Situation Report: The Man Who Would Be Tsar

Vova’s Royal Ambitions

While much has been said of Putin’s history as a KGB officer in the waning days of the Soviet Union, his ambitions are rooted in older concepts of Russian history. He believes Russian destiny is much more closely tied to that of the pre-Bolshevik House of Romanov and Tsarist rule of Russia. One might call it “Russia Before Communism,” to adapt Shen Yun, the anti-CCP propaganda dance show.

Taras Kuzio wrote a good piece for the Atlantic Council outlining why Putin identifies so strongly with the Tsarist era:

It is often suggested that Putin is nostalgic for the Soviet Union and wishes to recreate the USSR, but his particular brand of Soviet nostalgia is in fact largely driven by a desire to rehabilitate the totalitarian past and legitimize the authoritarian present. Putin intensely dislikes Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and frequently accuses him of having created today’s problems with Ukraine by fostering a separate sense of Ukrainian national identity and attaching historically Russian lands to Soviet Ukraine.

Putin’s real inspiration is not the nominally internationalist USSR but the ultra-nationalist Czarist empire. His rejection of Ukrainian statehood and his denials of a separate Ukrainian nation are firmly rooted in the Czarist past and closely mirror statements and policies towards Ukraine from the days of the Russian Empire.

Putin’s favorite White Russian Christofascist philosopher Ivan Ilyin was of this period and was actually exiled by the Bolsheviks in 1922. Putin loves anniversaries, and would see this year as the centennial of the end of the Russian revolution and the true beginning of the Soviet Empire—and the end of the Tsarist era. Avenging Ilyin’s exile would make this all the more sweet.

Aleksandr Dugin, said by many to be a philosopher to Putin (but downplayed by the Kremlin) is also obsessed with the House of Romanov. NPR’s bizarre puff piece on the Romanov royal wedding from October 2021 includes fawning coverage of Dugin’s attendance.

Says NPR of the Romanov wedding, and quoting Dugin (!):

Still, in a country like Russia — with its revolutions and twists of history — seemingly no one was willing to entirely rule out a larger role for the royals.

Certainly, Grand Duke George looked the part as he and his new bride emerged from the church to cheers and an honor guard sword salute.

“It’s very unlikely that George Romanov would play some political role in the future of Russia, but who knows?” mused Dugin, the nationalist philosopher, who counts George a friend.

“But we cannot say never,” he added. “Never is not Russian.”

Wow, NPR. Also with the House of Romanov — a racist, anti-Semitic organization called The Black Hundreds, which in its day, terrorized Bolsheviks and Jews relentlessly with the slogan Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.”

Per Wikipedia:

The Black Hundred (Russian: Чёрная сотня, romanized: Chornaya sotnya), also known as the black-hundredists (Russian: черносотенцы; chernosotentsy), was a reactionary, monarchist and ultra-nationalist movement in Russia in the early 20th century. It was a staunch supporter of the House of Romanov and opposed any retreat from the autocracy of the reigning monarch.[3] The name apparently arose from the Medieval concept of “black”, or common (non-noble) people, organized into militias.

Does this sound at all familiar to the present moment? Oh, and one more thing: the Black Hundredists are associated with Third Rome mythology, where the Orthodox churches of Europe will unite and move the seat of the Catholic Church to Moscow (Constantinople being the second Rome).

Moscow, third Rome (Russian: Москва — Третий Рим, romanized: Moskva — Tretiy Rim) is a theological and political concept asserting that Moscow is the successor of the Roman Empire, representing a “third Rome” in succession to the first Rome (Rome itself, capital of Ancient Rome) and the second Rome (Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire).

