Plain English with Derek Thompson - What Vladimir Putin Wants—and How Russia’s War in Ukraine Could Reshape the World

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Today’s episode is the most ambitious, episode that we’ve put out so far and I hope it is.

One of the most helpful.

It is about Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine on Thursday.


Russia launched, what is being called a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

And it might be the biggest conflict Europe has seen since 1989 or 1945 Russia attacked by air with explosions recorded, in dozens of cities, including the capital of Kiev.


They attacked by land.

And with Columns of Russian tanks crossing over the eastern border.

They attacked by sea from the southern port city of Odessa.

Now, I want to do two things in this episode.


I want to give you my synthesis on why this is happening now and second for the bulk of the episode.


I want to tell you what, I think might happen next, not just in Ukraine, not just in Russia, but all around the world.

So first, let’s talk about why this is happening.

Now for months.

There has been a frantic attempt to figure out what Vladimir Putin is thinking, what is motivating, his desire to invade Ukraine.


That the best way I think to conceive of his motivations is to think about three years, three years, 1989 2008 and 2014.

In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, marking the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union to Americans.


This was a Triumph to Vladimir Putin.

It was a tragedy.

We know this.

He has made no secret of the fact that he wants his legacy to include the restoration of the old Soviet Union.

Well, now Vladimir Putin is becoming a very old and potentially somewhat unhinged, man.


He’s starting to think very seriously about his legacy and this might be it.

The second year is 2008 in 2008.

NATO, offered Ukraine, a roadmap to join its security Alliance that offer was seen by some even in the United States as an unnecessary threat to Russia and unnecessary provocation of Russia.


It would bring NATO Too Close into Russia’s backyard and Putin has cynically used that expansion of NATO that potential expansion of NATO.

To justify all sorts of military operations, including grabbing chunks of Ukraine and Georgia.


Finally, we have 2014 in 2014, Ukraine.

Staged a pro Democratic anti-russian Revolution that ousted the Russian Affiliated government.

This was a revolution that brought democracy closer to Russia’s borders than Putin would.


Like if 2008 was about military, insecurity, 2014 represents democratic.

And security.

I think if you put these things together, 1989 2008-2014.

Those are the logs of the fire.


The spark you could say, is a weekend Europe.

The UK has left the EU.

Energy costs are soaring across the continent.

There’s a new leader in Germany and Putin.

Apparently feels.

This is the right time to rectify.

The sins of 1989 2008 and 2014 to reclaim.


The Soviet Legacy, push back against NATO, and also push back against democracy itself.

But at this point, there’s really only so much we gain by psychologizing and mind-reading.

Vladimir Putin.

The war is here.

The real question is what happens now.

War has unintended consequences, in fact, no scratch that war is unintended consequences.


When you’re dealing with countries that have their own alliances and trade and markets War touches everything.

And that is the thesis of this episode War touches everything.

I think this war could spark an energy crisis, a migration crisis, a food crisis in Asia and Africa and a geopolitical crisis for the United.


It’s these are the second order crises the Ricochet effects of the war in Ukraine.

That are the subject of today’s episode.

So today, we’re talking 25, experts on foreign policy, Europe economics, Agriculture and China.


Not one guest five to think about the most important consequences, most important ricochets of a major conflict in Ukraine.

I’m Derrick Thompson.

This is plain English.


I think that the headline is that cold war 2.0 is starting.

That’s Charles cup Chen.

He is a professor at Georgetown University, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

And he also served as Special Assistant to President Barack Obama.


I think we’re probably headed back to something that will look like the cold war.

They militarized division of Europe, it remains to be seen how China plays this.

If they stay in a tight Embrace with Russia, it may be a cold war, not just with Russia, but with a coupling of Russia and China, so it’s too soon to arrive at any judgments.


But this is a game changer.

This is also a leap into the dark for Putin.

He has a hundred ninety thousand.

Two hundred thousand troops on the border of and within Ukraine.

Ukraine is a country of 44 million people.

Purely from a strategic standpoint.


How crazy is this invasion?

It’s pretty crazy.

And, in some ways a little bit out of character because Putin Putin is a tough customer Putin.

