Last Monday evening I was driving along the contours of Cork harbour, not far from East Cork. The area has many claims to fame – for example, a local (Edward Bransfield) is credited with having discovered Antarctica in 1820. Less triumphantly, some local villages like Whitegate, Aghada and Farsid lost one third of their male populations during the Crimean War.
At the time, a great number of soldiers died from disease and the lack of basic medical procedures – whilst the French and British armies fought side by side against the Russians, casualties were far relatively far higher on the British side because of inferior medical equipment and practice – hence the acclaim with which Florence Nightingale’s techniques were greeted.
I thought of this recently when I read a post on the very different medical kits supplied to Ukrainian and Russian troops, respectively. Setting aside propaganda and donations from the West, the Ukrainian kit looked modern while that of the Russian soldiers could well have come from a museum or horror show. In that respect, the apparent wilting of the Russian army is not surprising.
More supporting detail on this comes from the 140 page long diaries of Pavel Filatyev, a career paratrooper in the Russian army who, driven to despair by the chaos within his regiment (in Kherson), wrote a long account of his experience in the Russian army. Armies are not pleasant places but his account of the systematic mistreatment of the Russian soldiers, their undernourishment, disorganization in battle and embarrassing under-equipment is telling, not just of the Russian army but of the Russian state. Needless to say, he is now in hiding beyond Russia.
In that context, the mobilization of largely experienced soldiers to start with, and the co opting of prisoners into the Russian army, opens up many risks – for both Ukraine and Russia. Additionally, the coming referenda on the accession to the Russian Federation of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions is a sneaky, deadly moving of the geopolitical goalposts. Any attempt to liberate these areas of Ukraine would now, in the eyes of the Kremlin, an attack on Russia itself, and it has the right to respond as it sees fit.
From a military point of view, this elevates the risks around Ukraine, and in particular heightens the probability of a strategic mistake or tail event (i.e. such as the destruction of a NATO satellite or an attack on a Baltic state). Putin’s move also increases the risk of socio-political risk within Russia. As I am not a military expert but prefer to write on economic development and the rise and fall of states, I will focus on that.
The Filaytev diaries say much about Russia. It is a country that until recently had poor levels of human development, especially in healthcare and life expectancy (which has been rising from low levels). In this context, Vladimir Putin’s vision of Russia as a superpower is hollow – unless a nation can sustain improving levels of human development (through education, good healthcare, freedom of thought) it will not sustain the core drivers of growth, such as productivity. This a lesson for China, the UK and the US to follow. In China and the UK (productivity is falling) whereas in the USA life expectancy had dropped sharply (below that of China).
In coming years, I am sure many will write about the surprisingly poor quality of the Russian army, and in the context of this note, it is simply another marker for poor quality development. This is perhaps one reason why when emerging market crises strike, they happen slowly, then very quickly. Incompetent institutions, poor rule of law and a prohibition on intelligent policy making can for some time be camouflaged by superficial growth, but all very quickly melt away in moments of stress (Russia has sadly seen this before).
The risk is that other institutions go the same way. As Putin announced the mobilization there were rumours that the highly regarded head of the Russian central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, had resigned (she had apparently tried to do the same in March). This has not been confirmed but raises the question as to the seaworthiness of the full range of Russian institutions in a stormy geopolitical climate. Increasingly, the pressure will be on Russia, and from multiple angles.
As a last word, I want to return to the Crimean War. It is not inconceivable that Corkmen from villages like Whitegate were shelled by Leo Tolstoy, at the time a young artillery officer. Tolstoy’s experience of war affected him greatly. In the context of Putin’s recent mobilization it is worth recalling some advice he gave to a young man ‘all just people must refuse to become soldiers’. Many young Russians are thinking the same today.
Have a great week ahead,