Putin believes he is the catalyst for the revival of a revanchist, atavistic White Christofascist monarchic state that will ally with its like-minded factions in the West, and will, with its partner China, form the basis for a land-based multipolar geopolitical realignment. No big deal. And it is this White Christofascist vision that has endeared Putin to illiberal factions in the West, as Anne Applebaum points out in this excellent 2019 piece:

The idea that the west should just “give him Ukraine” is more than a little ridiculous in the face of these grand geopolitical ambitions. We must properly gauge his mindset and intentions if we are to meet this moment correctly. Here are some good pieces from this week from Michael McFaul, Michael Carpenter, and Yulia Latynina:

Ms. Latynina argues that Putin may well have overreached this time:

Instead of trapping the United States, Mr. Putin has trapped himself. Caught between armed conflict and a humiliating retreat, he is now seeing his room for maneuver dwindling to nothing. He could invade and risk defeat, or he could pull back and have nothing to show for his brinkmanship. What happens next is unknown. But one thing is clear: Mr. Putin’s gamble has failed.

It may not seem obvious that the Kremlin, which has steadily amassed over 100,000 soldiers at the Ukrainian border since November, was not aiming at war. But the reasons to believe that Russia will pull back from an invasion are many. For one thing, Mr. Putin — whose instinctive cautiousness I’ve observed at close quarters for two decades — has a record of withdrawing at the first sign of real conflict. When Russian mercenaries were killed by U.S. troops in Syria in 2018, for example, he had the perfect opportunity to retaliate. Instead, Russia denied the slaughter ever took place.

Strategically, I would argue that she is likely correct. Philosophically, though, he may have already crossed the Rubicon into the fantasy-world of the Romanovs, Ilyin, and Dugin. Time will tell.

Speaking of Timing…

So when is this thing going to go off, anyway? It’s anyone’s guess, but a few key dates have emerged as being likely material:

  • “Allied Resolve” military exercises in Belarus, February 10–20
  • Beijing Olympics, February 4–20
  • 2014 Maidan Anniversary, February 20
  • 2014 Invasion Anniversary, February 23–27

This would suggest that the week following February 20, at the end of the olympics, would be a likely date. That would also fit Putin’s 2014 pattern of invading immediately following the Olympic games in Sochi that year. Given that Putin is scheduled to be in Beijing for at least some of the Olympic Games, and Xi may (or may not) have asked Putin to hold off doing any invading during those weeks, it seems logical to expect action to occur post-Olympics. There is also the much-discussed matter of mud, which would tend to make Putin’s best war timeline February 20 until about March 20th. Of course, this is applying reason to the actions of a cornered madman, so this should be taken as little more than a guess.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov gushed that the US’s written response to Russia’s demands contained “grains of rationality,” and were “better than NATO’s.” High praise indeed, coming from Lavrov. Unclear if he and Putin found something to like in the secret US proposal, or if he is laying ground for a face-saving reversal. Meanwhile Ukraine president Zelenskyy is advising people not to panic, while seeming a little panicked himself.

Hybrid Warfare is Hybrid

Americans expecting some kind of regular plain-vanilla war where troops do stuff and no one cares except to put stickers on their cars and donate a dollar to veterans groups are going to be in for a bit of a surprise. In fact, we’re already knee deep in hybrid warfare now. All the crazy nonsense going on with crypto and Joe Rogan? Yeah, that’s part of it.

Russia has also been playing up the fact in recent days that they have liquidated their US Dollar reserves and are going to battle against the US currency. In fact, Russian state media has actually come out and said that Tucker Carlson’s shilling for Russia has probably gone a bit overboard:

Russian naval exercises are scheduled off the coast of Ireland in the coming days, and seem to be directly over a large array of transatlantic cables.

It’d be a shame if anything were to happen to those cables, right? Irish fishermen, on the other hand, have vowed to disrupt the exercises — presumably with insufferable sea shanties.

Here are some other threats we might expect to the Internet in the case of a full-blown Russian offensive:

So yeah. Hybrid warfare doing hybrid warfare stuff. On the home front, we were treated to an insane anti-Semitic rant by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. last week at his unhinged anti-vax rally. For a good reminder of what Russian Active Measures against democracies would look like, revisit this excellent 2016 article:

Here are some other good takes on Russia this week from Eliot Cohen, Olga Lautman, and Estonian PM Kaja Kallas. Bottom line: Putin only understands strength.

Meanwhile in the Crypto Hellscape…

Cryptocurrencies again had a very volatile week, but most importantly there are signs that rising geopolitical tensions might crush the speculative bubble. First it’s worth noting that crypto assets did not perform as a hedge against decline in equities (Bitcoin is just another crappy tech stock).