Is it as a risk taker?


But, but to date, he hates small bites, he grabs Crimea a small bit of eastern, Ukraine, regions of Asia, and South ossetia in Georgia.

He goes into nagorno-karabakh.

He sends forces into Syria.


Yeah, but they’ve all been relatively low-cost low-risk.

He is now invading a country of 44 million people.

As far as we know, he intends to topple the government and install a pro Russian regime he is as we speak alienating and unifying these forty four million people against Russia.


And so exactly how he pulls this off, how he puts in a regime that enjoys any Ambulance of legitimacy is something I can’t fathom.

Kuchen sees two paths forward along path.

Number one.

Russia is making a massive error.


Its buying itself.

A big fat mess. 190 thousand troops, invading a nation of 44.

Million is an insane gamble.

The u.s.

Quote-unquote conquered, Iraq with a hundred, ninety thousand troops or so, and that was a total shit show.


Ukraine is larger.

Richer much better fortified a nation of 44 million is going to actually fight back with tanks not just insurgents with Bazookas.

It’s insane.

And that’s partly why Putin’s actions are so scary to people like Charles caption.


There is concern that if Putin is willing to take a risk of invading Ukraine, Mighty, go further, right?

If you go, if you look at what he has said in the last few weeks, he isn’t just Interested in pulling Ukraine back into a Russian sphere of influence.


He wants to reverse the post-cold war, security architecture, the territorial settlement.

He said to Nato get your troops out of NATO’s Eastern flank.

And so we have to take seriously the prospect that he could test NATO that could mean sending more troops from the US and Europe to the NATO border, more troops to the Western borders of countries like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia.


Gia Romania, this strategy would carry some serious risks.

It could inflame Putin at the very moment when some people might hope he can be reasoned off the ledge, but it would also send a message.

We’re not going to war over Ukraine, but this is where we draw the line.


And, and that’s why I do think that we’re headed back to some kind of militarized, rivalry of A Sort that dissipated in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell down but unfortunately is coming back to life.


And it’s you know, it’s it is devastating on some level 1, you know, speaking personally.

I thought that we had left those days behind, you know, having having lived through the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the Cold War.


It was an enormously uplifting moment.

It was like, you know, human humans are headed in the right direction.

Democracy and dignity, and human rights are prevailing over the Alternatives right now.


I would say history is flipping.

It’s doing a somersault.

It’s turning backward.

There are some Americans that are going to say, this is not our war, Ukraine is not our war.

Russia is not our problem.

They didn’t attack Connecticut.

They didn’t attack Hawaii.


They attacked Eastern Europe.

You chose have written a book about the rise of isolationism in the U.s.

That I think has a really balanced take on how isolationism is in some ways, deeply American, and and moral.

And on the other hand.


Sometimes it can go too far.

How do you balance a ethical consideration of isolationism?

And ethical consideration of the idea that Americans need to care about Americans, first, and foremost, with the possible, need to re militarize Central or Eastern Europe, in response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine.


Well, you know, it’s interesting that In the Republican party, there is a strong Neo isolationist wing and you have significant voices out there including former President Trump who are singing Putin’s praises and who are saying, you know, this is not our fight.


Good night and good luck.

Now, it is the case that the United States government has decided that Ukraine is not a vital National Security.

Of the United States.

And as a consequence, we are not sending combat troops.


NATO is not going to go to war with Russia over Ukraine in my mind.

That is a correct judgment, but second-order pressing National Security interests are at stake if he goes into Ukraine, he could go further.


We don’t know how far into Ukraine Putin is going to go.

He may go to Kiev and stop.

In which case, Western Ukraine, emerges, as kind of a rump Ukraine, the capital of free Ukraine, you might call it.


There’s a city there called l’viv and maybe that will be the capital of, for you can, who knows?

But if he goes further, then I think you will see an outflow.

If the first side effect of war in Ukraine, is the remilitarization of Eastern Europe.


What, you’ve just heard from caption is actually Second major side effect, the out flow of migrants from Ukraine to the rest of the continent.

In fact, if you turn on your TV in the last day or so, you may have seen car line stretching for miles and miles of families trying to get out of Kiev and other cities.


