Connecting the dots

Putin’s mouthpiece

Once, intelligence officers are taught, is an accident, twice is a coincidence, three times is enemy action.

In other words, if an enemy does three or more seemingly unconnected things at the same time, ‘seemingly’ is the key word. There is always a pattern there, and it’s just a matter of being able to discern it.

The four events of the past few days that add up to enemy action are the murder of Alexei Navalny, Russia’s capture of Avdiivka after many months of desperate fighting, the announcement that Russian nuclear weapons will be put on satellites, and Medvedev’s hysterical threat to take out Western capitals.

To grasp the connection among them, one has to understand Putin’s mentality, formed as it was in the rough-and-tumble of Russian inner cities. Having a similar background helps, and that’s something I can boast, or rather bemoan.

When we were growing up, both his native Leningrad and my native Moscow were overrun with youth gangs. Putin ran with them, I ran from them, but we both had to acquire certain survival skills.

He and I were both smaller than most bullies around, making it impossible to fight them off. Following the tired maxim of joining them if you can’t beat them was one way out, and that was the path little Vova Putin followed. My upbringing took that option off the list, but our problems were similar.

Being a gang member didn’t protect a lad from violence meted out by rival gangs or indeed his mates. “Beat your own so others will fear you” is an old Russian proverb that has inspired the nation throughout its history. Hence both insiders like Vova and outsiders like me had to find an accommodation.

We tried to seek salvation in martial arts, for him judo, for me boxing. But that ran head on into another Russian proverb, this one of more recent vintage: “There’s no technique against a crowbar except another crowbar.” All that training only meant one got even a worse thrashing in the end. Neither judo nor boxing offered enough protection against stronger foes, especially several at a time.

The only thing left to do was pretend to be a psycho, what the Russians call a ‘no limiter’. “Don’t touch me, I’m a psycho!” was the battle cry of smaller, weedier boys. Meaning that, in response to some normal bullying, an attacker could get a pencil stuck in his eye or a brick broken over his head.

Once a ‘psycho’ had acted on his newly acquired reputation a couple of times, he was usually left alone. There was plenty of easier prey around, so why risk a serious injury picking on a ‘no limiter’?

Sorry about this exercise in nostalgia, but that’s what helps me understand Putin. I know where he is coming from.

His rival gang today is made up of bigger and stronger boys, otherwise known as NATO. There’s no way Russia can take them on in a fair fight, especially if they pool their resources. Yet take them on Putin must: his position as gang leader hinges on that. Show weakness, and one of his closest lieutenants will stick a shiv into his back. And the possibility of a popular uprising always looms large.

So little Vova, now the big cheese in the Kremlin, has to resort to the stratagem that used to get him out of trouble in his youth. He has to scream “I’m a psycho!” and come across as a real no limiter.

If we take that mentality out of the back alleys of Leningrad (as it then was) and transpose it into the somewhat wider field of geopolitics, it means Putin wants to scare off the West and also those of his own people who are beginning to get second thoughts.

Many commentators, those who grew up in different circumstances from his or mine, didn’t believe Putin would kill Navalny. That would turn world opinion against him, they explained. Such a vile act would disgust and galvanise the opposition both in Russia and abroad. People in his own country would come out in their millions to throw him out of the Kremlin.

Yet those analysts got their numbers wrong, if not their moral rating of that murder. A few thousand people in the West protested against that crime, an action that doubtless made them feel good about themselves, but predictably failed to achieve any other effect. In any case they weren’t the target audience for that particular bravura performance.

By doing something so many people considered implausible, Putin sent the “I’m a no limiter psycho” message to the Russians. If he killed a man of Navalny’s international renown, he can kill thousands more without batting an eyelid, millions if he has to.

This explains why internal protests against Kremlin fascism involved hundreds of thousands 15 years ago, tens of thousands a few years later and merely hundreds now. People have bought the psycho act and they are justifiably scared.

Now, Avdiivka was the last Ukrainian stronghold in the Donetsk area, after the metropolis was captured by Putin’s troops years ago. Quite apart from its strategic value (which experts say is minimal), Avdiivka thus had a huge symbolic significance for both sides.

