A simple Bayesian updating on Ukraine

by on May 5, 2014 at 11:44 am in Current Affairs, History, Law, Political Science | Permalink

Putin didn’t carve off the eastern parts of the country, although he could have.  I now infer he wishes to take the whole thing.  There are sometimes reasons why you do not wish to stop and take the free lunch and create a focal line, namely that it can constrain you for the future.  I don’t mean that Putin will conquer Ukraine by military force, but rather bit by bit he will harass the current government into losing legitimacy, until a strongly pro-Russian, pro-Putin government is running that country.   By hook or by crook.

S.C. Schwarz May 5, 2014 at 11:52 am

I agree. Having seen no effective opposition Putin will see no reason to stop.

Which do you think comes next, Latvia or Estonia?

Mondfledermaus May 5, 2014 at 2:11 pm

No. It’s just the Ukrainians that have been extremely incompetent running their affairs.

Some will say that it is on par as it was Ukrainians Brezhnev, Khrushchev and Chernenko that drove the Soviet Union to the ground.

Estonia is propspering overall and that takes the nationalistic edge of their sizable Russian population. Latvia is not doing as good but still much better than Ukraina,

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 2:25 pm

They’re NATO members and their Russian populations. They do not come next unless he’s quite the riverboat gambler.

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 2:30 pm

And their Russian populations are not all that concentrated bar one border city in Estonia and another near the border in Latvia.

S.C. Schwarz May 5, 2014 at 7:24 pm

Why do you think it matters that they are NATO members? Do you seriously think Obama will fight for Estonia? With what? We have at most two brigades in all of Europe. And the Germans? Did you see the article in this week’s Economist about German big business telling Merkel to wrap this up as they have too many contracts to lose.

Jan May 5, 2014 at 7:57 pm

Not Estonia. Crossing Ukraine into the breakaway part of Moldova, I could see that. Putin needs at least the veneer of a mandate from local ethnic Russians. Unless he thinks he can parachute into downtown Riga, where most of the Russians are (though still not a majority), it won’t happen. Hell, even Europe might fight for a real NATO country.

John May 5, 2014 at 10:46 pm

It matters because the US is in NATO and is obligated by treaty to respond. It also matters that the US spent $5 billion in the last decade creating the Ukrainian political and paramilitary movements that overthrew the constitutional Ukrainian government.

David Barker May 5, 2014 at 11:12 pm

You might have said the same thing about Kuwait in 1990 or Germany in 1917 or 1942. Yes, I seriously think Obama would fight for Estonia. It matters that they are NATO members.

And how many divisions does German big business have?

JWatts May 6, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Well the German army is down to only 3 divisions, so it might not matter much.

Art Deco May 6, 2014 at 1:18 am

Fine. The troops we’ve had in Korea since 1953 are just part of a pantomime.

Andao May 6, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Ukraine is being dissected by “local pro-Russian militias”. Putin can use paramilitary forces in these countries, and NATO has no good response. Can NATO be called upon to stop what could plausibly be called “internal unrest” in Estonia? I don’t think anyone would be stupid enough to drive tanks bearing the Russian flag into the Baltics. But if these militias want to join Russia, conveniently creating a landbridge to Kaliningrad, well…what’s the plan?

Ukrainian Salo May 5, 2014 at 11:53 am

I don’t think Putin will succeed installing strong pro-Russian government in Kiev without Syrian level of bloodshed. I predict continuing skirmishes in eastern and southern regions. Poroshenko wins. Russia continues to call Ukrainian gov illegitimate. Longer term situation remains unclear.

mulp May 5, 2014 at 3:26 pm

How quickly can Putin shovel cash into the areas that fall under Russian control to bring them up to the Russian welfare state without reviving the economic discontent in Russia.

This has been yet another wag the dog move by Putin. He is channelling the lingering anger and frustrations of everyone in the USSR that they have lost status relative to the US, but failed to get to live like Americans as Reagan and other Americans promised they would live if the USSR was privatized and sold to Americans. Putin booted out the colonialists, but turned the assets over to Putin’s power base of old commies.

Look at Georgia. After parts were carved out and fell under Russian control, Georgia is static because neither part of Georgia is creating envy in the other – the rest of Georgia isn’t clamoring to join with Russia because the Russian sectors are driving luxury cars and building big houses because the economy is creating great jobs for everyone.

JWatts May 5, 2014 at 5:54 pm

“but failed to get to live like Americans as Reagan and other Americans promised they would live if the USSR was privatized and sold to Americans.”

That’s a fascinating reality you inhabit.

Yancey Ward May 5, 2014 at 11:55 am

I think this is wrong. Putin is just waiting for the eastern parts that have pro-Russian majorities to become autonomous states- if need be by civil war; then Russia can simply absorb them. Left on their own, and minus the eastern/southeastern parts, the western parts of the Ukraine will have little constituency left for a pro-Russian government. In other words, if Putin really does want the whole country, he will have to conquer it militarily.

Dan Weber May 5, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Yes, the chances of a pro-Russian constituency dropped dramatically once Crimea seceded.

Maybe Putin changed his mind.

HoB May 5, 2014 at 5:26 pm

The new Ukrainian government is creating more pro-Russian constituencies in the East and the South even as we speak.

Locke May 5, 2014 at 8:43 pm

Maybe if you get your news from VoiceOfRussia.

