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20 March 2024 comment on post below: We are now only one step from NATO formally declaring war against Russia.  That step would be a military action by Russia against a NATO member.  But how likely is this?

Our world is facing the greatest geopolitical risks we have seen for over 40 years, with a ongoing war in Eastern Europe, conflict in the Middle East and major tensions over the future of Taiwan.

The Second World War showed us how a war in one region can make other conflicts far more likely, because different nations start seeing opportunities of their own in the midst of regional and global chaos.

History shows that the ability of dictators to start new wars is directly related to the political power they have. And President Putin's power base in Russia is now stronger than before the invasion of Ukraine, while his ambition continues to grow to expand the territory that Russia controls.

The more powerful a dictator becomes, by definition, the quieter the voices of dissent tend to be around them, the more feeble the challenges to any unrealistic ambitions. Powerful dictators risk losing their grip on practical realities (eg actual military strength) because those around them are often too afraid to tell them the truth.

Europe / NATO is therefore at great risk of a further miscalculation / gamble by President Putin, emboldened by a distorted view of the wider world, by lack of internal threats to his power, by mobilisation of his nation to a wartime economy, by what he believes is fading support for Ukraine in the US.

Set against this is the fact that Russian military strength has been weakened in the last two years.

But Russia still has 5,580 nuclear weapons.

In comparison, NATO / Western Europe can hardly find enough ammunition to supply half of Ukraine's front-line needs, has been very slow to ramp up defence spending, has a poorly defined nuclear weapons strategy, and is in no fit state to go to war against Russia. 

A single new military action by President Putin could be enough to trigger war with NATO, with potential for vast destruction across Western, Eastern and Central Europe - even assuming that no nuclear weapons are fired.  

The most effective way to reduce this risk is for Europe / NATO to rapidly mobilise for outright war, as a preventative measure, but this is currently happening at a very slow pace.  

Manufacturing of new weaponry is painfully slow, and EU nations have hardly woken up to the wartime realities which will mean diverting major spending from other important areas such as health care, and increasing government debt.

Expect EU / NATO to accelerate military spending, with many nations budgeting 2% of GDP, some like Poland far more, by 2027, partly because of pressures from the US to honour NATO-related pledges.  

Expect many corporations to continue to shorten supply chains to minimise risk, sourcing within regions rather than across the world.

11 July 2022 note on post below:  

History shows that small conflicts often trigger wider ones 

Hundreds of companies cancelled Russian business contracts or exited operations altogether from Russia within days and weeks of the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, but wider factors remain far more important from the global point of view. 

On the one hand, the Russian economy was in any case smaller than Spain before the invasion, and will continue to shrink rapidly during the rest of 2022 and into 2023.  

Yet on the other hand, it has a huge old-fashioned military able to create First World War type regional destruction on a massive scale - without using nuclear devices.  Sadly it can cost a mere $100,000 to blow up a 1000 year old building, but $500m to rebuild and restore (and nothing can replace the original history).

So Russia is not an economic superpower able to sustain a massive war for a long period without financial catastrophe.  

Nor does Russia have the economic, military or organisational power to subdue and control 40 million angry and bitter Ukrainians.

It will cost $200 billion just to rebuild blown up bridges, roads, power stations, water treatment works, schools, hospitals and homes destroyed by Russia from February to July 2022, let alone any further damage.  

What this means is that all Russia gained during February to July 2022 was farmland, access to ports, and completely ruined cities, towns and villages.

United States took early action to protect against energy chaos

The Russian economy is not an important one from the global point of view except for one single factor: energy.

After 9/11, the United States took a major national security decision to become independent of energy imports from potential "rogue nations" as soon as possible - which included Russia as well as much of the Middle East.  

As a result, the US relaxed all kinds of restrictions which amongst other things led to a boom in gas production.  

Indeed, due to huge growth in US fracking alone, in just a six year period, the proven global gas reserves of the entire world leapt from 80 to 200 years supply at current burn rates.

So the US became a net energy exporter, but without much specialised infrastructure in place to ship huge volumes of gas.

Europe meanwhile failed to plan ahead strategically, remaining highly vulnerably to energy supply disruptions, and drifted straight into the 2022 gas crisis, without adequate gas infrastructure in place to import. 

