As an analyst of global Russian information operations, I’m often asked to offer an opinion about what’s happening with this war. I’ve collated some of the most common questions and answers below. These opinions are mine alone, but I’ve provided references to other sources wherever I can. This is Part 3 of a series. You can read Part 1 and Part 2 here.
Q: How deeply is China cooperating with Russia?
A: Russia and China signed a 5,000 word cooperation agreement on February 4, 2022, titled “Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the International Relations Entering a New Era and the Global Sustainable Development” and is posted on the Kremlin website. The document’s scope is sweeping and broad, and supports global “multipolarity” while denouncing US hegemony and multi-national alliances like NATO. It also asserts that Taiwan is part of China. The agreement suggests a long-term commitment to a broad global realignment. Also notable: Russia and China agreed to amplify disinformation about US biolabs in Ukraine. Seth Daire has a good thread of analysis here. Per the agreement:
“Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ”forbidden“ areas of cooperation, strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries.”
Q: How will China support Russia in its Ukraine war?
A: US intelligence sources say that Russia has asked China for military equipment, and China has expressed openness to supplying it. According to the Financial Times, Russia had asked China for surface-to-air missiles, drones, intelligence-related equipment, armoured vehicles, and logistics support vehicles. Given the sweeping, “no limits” agreement between the two countries, it is plausible to expect China to deliver material support to Russia constrained only by its own capacity to do so, as well as any limits it may impose to avoid sanctions of its own. However, US appetite for Chinese sanctions may be limited, as it could exacerbate existing domestic concerns over inflation and energy prices.
Q: What effect will China’s support of Russia have on the war?
A: Depending on how effectively China is able to meet Russia’s supply needs and how effectively Russia can distribute those supplies, it could extend Russia’s ability to extend its assault on Ukraine and eventually grind out a scorched-earth Pyrrhic victory. However, if the supplies are mismatched to Russia’s needs and they continue to have the kind of morale and logistics problems which have characterized the operation to date, China’s contribution may not amount to more than a drain on its own fragile economic position. The CCP is weak, and China’s domestic GDP is overloaded with undercapitalized, underutilized real estate.
Q: Will Putin really risk a direct conflict with NATO?
A: Putin and his cadre of close advisors believe that NATO is a hypocritical, immoral construct which has been used to separate and victimize the “Rus’ people.” Putin believes he is a historical character whose destiny is to oversee the reunification of Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of Tsarist Russia. Exposing NATO as hypocritical is key to this pursuit, and he can do that by testing NATO, showing that it will not in fact stand up for its alliance. Once he has proven that, he believes he will have moral justification not only for taking Ukraine, but any other NATO state that he sets his eyes on. In fact, he has greatly underestimated the alliance’s unity and resolve, which was in tatters under the Trump administration. However, whether or not Putin believes the alliance is as strong as it actually is may be open to question inside the reality-warping walls of the Kremlin. My personal belief is that testing NATO is key to Putin’s plans and necessary within the broader framework of Duginism which he appears to be working. More on this here.
Q: What justification might Putin (and China) use to justify a conflict with NATO—likely by some kind of oblique attack by “proxy” or by “mistake”?
A: They seem to have settled on the “US biolabs” narrative, as mentioned above. I wrote a whole piece just about this.
Q: What is North Korea doing launching ICBMs… with rocket engines made in Donbass, Ukraine?
A: North Korea has inherited parts from the USSR’s stockpile of nuclear missiles. In 2017, there was much controversy over the fact that North Korea had somehow quickly advanced its missile capability. Some analysts concluded that North Korea was using old rocket engines recovered from the former USSR, possibly from eastern Ukraine, and may have been transferred to the rogue state after Russia’s 2014 invasion of that region. Other analysts concluded that no, the engines probably did not originate from the Yuzhmash plant in Dnipro. Regardless, North Korea does seem to be utilizing old Soviet missile technology, and may have sufficient stockpile to launch a weapon that could provoke fear or global instability. As a Russian proxy state friendly with China, this could be one way they may seek to challenge NATO, but with plausible deniability — “crazy old missiles, can’t aim ’em worth a damn!”
Q: What major economic consequences may be in store?
A: Broadly speaking, we are entering a period of economic uncertainty where various factions are making bets against different strategies for survival and eventual dominance. The Ruble has tanked, and Russia is on the brink of the first currency default in more than a century. As interest rates have increased to curb inflation, the dollar has in fact become stronger relative to other currencies. Saudi Arabia is suggesting they will accept Yuan for the purchase of oil, symbolically challenging the dollar’s status as a reserve currency. Gold has increased in value but mostly remained steady. And a perceived “shift” into Bitcoin and other crypto assets as “alternatives” to the incumbent financial system has largely failed to materialize. As supply lines continue to fray, and predatory oil company profit-taking persists, we can likely expect a cascading failure of supply constraints and global recession going into the next year — if things remain on their current course. However, a collapse of Putin’s regime and a path towards rapprochement with Russia could mean things quickly snap back.
Q: What is going on with the BA.2 variant in China and should we be worried about it?
A: China has enacted lockdowns in several major cities, including Shanghai. Hong Kong has seen a massive uptick in cases. China’s “Zero Covid” policy has meant that they have tried to rely heavily on societal controls to keep the pandemic in check. Chinese vaccination rates may be lower than reported, and efficacy of specific vaccines is also unknown. In the UK, the BA.2 variant has taken off very quickly, even as deaths remain low. However, we won’t know for a few weeks what effects the highly infectious variant may have on hospitalizations and death rates among the vaccinated. Major new outbreaks of COVID certainly could exacerbate the wartime situation in Ukraine as well as economic conditions elsewhere. It could make things even more grim inside Russia.
