I’M WHAT’S KNOWN, on the Left, as a “Tankie”. That is to say I am not a reflexive opponent of the Russian regime. In the Georgian border regions; in Syria; and until 24 February 2022, in the Ukraine; I have, by and large, been sympathetic to the aims and objectives of the Russian Federation. More specifically, right up until this past week, I have had a sneaking admiration for the way in which President Vladimir Putin, in spite of finding himself in some extremely difficult positions, has nevertheless managed to checkmate his Western opponents.
But that’s all over now. It’s one thing to silence with tanks and artillery the Washington-inspired braggadocio of Georgia’s opportunistic leader. Or, to throw Russia’s military support behind the least worst protagonist in the Syrian civil war. But, to order a full-scale invasion on Ukraine? That’s not Chess, that’s Draughts – and not even very good Draughts. Putin has over-reached himself – quite possibly fatally.
It is difficult to understand why Putin couldn’t understand just how much ground he had made, diplomatically, by staging large-scale military manoeuvres on the Ukrainian border. The increasingly hysterical shrieks and yells emerging from Washington and NATO Headquarters in Brussels were achieving nothing useful for the West – apart from validating Putin’s critiques of NATO’s expansionist doctrine. As prediction after prediction of a Russian invasion of Ukraine proved inexact, Moscow gave every indication of being grimly amused. The Russian talent for irony and sarcasm was on full display.
Even better, the hysterical reactions of Washington and Brussels, were prompting the appearance of some no doubt very satisfying (to Moscow) cracks in the NATO alliance. To the evident delight of the Russian foreign ministry, Germany and France (both of which are guilty of invading Russia in the past, and then paying a terrible price for their aggression) took up their roles as guarantors of the Minsk Accords. For the price of an extended round of annual manoeuvres, the Russian Federation, and its Belarussian ally, were on the verge of reaping a bountiful diplomatic harvest.
So, what went wrong? How was the Kremlin’s master Chess-player suddenly robbed of both his strategic and his tactical senses?
In the harsh light of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, during which so many of the predictions and descriptions of the Russian armed forces’ battle-plans have been proved correct, it is surely reasonable to speculate that the Americans may have cracked the Russian military codes, giving them full access to all of the Kremlin’s strategic and tactical conversations. Or, they may have a highly-placed spy on the inside who is relaying to them the same information. They may even have both.
For Putin, a political leader schooled in the security services of the old Soviet Union, the revelation of such a catastrophic security breach would be devastating. The paranoid style of politics that pervaded the old KGB would have been intensified in Putin, the former KGB officer, to the point where he may simply have stopped thinking clearly.
If the debilitating revelation that Russia’s national security had been fundamentally compromised was further aggravated by serious disinformation concerning the character and intentions of the Ukrainian Government, then Putin’s descent into an enraged and murderous paranoia is readily explained.
Whatever happened, it was clear, several days out from the invasion, that something in Moscow had changed. RT, the Federation’s worldwide propaganda arm (now unavailable on New Zealand’s Sky Network, it’s former host) seemed to flounder as it struggled to come to grips with the Kremlin’s rapidly darkening tone.
Up until Putin’s rambling history lecture of 22 February, immediately followed by the recognition of the Donetsk and Luhansk breakaway republics, it had seemed as though RT’s leading lights were perfecting their scornful one-liners for the day Russia’s military forces on the Ukrainian border proved NATO wrong by simply turning around and returning to barracks.
Certainly, that was the outcome for which Putin’s government had been preparing the Russian people over the preceding weeks and months – and, it must be said, it was also the outcome the Ukrainians were expecting. Very few people on either side of the border wanted, or were prepared for, a full-scale invasion. The very fact that spontaneous anti-war rallies erupted all over the Russian Federation bears testimony to the shock and dismay provoked by Putin’s aggression against his fellow Slavs.
It is instructive to contrast Putin’s total failure to prepare his people for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine with the many months George W. Bush spent convincing the American people that his equally illegal invasion of Iraq was both militarily necessary and morally justified.
One is reminded of the decidedly unenthusiastic reception given to the Wehrmacht’s tanks as they rolled through the streets of Berlin in the early stages of the so-called “Munich Crisis” of September 1938. The German people did not want war with Britain and France, which is why they cheered to the echo the peacemaker, Neville Chamberlain, as he made his way through the streets of Munich – much to the disgust of the Fuhrer, who most emphatically did want war with Czechoslovakia.
It is worth contemplating the historical lessons of the Munich Crisis in relation to the crisis currently unfolding in Ukraine. Had Chamberlain, backed by France and Italy, not signed over the largely German-speaking Sudetenland to Adolf Hitler and, instead, warned him that Czechoslovakia would not be abandoned, then it is highly likely that Hitler’s generals (who were quite unconvinced that Germany could win such a war) would have deposed him in a military coup d’état. Had that happened, it is entirely possible that the Second World War could have been avoided.
The Russian Federation’s possession of nuclear weapons rules out any overt military response on the part of NATO, but the harshness of the economic sanctions regime it has imposed is bound to give Putin’s generals and oligarchs pause.
Nothing is more expensive than full-scale war. While, geographically, Russia may be a vast country, economically it is smaller than Italy. Far from heralding the restoration of Russian greatness, a drawn-out war against Ukrainian resistance fighters (supported and supplied by a ferociously united West) coupled with the debilitating economic and political effects of swingeing sanctions (not to mention the financial and human costs of a prolonged occupation) can only weaken the Russian Federation profoundly.
Even from the perspective of hard-line Russian nationalists, Putin’s wild gambit makes no sense. Indeed, those of a Machiavellian disposition among the Russian elites may come to the conclusion that some of Putin’s more rational geopolitical objectives stand a much greater chance of being achieved if Putin is no longer on the scene. Amidst the palpable and near universal relief which a change of regime in Moscow, followed by the withdrawal of all Russian forces from Ukraine, would undoubtedly bring, a comprehensive revision of European security arrangements might end up being welcomed – by all sides.
As matters now stand, however, Putin has conjured into being the very strategic nightmare he spent the last 20 years attempting to forestall. His actions have given all the nations of Western and Eastern Europe a terrifying reminder of the wisdom of banding together against the Russian Bear.
Ironically, the Ukrainians Putin dismissed as “drug addicts and neo-Nazis” stand revealed as heroes and patriots: men and women willing to lay down their lives for their country. Certainly, President Volodymyr Zelensky has demonstrated communication skills even more impressive than those of our own Jacinda Ardern. His social-media broadcast from the heart of besieged Kyiv was nothing short of inspirational. No one, now, is interested in accusations of undue Washington influence, widespread corruption, and neo-Nazi militias.
Russia’s “tankie” support in the West was based on Putin’s moral, political and military jiu-jitsu: his hitherto impressive knack for using the weight and power of his Western antagonists against them; and his skill at exposing the crass hypocrisy of those powers who have never hesitated to commit the very same sins they are forever attributing to Russia.
But, there is nothing clever about Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine. It will achieve nothing but massive material destruction and untold human suffering. Even worse, from the perspective of the unfortunate Russian people, Putin’s invasion has provided an ex post facto justification for their enemies’ most predatory designs .
As the deeply cynical, but nonetheless brilliant, French statesman, Charles Maurice Talleyrand (1754-1838) said of Napoleon’s ill-judged decision to abduct and execute the politically unfortunate Duke d’Enghien:
“This is worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.”
This essay was originally posted on the Interest.co.nz website on Monday, 28 February 2022.