Have We Reached Peak Putin?

The capture of a few pawns has cleared the chessboard, but the strategic choices already made have greatly reduced Putin’s room to maneuver.

No tree grows to the sky. Once extremes are reached, trends reverse, often with symmetry: the decline often matches the ascent.

Which leads to an interesting question: have we reached Peak Putin?

Let’s start our inquiry by noting that pundits from across the political spectrum are all busily chainsawing events up to fit into their little boxes of existing narratives:Cold War Redux, World War 3, neo-Nazis, etc.

One key driver of this stale parade of pre-packaged opinion is the instinctive urge to cheer for whatever team is on the field opposite the U.S. and President Obama.This natural urge leads to indefensible hypocrisy along the lines of “Brand X Imperialism bad, brand Y Imperialism good.” If you oppose Imperialism and Great State meddling, then you can’t oppose one brand of Great State meddling and support another brand.

Let’s stipulate a few things to get them out of the way, so we can we proceed beyond the chainsaws and little ideological boxes.

1. All nations act in their own self-interest, and all states do so while claiming noble purposes that are patently absurd. To support one nation’s actions in its self-interest while decrying another state’s actions in its self-interest undermines one’s claim to objectivity, to say the least. By all means, be a partisan, but lay open claim to being a partisan; anything less displays the same hypocrisy as that of self-serving states.

2. Crimea: done. the West had no leverage, and the U.S. hypocrisy was blatant: we favor democracy and self-rule only so long as the elections go our way. Uh, right.

3. Just because Ukrainians speak Russian doesn’t mean they want to be annexed into Russia. Most Ukrainians speak both Ukrainian and Russian. By the logic of those claiming Russian speakers are naturally part of Russia, the U.S. could annex all of Canada (with perhaps the exception of French-speaking Quebec) on the grounds that Canadians speak English.

4. Desiring cordial economic and cultural ties with Russia is not the same as supporting annexation of Eastern Ukraine to Russia. The memory of those liquidated by Russians or given “tenners” in Siberian work/death camps has not yet been extinguished. All those convinced that Ukrainians want the warm and fuzzy embrace of Russia would do well to read the three volumes of The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956
The Gulag Archipelago 2
Gulag Archipelago 3

5. There is room for a non-neo-Nazi nationalism, but only if every nationalist isn’t painted with a Neo-Nazi brush. There are reasonable nationalists in Ukraine but their voices aren’t registering in the hyper-coverage of neo-Nazis, Western plans for World War 3, etc.

6. Being rabidly anti-American doesn’t necessarily mean you have to automatically be rabidly pro-Putin. If you oppose Imperialism and Great State meddling, then be consistent if you want to retain any credibility.

If we set aside the Cold War Redux narrative, we are clear to see some interesting things that are neither pro nor con, they simply are.

1. Russia used its energy leverage over Europe with such great gusto that the blowback will reduce that leverage. Europe is scrambling to develop other sources of natural gas, and doing anything less would not be acting in Europe’s self-interest.

2. Massing conscript troops and an army with limited ability to maintain its supply chain once inside Ukraine is another example of sparking blowback that will last for years and perhaps decades. Pressing your energy boot on Europe’s neck was bound to create a strategic response, and massing troops on Ukraine’s border has the same consequence.

3. While Putin’s popularity is sky-high, domestic support for invading Ukraine is low. Should the poorly paid conscripts start coming home in body bags, Putin’s domestic support will be revealed as an inch deep and a mile wide.

4. Russia’s energy pacts with China and India are positive developments for Asian peace and development. China and India need more energy, Russia has surplus to sell–it’s win-win not just for these nations but for the world. The peaceful trade of energy is a major plus for everyone.

5. But selling energy to Europe and selling energy to China and India are not equal: China and India have seen the way Russia has exploited its energy leverage in Europe, and Russia will find it has precious little political leverage over China and India, who will be sure to develop alternative sources of natural gas. The loss of political leverage over Europe will not be offset by an equivalent gain of leverage over China and India.

6. Russia has ruthlessly exploited its monopoly over natural gas by charging politically influenced prices: Poland, for example, pays a lot more for Russian natural gas than Germany, even though the gas flows through the same pipeline.

7. Once Russia loses pricing power in Europe, it will not gain pricing power over China or India. Those nations have other sources and cannot be held hostage in the same way Poland et al. are currently held hostage.

This means Russia will be earning considerably less per therm of energy once it ships natural gas to China and India.

Slowly but surely, the global natural gas market is becoming more integrated. Those currently charging cartel/monopoly prices will see their energy earnings decline.

