Russia’s „old“ politics in a new world – Why the worst consequences of Putin’s attack will probably fall on the Russian side

Russia’s attack on Ukraine is the first military assault by one European nation against another since 8 May 1945. And at first glance, this attack seems to operate according to exactly the same principles and methods as Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland more than 82 years ago, on 1 September 1939. Of course, we are witnessing things that did not exist then:

  • An almost unmanageable throng of direct comments and discussions on the internet,
  • instantaneous coverage of the details of military action around the world,
  • the immediate intervention in Russia’s international solvency, e.g. the exclusion of Russia from international banking via a Swift exclusion (even if some countries like Switzerland and even Germany have a hard time with it, as … well … this decreases the business opportunity set),
  • Putin’s terrifying threat of nuclear weapons if the West intervenes,
  • the direct restriction of Russia in the development of the high-tech economy of the 21st century through exclusion from international projects,
  • and numerous other things.

Nevertheless, the attack on Ukraine with the aim of conquering Kiev seems at first very similar to Hitler’s attack with the aim of taking Warsaw. On closer examination, however, the situation is quite different from back then, especially with regard to what was probably already the most significant development component back then, but which is many times more important today: science and technologies. Germany was the leading scientific nation back then, where not only quantum physics and relativity theory had emerged, but the country was also a world leader in chemistry, biology and medicine. What is the situation with Russia today? The situation for the country looks very different: It plays a rather minor role in international science, and new technologies hardly come out of it either. For example, there are hardly any foreign scientific personnel which goes to Russia to do research. Thus innovative ideas and technologies barely find their origin in Russia. The country is simply too closed and undemocratic. In their aggressive manipulation of the internet, for example, they even use technologies that had their origin abroad. Incidentally, this does not mean that the same applies to individual Russian scientists. For example, since 1990, there have been five Nobel Prizes in physics given to Russians (in three different years). But the majority of these Russians had already worked abroad for a long time.

Scientists prefer to work in free countries and not in countries where the internet has always been under state surveillance (the secret service FSB can – without judicial authorisation! – read all mail traffic in,  from and to Russia and track the internet activities of Russian users in real time). In other words, the most successful and original scientific research takes place in open societies (as Germany experienced with the rise of National Socialism, which took down Germans strong leadership in science within five years). Thus, the above-mentioned scrap of scientific and technological projects will most likely be the most serious for Russia in the long run: The country is being disconnected from the incredibly fast dynamics of international technological development, which is causing it to fall further and further behind economically and, most recently, militarily (which was what caused the Soviet Union to fail in the end).

For authoritarian rulers, science is the enemy par excellence, one could say, because only science can stand up to the lies and cynicism, the power calculations and the irresponsible simplification of the rulers, which often extends into madness. Thus, the Soviet Union (especially under Stalin) did put numerous brilliant scientists to death (including the brother of Emmy Noether, Frith Noether, also a mathematician, who escaped Nazi-Germany to Russia).

For example, the current head of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Alexander Sergeyev, described the situation of science in his country as a „valley of death“. Russian science, he said, does not contribute to the innovation of the Russian economy, the number of papers from Russia at major international conferences and the number of articles by Russian researchers in leading international journals has declined so much that those with high appeal and many citations are negligible. Research funding per scientist is 100 times lower than in Japan. In the early 1990s, there were almost three times as many scientists in Russia as there are today. Meanwhile, the number of highly qualified emigrants from the country adds up to 44,000 per year. Especially in recent years, since the annexation of Crimea and the Putin regime’s ever-increasing repression of political dissidents, more and more scientists, and with them many of the brightest young Russian minds, have emigrated to the West because they cannot implement at home what they have in their heads. And the fact that Russian-born physicists are successful abroad was shown, among others, by Andrej Geim and Konstantin Novosjelow from the University of Manchester, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for their research into the nanomaterial „graphene“. Asked if he could imagine returning to Russia, Geim replied sarcastically: „Only after I’m born again.“

What also makes Russia very weak in the long run is that its economy is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuel exports. This also leaves Russia completely behind in what will probably be one of the most important economic disciplines in the future: ecological innovations. Here, China, the largest consumer of fossil energy and often compared to Russia in terms of its authoritarian self-interest, acts quite differently: despite its high coal consumption, China is already the largest producer of alternative energies in the form of wind, water and sun.

The technologies that enable Putin to do this were all invented and developed in the free and open societies of the West, where people’s creativity can best flourish. Thus, in response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Joe Biden said in a clear voice:

«Liberty, democracy, human dignity — these are the forces far more powerful than fear and oppression.  They cannot be extinguished by tyrants like Putin and his armies.  They cannot be erased by people — from people’s hearts and hopes by any amount of violence and intimidation.  They endure.

And in the contest between democracy and autocracy, between sovereignty and subjugation, make no mistake: Freedom will prevail.»

One can only agree with this statement by the US President.


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