Is Russia invading Ukraine? | Cloud countries

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This week:

  1. Russia v Ukraine again: is Russia preparing for another invasion?

  2. Cloud countries: are digital-first countries going to be a thing?

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☮ Russia-Ukraine: War and (some) Peace

By Helen

Russia casually moved some 110,000 troops to its border with eastern Ukraine (and the Russian-annexed Crimea) earlier this month, the country's biggest military flex since entering the Syrian War in 2015.

Cool, cool, cool.

This is Russia's largest military presence on the Ukrainian border since their stoush in 2014, and it has set off alarm bells internationally. Stoush is too glib a word as it was actually a brutal war with ~13,000 people killed, including ~3,300 civilians.

The troops are supposedly gathered for 'military exercises'; but naturally, the presence of Russian troops at the border has made neighbours jittery (think a swarm of Karens circling to swoop your table at brunch, but you know, worse).

Satellite images taken last week show rows of fighter planes lined up at an air base in Crimea; Russian war ships swirling on the Black Sea; and tanks and heavy artillery rolling up one by one like it’s V-Day in Moscow.

For now, the situation has cooled. Russia’s Defence Minister ordered Russian troops to partially withdraw last Thursday (no doubt disappointing the Ukrainian PM, who earlier challenged President Putin to a̶ ̶d̶u̶e̶l̶ meet at the border).

President Putin is the maestro at this sort of geopolitical sabre-rattling and public projection of Russian force: think #underpantsgate and his signature lewk.

And this time, Putin is sending the message well beyond Ukraine, straight to NATO and the US Biden Administration.

A Eurovision view of Russian-Ukrainian history

Russia has long regarded Ukraine as a crucial buffer between its frontlines and continental Europe/NATO.

And to better understand the dynamics of contemporary Russian-Ukrainian rivalry, we take you to two chapters highlighted by the Eurovision Song Contest:

Stalin’s deportations

First up is the controversial and contentious 2016 Eurovision contest, when the Ukrainian song, ‘1944’, beat the favoured Russian entry. Russia shrugged off this loss as the world ‘demonising’ Russia.

And, to be fair to the Russians, the Ukrainian entry did actually violate Eurovision contest rules for including political lyrics. Scandal.

The song told the plight of Ukraine’s Tatar ethnic minority, some 240,000 of whom were forcibly deported from Crimea under Stalin* in 1944. Stalin then encouraged ethnic Russians to re-populate Crimea, contributing to the sizeable ethnic-Russian/Russian-speaking population in Crimea today.

*’Young Stalin’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore is a great, but grim, read.

The Euromaidan Revolution

Fast-forward to March 2014 when Ukrainian protestors ousted then-President Viktor Yanukovych and his government. Protestors claimed Yanukovych purposely delayed signing a key agreement with the EU in order to protect Ukraine’s relationship with Russia, which was Ukraine’s biggest trade partner at the time.

Sensing an increasingly hostile Ukraine, Russia began annexing (a $10 word for stealing) Crimea. Though Crimea is/was part of Ukraine, the region identified cultural-linguistically and ethnically as Russian. That said, the 97% referendum vote in favour of full Russian integration raised eyebrows internationally. (Someone needs to tell dictators of the world that 75% is both vaguely believable and still a crushing victory).

This brings us to the second Eurovision instance of Russian-Ukrainian friction, in 2015, when Ukraine was unable to participate in Eurovision because it was busy responding to a Russian annexation. And, to rub salt in the wound, Russia’s entry that year was this power ballad about world peace 😂.

Ed: we know there’s much more to Russian-Ukrainian history than simply Eurovision, but alas, the word count. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Zoom out: key takeaways

  1. The ‘frozen’ border conflict will continue in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian government (aided by private Ukrainian militia). Even though Russian troops have backed down for now and a ceasefire's in place (just), this area is prime for escalation because it is still heavily militarised. (This was the also the spot from which a Russian separatist missile downed the ill-fated flight MH-17 in 2014).

  1. Russia’s military ‘BDE’ on display is on brand with its national security doctrine of ‘offence is the best defence’. This is a classic page straight out of Putin’s foreign policy playbook to:

  • Flex Russian strength to neighbours, especially NATO;

  • Rebuild Russia’s military power while sending a message to the US; and

  • Grow Russian influence globally.

  1. Context is everything: Putin’s big challenges at home need to be deflected with an external show of strength. Domestically, Putin needs to deal with... a lot:

  • Low oil prices;

  • COVID-19 recovery;

  • General economic malaise;

  • A growing sense of discontent among Russians (fanned by Putin’s arch-nemesis Alexei Navalny, whose recent government-ordered nerve-agent poisoning prompted sanctions from the EU and US).

The fighting these past few years has been brutal for both Russia and Ukraine, and civilians have unsurprisingly bore the brunt of the turbulence.

With sanctions proving largely ineffective in wrangling Russian behaviour, the US and NATO will have to come up with some creative solutions to manage the resurfaced Russian-Ukrainian tension, and soon - Eurovision 2021 is in May.


☁ Cloud countries

In this piece I draw heavily from this article by tech-investor Balaji Srinivasan. I encourage you to check out his latest project, 1729. He’s building an interesting model for new media 😏.

Q: What is a ‘country in a cloud’?

a) Mozambique, after the Moroccan flag bearer tripped over the smoke machine at the Tokyo 2021 Opening Ceremony.

b) The hit single from Les Misérables 2, the futuristic follow up to the 19th century classic, set in Marine Le Pen’s Sixth French Republic.

c) An online country built by tech bros because they know they could never get elected in the real world.