Aaron Luchko May 5, 2014 at 8:34 pm

Agreed, we don’t know how much it would take for Putin to invade, but he apparently would prefer not to.

Power is decided by who ultimately controls the most force, is most countries that’s the police, and in extreme cases the army.

The presence of Putin’s army doesn’t give Russia the most force, but it does mean Ukraine is unable to bring its army into the equation. Instead all the pro-Russia protesters need to do is assemble a force large enough to intimidate the police. Pro-Ukraine protesters are intimidated into silence and a minority of pro-Russian forces can rule the territory. He may not even need Russian agents as long as the protesters are willing to collaborate knowing they’ll be in charge.

I think Putin’s most likely end-game is for Donetsk and other Eastern Ukraine regions to establish independence by guaranteeing the safety of the pro-Russian forces through military threat.

Number 6 May 5, 2014 at 12:02 pm

I am not a number, I am a free man!

Thor May 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm

That’s what you think! Did you choose #6 or were you secretly a #8 person, who settled?

HoB May 5, 2014 at 12:10 pm

And if Ukraine is not run by a pro-Russian government, this will mean that Putin is waiting to take over the whole Eastern Europe. And if that does not happen, this will mean that Putin is just waiting for a right time to conquer the world. The logic of this is unassailable.

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Always amused by this sort of commentary. George Will once got the idea into his head that the Iraqi insurgency were Nietzchean supermen: anything which did not kill them will make them stronger. You fancy the V. Putin and his camarilla are some sort of Asimovian Second Foundation, capable of deftly manipulating to their precise advantage the public life of a country with 44 million people in it (followed by the imposition of a military occupation of Stalinoid ruthlessness).

Corvus May 5, 2014 at 1:06 pm

I would not agree that it has required anything like an Asimovian 2nd Foundation – nor deft manipulation. You have a situation where the populace is already fractured sufficiently that it is a simple thing to arouse nationalist sentiments. You have very clear evidence that eastern Ukraine and Crimea are strongly pro-Russian. Mix in just a bit more than a little Enquirer-level of biased reporting – which was clearly observed – and just as clearly massively inaccurate – and it seems obvious to me that it has gotten plenty of people worked up.

Don’t forget the lessons, about arousing dormant public emotions, in the former Yugoslavia. For that matter, we should also not ignore how easily Bush 2 managed the same feat in the good old US.

Putin’s objective has, imo, never been the whole of Ukraine. It is to cherry-pick the best of the zones where the task can be easily accomplished. A la Georgia. The Ukraine that is left will likely be an economic cripple, subsisting at a level similar to Moldova. And Putin will then continue to use the economic hammers he has been using for the past 15 years (trade and gas), to advantageous effect. Neither he nor Russia will be particularly hampered if the remains of Ukraine are hostile.

Dan Weber May 5, 2014 at 1:31 pm

Not disagreeing, but what are the “best parts” of the Ukraine, as far as Putin is concerned? Industrial capacity? Natural resources? Headcount?

I read reports that the Crimean peninsula was heavy in industry but dependent on other parts of Ukraine for power generation. Seems a silly setup, unless those other parts of Ukraine were trying (ultimately to no end) to keep Crimea under control.

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 2:11 pm

Great Russians are a majority in the Crimea and ample in number 5 (of 24) other provinces (one of which is non-contiguous with Russia). In the other provinces, no.

That aside, even when you have ethnic identity rather than ethnic affinity, irridentism is often regarded unenthusiastically by local populations with a history of separate governance. Cyprus has not been absorbed by Greece, Kosovo has not been absorbed by Albania, Moldova has not been absorbed by Roumania, Serb Bosnia has yet to be absorbed by Serbia, and Montenegro made a point of seceding from residual Yugoslavia.

jtf May 5, 2014 at 4:38 pm

Cyprus wasn’t absorbed by Greece almost solely because the powers that were didn’t want them to. Union with Greece was a widely held popular sentiment during British times (if not necessarily a majority) and the independence of Cyprus was conditional on their not being absorbed by any other country (pointedly referring to Greece). The coup d’etat that precipitated Turkish invasion had openly intended to unify with Greece. Enosis was a big deal.

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 2:14 pm

What he got of Georgia were not the ‘best parts’ but Turkic Abkhazia (after Abkhaz militias were able to expel much of the ethnic Georgian population) and South Ossetia (which has a five-digit population).

derek May 5, 2014 at 5:01 pm

You only have to beat your opponents, not some imagined superman. So far Putin seems to be offered anything at all to settle down and not cause a fuss, so he is upping the ante. His success is more a reflection of the fecklessness of Western Europe and the US than anything else.

He takes a step forward and everyone else takes a step back. So he takes another one.

collin May 5, 2014 at 12:16 pm

So Putin is doing the opposite of Bush: No “Shock & Awe” and we will out of there in six to twelve months. Putin will slowly create chaos and it gives a slow victory over the Ukraine. This is a big risk as this becomes a giant “Mission Creep” and sucks the Russia economy into a resource consuming war and a larger recession. This gives Europe more time to move away from Russian gas imports.

Why can’t Putin & Russia cut a $20B check and write-off the rest of the Ukrainian debt to take over parts of Eastern Ukraine? It is the easiest solution as The Ukraine is no longer divided, loses its least productive sector and give Russia the easiest victory

carlospln May 5, 2014 at 4:56 pm

“This gives Europe more time to move away from Russian gas imports”

Really? From where?


Locke May 5, 2014 at 9:19 pm

North, South, Southeast, and most importantly West.

