As the living conditions in Russia continue to decline, irrepressible Muscovites resort to jokes, their default antidote of long standing. Here’s one such.
Kim Jong-un addresses his multitudes, saying: “If you don’t work hard, you’ll end up like Russia.” Alas, it’s not only in jokes that Russia and North Korea increasingly begin to appear in the same sentence.
“Tell me who you friend is, and I’ll tell you who you are,” says the old proverb. If that’s true, then Russia’s closest – increasingly sole – friend is indeed North Korea. It’s the only other country that threatens a nuclear attack on the world.
The world doesn’t take Kim’s threats seriously. But how seriously should it take Putin’s?
Very, writes Stephen Glover. Now that Nato foolishly didn’t heed his warnings against its eastward expansion, Mr Glover believes Putin’s nuclear threat is as real as it’s “spine-chilling”. That’s what the world gets for not listening to Mr Glover’s platitudes.
He quotes Foreign Minister Lavrov as promising a “lightning-quick” response against any country that dares “meddle in ongoing events”. Putin supported his mouthpiece: “We have all the weapons we need for this. No one else can boast these weapons, and we won’t boast about them. But we will use them.”
Yet one of Putin’s top Goebbelses, Vladimir Solovyov, doesn’t mind boasting about the hypersonic Sarmat missile, tested the other day: “One Sarmat missile means minus one Great Britain,” he announced with a gleeful guffaw, leaving his viewers in no doubt that Mr Solovyov would welcome such an outcome, if only for purely aesthetic reasons.
For the sake of balance he ought to have added that such a nuclear strike would mean not only minus one Great Britain, but also minus one Russia. Any nuclear mass murder perpetrated by Russia would in fact be murder-suicide.
I don’t know whether the zombified Russian masses are fully aware of the underlying meaning of nuclear threats. Those with their finger on the button certainly are, and it’s not Putin’s finger I’m talking about.
He can issue the order, but at least 20 stages of authorisation separate him from the proverbial button. At each stage, the order could be countermanded, and it’s highly probable it would be.
Even during the 1962 Cuban crisis, Vasyli Arkhipov, deputy commander of the Soviet B-59 submarine, was one of the two officers who had to authorise the captain’s order to launch a nuclear torpedo. That Arkhipov refused to do – and he had been trained under Stalin, when unquestioning obedience was more deeply ingrained than now.
Nevertheless, we should take Putin’s threats seriously, Mr Glover is right about that. According to him, such a sombre attitude doesn’t mean we should abandon the Ukraine to Putin’s tender mercies. However, Mr Glover refrained from explaining what it does mean. Probably listening to him more attentively next time, if I may venture a guess.
Neither did Lavrov explain what he meant by meddling. Even though these days he is nothing but a Solovyov with a jumped-up title, he used to be a career diplomat. Hence he might not have lost his erstwhile habit of using words advisedly.
Neither Lavrov nor Putin specified that they regarded armament supplies to the Ukraine as meddling that warrants a nuclear response. They left their meaning open to interpretation, and one such is the likelihood that they were referring only to a direct involvement of Nato forces in the Ukraine.
That isn’t going to happen, but the Ukraine will continue to receive more and more of the heavier weapons she needs to drive the Russians back whence they came. That was confirmed yesterday at a meeting of defence ministers from 40 countries.
According to the Ukrainian authorities, such supplies will have reached critical mass by late May. It will then take the Ukrainians another month or so to incorporate the new systems into their war effort. After that they will be ready to go on the offensive, which the Russians, their own arsenal severely depleted and not easily replenishable, will find hard to repel.
This leaves Putin a relatively narrow window of opportunity to leave the war with some of his bloated face saved. But he does have a few options, ranging from sane to lunatic.
At the lunatic end is the possibility of using a tactical nuclear strike either against the Ukraine or Poland, the main clearing house for Western supplies. This option is insane because its consequences are unpredictable.
