Tyrants rely on wars to tighten their grip on power.
The Russian liberal Alexander Herzen expressed this historical truth epigrammatically back in the 19th century: “The strongest chains binding people are forged out of victorious swords.”
The stratagem of using foreign wars to bolster domestic power wasn’t invented by the Russians, but it was certainly perfected by them.
Yet Col. Putin has set out to prove that rigorous logicians are wrong to insist that perfection is unquantifiable. A tyranny knows how to make perfect even more so.
The good colonel shot to well-nigh absolute power in the wake of the second Chechen war he conflagrated just for that purpose. Russia cheered: she felt acutely nostalgic for the role of ‘Europe’s gendarme’, the soubriquet she earned when Herzen was young.
There at last was a real muzhik, man’s man, at the helm. Russia was ‘getting up from her knees’, the advantage of the upright posture being that she was now able to knee anyone else in the groin. Isn’t that what greatness is all about?
Russia’s third world economy was thus reconnected with her Third Rome mentality, and Putin thrived.
Then came the Georgian war of 2008, when it took Putin a mere five days to prop up his puppet regime in South Ossetia, historically a part of Georgia.
Apart from Russia, the independent state of South Ossetia was recognised by the great powers of Nicaragua, Venezuela and Nauru, which exclusive club has yet to expand its membership.
Again the Russians cheered. Even those who were uncertain exactly what and where Nauru was were happy to find themselves in such select company. The muzhik may not be able to feed Russians, but at least he can bully foreigners.
Yet Putin realises that the political capital he has built in Russia needs topping up lest it be depleted. Throughout their history the Russians have pounced on any leader perceived as less than a muzhik, and they can do so again.
The Russian concept of a muzhik includes as a necessary constituent a healthy dose of xenophobia, especially hatred of the West.
Thus a ‘strong leader’ has to keep reminding them that, though Western money and technology are welcome, Western influence, especially of a civilising sort, is not.
There’s every sign that Putin senses that his popularity is now at its peak. From there the only way to go is down, and this is a direction no tyrant will accept.
Hence the brinkmanship in which he’s indulging. He’s the schoolyard bully pushing a classmate in the chest and saying “Oh yeah? So what’re you going to do about it?”
Even the mindless, spineless spivs in our governments are beginning to realise they have to push back, albeit not too hard.
Putin responds by pushing harder. So much so, in fact, that one gets the impression he actually wants (or rather feels he needs) a full-blooded fight.
In a horrifying reminder of the Berlin wall, he’s surrounding South Ossetia with a barbed-wire fence, effectively turning it into a concentration camp.
The combination of Russia and barbed wire conjures horrific images even for those who merely read The Gulag Archipelago. For those who used to be inside the barbed wire, the images are unbearable.
At the same time, the Russians are violating the terms of the 1987 treaty by testing ground-based cruise missiles. Just like the barbed wire around South Ossetia, this too evokes nightmarish memories, and even Obama felt he had to say (not yet do) something about it.
Remember all those SALTs? The Soviets violated them with boldfaced duplicity, achieving at least strategic parity with the USA as a result. That history is now repeating itself with STARTs, as Putin is proving that the knack for cheating didn’t collapse along with the Soviet Union.
Interestingly, the Russians have been testing the banned missiles since 2008, but Obama’s administration has been turning a blind eye until now, when Putin’s cheating has overlapped with other outrages.
Last year Putin deployed tactical Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad, née Königsberg, right at Nato’s doorstep. The missiles have in their sights Nato’s radar systems designed to protect millions of Europeans against Russia’s first-strike holocaust.
And this year he’s testing the West’s resolve by trying to rape the Ukraine and loot chunks of her territory, ideally all of it.
In response, Nato is planning large-scale military exercises in Eastern Europe, with Dave contributing a mighty contingent of 1,500, the numerical strength our spivs evidently see as ideal for our army in toto.
Seeing how European leaders cringe at the thought of having to pay more for gas, one can be confident they don’t want a confrontation with Russia.
Neither does Dave: the City and BP are screaming hysterically that keeping a few Russian gangsters out of Knightsbridge will be costly. Nor does Dave want to bite the Russian hand feeding his party’s coffers.
Yet make no mistake: the situation is fraught with danger. The analogy with a powder keg is much overused, but only because it works.
It takes but a tiny spark to turn a keg into a bomb, and sparks always fly whenever two armies are poised in confrontation.
We can’t trust Putin to know when to stop pushing: bullies never do, unless they’re punched on the nose. What if he pushes into the Baltics, Nato members?
Baltic governments certainly think this is likely, and their shrieks of SOS are resounding through Nato headquarters.
What if Putin launches an all-out offensive on the Ukraine, this time with his forces honestly wearing Russian insignia?
Here’s one plausible scenario. Putin’s Spetznaz thugs hold out until 28 September, when the next national election will be called. The election will be free, in that East Ukrainians will be given a free choice between a ballot and a bullet.
The East will then declare its independence, this time claiming an electoral mandate. Since the Ukrainian government has shown little willingness to accept their country’s dismemberment, there’s no reason to believe they won’t respond by force.
The Russian juggernaut will then roll, possibly with the right wing crashing into the Baltics. Nato will have to respond, and Putin will get his war, which he hopes will be limited.
This isn’t scaremongering. Nothing like this may happen, but only an irresponsible fool will insist it can’t happen.
Si vis pacem, para bellum, as the Romans used to say. We want peace, even if Putin doesn’t. That’s why it’ll be criminal folly not to prepare for war.