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#28 - Breakdown of Rogan-Zeihan Discussion
秘书 - Mi4Shu1 - Secretary
The Rogan-Zeihan discussion is quite popular amongst the US national security crowd at the moment. Below is Vermilion’s breakdown and analysis of the discussion’s main points. Zeihan’s statements have been summarized and organized into three main topics (Russia, Ukraine War, China).
For those unfamiliar with the “Joe Rogan Experience,” Joe Rogan is an independent thinker who interviews various individuals and gives his guests a fair platform for dialogue. Zeihan is a serious analyst with over two decades of experience and multiple publications.
Zeihan: The Russian state lacks geographic anchors, which drive it to expand until it reaches defendable mountains, rivers, or other features. One of these defensible geographic features happens to be Ukraine.
Russia and NATO have conflicting interests. For Russia to feel safe, it must expand until it occupies large frontiers containing more than 180 million people. This is not feasible at this time and also drives the NATO response, which makes Russia feel even less secure in turn.
Vermilion: This analysis is sound. Geography plays a large role in driving security interests for great powers. Every increment of security Russia gains in occupied territory is in turn threatening to NATO countries. There may not be a long term deal possible, only intermittent breaks when one side or the other lacks the will or material to fight.
Zeihan: Russia believes it is in terminal population decline by 2050-70. The Ukraine War is how Russia sets conditions to be a secure country once the population is smaller and less able to defend itself. The current generation of fighting age males in Russia is the last generation of people large enough to fight or sustain casualties.
Vermilion: A general rule of thumb is to be highly circumspect of analysts who claim to know or assess with high confidence the decision-making of authoritarian or totalitarian regimes. Within these regimes, the decision making process is often complex and opaque to outside observers. This is doubly the case with Russia and China. It is almost a rule that one great power lacks a clear picture of another great power’s decision process, philosophy, and intentions.
Historically, if such exquisite insight is obtained, this information is highly perishable and only provides a small window of access.
In terms of demographics, Russia certainly faces population decline. Zeihan submits that this worry drives serious security concerns. This is not at all clear. Great power security concerts often boil down to anxiety about combat power, but all combat power is relative. While the Russian population declines, so does that of Russia’s European adversaries. It is not clear that Russia is at a demographic disadvantage relative to its most likely and closest proximity European adversaries.
Zeihan: Putin has purged everyone that has leadership ambition and there are 150 people that currently run Russia. This group shares the same worldview. This is all the leadership talent the country has since alternatives have left or been killed off.
Vermilion: Again, we should be generally cautious about analysis of authoritarian/totalitarian ruling cliques. It may be the case that Putin has a small group which shares a world view and that most leadership talent has been purged, but this cannot be a high confidence assessment. Additionally, in authoritarian systems, there are very often individuals waiting in the wings to seize power. These individuals are superb at climbing the ladder while hiding their intentions and flattering their superiors.
Zeihan: The US Navy will no longer be patrolling the oceans.
Vermilion: Unlikely to happen in the near term, but it would have been interesting for Zeihan to describe more of his thoughts in this area.
Zeihan: Russia believed that Ukraine was going to surrender quickly (like in the 2014 Ukraine War). To understand where the war is going, May 2023 will be critical. At this point, Ukraine will be far better trained and equipped by NATO. Simultaneously, Russia’s second military mobilization of possibly 500,000 men will have been processed into a new army.
Vermilion: Very sound analysis.
During the conversation, Zeihan admitted that he was wrong about Ukraine’s will to fight. He stated that his previous belief was that Ukraine would collapse within 6 months to 1 year. This takes some serious maturity, and should strengthen Zeihan’s credentials as an analyst. Gauging will to fight is notoriously difficult and may not be within the realm of current analytical capabilities. Zeihan should suffer no loss of credibility because of his previous assessment.
Zeihan: Russian military campaigns often begin the first year in disaster and casualties are often very high. Russia still wins about 50% of the time, and the other 50% of the time they usually don't back out until suffering ~500,000 casualties. Either way, Russia is relatively casualty immune, and has lower tech than their adversaries. In the current war, Russia has suffered around 100,000 casualties and Ukraine ⅓ of that figure.
Vermilion: Casualty analysis is fraught with deceiving nuance. Casualties can mean KIA, WIA, POWs, missing, and deaths from disease/accidents. A review of Russian wars shows a mixed record. In the Russo-Japanese War, the Soviet-Afghan War, and the First Chechen War, Russia withdrew after suffering far less than 500,000 casualties. Supporting Zeihan’s claim, the Russians withdrew from the Crimean War after losing about 450,000 troops.
There are also the outliers of WWI, WWII, and the Russian Civil War, where losses are significantly higher. Considering all of the above cases, Zeihan’s rule of thumb may not be very accurate. Russia is certainly more accepting of casualties than the US, and it could be said that Russian leadership is historically relatively casualty immune. Russian and Ukrainian casualties are likely higher than the figures he suggests.