JosieB May 10, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Bakker Shale crude currently is being sent on trains to East Coast ports. I believe I read of a recent a derailment recently in Virginia.

prior_approval May 5, 2014 at 12:18 pm

‘until a strongly pro-Russian, pro-Putin government is running that country’

You mean like six months ago? Such a daring prediction that past performance predicts future performance – without caring about that pesky revolutionary democratic interval.

‘I now infer he wishes to take the whole thing.’

Well, only if he is an idiot. At least, that is the opinion of the Russian I chat with at work (who was pretty good at predicting how common defection would be in Ukraine’s various armed services). It isn’t as if the Russians are a majority in 2/3 of the country – and the place would only drag Russia down.

Another Russian I chat with would find taking over Ukraine typically Russian in terms of declaring victory after suffering major harm – such as propping up Ukraine’s wretched economy.

That Europe is now dependent on hoping for another mild winter next year to make up for the missing storage of natural gas supplies (think Accotink for NoVa) is already real enough for high level talks between Gazprom, Poland, etc. And Schroder is looking like a brialliant socialist planner for being pivotal in creating the Nord Stream pipeline. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nord_Stream

jb May 6, 2014 at 7:45 am


Thor May 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm

In my opinion, Putin will bide his time but continuing to signal to his followers and supporters. If the Russian position is strong, this is just being patient; he can afford to wait. If the Russian is weaker (Potemkin) as many surmise, he will need to wait anyhow. Their are many advantages to waiting:

it doesn’t reveal how the Russians assess their own strength; it allows Western interest to dissipate; it allows the economic / energy situation in Ukraine proper to worsen, with effects on governance and support; and it keeps the Ukrainians guessing. Putin can decide later if he only wants the small, eastern portions.

The big problem for Putin is that he’s not after anything tangible or material, like resources. He doesn’t want the antique oak side table. He is like a jilted lover who wants to be reunited with his ex. Never going to happen militarily. The best he can hope for is to get one of his cronies into power, in order to perpetuate Ukrainian energy dependence, and tie up Ukraine so it cannot fully join the West.

The Other Jim May 5, 2014 at 12:23 pm

Tyler is essentially right. Putin has no reason to rush. He knows he will face no consequences for his actions in Ukraine until at least Jan 20, 2017.

As such, rushing in the tanks is the dumbest thing he could do (unless of course he could make it seem like self-defense). A slow, low-intensity paramilitary advance, combined with the gradual rotting of Ukrainian legitimacy, is the way to go.

Hell, the US media is already bored of covering the story anyway.

prior_approval May 5, 2014 at 12:51 pm

This web site being typical, right?

Mike May 5, 2014 at 12:27 pm

While not this example specifically, where would one start to better understand Bayesian thinking? I thought that Silver did a good job in The Signal and the Noise but want to take the next step. Maybe a book with lots of examples? Something with simple examples to start, then more advanced ones? Thank you in advance.

Cliff May 5, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Hmm, every time you see “Bayesian” read “probabilistic” and you are there, I think. New evidence = new probabilities assigned to different possibilities.

mb May 5, 2014 at 12:57 pm

Exactly. Confusion between using conditional probability and Bayesian is common (including Nate Silver).

Curt F. May 5, 2014 at 2:17 pm

I think Tyler’s proposition (q) is that Putin will wait. The new evidence (e) is that he did not carve off the Eastern portion of the country, although he could have. The probability that Putin will wait given the new evidence (Pq|e) is equal to (Pe|q) * P(q) / P(e). The updated, or posterior, probability is P(q|e) and the prior probability, the belief we had about Putin waiting before the new evidence came along, is P(q).

Thus the updating factor that transforms the old probability P(q) to the new one P(q|e) is the term [P(e|q) / P(e)]. We can infer from Tyler’s post that he thinks this factor is greater than 1, i.e., that the probability of Putin not taking Eastern Ukraine by force *subject to* his strategy being to wait is higher than the unconditional probability that he would not take Eastern Ukraine by force.

That sounds reasonable to me. Of course, I’m not sure how you could call it Bayesian reasoning without numbers. Bayesian reasoning in inherently quantitative, at least if you ask me.

mb May 5, 2014 at 3:10 pm

Right, I think that’s roughly his reasoning, which certainly involves conditional probability.

However, (aside from being quantitative) to call it Bayesian, you would presumably at least need to define you space of hypotheses.

Curt F. May 5, 2014 at 3:26 pm

@mb. I am confused by your allusions to differences between conditional probability and Bayesian reasoning. My post explicitly applied Bayes’s theorem to the OP. I generally assume that when people refer to Bayesian reasoning they are referring to thinking based on Bayes’s theorem. You have something more detailed or specific in mind, I think, but I would like to know what exactly you mean.

mb May 5, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Curt, this is a common confusion, I think.

Bayes theorem is just a basic property of conditional probability, a mathematical fact. Bayesian modeling, AFAIK is the following: 1. you formulate your space of hypotheses and a prior probability distribution over the hypotheses. 2. you provide a joint probability distribution over pairs (hypotheses,observations). 3. Given observations/new data you compute the conditional (posterior) probability distribution.

Curt F. May 5, 2014 at 7:56 pm

@mb. Thanks for the response. Bayes modeling sounds like (a) it is more rigorous and advanced than simple Bayesian inference, mainly because (b) it aims to exhaustively lists all possible outcomes for an event and does essentially a Bayesian inference on an entire distribution of possible outcomes rather than just a single outcome.

