The stakes are going up like a helium balloon.
Just a couple of days ago Putin issued an ultimatum similar to those Stalin delivered to the Baltic republics in 1939, the day before invading them.
There was no give and take in Putin’s ultimatum, which would be an essential part of any sensible treaty proposal.
For Putin it was all take and no give, with the West ordered to destroy its collective security or else. Nonetheless, the jumped-up KGB colonel kept insisting that Russian troops were concentrating on the Ukrainian border strictly for training purposes.
Yesterday he changed his tune. He threatened the West with a “military response” and insisted that Russia is capable of taking “adequate military-technical measures” should NATO reject the banditry going by the name of a proposed draft treaty.
Specifically, Putin threatens to respond militarily to any siting of NATO missiles in former Soviet colonies. He singled out for special injunction hypersonic weapons that only Russia possesses at the moment.
However, should NATO develop such missiles and instal them in the Ukraine, he explained, they could reach Moscow in five minutes. A scary prospect, that, especially considering that, according to Kremlin propaganda, US generals have their fingers twitching just over those red buttons.
Putin’s chief propagandist Dmitry Kisilyov, affectionately known in Russia as ‘Putin’s Goebbels’, yesterday reiterated his favourite promise of turning any potential adversary to “radioactive ash”. He didn’t specify what would merit such a holocaust, but there was no need. The message was contextually clear.
The West simply can’t win here, as Putin announced to his Defence Ministry yesterday. On the one hand, he demands that the West issue “long-term legally binding guarantees”. On the other hand, such guarantees are worthless.
“But you and I know them well,” he said. “They and their legal guarantees can’t be trusted because the US blithely breaks any international treaties it no longer deems useful for whatever reason.”
Damned if we do, damned if we don’t. The West isn’t allowed even to surrender gracefully: acceding to Putin’s blackmail may not prevent that radioactive ash.
Russian kleptofascists conveniently ignore why the West offers military help to the Ukraine, miserly though that help is. What turned the country into a crucible of bubbling international tensions was Russia’s 2014 occupation of the Crimea and east Ukraine.
Even a morally weakened and demob-happy West will still be appalled at banditry committed in the middle of Europe. Even the dimwitted know that bandits and blackmailers are never satisfied; their demands will always escalate.
Hence, even though the West clearly lacks gonadic strength, it still feels called upon to make a show of resistance. It’s either that or eventually delivering all of Europe, and not just its easternmost part, to the kleptofascist gangsters.
It’s useful to remember that words have to become actions at some point. When military threats reach a certain critical mass, Putin will have no option but to march. “If you call yourself a mushroom, get into the basket,” says the Russian proverb (the corresponding English saying has crude lavatorial overtones).
But why is he so bellicose? He has to realise that thousands of KIA notices reaching Russian families may spell the end of his regime. Putin’s Ukraine may well turn into Brezhnev’s Afghanistan, and yet he seems ready to go all out. Why take such risks?
The current economic data provides an answer, or rather a part of it.
In December, the Russian inflation rate, calculated on the price of a typical consumer basket, reached 17.7 per cent. And many Russians believe hyperinflation of 30 per cent or higher is just around the corner.
Overall, Russians are 10 per cent poorer now than they were before the 2014 invasion of the Ukraine. But the situation with food staples is even worse.
According to the Russian Ministry for Economic Development, over the past 12 months chicken has become 29.3 per cent dearer, beef 15.15 per cent, buckwheat 24.8 per cent, eggs 20.9 per cent, carrots 35.6 per cent, potatoes 62.55, cabbage 124.21 per cent.
Considering that there’s no margin built into the budgets of most Russian families (40 per cent of them live on less than £200 a month), the pressure in the cauldron of public resentment is building up. It has to be bled, along with thousands of Russian soldiers if need be.
The Russians often quip that they are in the midst of an ongoing conflict between the fridge and the TV set. The emptier the former, the more militant the latter.
This method of diverting public attention from pauperisation lacks novelty appeal. Many a tyrant has resorted to ratcheting up war hysteria as a way of making people ignore the growling in their stomachs. Actual war may or may not follow, but the tyrant can cling on to power in either case.
And clinging on to power isn’t a goal of Putin’s policies. It’s his only goal, and he will joyously murder millions to achieve it if that appears to be the only way.
His stooges openly snigger that Westerners aren’t prepared to die for the Ukraine. True. But they may find out the hard way that neither are the Russians.
P.S. You may notice that lately I’ve been writing about Russia more often than in the past. For as long as Russia remains the principal existential threat to the West, I’ll continue to do so. I can’t leave my readers at the mercy of Putin’s quislings in our press – even if my readers don’t care one way or the other.