This is enough to make you believe in reincarnation. When asked last week how he thought his war on the Ukraine was going, Putin said, “Everybody should know that, largely speaking, we haven’t yet even started anything in earnest.”
Commentators immediately began to speculate what he might have meant by that, and I’ll offer my version shortly. But what first caught my eye was the uncanny historical parallel.
A similar line was uttered by the naval hero of the American Revolution, Captain John Paul Jones. Jones was a Scot who upheld a fine tradition of his native land by moving to America, becoming a naval officer and fighting the English.
In one battle he found his flagship Bonhomme Richard (France’s gift to the insurgents) being blown to bits by a British frigate off the coast of England. When the English captain demanded his surrender, Jones famously presaged Putin’s aphorism by saying, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
Having won that battle, the sea wolf found himself unemployed after the victorious Revolution. In search of action, he went to Russia, where Catherine the Great promoted him to rear-admiral. Jones distinguished himself during the Russo-Turkish War, where his flagship was named – brace yourself! – Vladimir. An amazing coincidence or what?
History is screaming parallels, is anyone listening? To finish with Jones, he was soon embroiled in a scandal involving a 12-year-old girl, lost his commission and eventually died in Paris, near Luxembourg Gardens.
Now his alter ego Putin echoes the celebrated gesture of defiance, indicating he has far-reaching plans. Having already lost 35,000 soldiers dead, plus thousands more of the so-called separatists and the mercenaries of the Wagner Group, Putin is barely warming up.
For what? Here I beseech you yet again to listen to what he is actually saying. Westerners have been conditioned to be sceptical about their politicians’ promises, but that’s democracy for you. Dictators don’t have to curry favour with the electorate, which is why they tend to mean what they say.
We’d be well-advised to take Putin at his word, just as Britain and France shouldn’t have dismissed Hitler’s wild threats as mere braggadocio. So what is Putin saying?
Right from the start he has been explaining that his “special operation” isn’t a war on the Ukraine. It’s only the prelude to Russia’s war on Nato, meaning the West in general.
As usual, the West was slow on the uptake, but the message is beginning to sink in. At the recent Madrid Summit, Nato leaders have undertaken to beef up their rapid response contingent in Europe from 40,000 to 300,000. They have also belatedly begun to increase their defence budgets, and even Germany is making tentative steps towards at last acquiring an army.
Observing the performance of the Russian army in the Ukraine, neither Putin nor any of his generals can be confident about the prospect of taking on all of Nato in a conventional confrontation. They know, and Nato knows, and everyone knows that such a clash would result in a quick rout of the Russian forces.
Putin is holding a losing hand, but he does boast a strong trump: nuclear weapons. Western observers keep speculating along the lines of “Will he or won’t he?”, but that’s the wrong question to ask.
The right question is, “Can he do anything else?” And the only possible answer is no. Putin can’t withdraw from the Ukraine tail between his legs – such abject retreat would go against the grain of the very essence of his aggressive, fascist regime.
Such regimes always go all the way, or die trying. They need victory as both self-vindication and self-defence.
In Putin’s case, his determination is also predicated on his youthful experience as a street gang member in his native Leningrad. Since I used to run away from similar gangs to those Putin used to run with, I know that those chaps would rather lose their life than their face.
They function according to their own code and their own ethic, with neither countenancing defeat. A defeated gangster loses respect, meaning he loses everything – including his life.
If Putin has no hope of winning a conventional clash with Nato, and since defeat isn’t an option, he has to go nuclear. How nuclear is a big question, and I for one doubt he’d go all in from the start. More likely is that he’d begin with some low-yield tactical weapons, as a statement of intent. He’d first brandish a razor, holding a loaded gun behind his back.
I don’t have the benefit of access to Nato’s intelligence reports, but Putin’s public pronouncements, and those of his stooges, give a sufficient clue to his intentions, and also his targets. Such pronouncements go beyond the de rigueur threats to turn America into a Stalin Strait separating Canada from Mexico or to sink Britain with a couple of big bombs.
Hidden in the pile of such verbal manure are the pearls of real information. One such is that the likely targets of the first nuclear strikes will be the Ukraine, Poland and one of the Baltic states, most probably Lithuania.
Another is that Lukashenko’s Belarus is likely to be used as the launchpad. There are many indications of this, starting with the constitutional changes Lukashenko announced on 28 February, four days after the kick-off of the “special operation”.
One such was allowing the permanent presence of Russian nuclear forces on Belarusian territory. Belarus of course inherited some Soviet nuclear weapons after the 1991 break-up of the Soviet Union, which she then relinquished to Russia in 1994.
Now the country was ready to reclaim such weapons under Russian control, effectively turning Belarus into what I’ve described as Russia’s launchpad. A few days ago, Lukashenko reiterated his invitation, which effectively means Belarus is no longer subject to the conditions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
This was accompanied by a slow but steady redeployment of Russian nuclear-tipped Iskander missiles closer to the Belarusian border. That process gathered speed after Lithuania blocked the supply of sanctioned goods to the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, formerly Königsberg.
Western leaders have been reacting to these developments with characteristic vacillation – or at least so it seems to those of us who aren’t privy to classified data. They are doing their utmost to avoid any direct confrontation between Nato and Russian forces.
Their military aid to the Ukraine is significant and vital, but it doesn’t enable the Ukrainians to take the war to Russia. Nato doesn’t arm them with many long-range weapons, and the few that do reach the Ukraine come in exchange for the promise not to fire them into Russian territory.
At the same time one continues to hear Western leaders begging Zelensky to relinquish a large chunk of his territory for the sake of a peace treaty. In addition to cowardice and immorality, this shows a woeful misreading of the situation.
First, Zelensky or any other Ukrainian leader will never accept such terms, not after losing thousands of lives and seeing their cities reduced to a good replica of Dresden, circa 1945. More important, they wouldn’t accept such a deal because they know Putin wants all of the Ukraine, not a part. Give him time to catch his breath, and he’ll come back in force.
Nor can such a treaty be on the table because Putin doesn’t want it either. He may be after all of the Ukraine, but only as a step along the way, not the final destination. Take him at his word, and let me spell it out for you: P-U-T-I-N I-S F-I-G-H-T-I-N-G N-A-T-O, N-O-T U-K-R-A-I-N-E.
Yes, Putin is already fighting Nato, but Nato isn’t fighting Putin. It’s like the Phoney War preceding the Battle of Britain: the war was in full swing, but the Allies pursued the ostrich strategy of pretending not to notice it.
When Putin says he hasn’t “yet even started anything in earnest”, he is lying: he has. But Nato hasn’t, and the sooner it does, the less devastating will the consequences be. Nato can’t afford to be like a child who covers up his eyes and believes that whatever is scaring him is no longer there.
When Putin takes a leaf out of John Paul Jones’s book, he means it. The earlier and more decisive Nato’s response will be, the better chance it’ll have to sink Putin’s ambitions.
I wonder if Western strategists are considering a preemptive strike on Belarus the moment those Iskanders cross the border. If they aren’t, they should: if they allow a nuclear broadside, an Armageddon beckons.