Liana fix is a resident fellow at the German Marshall fund studying international relations, and she told me we may be in the early stages of a full-blown migrant crisis.

In Europe.

We already do see menu effigies.

Coming from Ukraine, Moldova has already welcomed 4012 Fugees.


It’s a neighboring country and we will see where for Jews also heading towards Poland, and other member states of the European Union.

And this will be a task for you penes.

Now, to really stand in the linearity with Ukraine to welcome those refugees and further down the road not to given into populists who might see and try to portray this as a new migration crisis for you.


Here’s what Leon effects is talking about.

Do you remember back in 2015, 2016?

When a bunch of anti-immigration, far-right populist group started winning a bunch of elections in Europe.

Well, one of the things that triggered, the rise of far-right populism, in Europe, were migrants, that came from Syria and the Middle East that crossed the Mediterranean and moved into southern Europe.


And what Liana fixes saying here is, well, what if another migration crisis?

Could inflame right-wing populism all over again, so that’s Ricochet effects number two, and honestly, it’s not the only knock on effect of war, in Ukraine.


That could throw Europe in the chaos, in 2019, the year before the pandemic about 19 percent of all, the energy that Europeans consumed came from exports from Russia, either oil or natural, gas, or coal.

It’s an extraordinarily high percentage.


And then for certain, some of those categories that is shares even higher.

So, like, All of Europe’s Imports of coal.

Come from Russia.

That’s Matthew Klein.

He’s the author of the sub stack newsletter the overshoot and an economic columnist.

He told me that if Western countries respond to Russia’s Invasion by imposing sanctions.


Russia is obvious countermove, might be to cut off Europe, from its energy supplies, to literally freeze out the continent during February and March.

So basically since the 1980s back then, it was A Soviet Union constructed pipelines, that would take natural gas from Russia.


Maybe as far field is going to Siberia, or have you and pipe it all the way into Western Europe.

And this was very convenient for Europeans because the only alternative sources of gas, they might get they have to get it from North Africa or the Middle East much further afield.

They later develop some access, you know, the North Sea and Norway.


But Russia is still been the main, the main source.

All that gas is controlled by gazprom, which is a state-owned gas company in Russia.

That is in charge.

Of developing and then transporting the gas.

Now in theory.

This is actually really valuable asset for Russia, because it’s a big source of hard currency as how Russians pay for imports of all sorts of things.


They can’t otherwise get manufactured goods and so forth, but it also is a source of vulnerability because Europeans really need the gas.

It’s a really important source of electric power generation of Home Heating and if they don’t really have any easy substitutes because a lot of cash travels, Pipeline.


The only other way to get gas if it’s not through a pipeline.

Is, if you basically condense it into liquid, make it very, very cold.

Put it on a on a specialized cargo ship and then transport it across an ocean, which they do do that somewhat, but it’s extremely expensive.

And, you know, in practice, you have to get it from some places, you know, is that guitar might be one.


The u.s.

Might be another place, but it’s not nearly as easy and reliable, and low-cost is getting it through a pipeline.

So if Russia were to cut off the access type, I will restrain the flow in some way that would be an impact.

In fact, they actually can go to gazprom’s website.

They have data on their daily deliveries of gas.


You can see actually that it’s been going down a bit in the past couple months and, you know, whether that is due to some sort of deliberate squeeze or something else.

I don’t know, but that has been happening and that certainly could be putting pressure and could be a consult source of concern for European consumers.

Is it conceivable that Russia in flicks enough havoc on global energy markets?


That it creates a problem for for American consumers.


I think it’d be sort of indirect.

So if your pins really get hit hard by not having access to energy, that’s going to have all sorts of negative ramifications for European economies whole your is one of the largest economic bloc’s in the world.


It’s a major trading partner of the United States.

So, the extent that they are harmed, that would have all sorts of negative consequences for the United States.

You could draw a very rough analogy to what happen with the Our crisis ten years ago where weakness in Europe did her down to the US and have all sorts of negative implications and disappointments for people in the US.


The weren’t expecting that.

So that that’s a cost.