8. In terms of national income, Russia is as dependent on energy earnings as any other “resource curse” oil exporter. The loss of pricing power in Europe and a decline in energy income will become headwinds for the Russian state.

9. Putin’s domestic popularity flows from nationalist pride in the Olympics and in reclaiming Crimea. But now that those high points are past, Putin’s options are not so lopsided in his favor.

Threatening (or invading) Ukraine reminds everyone in Europe why they fear Russia, and why Russia is not truly European. Domestic support in Russia for annexing part of Ukraine is low, for good reason: who wants to be responsible for the costs, financial and political?

10. Reclaiming Crimea makes for good theater and is a geopolitical plus, but it does nothing to reverse Russia’s real problems, which include corruption, wealth inequality, low birth rates, etc.

11. Russia’s military looks good on paper and in photos, but it’s not as prepared to mount a sustained campaign within Ukraine as advertised. Asymmetric warfare doesn’t respect lines on a map.

12. If Putin had set out to reinvigorate NATO, he would do exactly what he has done to date. Anyone thinking the U.S. Deep State is in despair about Putin’s moves has it backwards: everything Putin is doing is fueling blowback and resistance in nations that were potentially friendly to Russia. Nothing tells you who your friends are quite like troops massing on your neighbor’s border.

As a refresher, here’s a map of pipelines connecting African natural gas fields to Europe.


Given the context laid out above, it seems increasingly likely that we’ve reached Peak Putin. The capture of a few pawns has cleared the chessboard, but the strategic choices already made have greatly reduced Putin’s room to maneuver.

Ukraine: A Deep State Analysis (February 27, 2014)

Ukraine: Follow the Energy (March 4, 2014)

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  • cettel

    Charles Hugh Smith (whose “Of Two Minds” I have followed for years) is one of the best bloggers, and this piece from him is stellar, even for him.

    I conclude from it that Obama’s neo-con ploy in Ukraine will end up weakening Russia in the long term, and also that Russia really isn’t even nearly fit to join the EU; as a consequence of which, Obama’s policy will not only weaken a nation that won’t be joining the West anytime soon, but that his policy will improve the economies in the West by strengthening the Western alliance, that is: North America and Europe.

    Charles Hugh Smith’s analysis doesn’t take some important things into account: neo-Nazis either control or are close to controlling the government in Kiev; and if that government comes into military conflict with Russian troops, Obama’s pledge to avoid sending soldiers into Ukraine might become tested. Obama started what is happening in Ukraine, but he might not be able to stop it. He’s a smart man, but not smart enough to deal with that.

  • Truth seeker

    Mr. Smith has most certainly done his home work on the subject- I’m sure he spent half hour on Google and figures he understands the region. Definitely- Solzhenitsyn’s jibberish in the 50s explains current realities, according to this genius. My advise to you, Charles- stay with something you can make sense of, like, for instance, the Walmart culture of Americans. Don’t hurt yourself by working your brains too hard.

  • jadan

    Washington, DC, is the imperial villain in today’s world. Russia is merely defending itself against aggression. “Peak Putin”? Nonsense! You’re part of the propaganda echo chamber, Smith. Putin is a leader, as opposed to Obama who is a typical spineless, posturing Washington weasel. The US needs to back off. Leave the bear alone, you ass holes! There would be no problem in the Ukraine without the interference of Washington. NATO is a cold war organization that has become an instrument of US global dominance. Europe has nothing to fear from Russia. Disband NATO, for starters. And, please, don’t talk about the corruption in Russia until you can see what is happening in your own country.

  • GEvans2

    Nice try. But looking at all aspects, this has nothing to do with “Peak Putin.” And Putin does not rule Russia as a dictator. he has a political party behind him with a group concensus and I am sure they have all done their homework. What this has got more to do with is Russia. A study of Russian history over the last 1,000 makes it very obvious that from a Russian point of view they have seen themselves as the victums of European aggression. The defining line has been Russia’s adherence to Orthodox Christianty unlike the rest of Europe that fell under the Vatican and Rome. While Western Europe was in the dark ages for the first 1,000 years of history, Christianity and a thriving “not in the dark ages” society was well established in eastern Europe and the Middle East under the Orthodox Christian Church the linga franca being Greek not Latin and based in Constantinople and the Haggia Sofia. Russians think in the very long term not in the short term of one individual. In the last 100 years the country slid back under communism and atheism. Since 1999 when Russia totally tanked, thanks to western style financial theft, Putin and his supporters have pulled the country out of the mud and re-established the Orthodox Christian Church. It has seen a revival that is unprecented in Christianity since the rise of the Protestant Reformation. Peak Putin? There is a bigger agenda here, the return of Christianity to it’s original home and it’s original form. This has got less to do with gas and more to do with a belief system.