Someone brought my attention to a post I made on Facebook in 2021 that really predicted where the crypto situation was going, and I stand by this assessment:

Last spring I started raising alarm bells with folks in the DC policy world and shared a memo outlining the possible risks to global financial stability. And this week, we have seen that both Russia and the US have taken action. Russia has announced an intention to regulate and/or ban cryptocurrencies (presumably reserving permission for those who Putin favors) but protecting its domestic population from financial manipulation.

President Biden announced that he would issue an Executive Order requiring regulation of cryptocurrencies “as a national security matter”—and that wording is incredibly important. It isn’t to “protect consumers” or “provide guidance to the emerging de-fi market” — it’s literally a national security concern. It is increasingly clear that Russia, China, and the US view cryptocurrencies as part of the hybrid warfare landscape and are willing to take aggressive measures to protect their economies and populations from financial manipulation.

Paul Krugman noted in a piece in the New York Times that the crypto bubble is pulling vulnerable people into “investments” they don’t properly understand, and that we are setting up a scenario similar to the 2008 housing bubble crash. He’s not wrong:

The IMF has advised El Salvador to knock it off with the Bitcoin, because it’s stupid. An MP in Belgium has copied US Mayors Eric Adams and Francis Suarez in wanting to get paid in Bitcoin, presumably because he, too, wishes to compete in this emerging contest of wankers. And I’ve got a short thread explaining why the crypto world is best described as a “self-organized high control group.” Or as some people call it, a cult.

Around the Web…

  • The standoff between Neil Young and his friends and Joe Rogan and his friends continues. In my opinion, Joe Rogan is an execrable information operation and has been associated with a network of people trying to do culture jamming for the last 10+ years. All of this is kayfabe nonsense, and he deserves every bit of derision and scorn he receives. He’s not a responsible or serious human being. And neither is Edward Snowden, who also weighed in on it, and is definitely Russian state-sponsored propaganda. Otherwise he’d be in a cell with Navalny.
  • I participated in an excellent Twitter space about authoritarianism and the situation in Ukraine hosted by my friend Monique Camarra. The recording is available here.
  • This week some ideas of mine (that disinformation causes the equivalent of a social “forest fire,” destroying trust between people) were featured in this webinar by the Soufan Center. A link for replay should be available soon.
  • The COVID situation may be improving. Much of the US seems to have peaked and is now heading in the right direction after an absolutely brutal Omicron surge. Vaccinations, masks, and continued precautions are still very much necessary, but we may be heading for a somewhat more manageable springtime if current trends hold. Obviously new variants will be a concern for the next several months and possibly years, but we may be turning something of a corner, even if it is just towards a new phase of pandemic.
  • The US State Department is starting to put out information on how to combat disinformation. This is a welcome development and anyone interested in this topic should check out their suggestions.
  • January 6th, crypto, Ukraine, Rogan? It’s all part of a unified hybrid warfare threat continuum. Check out this viral Twitter thread from today for more:

What May Happen Next

I think it’s a good bet that we will see more activity designed to scramble reality. Putin’s global Fifth Column will continue to raise the noise level and test out information operations. We may see other activity like cyber attacks designed to destabilize and confuse. Our ability to make sense of things will be tested. Remain calm, breathe, and anchor to ground truths.

Putin is coming to grips with the fact that his imperial, monarchal ambitions are perhaps quite a bit bigger than he is capable of executing. He will need to decide whether to accept that fact or lash out in some grand act of rash unpleasantness. If he chooses the latter, expect him to gain advantage by using every tool available in his hybrid warfare arsenal.

Let’s just pray we all make it through another week relatively unscathed.

We’re interested in the major historical trends that shape current events. Tips? Ideas? Drop us a line via email or Twitter DM. Please note: this analysis is historical and political in nature; it is not intended as financial advice and should not be taken as such. If you enjoy my work, please consider making a donation to World Central Kitchen, to support their work feeding people in times of need.

For an even deeper dive, check out my series, The Big History Behind January 6th and my audio series Oil, Gold, Crypto, and Fascism: How We Got Here and How to Fix It.

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