Getting dyslexic in my dotage. Scanning the papers the other day, I saw what I read as an article about a chemical attack on the Duma, Russia’s sham parliament.
Oh well, I thought, wouldn’t be my first choice of a debating technique, but a silver lining and all that… The matter turned out to be much worse than that, and there was no silver lining to a gas cloud.
Falling victim to a chemical attack wasn’t the Duma but its homophone Douma, a town near Damascus. It was Assad’s forces that dropped the gas, but the weapon, training in its use and inspiration came from his paymaster and wirepuller Russia.
President Trump immediately declared that retaliatory missiles were coming, but showed consideration in delaying the action a few days to give the Syrians and Russians time to clear the targeted bases.
Showing no gratitude whatsoever, Putin declared that the missiles would be shot down, and the bases whence they came would be taken out. One such facility is the RAF base in Cyprus that Mrs May intends to use as a show of support for the Atlantic alliance. The situation is fraught.
That’s why some friends are asking me the question in the title. Now I’m honoured to be regarded as a seer, but my crystal ball is perennially cloudy. I find it hard to predict the future in every detail, though discerning the general trends on the basis of the past and present is easier.
It’s because Western governments and analysts failed to do just that some 30 years ago that the question in the title can be legitimately asked today. At that time the West was in the throes of orgasmic hysteria over glasnost, perestroika and eventually the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Gorbachev, who before being brought to Moscow by Andropov, had run the most corrupt province in the Soviet Union, was elevated to secular sainthood, a status he retains to this day. (His Stavropol province in North Caucasus was the clearing house for the billions’ worth of contraband, including drugs, coming in from Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Yet Gorbachev stood out even against that backdrop – hence his nickname ‘Mickey Envelope’ (Mishka konvert.)
Blinded by the fall of what Reagan correctly called ‘the evil empire’ and hoping to get fat on what Bush and Thatcher called ‘the peace dividend’, the West failed to see the obvious: the empire might have collapsed, but the evil lived on. Yet we can no longer discern evil because we don’t really believe it exists.
Nothing tipped our governments off, not even Gorbachev’s response to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. The explosion had been clearly seen by US satellites, and Geiger counters were already going haywire in Sweden, but Gorbachev continued to deny everything.
His newspapers were describing the gasps of horror in the Western press as “provocative hype, whose sole purpose is to cause yet another outburst of anti-Soviet hysteria.” Replace ‘anti-Soviet’ with ‘anti-Russian’, and you recognise the language, don’t you? This is verbatim what Putin and his Goebbelses scream after we take exception to each new monstrosity committed by Russia, including the Skripal affair and now the gassing of civilians at Douma.
When the constituent republics began to break away from the Soviet Union, Gorbachev sent the Spetsnaz in. The perestroika hounds then applauded his restraint: Gorbachev’s thugs murdered only hundreds of people, not the hundreds of thousands the previous reigns would have claimed.
I agree that the difference was important, especially for those hundreds of thousands who could have been killed but weren’t. But the secular canonisation of Gorbachev and his regime was a bit premature, wouldn’t you say?
Yes, the Soviet Union has collapsed, I was writing at the time (mostly in The Salisbury Review), but I shudder to think what these people will come up with next. Now we know the answer, though at the time even some of my friends were expressing a touching concern about my mental health.
Had we realised at the time that no peace dividend would be paid out, we wouldn’t have disarmed as catastrophically as we have. And we would have taken every measure not to expose ourselves to the hybrid warfare now being waged by Putin.
Nor would we have pumped untold billions into Russia, in the naïve hope that drawing the country into world trade would defang it. Any kind of investment into Russia’s beggared economy should have been made contingent on its verifiable steps to remove itself as a factor of danger in the world.
Europe should also have made itself less dependent on Russian hydrocarbons, which could have been done in many different ways, from fracking to building more nuclear power stations to encouraging the Arab states to increase production. If you don’t behave, our message to the Russians should have been, you can eat, drink and drive your oil.
None of this was done, nor even considered. Instead we were doing everything possible to help Russia create troubled waters in which it could profitably fish.
Stirring up chaos all over the world is clearly the strategy of Putin’s criminal regime, which destination is being reached by a series of incremental steps, each bolder than the previous one. We could have stopped him in his tracks long ago – we had enough economic and diplomatic tools at our disposal to do that.
But we didn’t – not when Putin’s men blew up several apartment blocks, killing 300 Russians, to provoke the genocidal Chechen war; not when they shot up a school taken over by Chechen guerrillas, killing 334 people, mostly children; not when they pumped poison gas into a hijacked theatre, killing 170 hostages along with the attackers; not when they began murdering dissidents.
Rather unpleasant, that, was the general reaction. But it’s their internal affair, isn’t it? True. But that way of handling Russia’s internal affairs should have told us all we needed to know about the evil nature of Putin’s regime. Had we realised it then, no sane man would have thought that evil would happily stay within its own national borders.
It didn’t. Certain of his impunity, Putin attacked first Georgia and then the Ukraine, by grabbing the Crimea followed by the country’s eastern provinces – allegedly to protect the Russian population there. Amazingly though, most of those Ukrainian Russians fled the carnage not to Russia but to the free parts of the Ukraine.
Then came Syria, where the Russians have conducted themselves with their hereditary KGB brutality. Yet again Putin is engaging in the kind of brinkmanship that our craven, vacillating behaviour has encouraged.
Is it all our fault then? No, it isn’t, not all. But some of it undoubtedly is, in the same sense in which a house owner is at fault if he invites illegal entry by leaving his windows open and his doors unlocked at night.
And now comes the question in the headline, to which my resounding answer is “I don’t know”. Yet I do know that only a show of strength can prevent a war now, or especially in the future. Bullies don’t respond to reason. They respond to a punch on the nose, or at least a credible threat of it.
If the West backs down yet again, the bully will strike again – and again. And at some point there will be no alternative to disaster. I pray that one still exists.