  • colinjames71

    I’m a little more worried have we reached DEPTH OBAMA. I know we hasn’t reached PEAK IMPERIALISM. NATO sure as shit didn’t need a causus belli to expand and provoke and wreak havoc, they’ve been doing it for thirty plus years. I’d also say Crimea is a lot more than a “plus”. Maybe they’ve been abusing their gas-export monopoly, but now we have a world-wide fracking bonanza and the fast tracking of LNG export terminals here in the US to look forward to. As for thus massing troops along the border, this from Steve Lenfdeman

    “The Russians aren’t coming. Aggression isn’t planned. No evidence suggests an imminent attack.

    Inspectors from Belgium, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Lativa, Switzerland and Ukraine were in direct contact with Russian military unit chiefs on the ground.

    They photographed deployed sites and military equipment freely. They accompanied Russian forces on maneuvers.

    They know no threat exists. They informed their superiors.”

    So f*ck Putin’s peak or lack of, and Russia’s internal problems, let’s worry about Nazis in Ukraine and the next planned coup in Venezuela, and good knows where else, as we just can’t seem to do anything for Americans, and everything we can to turn non-central bank-aligned nations into raging cauldrons of chaos, while multiple free trade agreements threaten to make the entire globe one giant corporate bankster playground for the one tenth of one percent to pillage at will. Any escalation of the current crisis lies directly at our feet.

  • Griebel

    Wow, he even cites cold-warrior “author” Solzhenitzyn’s dubious books.

    Thanks for providing us an alternate route to the official line on Russia.

    I think many here are probably satisfied realizing that Putin is no friend of us, but his policies have provided some of the only resistance we’ve seen in a while to US aggression. Putting it another way, we hate all organized crime, but we do like to see the criminal organizations hurting each other’s interests, and might even cheer the underdog on for a moment before we resume our opposition to him.

    • Charles Fasola

      And, I ask, why should he be a friend of “ours”. By standing up to the white, racist, war monger gangs who are the US and its NATO lapdogs, Putin has saved millions from US/NATO slavery. We can play tit for tat history games forever and a day. This is the present; learn from the past and then let it go.

      • Griebel

        I think you misread. I am one of those satisfied realizing he is no friend of us (us meaning those of us with humane, just tendencies toward the world and a broader perspective). What you said after that is pretty much consistent with what I said; despite his regressive nature, his particular position in the current scheme of things gives him a progressive role in certain matters.

  • K.C.

    The pipelines across Ukraine exist. The trans Saharan per wiki is “a planned natural gas pipeline from Nigeria to Algeria” It is to run through Nigeria, Niger and Algeria. That is a long stretch to build and to guard. Again per wiki “The pipeline is opposed by the Nigerian militant group Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. A spokesman for the group warned that until issues regarding the exploitation of the Niger Delta and its people have been resolved, “any money put into the project will go down the drain.”

    I think Europe would rather deal with Putin than extremists in Nigeria. And energy sources are not things you can wait for – you need them now, whether it be food energy for your body, heating energy for your home, energy to run your factories. You cannot say “I don’t like your blackmail Mr. Putin so I will just stop using Natural Gas until this Nigerian Pipeline gets built”.

  • David Butler

    I used to have high regard fro Mr. Smith but when he started repeating the lie that 47% of the country doesn’t pay taxes and emphasizing the Republican lies about the “takers” I knew he had lost it. The stupidity of this article is shown in number 12. The US has been the one reinvigorating NATO ever since the Soviet Union fell apart. We are the ones surriunding Russia with military bases and missiles. Duh.

  • Hairy Potter

    That’s all well and good, however, the “brand Y empire” isn’t interfering in our internal politics, isn’t flying over our heads, isn’t keeping nukes in our neighbouring countries, isn’t poisoning us with their food, isn’t destroying our economy with austerity measures, isn’t poisoning us with their dumb culture and dumb whateverwood movies, isn’t proclaiming itself as the policeman and the supreme moral authority of the world and so on and so forth… And don’t tell me the reason for this is that the “brand X empire” are keeping them at bay! Annexing Crimea vis-a-vis invading iraq, afghanistan, libya, bombing Belgrade, “freeing Kosovo”, and, oh, you know the rest of the covert occupations the “brand X empire” is undertaking isn’t even remotely comparable. So no, it is not the same level of imperialism, and that is the reason why people support the brand Y over the brand X. And it is not hypocrisy.