26 Feb The Path to Immortality
“A surefire path to immortality is conquest!” – The Lonely Realist
Anyone who has studied history knows the names of Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Atilla the Hun, Genghis Kahn, Tamerlane, Francisco Pizarro, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mao Zedong, and Adolf Hitler. They were conquerors. Their names are engraved in history’s granite because of their ruthless pursuit of land and power, even though some of their successes were fleeting and none of their empires endured. They came, they saw, they conquered. That was the key to their immortality.
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are determined to have their names engraved in history’s granite. Putin’s plan is to restore the Russian Empire and extend Russian influence deeply into Western Europe. Xi has broader ambitions. Each is ruthlessly pursuing his plan. There is no reason to believe that their ambitions will wane. Success builds on success and each has experienced consistent successes. They have been hard at work to alter the Western-led global order. Neither intends to allow American hegemony to continue.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine points to escalating global conflict, an evolution from cold war to hot. No one predicted that another land war would erupt this year in Europe. History, however, has a way of repeating. TLR noted three years ago that the world was resonating with pressures similar to those that existed in 1937 (here). TLR warned two years ago about the escalating risks of military conflict in America’s Forthcoming Foreign Policy Crisis. This past December, TLR compared Putin’s words and actions concerning Ukraine with those of Hitler towards Czechoslovakia (here). Ukraine is a single link in a multi-decade chain of events and aggressions. The invasion of Ukraine comes as no surprise. History has provided previews.
Putin’s application of Russian military power began in 1999 when, as the new Russian Prime Minister, he ordered the invasion of Chechnya. In the resulting war, Russian forces crushed Chechen separatists and returned Chechnya to Russian subservience. Throughout the campaign as well as during its aftermath, Russian forces ruthlessly put down opposition. There were thousands of civilian casualties. Russia simply ignored its obligations under the Geneva Conventions. It’s no surprise that mass graves have been discovered. Coupled with ongoing disappearances and assassinations, Amnesty International and the European Union have labeled Russia’s Chechen actions as war crimes. War crimes, however, are of no concern to Putin (see here). Ruthlessness is part of the mantle of “conqueror,” a natural consequence of the pursuit of land, power and wealth. There are no rules when pursuing immortality (witness the string of assassinations of Putin critics both domestically and abroad).
Putin followed up his success in Chechnya with a surgical invasion of Georgia in 2008 that ended Georgia’s tilt towards the West. He annexed Crimea in 2014 in a bloodless coup, replacing fleeing Ukrainian officials with Russian sympathizers who invited in the Russian army and proceeded to merge Crimea with Mother Russia. Whereas Georgians are resistant to Russian hegemony – only a small minority of Georgians are ethnic Russians –, Crimea has a significant ethnic-Russian population, Putin’s alleged pretext for conquest (the same one used by Hitler in annexing Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia). Russia’s take-over of Crimea was well-executed and faced little resistance. Russia’s simultaneous incursion into the Donbas Region of Eastern Ukraine has been more challenging. Armed opposition required the deployment of disguised Russian soldiers and mercenaries. The resulting conflict led to a series of uneasy truces and de facto self-government for the Region, a limited Russian victory.
Conquerors do not tolerate limited victories.
Beginning after the Chechen War, Putin focused on restoring Russia’s military capabilities to project power regionally. He has similarly restructured Russia’s economy to withstand actual and threatened economic sanctions. Evidence of the success of Russia’s military interventions is found in Bashar al-Assad’s continued hold on power and in the naval and air bases Russia controls in Syria. Russia’s military strength also has enabled Putin to wield significant influence in Iran, make strides in prying Turkey away from America, and furthered Russia’s relationships with Israel and the Arab world. In order to provide a level of economic resilience against sanctions, Russia’s economy now boasts more than $600 billion in reserves and Russia has entered into oil, gas and similar trade arrangements with its “best friend,” China, the senior member of the Axis of the Sanctioned (previously discussed by TLR here).
Xi’s China has been the subject of many TLR commentaries (including here). In Lessons From the Bedford Incident (here) in March 2021, TLR cautioned that confrontations between opposing militaries could accidentally lead a trigger-happy soldier to spark global conflict. The Chinese military has been consistently testing America’s, Taiwan’s, Japan’s, The Philippines, Vietnam’s, and India’s military capabilities. Accidents happen. Russia for years has been testing NATO’s defenses as well as those of Finland and Sweden. Such testing by both China and Russia has a purpose. Those testings will now escalate. One military outcome of Russia’s Ukraine campaign is that Russian forces stationed in Ukraine, Belarus (a Russian satrapy) and Russia, will directly face weaker NATO forces along the borders of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Among other things, that will mean that NATO no longer will be logistically capable of defending its three Baltic NATO members. What happens when Russia increases pressure on those nations? What then? Will there be a redux of 1939?
Putin has a plan. Xi has a plan. What is America’s plan?
Paraphrasing Hemingway from The Sun Also Rises, “How does global primacy evaporate?” Bill asked. “Two ways,” Mike said. “Gradually, then suddenly.”
Russia and China are centrally-managed dictatorships with no history of accepting or incorporating different cultures (as China’s treatment of Tibetans and Uighurs makes clear). Each is racially, culturally and religiously homogeneous. Neither Russians nor Chinese enjoy freedom of speech, religion, press or assembly. Restrictions on individual freedoms are the cornerstone of each of those country’s identities. America is the opposite. It’s a democracy with the selection of government officials delegated to voters. Government power is balanced among three branches of the Federal government and distributed between Federal and State governments. Its population is racially and culturally mixed. Americans revel in their Bill of Rights’ freedoms to speak, worship, congregate and demonstrate. Why are these differences important? Because at this flash point in human history, Americans have to decide whether their diversity is a strength or a weakness, whether different sets of beliefs create a superior society and a more unified polity, or a weaker one that will fall victim to centrally-managed autocracies. Make no mistake: America is in a win-or-lose struggle with the Axis of the Sanctioned. There will be a loser. The winner – if there is one – will be immortalized.
It is wise to keep in mind that losers do not write the history books.
Finally (from a good friend)