However in my experience, when most people talk about “Bayesian” thinking, they usually have in mind nothing more complicated than simple Bayesian inference, or, as you put it, conditional probability.

Locke May 6, 2014 at 11:29 pm

semi-related: awesome visual simulation of conditional probabilities http://setosa.io/conditional/

Mike May 5, 2014 at 9:01 pm

Wow. Great thread. Thanks all.

ummm May 5, 2014 at 12:43 pm

nothing will happen as predicted. pretty much a snoozefest

Ed May 5, 2014 at 12:44 pm

This may be an urban myth, but I’ve read that “Ukraine” means “borderland” that that really is an accurate summation of the history of the place.

Kiev was the first center of Russian civilization, but proved indefensible against the steppe nomads, and the center relocated to the forests of northern Russia. It turned out to be the Poles and LIthuanians who kicked the Mongols out, so Ukraine became detached from Russia until the time of Catherine the Great.

Eastern Ukraine (Lvov/ Lviv/ Lemberg) remained under first Polish-Lithuanian and then Hapsburg control almost entirely up until 1944, so never really got reabsorbed into Russia.

There are no natural frontiers in that area, but I really think the 1921-1939 frontier was the most appropriate border.

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Because Poland would benefit from being gifted a slab of people whose native language is not polish.

Ed May 5, 2014 at 1:05 pm

I meant Western Ukraine, not Eastern Ukraine, though hopefully what I meant was clear from the other context.

I’m not sure how well Western Ukraine could function by itself as an independent country. For the countries between Germany and Russia, maybe the best option is a revival of the sort of confederations that were popular in the Middle Ages (of which the Habsburg conglomerate was the most successful).

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 2:17 pm

They speak Ukrainian in Western Ukraine, not Polish. I think the per capita income there is a little over half the Polish mean.

Peter Akuleyev May 6, 2014 at 12:38 pm

The Galician dialect of Ukrainian has a lot of Polish vocabulary, the languages are closely related anyway, and most residents of Lwow can understand Polish fairly easily. I agree, though, that there doesn’t seem to be strong sentiment in Poland for taking Galicia back. Not so much the language issue, but probably because the memories of Ukrainian massacres of Polish civilians in WWII are still fairly vivid in Poland, and there is not a lot of love for Ukrainians. Another complicating factor is that most of the Poles who used to live in Galicia, and their descendants, now live in Western Poland, in particular Breslau/Wroclaw and other cities in Lower Silesia. Despite the nostalgia you see in Lower Silesia (lots of “Cafe Lwow” and “Galician Restaurant” and similar motifs), no one is moving back East, and there is probably a subconscious fear that if they did move back East then the Germans would be entitled to ask for Lower Silesia back.

Chris May 5, 2014 at 12:57 pm

I think this is wrong. Putin isn’t trying to salami-slice his way back to East Berlin, but merely trying to salvage the level of authority over Ukraine that Russia enjoyed a year ago. Taking that as a baseline, he’s down and still playing catch-up — trying to salvage power over eastern Ukraine, rather than having a buddy rule the whole. And, even then, he’s having enough trouble. He’s doing OK where the local population supports him, but he had a miserable time in Chechnya, and knows that trying to occupy a hostile Latvia or Lithuania would pointlessly make that pale by comparison.

TylerH May 5, 2014 at 2:28 pm


Last November, Ukraine was

1. run by a Russian stooge,
2. peeled away from the EU, with only minor street protests (initially, the EuroMaidan protests were only a few thousand), and
3. about to join the Russian “East Europe Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere”, or whatever Putin call it.

Put was on the verge of control of the Ukraine, without having to subsidized Ukraine’s basket-case economy beyond some natural gas subsidies.

Instead, Putin is now:

1. Paying for the economic sinkhole that is Crimea (the new tourism slogan: “Sevastapol: the preferred beach of eight out of ten pro-Russian para-militaries!” )

2. Creating chaos in the very parts of Ukraine he needs. (How exactly does a lack of governance in Donetsk help get rocket motors built?)

3. Guaranteeing that he’ll never get control of the western half of the Ukraine without bloody expensive counter-insurgency operation.

4. Convincing the EU that maybe they don’t want to be quite so dependent on Russian Energy sources. ( I imagine the debate to allow fracking in Poland is looking a bit different than it did it last fall.)

5. Losing diplomatic options (The Baltics, Turkey, and Syria all just got harder to manage from Moscow. How long until the Nabucco Pipeline project is revived?)

6. Suffering increasing sanctions. These sanctions may be mild, but they are still more costly than no sanctions.

Putin is definitely getting firmer control of his “near abroad.” But as great cost to Russia’s ability to get a lot else done.

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 2:34 pm

Stop it. You’re spoiling two narratives: the Obama-the-Evil-Genius narrative, and the It’s-all-the-fault-of-Victoria-Nuland-and-other-scheming-Neocons narrative.

Bob from Ohio May 5, 2014 at 3:33 pm

““East Europe Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere”


HoB May 5, 2014 at 5:42 pm

Why is the idea of Russian-Ukrainian economic cooperation so unacceptable? Especially given that their economies are more intertwined than any two EU countries.

Jan May 5, 2014 at 8:24 pm

You can begin by asking Putin why Ukrainian/EU economic cooperation is so unacceptable.