Germany - one of the world's largest manufacturing nations - was just one nation held to ransom by threats to turn off a gas tap completely for the long term.  And as war has continued, such threats have become realities.  And all this at a point where COVID-related disruptions to production and supply chains were still severe.

Despite all this, the truth is that wars BETWEEN sovereign nations have become very rare indeed over the last 20 years.  Yes, loads of internal conflicts but traditional wars have been almost unknown.

Expect continued efforts by many nations to restore this principle that nations should not invade other nations, with great concerns that Taiwan could find itself increasingly vulnerable.

3rd March 2022 - Longer term impact of Russia's invasion of Ukraine

While to some, President Putin's invasion of more of Ukraine in February / March 2022 came as a shock, for many years there have been growing tensions on various borders of Russia.

President Putin's leadership has grown steadily more autocratic and imperial in tone, and increasingly hostile regarding the perceived strength of EU / NATO influence on Russia's bordering nations.

At the start of most Futurist keynote presentations I have given on global trends over the last decade, I have said that "The world can change faster than you can hold a board meeting", and the need for alternative strategies / backup plans and leadership agility. 

This of course has been proven to be true over and over again - just think of COVID (and yes I warned repeatedly about threat from new viral pandemics). In my book The Future of Almost Everything, written in 2019, I listed Wild Cards - events that could have massive impact. One was the risk of a global viral pandemic, but another was a miscalculation by a powerful nation leading to sustained regional conflict (Russia implied but not named).

As I said those words about speed of change at the start of those keynotes, I have usually showed a series of slides including one of President Putin (making the point that a single decision / misjudgment by him could have immediate, huge impacts on a wide range of industries and sectors).

So Russia going to war into Ukraine should not be much of a surprise, taking yet more territory in another country, today Ukraine, but several other smaller neighbouring nations now more vulnerable to military attack.  

I have travelled extensively across the region, visiting both Russia and Ukraine many times, with many friends in both nations.

What is happening will be immensely distressing to many millions of people in Russia, who also have strong Ukrainian ties. 

Here is a longer term perspective on what next.

The result of Russia's 2022 invasion of Ukraine will be 

- Huge immediate efforts by Ukraine allies to provide "hidden" or military assistance by whatever means - eg weapons across whatever borders remain open (see Future of War article on hybrid conflicts)

- Rapid ramping up of military spending by all NATO nations, for longer term (which will feed further insecurities in President Putin and his senior leaders)

- Major challenges for Russia in imposing its will on the Ukrainian people who have a strong independent spirit (apart from coal mining regions to East which are strongly pro-Russian in culture)

- Issues of low morale amongst ordinary Russian soldiers, many of which have no interest in dying in Ukraine or in dominating it's people

- Constant leakage into global media of distressing video footage which is highly negative to Russia, taken on mobile phones and smuggled across borders even when entire phone networks and internet down - also reaching millions of Russian citizens despite government efforts to prevent this

- United efforts globally to damage the Russian economy and to take punitive action against political and business leaders

- Weakened Russian economy as result of all the above

- Further cycle of military investment by Russia - diverting resources from health, education, infrastructure etc

- Increased global carbon energy prices - which will also encourage investment in green energy, especially in Europe

- Political and social isolation / contempt of Russia on world stage

- A precedent that if successful may encourage military moves elsewhere eg China into Taiwan

And that's just the start.

Gulf War set a very dangerous precedent

The aim to remove Sadam Hussain due to perceived threats of weapons of mass destruction, was an invasion with limited geopolitical justification.  The US and UK invaded another nation. 

Same with Afghanistan.  In both cases regime change was the immediate goal - sounds similar to Russian stated objectives in March 2022 re war on Ukraine.

NATO war games often have depressing outcomes

NATO generals play war games (as Russian generals do with each other) on a fairly constant basis, mapping out what responses would be possible in various scenarios.

But all such war games are at risk of Group Think - too many generals from one nation or alliance playing with each other for example, without wider input, can risk major errors of judgement.

The NATO response issue has always been in every scenario, since the Cold War began, that huge numbers of Russian tanks pouring across a border to the West would be impossible to stop with traditional hardware, which is why NATO invested such large amounts in tactical nuclear devices.