If Russia cuts off or dramatically restrict energy supplies to Europe.

It will be a terrible and extremely painful year for the whole continent.

I don’t want to downplay that.

But without trivializing the pain or horror of war and it is painful and horrible.


Matt can also Also see a faint Silver Lining to this moment.

If countries.

Take this opportunity to build the green energy infrastructure.

They should have built years ago.

So if Russia were very aggressive and cutting off access to gas.


I think the best analogy would be what happened in 1973 with OPEC cutting oil production.

At the time that was extremely disruptive and painful for all the consuming countries, but the longer term impact was that we were able to adapt as if Diversified technologically, sophisticated Society, you, you can figure out a way around it.


Eventually, there are alternatives.

And so, one of the things that happened after 1973, was that cars became much the fuel economy, one way up across the board, and from fact, not going up at all to join up, pretty dramatically.

Essentially, every year after that.

You have Innovations, insulation and Home Heating to be more efficient.


You have the development of new sources of energy such as the deployment of nuclear power, particularly in France.

That was the major response that they had you.

Have the development of new oil and gas Fields elsewhere to diversify.

So Alaska, Norway the Gulf of Mexico.


Actually the Soviet Union was one places.

So all of these things, the supply response to the demand response, you know, the longer term impact is that this is self-defeating when OPEC did that they ended up losing their ability to have that kind of influence on geopolitics.

And in fact, the 1980s were sort of a lost decade for OPEC in terms of their economy.


So you could imagine something like that happening here.

If Russia were to be too aggressive.

I think that’s probably one of the reasons why they haven’t done that yet.

This could be the third bookish, a effect of war in Ukraine.

Terrible, short-term pain for Europe as Energy prices Skyrocket followed by long term gain as the continent.


Finally builds out the solar wind and nuclear power that make these countries energy independent from Russia.

So let’s review the Ricochet effects.

We have so far.

Number one, the remilitarization of Europe number to a migration crisis in Europe.


Number 3 and energy crisis in Europe that could even touch the US economy.

The fourth Ricochet effect also involves trade, not trade of natural gas.

But of wheat with some of the most fertile land on Earth.

Ukraine has been known as Europe’s Bread Basket for centuries.


It’s a top exporter of corn barley Rye, but it’s the country.

Is wheat that has the biggest impact on food security around the world, Ukraine.

And Russia are major exporters of we to some of the poorest countries in the world.

That’s Alex Smith.

He’s a food and agriculture Analyst at the Breakthrough Institute.


A think tank based in the Bay Area.

They export return countries in the Middle East, North Africa.

Sub-Saharan Africa, southeast Asia countries, like Lebanon which Imports 50% of the wheat from total weeks of life.

From Ukraine countries like Congo and Oman which export-import over 60 percent of their total wheat Supply from Russia and Egypt for example, as it is a major regions where they get a majority of their wheat from the combination of Russia and Ukraine.


So overall, there’s a real potential impact for food security and hunger on this these very core very Arty food insecure places if we see, you know, major disruptions of Ukrainian and Or Russian wheat.

So Russia, Ukraine their critical sources of wheat.


For many of the world’s poorest countries.

It’s also the case that hundreds of thousands of Russian troops are currently deployed near the parts of Ukraine that are the most Central to wheat production.

Is that right?


Yeah, I think about 40% of Ukraine reproduction is in the Region’s between q and the Donetsk and luhansk.


The scepter three chains where Russian troops are currently.

Fast and sort of in general you created read is is surrounding is Kube.

And I think the potential for if there was a, an actual conflict and actual Invasion.


This is the territory that would be a few of the most under threat.

So you can see, you know, I report for labor is pushed off land Farmers, pushed off land, actual destruction of crops, actual destruction of these Farms.

So a real potential for disruption famine and hunger.


Tragedy enough but historically famines are also sources of political instability.

Think back to Arab Spring, the revolutions that you saw across the Middle East Tunisia, Egypt.

Those uprisings were sparked in part by Rising food prices.


It was food inflation.

That was the spark that Lit, the fuse.

So this is y aquí Ricochet effect, key.


Ricochet effect is global famines that Could become Global political protests the final Ricochet involves China.