Zeihan: If Russia is going to win, it’s going to take Moscow a year to overwhelm Ukrainian defenses. After that, occupation will cost a couple million lives on both sides.
If Ukraine is going to win, it must break the logistical chains that supply Russian troops and kill up to a half million Russians to push Moscow out of Crimea and the east. It may be a multi-year, multi-decade conflict.
Vermilion: Very sound analysis.
Zeihan: Currently, the balance of forces favors Ukraine. The fighting vehicle shipments are critical because currently, Ukraine can only advance at the rate or running once they tear a gap into Russian lines.
Vermilion: The balance of forces does seem to favor Ukraine, but more so at the date of this interview. Fighting vehicles are critical, but Ukraine has many of these systems. Their units are not entirely foot mobile, but a greater concentration of armored vehicles would theoretically give Ukraine the ability to attack for farther distances.
Zeihan: Russian forces can only supply by rail and require trucks for local distribution. Ukrainian attacks on trucks reduced the Russian military to requisitioning civilian trucks.
Vermilion: Relying on railroads is actually a far superior form of logistics. In fact, the Russian military maintains a special corps of Railway Troops to manage military railway operations. Russian rolling stock is sufficient and in decent condition. Railways are able to deliver thousands of tons of supplies quickly and efficiently.
Trucks are still required for distribution to units not located at railheads, and Ukraine certainly destroyed many trucks. However, Russia as a country likely has plenty of trucks available (even if they are civilian vehicles) to transport goods. The Ukrainians actually rely on a network of civilian trucks as well, with few negative comments about Ukrainian logistics capability.
Zeihan: There is no future where China comes out looking good and it will cease to exist as a unified country in at maximum 10 years. The demographic problems are too deep.
Vermilion: China and the US have roughly the same median age (38) and are therefore both about the youngest of all developed nations. Today, there are about 4 Chinese people for every American. According to most population assessments, in 2050, there will be about 3 Chinese for every American. This is not a catastrophic change, and China is much younger and is more fertile than its potential Asian adversaries of Japan and South Korea. Clearly this does not match with Zeihan’s assessment.
An assumption is that Zeihan predicts a future population collapse in China brought about by a collapse in international trade. However, this was not discussed in depth during the interview, so it would be better to get Zeihan to state more of his own assumptions regarding a China collapse hypothesis.
Zeihan: Sanctions on China would cause a famine. China is reliant on many foreign inputs for its agriculture and energy.
Vermilion: While this may or may not be true, Zeihan himself mentions in the same interview that Russia is a large exporter of food and energy. It seems likely that if Russia needs to continue selling its goods and China requires them, that this will push the two into deeper cooperation on trade.
Zeihan: The only reason to worry about war over Taiwan is that Xi may miscalculate. Xi does not have normal information flows. Nobody wants to say anything to Xi because people are often killed or imprisoned. Nobody tells Xi anything. Everyone on the politburo is a lackey with no competence.
The overthrow of Xi is impossible because he is more paranoid than Mao ever was and is more isolated. There is no succession plan because Xi purged everyone, there is no talent left, and most in the politburo are technically too old to have the post, incumbents are supposed to be younger than 64/66. Putin lied to Xi and said he was not getting ready to invade Ukraine.
Vermilion: The same rules about analyzing authoritarian/totalitarian leadership structures from the above Russia example apply equally here. Also, Zeihan may be applying his Russia decision making model inappropriately to China. Unlike in Russia, the communist party is still quite strong in China. The CCP has vigorously maintained numerous information and expertise talent management systems. This includes the secretary (秘书) system.
Under this system, high performing communists are placed as advisors and assistants to key Chinese leaders to build expertise and connections. These secretaries are highly knowledgeable. Xi himself was a 秘书 to a top-ranking PLA general in his younger days. The Chinese also tend to keep party or state experts within their expertise area for their entire lives, building a fairly deep bench. It would be wrong to assume that Xi receives low quality information.
Overthrow of Xi is very unlikely but not impossible. Just because the men on the Politburo Standing Committee are older doesn’t mean one of them also couldn’t take charge. Xi is also not likely to be more paranoid and isolated than Mao. It is true that most of the members of the Politburo are technically too old for the post and that there doesn’t appear to be a public succession plan.
There are almost certainly many reasons to be worried about a war over Taiwan besides Xi miscalculating. At the very least, Taiwan, Japan, or the US could also miscalculate, leading to war. Also, there is almost no way for an outside observer to know what Xi and Putin discuss.
Finally, our readers should be wary of individuals who discuss deep China issues and cannot pronounce Xi Jinping’s last name. Xi is generally pronounced “she” with the teeth closed together for the first part of the word. It is not pronounced “Jee” as Zeihan does during the interview and neither is it “zhee.” However, many of Zeihan’s points are quite sound, and his assessments about the far future are very interesting.