Ep. 77: Velina Tchakarova on geopolitics, energy economics, and the Russian of Ukraine.

Watch our interview with Velina Tchakarova on Youtube.

Velina Tchakaravo is the Director at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES) in Vienna, Austria. Her work includes research, consulting, and lectures on Global System Transformation and the geostrategy of global actors.


Show notes

  • Velina Tchakarova attempts to forecast geopolitical developments by looking at trends.
  • One of the biggest trends she's been tracking is the ongoing bifurcation of every major socioeconomic system into multiple poles.
  • At present the United States is the only nation with global power projection, and it's also arguably the dominant cultural force.
  • This means, in effect, that there's a unipolar world centered around Western (and specifically American) hegemony.
  • Observers around the world have noticed this state of affairs and have begun to plan accordingly, i.e. Russia and China have attempted to build an alternative to the SWIFT payment system used by most international financial institutions. Velina thinks this may extend to them teaming up to build a separate internet.
  • In terms of game theory, the move towards a multipolar world will likely lead to many mid-sized regional powers attempting to stay neutral and reap the rewards of cooperating with multiple great powers.
  • As an example, Velina points to the European Union being a key strategic partner to the United States while simultaneously deepening its relationship with China.
  • Of course, as the stakes get higher great powers my try to force regional powers to take sides. As an example of this Velina points to the recent security and defense pact established between the United States, Great Britain, and Australia.
  • Velina believes that part of what figured into Putin's decision to invade Ukraine was his confidence in China's financial and economic backing.
  • Trent asked Velina a foundational question: what were Vladimir Putin's motivations for invading the Ukraine. She thinks there are three: 1) the outright subjugation of Ukraine by Russia, 2) the ability to reshape the EU's security architecture if he absorbs enough territory by annexing Ukraine, Belarus, etc., 3) preparing for the long game by building a larger sphere of influence.
  • Velina notes that Putin miscalculated the consequences of his actions in two important ways: 1) he didn't believe that Europe and the United States would respond so swiftly and decisively, 2) he underestimated the Ukrainian's resolve and willingness to fight.
  • Thomas wants to know how whether Velina thinks this will escalate into a world war, and what she looks for to make that determination.
  • The invasion itself represents one tipping point. Velina thinks that the decades since the ending of the first cold war are analogous to the intermission between the first and second world wars. We are, in other words, entering a second cold war.
  • She also stresses the importance of looking at the non-military dimension of the war. She sees clear evidence, for example, of commodity wars taking shape. Russia and Ukraine are the #1 and #5 wheat exporters, respectively, and Europe is famously dependent on Russian gas exports. It's not hard to see how Putin could retaliate against sanctions by restricting exports of either, causing food and fuel crises. These are another potential tipping point, especially in view of the fact that many of the most politically volatile places are also the most dependent upon food exports (i.e. the Middle East).
  • She also points to a bifurcating system of supply chains, which will require e.g. China to develop its own terrestrial and maritime shipping lanes
  • Trent follows up on this line of thinking by asking about energy economics and, specifically, how decades of pushes by environmentalist-influenced governments has led to a lack of development in fossil fuels and nuclear power, thus engendering the current reliance of Europe on Russian energy exports.
  • Velina notes that political decisions tend to be made by people thinking on a 2- to 4-year timeframe who are not responsible for the long-term consequences of their actions.
  • What's more, the push to decarbonization has no real geopolitical justification and is instead the result of both top-down and bottom-up political pressures.
  • Velina's recommendation to world leaders has been consistent: energy security is not about getting energy from the cheapest source but to have a diversity of inputs. This may mean paying more for a while but being less vulnerable to the whims of a dictator like Putin in times of conflict.
  • Trent then asks about Velina's famous Dragonbear thesis, her notion that there is an inchoate relationship between Russia and China that is shaping up to be a second pole of influence standing in opposition to the West.
  • On the whole, she thinks the thesis has been vindicated by recent events, though she desperately hopes she ends up being wrong.
  • Velina notes in passing that she doesn't believe domestic uprisings and protests will be enough to topple Putin. Whether he maintains power will depend on how successful he is with this invasion, how sanctions play out, and how isolated Russia ends up as a result.
  • Thomas asks a great question about how technology has changed since WWII. To take one example, Russia will have a much harder time controlling the narrative about the conflict at home when anyone with a modicum of technical savvy can hop onto a VPN and check the news abroad.
  • First, Velina notes that a lot of Russia is still incredibly rural. The younger population in St. Petersburg can find ways of accessing foreign sources of information, but that still leaves millions of people living in villages getting all their news from state-controlled sources.
  • In standard fashion, Trent turns the discussion towards the role that cryptocurrency and the blockchain could play in the war. Much has been made of the possibility that Russian oligarchs might be hiding their lucre in digital assets to avoid sanctions. Is there any truth to these claims?
  • First, Velina thinks there is clear evidence that the Russians anticipated many of these sanctions. On the same day that Visa and MasterCard announced their decision to cut off payments processing the Russian banks announced that they would be switching over to the payments system developed by the Chinese. These sorts of pivots generally take days or weeks of planning and technical work, it's unlikely that they would've been able to pull it off without substantial preparations ahead of time.
  • She also believes that these sanctions will only accelerate the desire of China and Russia to create central bank digital currencies which are under state control.
  • Further, she thinks it very likely that Russian oligarchs have used cryptoassets as hedges against financial volatility as well as a vehicle for hiding their wealth.
  • Russia is already heavily dependent upon China for technology imports, so she doesn't think the U.S. cutting off similar exports to Russia is likely to do much damage.
  • Thomas closes by asking Velina to engage in 'backcasting'--imagining herself in 10 years explaining what's transpired over the past decade. She then goes into a delightfully detailed explanation of the new, Asian-centric world order and what it means for the powers involved.
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