While the world can never have too much Les Mis (don’t @me), and Olympic opening ceremonies could always use more laughs…

The idea

The network state is built cloud first, land last. Rather than starting with the physical territory, we begin with a digital community.
Balaji Srinivasan

A cloud country is a digital-first community in which members work, socialise, create, and transact. It has a social fabric - it has citizens, laws, norms, economies, and culture. The word ‘community’ is overused now but, apart from scale, what really is the difference between building a community and building a society?

The main difference between a cloud country and a traditional country is that a cloud country isn't physically manifested in territory like a traditional country… yet:

Over time we eventually crowdfund territory in the real world, but not necessarily contiguous territory. Because an underappreciated fact is that the internet allows us to network enclaves.
- Balaji Srinivasan

Okay, okay, let’s step back a bit.

How do you even start a new country?

Lawyers don’t make money if the law is clear.
the most important lesson I learned in law school

Let's start with 'the law'. The two main principles of starting a new country are:

  1. The right to self-determination: Aka: people should be allowed to start their own country if they want to. The theory has long been recognised by international law, but in practice... not so much.

    Examples: the Basque independence movement, Kurdistan, Nagorno-Karabakh, East Timor, to name but a few. Oh and once-upon-a-time, the United States.

    (You'll notice that successful examples of self-determination almost always include the use of force)

  2. Territorial integrity: Aka: invading and/or taking another country's territory is illegal.

    Examples: Russia v Ukraine, the 2nd Gulf War, China also invokes its version of this principle in relation to Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan.

The principle of territorial integrity is why self-determination is practically impossible. When these two principles clash, the International Court of Justice has decided that territorial integrity wins.

Now here’s the interesting part: could a cloud country avoid this clash of legal principles entirely? For example:

  • Might a group of, say, three million digital citizens who want to start their own cloud country have a right to self-determination at international law? Maybe!

  • If that cloud country then legally purchased enclaves of land, would it be violating the principle of territorial integrity? Maybe not!

Law schmaw I hear you say. Fair enough, if you prefer the practical route, there are three ways to start your cloud country: an election, a revolution, or a war. History suggests that the former rarely leads to the establishment of a new country without some mix of the latter two.

So is a cloud country possible?

The cloud country concept “just” requires stacking together many existing technologies… it takes the most robust existing tech stack we have – namely the suite of technologies built around the internet – to route around political roadblocks.
Balaji Srinivasan

Let's assume a cloud country is technically possible.

There's one immediate problem: a cloud country requires physical servers, at least in the short and medium term. And a ‘host’ country could easily shut down those servers if the cloud country say… stopped paying taxes.

It's clear then that, just like traditional countries, there can be no truly independent cloud country until it has established sovereignty over some physical territory.

But what existing government would permit some of its sovereign territory to be sold to a new cloud country? After all, selling land to a cloud country would not only give up physical control of the territory, but the selling country would also lose the GDP and tax revenue from a digitally advanced, presumably highly productive group of citizens.

That said, selling sovereignty is not without precedent:

  • in 1803, the US bought vast swathes of the North American continent from France (even though it was actually owned by Indigenous Americans 🤐)

  • in 1867, the US bought Alaska from Russia for ~$137m in today’s dollars. Pretty sure Russia would like that shot back.

Why am I even writing about this?

When I first came across the idea of a cloud country, I scoffed and filed it under ‘tech bros high on their own supply’. It is a full file.

But the more I investigated, the less I dismissed the idea. It sounds absurd to us now, but we will live our lives almost entirely online within the next 30 years, and probably a lot sooner.

And not ‘Lucas turn off that damn Facebook machine and come down for dinner’ online, but ‘metaverseonline 🤯. (The Wired story might be paywalled - email me if you'd like me to send you a pdf version)

The cloud country idea is far more complex than what I'm able to cover here, but at its core are questions like:

  • How do we best organise our societies when we all live our lives online?

  • How do we design societal structures to ‘interface’ between the physical and digital worlds?

  • Are ~200 traditional nation states the best way to organise people in a world when an asymmetric cyberattack capability becomes more destructive than a nuclear arsenal?

  • Is a traditional government the best system of governing people when maintaining societal order looks more like locking someone out of the metaverse instead of locking someone inside a prison?

The underlying concept of the nation state hasn’t really been challenged in ~350 years, no matter what Brexiteers tell you. And let us not forget that most of the world was quite literally divided up by men in smoky rooms in the capitals of the colonial powers.

I, for one, am glad that the next generation is looking at the state of the world and asking ‘is this really the best we can do?’.

Because the brand new is unthinkable, we fight over the old. But perhaps we can change that.
Balaji Srinivasan

➕ Extra intrigue

We wanted to give a little shoutout to our intern Laura who scours the news to bring you Extra intrigue each week. We think you’ll agree that she does a great job of choosing an eclectic mix of stories you might have missed. Thanks, Laura!

🔎 Intriguing recommendations

💁🏻‍♀️ Helen: Need white noise to drown out the voices in your head? Check this page out to curate your own selection of sounds. Also, I'm celebrating the Oscar win of Chloe Zhao, who's made history as the first woman of Asian descent to take home 'Best Director' for Nomadland (even if it ruffled feathers in China, her birth country). Now to actually stay awake through that film...

👴  John: If you clicked on the mysterious link in my story about Russia 'wanting its shot back', you'd have seen an esoteric Simpsons meme. It was probably funny only to me, but hey, the perks of being in charge. If you're a Simpsons fan (👋 hi fellow millennials), then it’s my great pleasure to announce you can now actually play Lee Carvalho's Putting Challenge. "Includes many exciting features such as: Number Input, Power Settings, and Parking Lot."

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