Locke May 5, 2014 at 10:35 pm

@Jan +1

jb May 6, 2014 at 7:50 am

TylerH, thank you for supply a bit of clearheadedness around here.

Andao May 6, 2014 at 2:24 pm


And 7. Increasingly dependent on China as a market for raw materials, despite the fact that China is simultaneously reverse engineering all Russian weaponry and competing for influence in Central Asia. Oops! Have fun selling cheap gas to your strategic rival with a 2600 mile land border.

Russia, the new Chinese vassal, brought to you by Mr Putin.

R Richard Schweitzer May 5, 2014 at 12:58 pm

There are not sufficient resources or activities in the eastern portion of Ukraine, taken separately, to support the kind of exploitative (extractive –Acemoglu) group that would give sufficient extension to the range of exploitation (and its maintenance) desired or needed by the St. Petersburg clique now dominating Moscow.

This reflects one of the underlying political problems of Ukraine, that its economic structures do not provide sufficient resources to maintain a stable exploitative class (especially at the political level), which in the case of the St. Petersburg clique derives from natural resources (oil and minerals). In effect, in Ukraine they too quickly “run out of other people’s money” (actually the money that should have gone to the general public).

It is possible that Crimea will be left to “dangle” since it cannot contribute to the exploitative requirements of Moscow, but, instead, might more likely constitute a drain on central economy resources, thereby reducing resources available to the exploitative class. That may not have effect on immediate political objectives and public relations requirements or preferences of the St. Petersburg clique, but they probably have some perception of future adverse effects.

Timing is critically important to the St. Petersburg clique. Taking advantage of the current conditions of regional disorders, fiscal weaknesses and deficiencies of managements of Social Democracies, while they last, will give some continuing impetus to these current attempts at expansion of range of Russia’s exploitative class.

Z May 5, 2014 at 1:28 pm

Putin is not a super villain. He just knows where all the pieces are on the board. That gives him an advantage over Team Obama. The Crimea fell into his lap because of the mistakes made by Team Obama. He will sit and wait to see what mistakes they make with regards to the rest of Ukraine. If you playing from his side of the board, you have no reason to do anything at this point. Everything is in your favor.

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 2:18 pm

The Crimea fell into his lap because it’s modally Great Russian and the local government was willing to co-operate with the Russian government’s objectives.

Andao May 6, 2014 at 2:28 pm

If by “local government” you mean a party that won 4 percent of the vote in local elections, then yes, the local government was quite amicable. The troops probably had something to do with it also. Maybe.

triclops41 May 5, 2014 at 2:22 pm

Obama is full of hubris and pomposity, but I don’t see what he could do here, short of WW3. Sanctions have a terrible track record, and kicking Russia out of the international “cool kids” clubs doesn’t work that week either.

mulp May 5, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Yeah, Obama’s mistake was letting Ukraine be placed next to Russia so Putin could cheaply shout into Ukraine and offer economic rewards and punishments to factions in Ukraine easily.

Unless you think Obama’s mistake was not taking your money and giving it away to corrupt pols in Ukraine to up the cost to Putin’s taxpayers as he tries to buy Ukraine’s loyalty.

This is more wag the dog on the part of Putin to divert Russians from the ongoing decline of Russia because of Putin’s corrupt political economy. Putin has gotten attention diverted from the protests of Pussy Riot and the press freedom violations and pure corruption – there is no capitalism in Russia, just pillage and plunder authorized by Putin’s cronies. Nothing is being built in Russia. Russia sells rocket engines to a US defense contractor that was designed by the capitalists of the USSR – the people who built things Russians could take pride in. That US defense contractors can’t build rocket engines that match those of the USSR says something about the rent seeking government contractors who can’t build anything since Reagan, either.

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 3:37 pm

This is more wag the dog on the part of Putin to divert Russians from the ongoing decline of Russia because of Putin’s corrupt political economy.

Russia suffered a wretched economic depression, with a decline in per capita income of 44% between 1989 and 1998. The country has had only one notable regression since, a 7% decline during 2008 and 2009. Per capita income has doubled since 1998; the share of it attributable to industry has fluctuated within a modest band – 33% to 38%; the ratio of exports to domestic product has been more variable – 28% to 44% – but the peaks were registered more than a decade ago and export trade now accounts for 29% of domestic product. Russia’s economic improvement over the last dozen years cannot be attributed to the export trade in petroleum.

The country has also seen an improvement in its total fertility rate, from 1.17 children per women per lifetime ca. 1999 to 1.54 in recent years.

Z May 5, 2014 at 5:37 pm

There’s always some excuse when it comes to Obama. The facts say his administration was mucking around in Ukraine trying to get the pro-Russian government toppled. Well, that happened and now the Crimea is part of Russia. Saying it was an unforeseeable accident at this point is willful blindness.

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 5:47 pm

The Ukraine has its own internal political dynamic. Its not a function of Putin’s machinations or Victoria Nuland’s; those are just vectors. Unfortunately, politics in Ukraine is played for keeps. Disagreeable though things are in this country, John McCain has not been jailed and Barack Obama is not cooling his heels in Vancouver while John Boehner plans a special election.

You’ve been drinking the Sailer Kool-Aid.

Jan May 5, 2014 at 8:26 pm

No, the fact of the matter is that nobody in the US nor, unfortunately, Europe gives enough of a shit about Ukraine.

Don’t blame Team Obama, or Team Merkel, just blame Team Realpolitik.

