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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 25-02-2022 13:30

Putin’s great gamble

Over the centuries some very important things have hardly changed at all. As in ancient times, the strong continue to prey on the weak when they think they can get away with it.

Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to invade Ukraine after the United States and her European allies had already told him they would not dream of intervening militarily. Joe Biden himself, who had earlier let slip that a “minor incursion” could be overlooked, assured him there would be no “boots on the ground” or air support because Ukraine is not a member of NATO. This must have come as a relief to Putin, who surely remembers that though Kuwait did not belong to the defence alliance set up to keep the Russians out of Western Europe, that did not stop the “coalition of the willing” from going in to drive out the Iraqis.

However, Westerners know that the Russian Armed Forces are a far more formidable lot than the supposedly battle-hardened hosts of Saddam Hussein were. And Putin – who possesses a well-stocked arsenal of weapons of mass destruction – has already warned them that any foreign country that joined the fray could get nuked so it would be wiser to stand aside and let him get on with the job he has set himself.

As a results of all this, political leaders in the rest of the world can be expected to look on, shout insults at the aggressor and wring their hands in dismay while Ukrainians get massacred for the crime of wanting to continue to live in what, despite its many failings, was until the day before yesterday an independent democracy. To salve their consciences, Western governments say they will subject Russia to “unprecedentedly tough” economic sanctions. In the long run, these may or may not prove effective, but it is unlikely that their impact will be felt before Ukraine has been bludgeoned into submission and dismembered.

Some pin their hope on the possibility that Putin has, as the British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace put it, “gone full tonto,” which if true could alarm those surrounding him enough to make them stage a palace coup. This is what the policy of hitting the oligarchs where it hurts is all about, and even armchair strategists have noticed the contempt shown by Putin towards his underlings in a televised meeting in which he pretended to ask them for advice. If they, like so many in the West, think that the decision to go to war was his alone, getting rid of him would be the best way to stop it.

Ever since Putin started mobilising his troops, Western commentators have been asking themselves what should or could have been done to prevent him conquering a relatively weak neighbour he has decided to add to his domains. Many suggest that enlarging NATO by admitting countries which had been part of the Soviet empire was a serious mistake because it was certain to make the Russians feel they had been encircled by a revanchist coalition determined to throttle them. Others think it would have been better if, instead of dancing gleefully on the grave of an enemy that had just come crashing down to earth because of its own internal contradictions, the West had made a genuine effort to woo Russia by treating her as an equal. 

Would such policies have worked? Nobody knows, but while there can be no doubt that, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union back in 1991, Western governments did commit what is retrospect would be seen as some serious strategic blunders, by far the most dangerous was to encourage people to believe that from then on “soft power” would count for more than old-fashioned military preparedness. Even in the United States, whose leaders tried to resist the trend, the strange notion that “white supremacy” and hostility towards males who say they are females and deserve to be treated as such pose threats which are far worse than whatever the Iranians, Russians and Chinese may have in mind has been making headway of late.

After the disastrously mishandled US-led cut-and-run from Afghanistan, it was widely predicted that autocrats everywhere, among them Putin, would feel emboldened to try their luck. It is generally agreed that he is an opportunist who, after carefully studying the West, came to the unsurprising conclusion that it would do nothing much to stop him taking over Ukraine and then, when the time is ripe, Belarus plus Kazakhstan and other chunks of the “near abroad” in order to accomplish his dream of restoring the Tsarist empire.

It would seem that in the Russian’s view, Biden is a doddering political hack and the Europeans, who in theory could form military forces much stronger than those of his own impoverished country (which boasts an economy smaller than Italy’s) could possibly afford, are too decadent even to give it a shot. He evidently thinks that all they can do is bluster, go on about how peace is better than war, and worry themselves sick over energy supplies. Is Putin wrong when he takes the democratic West to task for losing faith in the civilisation preceding generations created? There is no reason to think so.

Unpleasant as the thought may be, over the centuries some very important things have hardly changed at all. As in ancient times, the strong continue to prey on the weak when they think they can get away with it. Morale still counts not only for soldiers on the battlefield, who need to remain convinced that those they are fighting for will always give them the benefit of any doubt should they be accused of war crimes, but also among the general population which in most Western countries these days includes large numbers of self-righteous militants who insist that telling ruthless enemies to be nice should be more than enough to make them go away. Born appeasers, they refuse to pay attention to that well-known Roman saying: sī vīs pācem, parā bellum; if you want peace, prepare for war.

Putin, China’s overlord Xi Jinping and their many admirers quite openly say they think Western societies, including that of the United States, have grown too soft to survive for much longer. However, both Russia and China also suffer from some of the problems which are darkening the prospects of many still relatively wealthy countries. The most serious of these is a very low birth rate; for Putin, the gloomy predictions of demographers who see Russia’s population shrinking sharply in the course of the next few decades are surely a source of worry, which must make him think he has no time to waste. For his country to remain even a middle-ranking power he would have to reverse this trend; this, presumably, is the main reason he wants to turn 44 million Ukrainians into his subjects – whether they like it or not.

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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).

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