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Backing Rebel Donbass Costs Moscow Very Little, Betraying It Would Be Far Costlier

It would collapse Putin's popularity while buying Russia zero good will in the West

Putin Needs to Sacrifice the Donbass to Survive. Or so some people seem to believe and hope.

So let’s tally up these reasons:

The Russian economy is getting increasingly desperate.

Two percent GDP growth isn’t anything to write home about, but neither is it particularly catastrophic. The budget is balanced, inflation is at record lows, Russia has $450 billion worth of foreign exchange reserves.

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Short of major new sanctions or a sharp collapse in oil prices, growth should continue to pick up in the next few years.

The recent weakening of the ruble, as well as the imminent rise in VAT, will contribute to higher than expected inflation, but going from 2% now to 5% in a year’s time (note that Russia’s target rate is 4%) is hardly something to be concerned about.

Ultimately, if the collapse of the ruble from 30 to 60 to the USD and a halving of the oil price didn’t collapse the Russian economy, then going from 60 to the USD to 70 to the USD should be just a blimp on the radar.

Donbass is the heart of Russia. 1921 poster

The Donbass is a drain on Russian resources

This argument is beloved of by Russia’s pseudo-patriotic liberals – look, Putler is starving Russian pensioners to finance those subhuman gopniks in Donetsk – but in reality, annual subsidies of around $1 billion to the LDNR are almost irrelevant to the Russian budget.

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This $1 billion figure is also what Russia approximately spends every year on its Syria intervention.

Russia spends several times this figure on net transfers to Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Dagestan, whose contributions to Russia are questionable.

For comparison, Iran – a much poorer state – spends about $10 billion per year supporting Syria, while under much harsher sanctions. While its citizens don’t exactly enjoy the sweet life, it’s worth noting that even Iran has neither collapsed nor become completely impoverished under this strain.

The Donbass doesn’t want to be in Russia

This is only half true. According to a 2017 poll carried out by Germans, 45% want to join Russia, 35% want an autonomous status within the Ukraine, while only 21% want to return to the status quo.

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However, this is in the context of:

  1. A Ukraine that unequivocally rejects any autonomy, so “shoving back” the Donbass into the Ukraine will still leave 4/5 of people in the Donbass unhappy.
  2. The Russian government consistently ruling out the Donbass joining Russia.
  3. Russophiles in the Donbass getting understandably dejected about the whole affair. If joining Russia isn’t on the table, it’s hard to see why they should have to be shelled and live in the legal limbo that is the LDNR for many more years.

Unilateral surrender in the Donbass will represent Russia’s final betrayal of those not inconsiderable numbers of people who did rise for the Russian World in 2014 (studies have shown 80%+ of NAF fighters hail from the Ukraine). At that point, all of Russia’s remaining friends and allies would be justified in giving it the boot as soon as it is expedient to do so.

Sanctions are crushing the Russian economy

Sanctions only accounted for 10% of the Russian recession from 2014-16. In any case, the greatest threats are now US sanctions that also target foreign companies that do business in Russia. That process is driven by domestic US political fighting, and withdrawing from Donbass will have absolutely zero effect on that so long as a large fraction of the American elites continues to earnestly believe that Putler put Drumpf into office and that Russia is “waging war” on the US. If anything, it will be interpreted as a sign of weakness and a signal to ramp them up even faster.

The experience of Iran has shown that the Europeans will go along with the Americans in the end, private mutterings regardless. It is also worth emphasizing that countering the US sanctions will require the Europeans to be proactive about this, e.g. committing to compensating/counter-sanctioning any American prosecutions of European companies for doing business with sanctioned Russian entities. With Russia’s toxic reputation in Europe (Putin is no more popular there than he is in the US itself) we can be pretty sure that isn’t going to happen. In any case, the American market is much larger than the Russian one, so the vast majority of major European companies are going to independently opt for the US regardless. Especially since there’s no “red telephones” connecting Eurocrats with European captains of industry, as in China.

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Fallout from Putin’s pensions reform requires making good with the West

The current fall in Putin’s approval ratings due to the pensions reform is severe, but as I pointed out, it is also very likely to be temporary, like the monetization of benefits in 2005.

Indeed, I am satisfied to report that this might be already panning out. Levada had Putin falling from 79% in May 2018 to 67% in July, but going up to 70% in August. VCIOM had Putin falling from 77% before the announcement of the pensions reform, to a low of 63% in July and most of August; but according to the latest poll, he is now back up at 66%. The only political force this reform benefited was the Communists, where Zyuganov enjoyed a brief surge in confidence that is already beginning to fade; trust in Navalny has remained at a flat 1%. Which is encouraging, since Navalny’s opportunistic opposition to the rise in the retirement age is hilariously transparent.

On the other hand, a withdrawal from the Donbass will be correctly perceived as a defeat, and may well provoke a political crisis.


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Moreover, there are some very serious risks to abandoning the Donbass.

There is no guarantee that the West will meet Russia halfway.

Even from a crude Realpolitik perspective that has no truck with national sentiments, Russia is exchanging several birds in the hand for vague promises of some “understanding” with the West:

  • What is for all intents and purposes an active veto on Ukrainian membership of NATO. (Something that even today half of Ukrainians oppose, but is universally supported by its elites).
  • A blockpost against more active Ukrainian encroachments on the Crimea, e.g. once the LDNR is gone, why not blow up the Crimean bridge?
  • A hedge on US aggression against its isolated, surrounded, and highly vulnerable military presence in Syria.

All this in exchange for the mere possibility that the Europeans might soften their sanctions against Russia.

This is assuming that this doesn’t even embolden the Americans (and by extension, the Europeans) into further tightening the screws to effect regime change in Russia, which may be an increasingly realistic prospect because…

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Withdrawal from the Donbass will collapse Putin’s approval ratings.

Novorossiya is a core issue for almost all nationalists. Almost all of them can be expected to move from their current ambivalent position on Putin to outright opposition.

While the nationalist response goes without saving, many Communists will also be quite unhappy. For instance, Zakhar Prilepin (famous author and chief editor of Svobodnaya Pressa, Russia’s best major leftist resource) and leftist activist Sergey Udaltsov (whom Western journalists called a political prisoner for leading the 2011-12 anti-Putin protests along with Navalny, before he revealed himself to be unhandshakeworthy in 2014) are Novorossiya supporters.

Basically the limp-wristed liberals are suddenly going to get many hardcore street fighters and Donbass veterans joining them in their protests as Putin’s approval ratings tumble down to perhaps 40%.

At this point, Putin’s “partners” in the West may well be tempted to twist the knife. Violent dispersals will provide no shortage of justifications for ramping up sanctions.

At this point, either the color revolution succeeds, and Russia is swallowed up by neoliberalism.txt (at least in the short run).

Or it transforms into a genuinely harsh authoritarian state that has no choice but to fall deep into China’s orbit (which the attempted rapprochement with the West was meant to avoid in the first place).

So where was I? Oh, right… this why “Putinsliv” is not going to happen. I don’t exactly have a very high opinion of the kremlins, but I don’t think they’re this stupid.

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