Aaron Luchko May 5, 2014 at 10:38 pm

Crimea falling into Putin’s lap has almost nothing to do with the US.

It’s because the protesters in Kiev miscalculated. Instead of taking new elections and policy concessions they pushed Yanokovych into resignation, performed a semi-coup, and tried to repeal a recent Russian language law. The President seems to be decent but he’s not the Russian speaking leader elected by the Russian speakers of the country, this has understandably pissed them off. Putin, who probably had the Crimea gambit prepared for a long time, saw an opportunity to grab some land and took it. Once he figured out that Europe wouldn’t play the gas card he started playing for East Ukraine as well.

The US doesn’t really factor in to the equation, sure they meddled but that doesn’t mean they were driving anything. The major players are Ukraine and Russia, and to a smaller extent the EU (by threatening to bring in Ukraine).

Art Deco May 6, 2014 at 1:23 am

The current acting president is Russophone.

li May 5, 2014 at 2:18 pm

The Ukraine has been an economic basket case for …ever? Look at the demographics of Ukraine. Most of the East is mostly Ukrainian (as far as language/identity). Either TC understands the situation far better than I do, or he is clueless, and choses to disregard the evidence. Russian Special Forces are ACTIVE in E. Ukraine. Should I repeat that? I fail to understand how E. Ukraine will not fall using the same tactics as Crimea – disinformation, arming/training thugs, economic terrorism, intimidation of the “silent majority”. Apparently TC thinks this is NOT happening right now, otherwise his entire argument falls apart. Why use tanks when AK-47′s work even better? Why annex when control is the objective? Is TC too young to know what is meant by a “puppet government” ? Or how effective (minority) insurgencies are run? Wow. Suggest looking up the words “Communism” and “Cold War”.

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 2:22 pm

Eastern Ukraine has a population about 10x the population of the Crimea; it’s population is about 25% Great Russian, not 60%.

HoB May 5, 2014 at 5:40 pm

Calculating the %% of Russians vs. Ukrainians is meaningless in this case. Close to 100% of ethnic Ukrainians who live in the East do not consider Russia their enemy. Forced to chose, they would go with Russia. Did go.

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 5:48 pm

In your dreams.

Jan May 5, 2014 at 8:30 pm

Why are there pro-Ukraine rallies with thousands of supporters in Kharkiv? And what about outside the cities, the more rural areas?

mishka May 5, 2014 at 10:45 pm

HoB is very much correct, regardless of wishful thinking of many Ukrs.

Andao May 6, 2014 at 2:35 pm


Among the 3,200 respondents across Ukraine’s entire Russian-speaking southeast, the number of those opposed to Moscow taking control rose to 69.7 percent, according to the poll from Kiev’s Institute for International Sociology published in the Russian-language Weekly Mirror newspaper.

yup yup yup yup

mishka May 5, 2014 at 4:40 pm

Mr.Troll: here we go, yet another svidomy ukr here (for those who don’t know, Ukrs were the ancient people that dug out the Black Sea and invented alphabet, whose descendants now bring the light of culture and democracy to the slave race east of the Dniepr river. )

Guy May 6, 2014 at 9:29 am

lol okay

Frank_grupt May 5, 2014 at 2:24 pm

All the discussion about what Putin wants in Ukraine and Eastern Europe is misplaced–what he wants is political strength in Russia. What he does toward Ukraine and other neighbors depends on how it plays at home: does it bring him political support? does it enable him to squash/ignore/undermine the opposition? Notice how few opposition rallies there have been in Russia lately?

Eric Rasmusen May 5, 2014 at 2:35 pm

The smart thing for Russia is to make Ukraine a protectorate, so they don’t have to give it economic subsidies but have it handy in case of international conflict.

Bill May 5, 2014 at 3:41 pm

Maybe you are looking at this from the wrong perspective.

Putin LOST Ukraine, and needs a face save to divert attention from what he lost. So, he takes Crimea. The bigger issue is what East Eurasian states see as their future given what Putin did in Crimea.

Demonstration effects. Or, ask yourself: what is more valuable: farmland in Ukraine, or oil in Eurasia?

Aidan May 5, 2014 at 4:49 pm

In fairness, the Americans still seem to be pretty irritated about having “lost” Cuba: a country they no land connection to and little in common with in linguistic or cultural terms. It’s hardly surprising that the Russians are so touchy about having Ukraine leaving their sphere of influence.

Steve Sailer May 5, 2014 at 11:10 pm

Right. Our Monroe Doctrine of hemispherical hegemony is beyond Putin’s wildest hopes and dreams.

Art Deco May 6, 2014 at 1:32 am

Since the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine (in 1822), American annexations of territory have consisted of Puerto Rico (formerly a dependency of Spain and never of any Latin American republic), the Virgin Islands (quite voluntarily ceded by Denmark in return for an indemnity), Alaska (same deal), and a large bloc of notionally Mexican territory endowed with a great many assets (except actual Mexican settlers). The Crimea and the Donetsk region actually are inhabited. So were the Baltic states in 1940.

Locke May 6, 2014 at 12:34 am

The only Americans irritated about having “lost” Cuba are expat Cuban-Americans in Miami. From a geopolitical standpoint, there’s some sensitivity to the fact that Cuba was used as a missile base at one point during the Cold War.