The other day the Ukrainian high command decided to withdraw its battle group from Avdiivka, because otherwise it risked encirclement and destruction. The Russians finally grabbed what’s left of the town after years of fighting, every inch of the way paved with corpses piled up many layers high.

Their success was inevitable because in that artillery-dominated war the Russians outnumbered Avdiivka defenders 10 to one in artillery rounds fired. The Ukrainians ran out of ammunition, in other words.

That showed Putin that his psycho act worked not just domestically but also internationally. The Ukraine had to relinquish her nuclear weapons according to the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, with the US, Britain and Russia offering her security guarantees in exchange.

How Russia honoured those guarantees is well known, but NATO’s help to the Ukraine’s struggle for survival has been sluggish from the beginning. The West has fallen for the psycho act, with Putin and his propagandists constantly waving the nuclear shiv in the air.

If we lose, you’ll lose, they screamed. Do you think we’ll go without trouble? Think again, you NATO wimps. If those Ukie Nazis look like they are going to defeat us with your help, we’ll push the nuclear button and take the whole shebang down with us. I’m a no limiter, screamed the collective Putin. I’m a psycho!

And what do you know: the trick worked. Western supplies were going up one month, down the next, but the overall vector was unmistakable: they were dwindling away.

But not fast enough, as far as Putin is concerned. So he did what his gang members used to do in his youth: if the mark wasn’t scared enough, he had to be scared more.

To that end, Putin declared that he’d put nuclear weapons into space to destroy American satellites. Whether that threat is feasible is up to the experts to decide. Those I’ve read so far say it’s a bluff because a nuclear blast causes much of the damage by a shock wave, the combination of the pressure jump (called the overpressure) and the dynamic pressure. That can’t exist in space. I can’t judge the physics of it, but I understand the intention behind the threat very well.

For the other threat, Putin selected his loyal stooge Medvedev, formerly Russia’s sham president and now deputy chairman of the Security Council. In the past 30 years, Medvedev hasn’t uttered a single word unprompted by Putin. The latter uses him to scream “I’m a psycho!” the loudest, especially since Medvedev has acquired a carefully cultivated reputation for drunkenness.

This time around, Putin, speaking through Medvedev, screamed “I’m a psycho!” in this way:

“Attempts to return Russia to the borders of 1991 will lead to only one thing, [Armaggedon]. Towards a global war with Western countries using the entire strategic arsenal of our state. In Kyiv, Berlin, London, Washington.”

If I were a Parisian, I’d resent that omission of my city. “And what am I, foie haché?” I’d say, with put-on anger and genuine relief. But this isn’t a joking matter.

It’s a direct threat to retaliate in an insane fashion against continued supplies of armaments to the Ukraine. In response, European nations still appear to be standing fast. The Danes have pledged to transfer all their artillery to the Ukraine, while the Czechs have miraculously found a million loose artillery shells sitting forgotten in their warehouses.

Yet by far the biggest supplier, the US, is clearly responding the way Putin’s bespectacled victims did in the Leningrad of his youth. They submit to the threats, their cowardice covered up with pseudo-rational excuses (“Not our war”, “We have our own problems we must solve first”, “Why should our taxpayers shell out for that war?”)

That’s not how you deal with blackmailing thugs, chaps. And you certainly shouldn’t expect their demands to stop once the first ones have been satisfied. They’ll be ratcheted up instead – take it from someone who grew up dealing with the likes of Putin.

P.S. After Navalny was poisoned by the FSB three years ago, he rang up one of the murderers and, pretending to be a government official, got him to describe the crime in detail. This is the video of that call, with English subtitles:

2 thoughts on “Connecting the dots”

  1. Our intelligence services seem unable to connect any dots these days – even some that are clearly connected. Reminds me of the plot of Three Days of the Condor where a reader notices some similarities in plot details from random novels. Such subtleties would be lost on today’s experts.

  2. “The Russians finally grabbed what’s left of the town after years of fighting, every inch of the way paved with corpses piled up many layers high”

    Morozov just committed suicide. Russian military blogger posted the Russian casualties Avdviika which were enormous. The slightest criticism and the pressure became unbearable.

    Morozov pro-Russian and fought in the Donbass the Russian side.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.