China is more or less refrained from criticizing Russia and has largely taken Russia’s position.

That’s Bonnie, Lynn like Charles cup chin, then said, we could be on the verge of Cold War 2.0 with the creation of two distinct blocks and anti-russia Coalition, led by America and Europe and our closest allies and another block.


Led by China and Russia.

I think what we’ll see is significant rebalancing and shifting of the geopolitical landscape will probably see to boost blocks one with the United States.

You NATO, on one side and potentially China and Russia on the other side will see a number of countries in the indo-pacific and Beyond align more with one side or the other.


So, for example, we’ll probably see Japan and Australia, much more aligned with the United States.

You will occasionally Pakistan.

Might be leaning more towards Russia.

We are currently seeing that Pakistani prime minister Cameron.

Khan is currently in Moscow, right?


About Jimmy Putin.

So there’s a lot of interesting dynamics that will play out in the next couple of weeks and months as countries grapple with what’s happening in Ukraine.


I asked Lynn about one of the most significant second order effects that some people are predicting.


That is the idea that a successful invasion of Ukraine could Inspire China.

To invade Taiwan is a Thursday afternoon.

The most read article on the Atlantic sweb site ran under the headline quote is Taiwan next and quote.


The article said quoting.


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine makes the frightening possibility of China seizing control of the island more real just is Putin can’t tolerate Ukrainian sovereignty.

The Chinese Communist party will never accept the separateness of Taiwan which Beijing considers a core part of China occupied by an illegitimate and democratic government, so I asked Lynn for her reaction.


So let me say the part that I agree with first, which is that I agree that a China will not tolerate a separate Taiwan indefinitely and Taiwan is a core.

And one of China’s top interest, particularly unification with Taiwan.


I don’t agree with is necessarily that Taiwan is next because Beijing does not base.


Calculations on Taiwan including one wants to use force on Taiwan on what Russia is doing in Ukraine, for what we’ve seen so far, Xi Jinping believes that time is still on China side with respect, unification with Taiwan.


He has a 20th party Congress coming up this fall and he probably does not want to engage any risky Adventure between now and twenty party Congress.

I do think though, that Beijing is looking at what’s happening in Ukraine for Lessons Learned.


And it’s not clear that right now based on what to say.

What we’re seeing, Beijing is taking away a lesson that the West is will not defend, you know, Taiwan if if there’s one lesson, the patient should be taking right now, is at least, on the financial side, economic side.


The West has a large range of tools that it could leverage in defense of a partner.

So, Add both together.

It’s not clear that Ukraine conflict would make Beijing more likely to invade Taiwan or want to be Taiwan anytime sooner.

So there you have it.


Five key knock-on, effects of, Russia’s war.

In Ukraine, number one troops in Europe number to a Ukrainian Exodus, number 3, and energy crisis that hits the US economy number for Global hunger that Sparks Global protests.


And number five, A New World Order emerging in which China Is the core of a major block.

There are lots of not going to fix it.

I haven’t mentioned here.

If, for example, the us or Europe, shut off Swift for Russia, that is Swift.


The world’s main International payments Network that will send Russia into an economic deep freeze, but I can’t even imagine Russia in turn, could respond with cyber attacks, the likes of which the US has never seen before.

I will try to cover these in future episodes, but honestly, I hope to God the ladder.


In particular, never happens.

It’s important.

I think, when forecasting, the future to always, always consider the following alternative.

What if I’m wrong about all of this?

In the last 48 hours, Russia’s Invasion has accelerated.


But so have the costs of Russia’s Invasion.

Its currency has puked, its markets, have tanked.

There are anti-war, protests in st.

Petersburg and Russian celebrities speaking out online for the moment.

Every possible signal for Putin seems to be flashing red and I want to believe that’s good news.


I want so bad to believe, that’s good news that maybe Putin wakes up tomorrow and sees the light and Is this war is not only cruel but also crazy.

But there is always the possibility that Putin is now untethered from the logic of markets and the logic of popular opinion and the logic of humanity and the logic of everything and that he just doesn’t care.


I hope to God that he does.

Thank you for listening and have a safe weekend.