The War in Ukraine

Mar 2022

I was born in Mykolaiv, Ukrain. I lived there until age 9, when my family emigrated to Los Angeles. Over the years, much of my immediate family has likewise emigrated to the US. However, I still have many extended family members there.

I haven’t been back to Ukraine since I left as a child. My parents, however, have returned several times to visit friends and family. I feel strong personal connections both to the city itself, and to the well-being of my many family members living there. Watching the Battle of Mikolaiv take place, both through media and through family updates, has therefore been stressful, distracting, and unsettling.

Family Update

As of today, I have three separate groups of family members who’ve been affected by the war in Mykolaiv. My closest relative, an uncle, was living in the city but is an Autralian citizen. Around February 25th, he took himself and much of his Ukranian family to Poland. We had confirmation that he arrived in Warsaw on March 4th.

More family members have fled to western Ukraine. Adult males are currently prohibited from leaving Ukraine, so the family is staying in the country to stay together. Another big group has a house with a basement, which they’ve been using as a bomb shelter. They’ve been descending there whenever the air raid sirens go off.

Predictions

I planned a family gathering for the past weekend, and naturally, Ukraine was all we could talk about. After much kitchen-table debate where people were making informal/implicit predictions, I tried to make things more concrete by formalizing them and writing them down. Since so many folks have been asking me what I think about this conflict, I figured I would share my predictions publicly.

The End of the Conflict

A common question I get is about the end-game of the war. I think Russia will, eventually, seize Kiev and install a puppet regime. This regime will be highly unpopular, but it will remain in power through Russian military and intelligence support. The closest analogs for this, for me, are Syria and Belorus – both places where an unpopular leader has resisted all attempts at regime change. In Syria in particular, the cost was the destruction of a large part of civilian infrastructure. Ukraine is already there after two weeks of bombing, and will continue to get worse.

This article confirmed my existing biases about the end-game. I agree that the task, for the west, is to avoid escalation at all costs, even though the outcome for Ukrainians seems pretty dire. The alternative – a possible nuclear confrontation – is worse, for everyone.

Putin and His Circle

Many of my family members were convinced that this is the end game for Putin personally. I disagree. Putin is powerful, paranoid, and ruthless. If he’s able to prop up extremely unpopular dictators in other countries, he’ll definitely be able to do it at home. I predict that he will remain in power until he dies, and his death will likely be of natural causes.

My family members were wondering about the oligarchs, who are having assets seized and being sanctioned by foreign governments. What’s the point of being a billionaire if you can’t jet around the world on your private plane to your private yacht? There was a “surely, they’ll kick him out now that he no longer benefits them” thread. Again, I disagree. The oligarchs serve at Putin’s mercy, as he showed with Khodorovsky. I also recommend the book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible for an in-depth look at how Putin plays his allies against each other, all the while securing even more power for himself.

Energy/Climate

Russia can balance it’s budget with an oil price of $45 per barrel (paywall). The price is north of $100 at the moment.

There are serious people in the EU who are thinking about a future without Russian gas. Given the politics in the West, this might actually happen, but the impact to Russia will be minimal.

crude oil accounted for $110.2 billion, oil products for $68.7 billion, pipeline natural gas for $54.2 billion and liquefied natural gas $7.6 billion

(source). So, even if we assume all pipelines stop flowing, Russia will still find a ready export market for the remaining 80% of it’s fossil fuels. While the conflict might accelerate renewables transition in the EU, it also has a bunch of negative knock-on effects. Most especially, it makes burning coal a better deal – something the EU is already struggling with. In addition, fracking becomes more profitable again, as does refining poor-quality petroleum such as tar sands.

The US administration was already walking a fine line between advocating a renewables shift while also protecting low gas prices at all costs. The calculus there has become harder, and the administration will face tough choices. Approve more drilling and face the anger of the base? Deny new oil and gas leases, and face the political consequences?

Political Opportunity

This war is very prominent in public conciousness, and people want a frame in which to think about it. I recommend using the following frame whenever talking to anyone about this conflict.

This War Is a Climate War. Putin is just one more character in the cast of fossil-fuel-powered dictators. He’s been wreaking havoc on the world stage for 20 years, and the world rolled over and took it because he supplied the gas. Every bullet shot at a Ukrainian citizen, every missile hitting a residential building, every tank and warplane was paid for when Westerners pumped their gas and turned up their heat.

Ukrainian refugees are climate refugees. They were displaced because of fossil fuels. They join migrants from the Syrian civil war, and the people coming to the US from South and Central America – all people displaced by our addiction to fossil fuels.

The climate crisis is a refugee crisis. Millions of Ukrainians fleeing to the EU is a foreshadowing of what’s to come. We are reacting today in the best possible climate – a very unpopular war, a very definite and very unpopular aggressor, very sympathetic (because white, Christian) victims. How we treat these folks is the best-case scenario, and it could be better.