Art Deco May 6, 2014 at 1:28 am

Ukraine is not inveterately hostile to Russia, has not engaged in en bloc state theft of property owned by Russian citizens, is not pointing imported nuclear missiles at Russia, is not subsidizing insurgencies in any country Russia takes an interest in, has not imprisoned their population, and has not manufactured a totalitarian infrastructure in a country with a formerly pluralistic political life. Otherwise, your analogy holds.

HoB May 5, 2014 at 5:44 pm

This obsession with Putin has got to stop. It evidently clouds the judgement of otherwise smart people.

Art Deco May 5, 2014 at 5:50 pm

The clouded judgement is actually a performance.

Locke May 6, 2014 at 9:39 am

Maybe Putin should stop doing something as noteworthy as invading sovereign nations. I’m sure the obsession would stop then.

Chris May 5, 2014 at 6:17 pm

I think Putin has judged an outright invasion like in Crimea would cement the anti-Russian trend forming in the West. For now, it is only haltingly moving forward, but another blatant action will push it further. His current strategy of proxy fighting has several advantages to him.

1) Despite that everyone knows who is behind the curtain, it provides enough deniability that momentum for new sanctions is slowed.
2) It allows him to test the resolve of Kiev and popularity of the new government.
3) He wins either way. If the separatists fail, the bloodshed preventing them may discredit the government in the eyes of more Ukrainians. If the separatists win, it demoralizes the government’s supporters. In either case, Putin will have a public pretext for more intervention.
4) His main goal is to create situation where the May 25 election cannot be held, and thus discredit the government. A government legitimized by countrywide elections would be much harder to subvert. If he can prevent elections and keep the current provisional government and parliament in charge, it creates a death spiral for his opponents that gives him a much stronger hand down the line.

The events of the past two weeks clearly shows that in areas of high ethnic Russian population that the police cannot be expected to provide order. They are either coopted by the separatists, simply reluctant to repress their own people (which they were not relucant to do when bussed into Kiev to bust the heads on Maidan), or too demoralized/leaderless to resist.

However, we also know that there are many pro-Ukrainian people in these regions. Even discounting the multiple opinion polls giving overwhelming majorities to wanting to remain within Ukraine and also against federalization, there have been large protests against separatism. In the east, the protests were forced down by violence or threat of violence. In Odessa however, where the separatists have less geographic proximity to Russia and therefore Russia is not able to infiltrate as easily, we saw people take the law into their own hands since the police wouldn’t perform their duty, and the separatists were not able to seize public control like they did in the east.

Things are still very uncertain, but despite Ukraine’s handicaps, I don’t think it is possible for Putin to control the entire country. Not only would western Ukraine resist, central Ukraine (with Kiev) would as well, and there is a strong likelihood southern Ukraine would do so. There is likely to be significant resistance even if eastern Ukraine is finally captured.

I think Putin is mainly trying to keep his options open by creating facts on the ground, yet clearly retaining his freedom of movement to seize unexpected opportunities or avoid unanticipated costs.

Paul May 5, 2014 at 7:47 pm

Seems to me Putin has more of an opportunistic philosophy than a rigid grand strategy.

Also, and I don’t know if this is a stretch, but he didn’t look well at the Olympics, on live TV, to me. Unlike his staged photo shoots where he can prep and be made up and warmed up beforehand.

Unless Ukraine hands itself to him on a platter he may not feel up to the strain of fighting a war to take it over.

Jan May 5, 2014 at 8:02 pm

I just read Sorokin’s Day of the Oprichnik. Written in 2006, but set in 2028, it is eerily prescient of the ruthless nationalistic dictatorship Russia is heading for.

mishka May 5, 2014 at 10:47 pm

Jan, how many years have you spent in Russia to have such profound judgement? Let me guess: CNN is quite enough to form a definite opinion these days?..

Jan May 6, 2014 at 6:10 am

Never lived in Russia, but I did live in Turkmenistan for two years, which as even further down this path at the time at the time. Are you saying I should be watching Russian state TV for an honest take on the state of affairs there?

Art Deco May 6, 2014 at 9:57 am

This whole business is disagreeable, but in scale and severity, its pretty penny ante compared to (say) the reconquest of Central Asia ca. 1920 or the conquest of the Baltic states in 1940. Russia today is likely more pluralistic than it has been at any time in its history bar the period running from 1988 to 2004 and perhaps 1905 to 1917. Freedom House has not recorded a decay in the quality of public life in Russia in the last 10 years (which Dmitri Simes refers to as ‘managed pluralism’).

Jan May 6, 2014 at 3:31 pm

Petrodollars are a wonderful thing.

Art Deco May 6, 2014 at 5:49 pm

Again, the ratio of exports to domestic product is lower than it was in 2000 (29% today v. 44% then). The country has grown less dependent on raw material exports as it has regained the ground lost during the period running from 1989 to 1998.

Jan May 6, 2014 at 6:50 pm

Ok, but you saying its more pluralistic compared to any time except a few post Soviet years when it was an actual democracy. You’re setting a very low bar.

As to the economy, yes selling oil and gas allow all kinds of reinvestment in other things. But what share of those gains are state owned companies? How do you think their dismal credit rating and extremely low ease of doing business rankings are going to play out? It’s ok for the moment, still lots of money, but it may not last long.

Art Deco May 7, 2014 at 9:12 am

Perhaps you ought to set more achievable goals.

Electoral government was also co-incident in time with a 44% drop in per capita income. Per capita income has doubled in the last 15 years and now exceeds the 1989 levels. The legitimacy of Putin’s political machine is correspondingly less damaged by its methods than it would be in other circumstances.