But if NATO takes the position (or more dangerously Russia assumes this is the case anyway) that nuclear response will be ruled out, then President Putin / Russia can effectively invade whatever bordering nations it wishes.

That is, so long as President Putin is willing to put up with the daily costs of imposing rule over angry, outraged populations. Russia also has many more tactical nuclear weapons which are more useful in local battles.

Wider context of Russian invasion of Ukraine

President Putin's support for Belarus in quelling major unrest following re-election of it's own President, was part of wider long term Russia foreign policy across the region leading up to the 2022 Russian war with Ukraine.

Plus previous seizure of Crimeria, previously part of Ukraine, support for a sustained and bloody hybrid conflict in Eastern Ukraine, plus taking territory in Georgia and so on, plus clamping down on political opposition as well as independent news reporting agencies.

The fact is that President Putin's decision-making has posed a major geopolitical threat to the region for a long time now, and will continue to do so.

Russia has small economy and Ukraine a large population 

However, to keep a sense of perspective, the entire Russian economy BEFORE SANCTIONS and the collapse of the Rouble was only 11th largest in the world, similar in size to Spain or Italy.  And Ukraine itself has 40 million people (Russia 140 million).

Russia is heavily dependent on oil and gas sales to other nations - 17% of global gas production and 12% of global oil output and is the largest net exporter of oil and gas combined.  Natural resources contribute around 60% to GDP. 

Can you imagine Spain going to war against France - the economic impact.  Or Greece invading Turkey?  Consider the tax increases required to fund huge armies, Air Force etc - the cost of firing a single cruise missile, of losing a single fighter jet.

Russia really is a small economy compared to the US or China.  Russia is not an economic superpower, yet has an identity and ambition for global greatness.  

Fighting wars in the third millennium is extremely expensive. You can use cruise missiles and artillery and conventional bombing to destroy infrastructure and terrorise entire populations, but actual occupation is another matter altogether.

Occupying another nation always ends in failure and humiliation

Occupation is a risky undertaking for any nation invading another - as it almost always creates resentment, outrage, hatred.  

History shows us that all military occupations fail eventually.

How would Russia subdue and rule over 40 million people in Ukraine, the vast majority preferring to be independent of Russia?  

So if Russia does seize the entire territory, which it has the military power to do, remaining as a military presence will be a massive drain on resources.

And Ukraine is not a wealthy nation which can be asset stripped to fund such Russian imperialism.

Ordinary Russian people aspire to Western lifestyles, and Moscow is a cosmopolitan, lively and dynamic city.

A major downturn in economy will be hard to justify to the population if perceived to be the result of intemperate military adventurism. 

Gas addiction is the great weakness of Western Europe - expect change 

The great weakness of Western Europe continues to be its addiction to Russian gas.  Expect even faster migration towards low carbon economies with rapid expansion of gas trade with other nations such as the United States.

You can read below what I wrote about the longer term future of Russia in The Future of Almost Everything, published / updated in 2019.  A core message of the book, and of many other future-related books I have written, is this:

The world continues to turn through many a crisis - with our longer term future shaped by megatrends which are more powerful than decisions of government leaders or even global events such as viral pandemics.  

Just one such megatrend is the relentless, year on year rise of emerging markets in economic strength and influence.

Another is the relentless, year on year rise in concerns about future sustainability of our planet.  

FUTURE OF RUSSIA - written 2019

Russia will remain strongly nationalistic, as a mega-tribe of 160 different ethnic tribes, 140 million citizens spread across 11.5 time zones. Russia is a nation that has been forged by hardship and comradeship in adversity. Siberia makes up more than three-quarters of Russia’s landmass, with average temperatures below freezing, while 50% is forest and 11% is tundra, a bleak and treeless, marshy plain.

Russia’s future economy will depend on energy prices and exchange rates, both of which collapsed in 2014: Russia is the world’s largest producer of oil, second only to America in gas production. Oil and gas account for 70% of export revenues and government spending is hugely dependent on them.