Even if Nato doesn’t respond in kind immediately, eventually an escalation may become unavoidable. A nuclear murder-suicide beckons.
Since everybody realises this is on the cards, Putin may skip the intermediate stage and attack Nato countries with strategic nuclear weapons straight away. Not being an expert in defence matters, I don’t know how well-equipped Nato is to deal with such an assault.
I hope well enough to prevent total annihilation of the world, or at least its more civilised parts. Yet experts agree that, even if the destruction isn’t total, it will be considerable. Russia, on the other hand, will definitely cease to exist as a recognisable country, and I hope enough people within its high command dread that certainty.
At the other, saner, end we find something that seems likelier to me, but then the road to hell is paved with those who have tried to second-guess Putin. He has already promised to deliver a triumph by the Victory Day parade on 9 May. But a triumph can mean any number of things.
Traditionally, a victory in a war is defined as realising its original objectives. Yet Putin has already shown he is ready not merely to move such goalposts but to use them for firewood.
He started out under the slogan of de-Nazifying the Ukraine, an objective tantamount to turning the Ukraine into a Russian territory or at least satellite. Yet that objective fell by the wayside after a fortnight of hostilities.
Putin’s army has only succeeded in wreaking havoc on Ukrainian cities, murdering Ukrainian civilians, raping Ukrainian women, looting washing machines and blenders from Ukrainian households. Such methods of warfare are known to be counterproductive.
Rather than breaking the defenders’ spirit, unrestrained brutality towards civilians can only strengthen the resolve of every Ukrainian soldier, including those who are ethnically Russian. That’s exactly what happened: Ukrainians know what they are fighting and dying for, and their commitment to defending their homes and families is stronger than the Russians’ quest for free washing machines.
Even though the West was tardy in supplying offensive weapons, Putin’s original objective vanished. However, showing the flexibility for which the KGB is justly famous, he announced that wasn’t the objective at all.
He supposedly started the war only to take over all of Donbas, thereby saving its Russophone population from the depredations visited on it by Ukrainian Nazis, which is to say all Ukrainians. However, even that new aim is beginning to look like an undigestible pie in the sky.
Since the full-fledged offensive in the east of the Ukraine started a week ago, the Russian army has been able to advance only 10 to 20 kilometres, and only in a few sectors of the front. By comparison, in the summer of 1941, the Wehrmacht was advancing through the same terrain (in the opposite direction) at a speed of 20-30 km a day – this though most of the German infantry had only their feet for transport.
Hence it’s far from certain that even the new, modest objective will be realised. But not to worry: Putin can still have his triumph. He can solidify his modest gains, declare victory and have his rapists and looters prance through Red Square, tamping its cobbles down with their goosestepping.
In any civilised country such legerdemain would spell an instant end to the leader’s career and the resignation of his whole cabinet. But Russia isn’t a civilised country. It has no public opinion, nor even a public worthy of the name.
It has a herd of dumbed-down, zombified Yahoos ready to scream themselves hoarse on the nation leader’s cue. (The existence of a few heroic dissidents doesn’t vindicate Putin’s Russia any more than the presence of Bonhoffer, Reck-Malleczewen and Stauffenberg vindicated Hitler’s Germany.) The likes of Putin, Lavrov, Solovyov and Kisilyov have done a sterling job over the past 20 years to produce such an educational masterstroke.
A positional war of attrition will then start, and, as Lynne Truss has predicted, it may well go on for years. Putin, however, won’t – if half the credible rumours of his health are true.
When he goes, the Russians will probably be treated to a show, similar to that staged by Khrushchev three years after Stalin’s death. Putin’s crimes will be widely criticised, which will give the West the pretext it desperately wants for dropping all sanctions.
Russia will proclaim itself to be liberal and democratic, another useful idiot will write a book about the end of history, and the world will be able to relax for a decade or two. And then another Putin will come out of the woodwork to ratchet up the tension.
Plus la Russie change, plus c’est la même chose, to paraphrase the French saying. The more Russia changes, the more she remains the same.