…and found it Cold. As in War.
In response to Putin’s use of military-grade nerve gas on British soil, 17 Western countries have joined us in expelling Russian diplomats. The US leads the way with 60 expulsions, and six other countries bring up the rear with one each.
But it’s the thought that counts, not the numbers. The important thing is that Vlad’s latest attempt to put Western allies asunder has failed. The message is unmistakable: the allies are aware of Russia’s threat and are prepared to join forces in repelling it – by effectively turning Russia into a pariah state.
“Why did Putin decide to poison Skripal?” asked a listener at the end of my talk at the Freedom Association conference the other day.
I replied that, in common with many modern aggressors, Putin doesn’t want to push all his chips to the middle of the table at once. “If you don’t know the crossing, don’t go into the river,” says a Russian proverb, and Vlad is acting in that spirit.
Parallels with Hitler have been drawn much too often, but only because they’re obvious. Hitler too proceeded with caution – partly because he was bluffing.
When Germany’s rearmament was still far from complete, the Nazis occupied the Rhineland and held their breath. They needn’t have bothered: the allies, who still enjoyed an overwhelming military superiority, did nothing about it.
The Führer heaved a sigh of relief and took the next step: the Anschluss of Austria occurred in March, 1938. Still nothing?
Fine, on to the next step then. In September the same year, Hitler forced the allies to betray Czechoslovakia at Munich, grabbed the Sudetenland and, in March, 1939, the rest of the country.
That made Chamberlain look silly with his piece of paper waving in the air and promises of peace in our time. His reputation has never quite recovered – this though John Major once singled Chamberlain out as the former PM he held in the highest esteem. (Fair enough: similarities between Munich and Maastricht are obvious.)
Thus emboldened, Hitler upped the ante and attacked Poland later that year. This is now known as the start of the Second World War, but it’s not how the attack was seen at the time – nor what Hitler wanted it to be.
His inference from the previous three years was logical, even if it turned out to be wrong. If Britain and France hadn’t responded to his previous acts of aggression, why not invade Poland next and see what happened? The odds were good.
That sense of security was proved false. Though the allies’ response wasn’t immediately decisive, it was clear: thus far, Adolf, but no further.
Putin too is trying incrementally stepped-up aggression, but that’s where the similarity ends. It’s not for nothing that I refer to his regime as ‘kleptofascist’: stealing Russia blind may be the desired end, while muscular behaviour at home and abroad may be only the means.
For, just as Lenin and Stalin drew their legitimacy from a promise of a future Shangri La as a justification for all the horrendous deprivation the Russians were suffering, Putin must also justify his hold on power in the face of strictly third world conditions of life in his fiefdom.
If the Bolsheviks waved the banners of global communist expansion, the kleptofascists seek self-justification in the promise of restoring Russia to her past grandeur – meaning, and this is a specifically Russian spin on the idea, that the world will again tremble with fear.
Mass domestic violence is in both cases a way of communicating the message to the people so that they’d understand. The amount of such didactic violence was, and is, strictly ad hoc: as much as it takes.
Stalin needed to kill millions because otherwise the Russians might not have put up with being hungry slaves, murdered by their master at will, for the sake of some mythical future bliss.
Putin can so far make do with merely tens of thousands of victims because his aims, both real and PR, are more modest. The real aim isn’t so much personal enrichment any longer (he’s already reputed to be the world’s richest man), but the continuing enrichment of the ruling elite that keeps him in power.
Having jumped on that merry-go-round, Putin can’t get off. He has no illusions: even Stalin lost his war against the apparat, and Putin is no Stalin.
It’s conceivable, and this is pure conjecture on my part, that he may be ready to retire and enjoy his billions. But he knows this option isn’t on the table: his rule is contingent on the good will of his cohort, and their good will is contingent on his staying in power to provide what the Russians call their ‘roof’ (protection, in the language of Anglophone gangsters).
That’s where the PR aim comes in. Once again, the Russians are fed the tall tale of a good tsar making their country feared and respected (in another Russian proverb, these words are fully synonymous), but this time they’re more prepared to accept it.
There are two reasons for that. First, even though Russia is still strictly a third world country in every respect other than her nuclear potential, at least the Russians aren’t being starved, imprisoned and massacred in their millions.
Second, the claim to being a global imperial power is covered with a patina of history. Russia first claimed to be the third Rome back in the sixteenth century, when it was merely Muscovy, not even the united colossus it was to become later.
Therefore the jingoistic promise is ultimately more effective than any purely ideological one – as even Stalin discovered in 1941. In the first months of the war the Russians refused to fight for communism. Instead 4.5 million soldiers meekly surrendered to the Nazis in the first five months. It’s only when Stalin hoisted the banner of Holy Russian patriotism that the heroic resistance began.
Putin and his propagandists are using the same legitimising factor, if more subtly. They’ve started small, and their show of force is less, shall we say, showy. But it is on the road, and it is getting bigger step by step.
The acts include the murder of opposition politicians and journalists, the suppression of free media and any sensible legality at home – and aggression abroad. Hence the criminal attacks first on Chechnya, then on Georgia, then on the Ukraine.
And hence also a string of murders on Western soil, with the Scripals and Glushkov being the latest victims.
Russian diplomats led by foreign minister Lavrov have dropped many broad hints at being able to unleash or curb terror as they see fit. Thus, after the Boston Marathon bombing by two Russian-trained Chechen terrorists, American officials were told in no uncertain terms: “See what happens when you cross Russia?”
The Russians got away with that, as they did with their subsequent acts of brazen defiance of international law. Until now.
The message sent by the current wave of expulsions is that you’ve pushed far enough, Vlad. Thus far, but no further. By all means, flex your muscles at home if that’s what it takes for you to continue to purloin Russia’s resources on an unprecedented scale. But keep away from us and our allies.
The next step, and it should have been taken already, could well be the impounding of the criminally derived Russian assets in the West, all two trillion of them – and there goes Putin’s hold on power.
Let’s hope this is exactly what the message is, and that Vlad has got it. Those waters he’s dipping in may well be shark-infested.