Around about 16% of value added in the Russian economy is attributable to extractive industries.

b colec May 5, 2014 at 10:12 pm

The important aspect is that every threat to the West be hyped, from terrorism to Putin to Yemeni hillbillies.
Actually, all of Ukraine was in the USSR before and the West prospered…

Nathan W May 6, 2014 at 1:00 am

Perhaps Mr. Cowen are correct. But isn’t that pretty much the same strategy that “we” have?

infamous anon May 6, 2014 at 9:45 am

So typical Western bias. Putin will take Ukraine. For what reason?

You forget that the problems in Russian speaking areas started after the interim government attacked the minorities by taking away rights and calling them the enemy.

This situation resembles a 19th century nationalistic revolution when dominating countries wanted to have a nation but keeping the territories which didn’t belong to the nation.

a, multi-ethnic big Ukraine
b, nationalistic small Ukraine

Anyway, Russia already gained a lot. Putin gained popularity by annexing Crimea. Also, now they don’t have to give a lot of financial support for Ukraine and the EU and West is basically giving money to Ukraine so that they can pay it to Russia. Not to mention that the Western biased coverage legitimised the Russian propaganda as now they can say that the West is the same, alas quite true.

Really, the EU and generally the West is supporting an interim government with several members being from the far-right Freedom Party. Tacitly supporting the Right Sector as well. If Western Ukraine has a right for a violent revolution then so does Southern-Eastern Ukraine. If the Western revolution was supported by the West and the US then Southern-Eastern can be supported by Russia.

Putin is on a roll unfortunately and this is mainly the West’s fault. By the way, what would happen if Russians started supporting the opposition in Central American countries? Russia has reasons to be paranoid.

Roman Plotnikov May 7, 2014 at 1:49 pm

I’m sadly commenting on this too late (will anyone even read this?).

A lot of what you all said is false or centered around Western-created narratives. The biggest one is Putin wanting to annex the Ukraine whole. Lolnope. Crimea will be a tough investment of resources for years to come. Donetsk and Lugansk together will cripple Russian economy because of the need to maintain welfare, infrastructure and military. Ukraine from West to East is simply impossible. It’s going to become a hot potato in years to come. The economy is going to fall even more, the standards of living too, and then it’s a question of who is going to support more than a 40 million people in a country slowly becoming a black hole.

There are only several things that are absolutely unacceptable for Russia in the current crisis:
1) Ukraine becoming a member of NATO – because this will mean an inevitable WW3 in the unfavorable conditions.
2) Ukrainian junta starting mass murder and ethnic cleansing of the population of South-East. The public opinion alone will pretty much force Russian government into taking military measures – perhaps like something you’ve cynically called ‘humanitarian bombings’. Military measures by themselves are highly undesirable (the West will be quick to blame everything on Russia and turn the blind eye to everything Kiev will do), but the situation might force Russia’s hand.

Everything else is negotiable. The best case scenario, as judged from Kremlin, is Ukraine becoming a federation and military neutral. And it’s a good option for everyone involved – many countries are federations of states with broad autonomy, including the USA. Donetsk region becoming a separatist republic is worse. Ukraine exploding into dozens of small provinces is one of the worst ones. The hardcore civil war is also not something Russia desires on its border, and it’s a scenario Russia took some pains to prevent, perhaps unsuccessfully.

The big problem is that while EU and Russia might not desire a complete chaos in Ukraine, it’s something that is in interests of USA and so their puppets in Kiev. The civil war might have been prevented by pretty simple measures and gestures of goodwill from Kiev, but now it’s a spiral of violence. Right Sector murdered more than fifty political opponents in Odessa (brutally beating, shooting, burning them alive) on live TV and a lot Ukrainians cheered them. First dehumanization, next it’s genocide, and then it’s a war of all against all. The strongest action USA could take is forcing Russia to employ its military force. I see two easy venues for that:
1) Massacring the population of rebelling Slavyansk – and Kiev has already prepared rocket artillery to shell the city.
2) Ordering Romania and Kiev to attack Transnistria – an even more surefire way, since Russia has already got military forces here.
The global consequences of those moves will be shitty for everyone.

Overall, I think that one of the most important questions in the current situation is, “Does Obama really believes what he says?”. Because it’s one case if he is unprincipled and ruthless politician willing to exploit any weakness in the game of global domination. But in case he really believes that, it’s the scariest shit since 1962.

Art Deco May 7, 2014 at 3:55 pm

Crimea will be a tough investment of resources for years to come. Donetsk and Lugansk together will cripple Russian economy because of the need to maintain welfare, infrastructure and military.

The three territories in question have a total population similar to greater Seattle. Don’t think it’s going to cripple the Russian economy. Will prove expensive if an insurgency develops.

Art Deco May 7, 2014 at 4:06 pm

The big problem is that while EU and Russia might not desire a complete chaos in Ukraine, it’s something that is in interests of USA and so their puppets in Kiev.


The economy is going to fall even more, the standards of living too, and then it’s a question of who is going to support more than a 40 million people in a country slowly becoming a black hole.

The country suffered a catastrophic implosion (57% decline in per capita income) over the period running from 1990-98 and a severe contraction (14% decline) in 2008-09. However, it has had rapid economic growth most years since 1998 and seen an 86% improvement in per capita income since then, net.

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