These words are burning their way across my lips. But they need to come out because few people realise how true they are.
Our papers are filled with triumphant noises about Putin’s miscalculations. Whatever the sheet, it contains all the same hymns.
Putin underestimated the strength of the Ukrainian army. He overestimated the strength of his own. He didn’t count on the ferocity of the Ukraine’s resistance. Nor did he expect such an instant and massive arrival of Western sanctions and boycotts. He looked forward to a cakewalk, but instead walked into a carnage.
All of this is true. Yet none of it contradicts the title above.
For Putin didn’t start the war because he thought the Ukraine would roll over and die within days. He started it on the assumption that the West is weak, decadent and therefore a soft touch. And this assumption has been vindicated so comprehensively that one has to commend Putin’s perspicacity.
The miscalculations that so excite our commentators would matter only if Putin’s fascist regime pursued strictly limited objectives, such as reincorporating the Ukraine into whatever the Russian Empire calls itself nowadays. It doesn’t though. Nor am I really sure they were miscalculations.
For Putin knows that part of the world as well as I do. His understanding of Russia (and to a limited extent of the Ukraine) is as native and visceral as mine – which is essential for anyone wishing to penetrate Russia’s enigmatic quality that so baffled Churchill. I doubt Putin is as well-read on this subject as I am, but unlike me, he is privy to a huge corpus of intelligence data, which he is professionally trained to analyse.
Hence, if I knew the Ukrainian army would fight ferociously and expertly, he knew it too. If I knew the Russian army wasn’t as formidable in battle as it was on paper, so did he. If I knew the Ukraine spent the eight post-2014 years training and arming her soldiers, Putin knew it better: he had at his fingertips detailed reports of every Stinger and Javelin delivered, every Ukrainian unit holding tactical exercises, every Ukrainian general drawing strategic plans.
Quite apart from the usual SIGINT and human intelligence resources available to any major power, Putin could rely on a swarm of his spies buzzing around the Ukraine. That’s the legacy of the Soviet Union, and every one of its former colonies is similarly infected.
(That’s the only reason I’ve ever been sceptical about admitting former Soviet and Warsaw Pact republics into Nato. Since most of their senior officers were trained and indoctrinated in the Soviet Union, at least some must have retained their erstwhile loyalty.
That creates a counterintelligence problem for Nato, as anticipated by St Matthew: “For nothing is secret, that shall not be made manifest; neither any thing hid, that shall not be known and come abroad.”
As if to vindicate that biblical prophecy, the Hungarian Sándor Laborc was appointed chairman of Nato’s Intelligence Committee in 2008 – the year Russia attacked Georgia. The two developments might not have been coincidental, considering that Gen. Laborc was an honours graduate of the Dzerjinsky KGB Academy in Moscow, where he had studied for six years.)
One way or another, Putin had to know what to expect, at least in broad outlines. And yet he pressed ahead, potential risks notwithstanding. Why?
Is he bent on self-destruction? Or mad, as so many of our hacks like to aver? Didn’t he know he could be overthrown/imprisoned/assassinated if things went awry?
Any of such outcomes may yet befall Putin. After all, every Caesar breeds his own Brutus. Every tyrant has a praetorian who daydreams of assuming dictatorial powers himself.
So it’s conceivable that an army or FSB general may slip a little novichok into Putin’s tea and then move into the Kremlin, using Russia’s tactical setbacks as a justification. Yet if it’s indeed an army or FSB general who’ll administer such a coup de grâce (who else?), then Putin may die, but Putinism will live on.
For Putin’s strategic assumptions, and therefore objectives, have been vindicated. He has proved that the West will huff and puff, and it’ll punish Russia economically but, come what may, it won’t confront Russian aggression militarily. A little nuclear blackmail, and Adolph is your uncle.
Moreover, Nato will even try not to upset Russia too much by arming her victims too well. To wit: not only has Nato refused to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukrainian cities, but it has even blocked the transfer of Polish MIGs to the Ukraine, denying Ukrainian pilots a chance to stop by their own efforts the ongoing massacre of civilians.
If we understand that the Ukraine isn’t the destination, but merely a step along the way, then Putin (or whoever gets rid of him) can afford to take half a step back. He may wring some minor concessions out of Zelensky, declare victory, go home and regroup.
He wouldn’t even be desperately unhappy. Yes, he didn’t achieve all his tactical objectives in the Ukraine. But strategically, he’d feel satisfied. The West is so impotent that Putin’s next step could be a giant stride towards dominating Europe, whatever articles the Nato Charter may have.
If the West won’t fight over the Ukraine, it won’t fight over the Baltics either. Or perhaps even Finland and Poland. After all, they all used to belong to the Russian Empire, and the West was satisfied with that claim when Putin grabbed the Crimea. Prior possession seems to be 100 per cent of the law in those parts.
And the Ukraine isn’t going anywhere. Even if a ceasefire is called, and the Ukrainian state remains sovereign for the next year or two, the Ukrainians won’t have time to prepare for Round 2 adequately. Any ideas to the contrary, and perhaps a limited nuclear strike will disabuse them.
Here you may think I’m letting my imagination run too wild. Putin’s nuclear bluster is good and well, but no nuclear strike will ever go unanswered, no doubt there.
This brings me to Yulia Latynina, the anti-Putin Russian journalist who in 2017 had to emigrate after credible threats on her life. She now runs her own streaming service, where some 10 days ago she interviewed Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia, head of a think tank and a close, if unofficial, advisor to President Biden.
Latynina is well aware of Putin’s plans for an incremental advance, dipping his toe in the water and, if no sharks are about, taking the next cautious step. The question that bothered her, as it does me, was where the US would draw the red line. Surely, she asked, if Putin launches a tactical nuclear strike, Nato will have to respond in kind?
Not at all, replied Dr McFaul in his ungrammatical but understandable Russian. Just because Putin is crazy, that doesn’t mean we should be too. Latynina, who until that moment had been suitably differential, visibly winced.
Unfortunately, that interview went unnoticed in the West – partly because of the language in which it was conducted and partly because Western countries would rather not scare their own people too much.
If Putin borrows his strategy from Hitler, our peerless leaders borrow theirs from the ostrich. Or else from a child, who thinks that, if he shuts his eyes, a scary apparition will go away.
If history teaches anything (which it usually doesn’t), the lesson is that a fascist regime bent on conquest can’t be mollified, appeased or bribed. Sooner or later, civilised countries will have to fight, and sooner is better than later for reducing the damage.
Here too Putin is right. Not long ago, he shared with his adoring audience his youthful experience as a self-described ‘common thug’. “When a fight is unavoidable,” he smiled nostalgically, “you should always strike first”.
That I’m sure the West will never do. In fact, I’m beginning to doubt its ability to strike even second.