It has been some time since this blog has taken its title at face value and looked at some of the large scale asymmetries at work in the world around us. The Ukraine conflict, however, presents just such a chance. Plenty has been written on the subject now by armchair experts in Eastern European strategy, many of whom no doubt only recently become epidemiology experts too. I offer a few simple thoughts about the asymmetric nature of the game Putin is playing, and in every case I start with the panacean truisms one finds in the media.
“Russian GDP is not even as big as South Korea, it is overreaching itself!”
The globalist response to almost any conflict has been to look to economic indicators – at least, the ones we are familiar with – as a measure of how powerful a country is or can be. I will give such commentators the benefit of the doubt that in most cases, they are aware there is some nuance and that localised imbalances can affect outcomes; but still, by and large, they will believe that historical determinism tells us that a country’s GDP will indicate the way the winds are blowing.
What Putin is exposing, however, is that for Russia (and China, amongst others), expenditure in materiel capital has to be matched with the commitment to expend human capital. On a GDP basis, many others will be more powerful than Russia; but judged on the basis of its hard resources multiplied by the factor with which it is willing to use them, Russia’s position on the world stage is not one of punching “above its weight”; it is very much a significant player (which, let’s be honest, is exactly how it is treated within the world of realpolitik). This is a case of asymmetric capital deployment.
The Western response in offering the Ukraine arms and supplies is a case in point: it costs the West nothing to do this. Indeed, given the realities of the military-industrial complex, offering military equipment which is in turn paid for through loose monetary policy actually helps the West. The problem is, it does not do much to help the Ukraine. Putin knows that no Western government at this stage is willing to lose the life of a single soldier in defence of Kiev; China knows likewise about Taiwan. And they are able to gamble that even with the best of wills in armament support, if the West has no boots on the ground, its commitment will be as fickle as the next budget discussion in Cabinet. Only blood counts.
So whilst it is absolutely true that Russia is not rich enough to match much of the West, it really does not matter because that is not the game being played. I suspect not a single Ukrainian soldier coming under a rocket attack is thinking to himself, “well the joke is on you, you’re overreaching your GDP base”. Unless the West changes its tune on how to respond, the Russian bear is not going to be paying too much attention. Instead, as one of my friends pointed out, “there is no significant military force standing between Russia and Paris today, a situation we have not faced for generations”. Another added, “but there is a lot of GDP standing in the way”.
“Russia is on the decline anyway, in ten years time this will be seen as a massive mistake!”
Again, this is very possibly true. After all, the big difference between the Russian threat and the Chinese threat is that it seems difficult to imagine Russia being more important in ten years time than today. Again however, I suspect this is cold comfort to the dying Ukrainian civilian, who is most probably not shouting to the incoming tanks “well you’re on the wrong side of history!”. As Keynes says, in the long run, we’re all dead.
The fact is that in this kind of game, a grenade in the hand is worth two on the production line. Most incidents like the Ukraine are not played out over the kinds of timeframe that the Cold War was; once an aggressor gets its way, it can be almost impossible to dig them out again other than at enormous costs which, as described above, people are unwilling to pay. Yet the fact is that Russia is doing this today, not years down the line when history has come to bite it. This is a case of asymmetric timing.
All powers are likely to rise and fall cyclically. Russia doubtless is on a down cycle already – but so what? History is not decided by trajectories (much as historical determinists and progressivists would love to believe), and still less are real objectives today affected by those long term trends. A power willing to punch today can easily and consistently outcompete the larger power waiting for things to fall into the natural order of things. Obama’s pushing of this wording is perhaps his most pernicious legacy as a clarion call to inaction.
“The whole world is watching this and will be judging Russia!”
Whilst the first two popular claims may well hold true, even if they are irrelevant, this last one is questionable due to one last great asymmetry, which constitutes the eternal dilemma of the policeman. The West is of course judging Putin – for now. Sanctions will come in. There is discussion of banning Russia from the SWIFT payment system for instance, as well as the removal of this season’s Champions’ League final from St Petersburg (Russia’s involvement in the Eurovision Song Contest however, has been subject to confusion).
The problem though, is precisely that the whole world is watching this – through the 24 hour news cycle, through social media, through memes. Yet the policeman’s dilemma is, why do I prioritise this over anything else? And with the fragmentation of Western attention, through so many channels, the cohesion of Western attention is less than in generations past, even as the volume of that attention is more. This is asymmetric focus.
The Russians know that Western observers struggle with creating a hierarchy of what is supposed to be important. Modern media has dampened our sense of proportionality, meaning that there is a perception of crying wolf. How much better or worse is Biden’s performance over the Ukraine, compared to the retreat from Kabul for instance? Or Obama’s red lines in Syria? Or his response to the last time Russia invaded the Ukraine? In the heat of the moment, everyone is entitled (as many are) to believe this is the most important issue in the world today; yet that same raw sensation will also see it be less to tomorrow. Maybe another invasion, maybe another form of Covid, maybe just forest fires will do the trick. Our lack of media curation has brought us to this.
I would additionally add that, in all of human history, sanctions have only ever to my knowledge worked in one example: South Africa. In this case, it worked because the target society of the sanctions (white South Africans) looked up to and respected those sanctioning them – they cared. Not the case with Russia, or with China. Probably not even the case with India. The corollary is that asymmetric focus is only solved when the matter is close to home – culturally, ethnically. Sweden, for instance, is not a member of NATO, but will still be able to count on American and European physical support in the event of a Russian invasion in a way the Baltic states might struggle with. Let’s be honest, because they’re white. This is the only thing which cuts through the ADHD of modern life. Are the Ukrainians really white enough and middle class enough for people to sustain their care? We will find out.
If this sounds cynical, that is because it is. Asymmetries unlock many of the answers where there is more heat than light and war has been so unknown for so long. As long as Putin is playing a different game, the constant refrains about meaningless measures will remain rhetoric whilst real people are suffering. Grasping these asymmetries can lead to small but very effective changes in policy, and consequently enormously different outcomes. Given that the US purported to know about the coming invasion so long ago, a single battalion of American soldiers, under the guise of ordinary joint training exercises, would have made Putin pause for thought.
One must always ask oneself, “what would Putin do?“.
PS – where now those anti-nuclear deterrent voices?