I have hesitated to write about the dominant news story of the past few weeks - the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Mainly, that is because I have not felt informed enough about it, but I’ve been working to remedy that. The other reason is because it is not overtly environmental in nature. It is clearly geopolitical, militaristic, economic, and humanitarian, so maybe I’m at risk of straying from my lane here. But there is a genuine environmental angle here, and so I finally got the guts up to write about it.
How Russia Came to Invade Ukraine
First though, I want to start with the humanity piece of what is happening in Eastern Europe right now. Shame on Russia and shame on Vladimir Putin. The loss of life that we are witnessing as a result of their aggression is heartbreaking. Many soldiers have died, but the civilian casualties are not insignificant. Moreover, from the reporting we have, Russian armed forces have begun targeting civilian areas. What they are doing is tragic, unthinkable, and ethically wrong. I am heartened to see so many countries condemning and sanctioning Russia and working to aid Ukraine in ways that won’t escalate the scope of the war.
In many ways, it has been my emotional reaction of disgust to what is happening that has fueled my intellectual desire to understand why it is happening. Between lots of internet reading and several informative podcasts these past few weeks, I’ve come to a decent understanding of how this all came to be. From my perspective, it seems like there are several undercurrents to the conflict. One is the psyche of Putin himself, given that he has successfully consolidated power in Russia to become a true authoritarian. Perhaps the easiest explanation of the war is as simple as, “Because Putin wanted to.”
It’s more complicated than that, however. Another undercurrent is clearly the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the military alliance that has encroached upon Russia’s sphere of influence these past 23 years. Another is Russia’s history, and it is more clear than ever that the lowering of the hammer and sickle flag from the Kremlin on Christmas Day, 1991 did not signal a clean break from their Soviet past. But the undercurrent that I want to focus on is Russia’s petro-based global economic status.
Understanding Russia’s Economy
For this next part of the blog, I need you to do some clicking and scrolling. Start with the graph visualizing the United States’ historical gross domestic product per person (GDP per capita). Don’t worry about the numbers each year. Just look at the shape of the blue line - it goes up pretty steadily and smoothly, even accounting for 2008’s great recession and 2020’s pandemic.
Now look at the exact same graph, for China GDP per capita. The line looks a bit different, reflecting the fact that China only became a global economic superpower in the last few decades. But the trend is generally consistent. These are the two largest economies in the world, and both have steadily seen their economies grow on a per capita basis, even with the economic shocks of the past 15 years.