Russian desire for strong leadership and nation

The Russian tradition is of strong, autocratic leadership, and powerful figureheads like President Putin will continue to enjoy popular support, so long as these figures deliver increased living standards, improved security and better public services, or at least so long as living standards do not drop too much as a result of the leadership’s actions. President Putin is likely to continue his strong grip on media and political movements, by popular consent.

Just 110 of Russia’s many oligarchs control 35% of Russia’s wealth, some of it gained rapidly by dubious means, at a time of chaos following the fall of communism. Government agencies have a long-term strategy to place great pressure on oligarchs who are ‘living off Russian money’ in other nations, as well as in Russia.

If you talk with members of the generation who grew up under the Soviet regime, you will continue to find warm nostalgia, tinged with slight sadness, when they look back to life as it was under Brezhnev. They will continue to point to full employment, regular pensions, stability, public order and respect for Russian traditions. But Russians born after 1980 have no such adult memories, and are already 35 years old today.

Daily life in big Russian cities can be expected to be similar to that of many European nations, with vigorous consumerism, capitalist culture, and middle-class wealth. However, we may also see what many Russians would describe as loss of ‘soul’ or ‘dushá’ in smaller cities like Samara or Tolyatti, with very high divorce rates, addiction, depression, and lack of purpose or moral strength.

Russian foreign policy and military renewal

Russian leaders are likely to promote an enlarged free-trade area with border nations such as Georgia and Ukraine (but not China), to rival the EU, with some success. They will seek to influence former CIS nations with a combination of diplomacy, economic measures, media messages, military pressure and less obvious actions.

President Putin will continue to fret about what he sees as persistent American efforts to undermine Russia, whether economic, diplomatic, military or covert. He will also worry about similar activities by some European nations. The stronger the EU becomes and the more united NATO is, the more threatened Russia will feel.

Russia lost over 20 million lives in the Second World War, which is 60 times the toll of UK military deaths, and 90 times the toll in France. It is very hard for non-Russians to fully grasp the emotional force of that disaster on the national psyche, and on Russian pride. It explains the ‘Never Again’ and ‘Don’t mess with Russia’ mantras that are set to influence foreign policy for several decades.

The nation is also deeply scarred by the loss of the Soviet empire, as Britain was with regard to its own empire in the 1950s‒1980s, and is fiercely proud of its heritage, culture and military strength.

Deep unease and anxiety over NATO and the EU

Therefore, Russia is likely to remain bitterly opposed to any further extensions of EU or NATO influence or control, close to its borders, and will be easily provoked by fear and mistrust to vigorous actions of many kinds to prevent this. Such steps would be likely to damage Russia’s economic growth, and we will see Russian rhetoric that may feel like a throwback to the Cold War.

However, such rhetoric will be popular at home, unless people are hit by major, prolonged declines in living standards that they come to blame on the government rather than on sanctions or other actions by foreign powers.

Russia is likely to want to spend more on defence than any other nation except China and America over the next two decades, and to seek strategic alliances with China, to reduce political and trade risks to the West.

Russia is already an unbeatable power in the wider European region in terms of tanks and rockets, artillery and troop numbers, but also in locally stored tactical nuclear weapons. NATO has little local strength in comparison, without resorting to the threat of first nuclear strike, which is almost unthinkable.

Russia will also increase spending on foreign aid, to win friends in regions such as Africa, and strengthen military ties.

Challenges for Russia

Despite former superpower status, Russia’s economy was only the size of Italy at the start of 2014, and shrunk to the size of Spain with the collapse of oil prices and EU sanctions. A sustained regional conflict would rapidly destroy a significant part of Russia’s wealth.

Internal security will remain a key issue: the interior ministry bill exceeds by far state spending on health.

Other challenges include capital flight by Russians moving wealth to ‘safe havens’ ‒ $170bn in 2014 alone; low life expectancy in men (64 years – 50th in world), partly related to alcohol; corruption – ranked 127th in the world by Transparency International; lack of strength in manufacturing; Islamic separatists; threat of a ‘coloured revolution’ inflamed by social media; and a crumbling legacy from tens of thousands of Soviet-era tower blocks.

Despite these things, expect a more vibrant, self-confident, militant and wealthy Russia within 15 years, but still bound tightly to global markets, and constrained by them.

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