of the birth of Czar Peter the Great, Russian President Vladimir Putin compared his invasion of Ukraine to Peter’s Great Northern War. That twenty-one-year-long series of campaigns, little remembered outside the Baltic nations, Russia, and Ukraine, began when Peter recruited Denmark and Norway as allies to test the newly-crowned fifteen-year-old King of Sweden, Karl XII.

Karl’s army defeated Russian forces three times its size at Narva, in 1700, and for a time Peter retreated, beginning construction of St, Petersburg in 1703.  But in 1709, as the overconfident Swedish king marched his army towards Moscow, via Ukraine, Peter’s forces crushed the Swedes in the battle of Poltava, effectively ending the short-lived Swedish Empire, and, as Peter the Great declared, laying the final stone in the foundations of St Petersburg and the Russian Empire. In the decade to come, Peter took possession of much of Finland and the northeastern shores of the Baltic.

“What was [Peter] doing?” Putin asked his audience Thursday, according to the Associated Press. “Taking back and reinforcing. That’s what he did. And it looks like it fell on us to take back and reinforce as well.”

Peter the Great’s war in the Baltic was about gaining access to Europe. Putin’s war in Ukraine is about retaining access to European energy markets. It has been clear all along that the Russian invasion was about the possession of oil and gas resources and their transport.  But the details are hard to explain.

My own path to the story followed the work of Marshal Goldman, of Wellesley College and Harvard Russian Research Center, who narrated Russian history after 1972 in a series of lucid books, culminating in Petrostate: Putin, Power and the New Russia (2008). But Goldman died in 2017. That left the field to Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, both of the Brookings Institution, authors of The Siberian Curse: How Communist Planners Left Russia Out in the Cold, and Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. Hill became well-known as an advisor to President Trump at the end of his term. Last week Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator for the Financial Times, interviewed historian Daniel Yergin to good effect in an FT podcast (s subscription may be required) .

But it turns out that the best forty minutes you can spend on the war, that is, if you have forty minutes to spend, is Russia’s Catastrophic Oil & Gas Problem, a new episode of a strange new independently-produced series called RealLifeLore. Production values are striking. So is the relative lack of spin. Only the narrator’s forceful delivery wears thin, though his pronunciation of place names seems impeccable. . .

The provenance of the program itself is somewhat unclear. The YouTube link came to me from a trusted old friend; she got it from Illinois Rep. Bill Foster, the only nuclear physicist currently serving in Congress.

CuriosityStream, which carries the RealLifeLore series, is an American media company and subscription video streaming service that offers documentary programming including films, series, and TV shows. It was launched in 2015 by the founder of the Discovery Channel, John S. Hendricks. RealLifeLores’s producer, Sam Denby, is an entrepreneur best known for creating,via Wendover Productions, several edutainment YouTube channels, including Half as Interesting; Extremities; and Jet Lag, The Game. I look forward to learning more about Denby as Wikipedia goes to work and streaming networks and newspapers tune in.

I don’t know what more to say except to recommend that you watch it. It skews slightly optimistic towards the end. The Great Northern War doesn’t come into it.  That’s my department, as is the is the opportunity to occasionally marvel at  the yeastiness of the  enterprise economy of the West, not “free” exactly, but far less clumsily guided than the system that Vladimir Putin is trying to control.

The moral of the story: Putin’s war aims are grimly realistic. Those of NATO in support of Ukraine are not. The invasion was wrong, and probably a colossal mistake, even if Russia winds up taking possession of some or all of its neighbor.  Putin’s “special military operation” in the twenty-first century is the opposite of Peter’s Great Northern War in the early eighteenth century.  Russia will suffer for decades for his folly.

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Dale W. Jorgenson, of Harvard University, died Wednesday in Cambridge, Mass., of complications arising from long-lasting Corona virus infection.  He was 89. An excellent Wall Street Journal obituary is here.

Awarded the John Bates Clark Medal in 1971, Jorgenson was among the founders of modern growth accounting, a major force in the rejuvenation of Harvard’s Department of Economics, and, as John Fernald put it in a recently-prepared intellectual biography, attentive, supportive, warm, and kind, beneath an unfailing veneer of formality.

A memorial service is planned for the autumn.