Q: What’s going on with the Church and why is it vitally important?
A: A lot of people incorrectly view Putin as only a gangster. That’s incorrect. He’s also a pretty skilled cult leader, and knows how to use authoritarian mind control, information war, and mystic manipulation to his advantage. He is attempting to utilize elements of the Orthodox and Catholic churches to “flip” the world around a new axis, as theorized in Dugin’s “Foundations of Geopolitics.” Critically, Putin has reached into a societal layer beneath politics and diplomacy: culture. He (and his collaborators) have framed their struggle in terms of aggrievement and believe their “true and just” culture and cause has been the victim of international globalists. To prevail, they will deploy the righteousness of the land-based traditionalists against the sea-based globalists. Nevermind that Putin probably doesn’t actually believe in religion, per se. What he does understand is that he has a powerful cultural weapon that he can deploy. We mentioned before that Kirill I, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, supports Putin’s invasion, while in Amsterdam, a church publicly broke with that position. That’s by design; the aim is to spark a schism across multiple churches and align the factions (globalists vs. traditionalists) against each other in conflict.
Q: Why is Pope Francis consecrating Russia and Ukraine to the Virgin Mary on March 25th?
A: Putin and American Evangelicals have long believed that Moscow would become the “Third Rome.” This is based on a prophecy from 1917 called the “Three Secrets of Fatima,” one of which seemed to predict World War II. The Third Secret involves the “conversion” of Russia back to Christianity from godless communism, which of course was in the headlines in 1917. Putin believes he’s the guy to fulfill that promise and will receive all the perks from God’s earthly agents if he does so.
To unlock the magic powers, the prophecy requires that “the Pope, and all the Bishops, consecrate Russia to the Virgin Mary.” If this is done, Russia and the world will see a long period of peace. If this is not done, Russia will “inflict its errors on the world,” global conflict will ensue and various countries may be annihilated.
So here’s the rub: hardcore traditionalists think that Pope Francis is illegitimate and that his consecration of Russia and Ukraine is not meeting the requirements of the prophecy. It was supposed to be only Russia and needs to include all the Bishops to be legit, according to the prophecy. Francis hasn’t said anything about Bishops yet.
Making things weirder: Putin asked Francis do to this for him back in 2013. And on March 2nd, the Episcopate of Ukraine made the same request. This creates a rich environment for the proliferation of multiple interpretations of these events, giving several factions grounds for mystical justification of nearly any action, including apocalypse through the use of nuclear weapons.
- Traditionalists aren’t happy this Pope is doing this, because they hate him.
- Traditionalists aren’t happy that he’s addressing both Russia and Ukraine, and don’t have “all the bishops” involved.
- Putin might be happy he’s consecrating both Russia and Ukraine, because it recognizes some historical oneness as “Russia,” per the prophecy.
I don’t think anyone knows how this may play out in practice, but the fact that Third Rome and the Fatima secrets have been on our radar for a long time as material to this conflict should be of concern, especially when the Pope is now actively engaging with it. My friend Izabella Kaminska has a more detailed writeup.
Also, a warning: anyone writing off the religious and Duginist aspects of this war is making a serious error. Yes, Putin is a thug, but as an instrumentalist he knows the power of language, symbols, networks, and religion to effect the outcomes he desires. No predictive model that excludes these elements will yield successful forecasts.
Q: Zelensky has suggested Ukraine may back off of its goal of joining NATO. Will this help anything?
A: No. There is not any off-ramp where Putin will settle for less than total domination of Ukraine. Likewise, suggestions that curbing “NATO expansionism” could have prevented this conflict are fantastical. Even if NATO had not expanded, Putin would have found other excuses to pursue his revanchist agenda of “reunification of the Rus people.”
Q: Zelensky addressed Congress and made a graphic, emotional appeal for a no fly zone. Will that happen?
A: Probably not, as the US and NATO remain concerned that a full on confrontation will result and Putin will blame us for it. Other solutions, such as a lend-lease program, seem to be gaining some momentum. Also likely is that Putin will soon escalate to provoke a confrontation via oblique means, in which case we will enter the vast gray-zone between non-interventionism and total thermonuclear war. Because that middle ground is filled with uncertainty and the possibility of errors, everyone wishes to avoid it; but Putin seems increasingly intent on dragging us all there. Again, the best possible thing would be if someone inside Russia were to remove him from power; even as the result might later be worse, it may buy us some time to explore other outcomes.
A Personal Appeal
One of my closest friends, Nate Mook, is the CEO of World Central Kitchen, the global humanitarian organization run by Chef José Andrés. Nate and I produce TEDxMidAtlantic together, which is how we met José.
Nate, José, and the World Central Kitchen team have set up operations in Poland, Lviv, Odesa, and throughout the western Ukrainian conflict region, feeding people fleeing from scenes of horror, and working with those trying to find people shelter. This is dangerous work and they are putting their lives at risk. If you feel inclined, please consider making a donation to support their ongoing efforts in Ukraine and around the world. Thank you.
Thanks for your all your great questions. I’ve answered all that I credibly can right now. I’ll keep this series going as long as there’s something new and useful to say. If you have questions for Part 4, please email me or (send via Twitter DM) and I’ll try to address them. Follow me at @davetroy on Twitter; more information at davetroy.com.