Could Elvira Nabiulina be the next Russian president?
Last Monday evening I was driving along the perimeter of Cork Harbour, not far from East Cork. The area has a lot of fame – for example, a local (Edward Bransfield) is credited with discovering Antarctica in 1820. But less triumphantly, some local villages such as Whitegate, Aghada and Farsid lost a third of their male population during the Crimean War.
At the time, a large number of soldiers died from disease and a lack of basic medical procedures – while the French and British armies fought side by side against the Russians, casualties were relatively higher on the British side due to poor medical equipment and practice – hence the welcome Florence Nightingale’s techniques.
I thought about this recently when I read a post about the very different medical kits that have been provided to the Ukrainian and Russian forces, respectively. Putting aside propaganda and donations from the West, the Ukrainian collection looked modern while the collection of Russian soldiers could have come from a museum or horror show. In this regard, the apparent fading of the Russian army is not surprising.
More supporting details about this come from the 140-page long memoir by Pavel Vilyatiev, a professional paratrooper in the Russian army, who was driven to desperation by the chaos of his pamphlet (in Kherson), and wrote a long account of his experience in the army Russian. . Armies are not pleasant places, but his account of the systematic mistreatment of Russian soldiers, lack of nutrition, disorganization in battle, and embarrassing lack of equipment, tells us, not only of the Russian army but of the Russian state. Needless to say, he is now hiding outside Russia.
In this context, the mobilization of highly experienced soldiers initially, the selection of prisoners in the Russian army, opens up many risks – for both Ukraine and Russia. In addition, the upcoming referendums on the accession of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhya and Kherson regions to the Russian Federation is a subtle and fatal step for the geopolitical goalposts. Any attempt to liberate these areas from Ukraine would now be, in the eyes of the Kremlin, an attack on Russia itself, and it has the right to respond as it sees fit.
From a military point of view, this increases the risks around Ukraine, and in particular increases the possibility of a strategic error or tail event (such as the destruction of a NATO satellite or an attack on a Baltic country). Putin’s move also raises the stakes for social and political risks within Russia. Since I am not a military expert but prefer to write about economic development and the rise and fall of states, I will focus on that.
Filayev's memoirs say a lot about Russia. It is a country that until recently had low levels of human development, particularly in health care and life expectancy (which was rising from low levels). In this context, Vladimir Putin's view of Russia as a superpower is hollow - unless a country can maintain improved levels of human development (through education, quality health care, and freedom of thought) it will not sustain essential drivers of growth, such as productivity. This is a lesson for China, the United Kingdom, and the United States to follow. In China and the UK (productivity is declining) while life expectancy in the US has fallen sharply (less than in China).
I am sure that in the coming years many will write about the surprisingly poor quality of the Russian army, and in the context of this remark, this is just another sign of the poor quality of development. Perhaps this is one reason why emerging market crises happen slowly, and then very quickly. Incompetent institutions, poor rule of law, and bans on smart policy making can be camouflaged for a while by superficial growth, but all of that quickly fades in moments of stress.
The danger is that other institutions are heading in the same direction. When Putin announced the mobilization, there were rumors that the prestigious head of the Russian Central Bank, Elvira Nabiullina, had resigned (she apparently tried to do the same in March). It has not been confirmed but it does raise the question of the viability of a whole group of Russian institutions to navigate a stormy geopolitical climate. Increasingly, the pressure will be on Russia, and from multiple angles.
As a final word, I want to go back to the Crimean War. It is not inconceivable that Corkmin from villages like Whitegate were bombed by Leo Tolstoy, at that time a young artillery officer. Tolstoy's experience in the war greatly affected him. In the context of Putin's recent mobilization, it is worth remembering some advice he gave to a young man "All people should only refuse to become soldiers." Many young Russians think the same thing today.