HOW THE STORY HAS CHANGED. Last week it was all about the baiting of the Russian Bear. In that story, the bear, hard-pressed by its enemies, prepared to lash out defensively against its tormenters.
But, as Harold Wilson memorably observed: “A week is a long time in politics.”
Translating the tragic events currently unfolding across Eastern Europe into a new story requires a new plot, and, if not a new cast of characters, then a ruthless reassigning of the roles of hero and villain.
In this story, a brave Ukrainian hunting-dog lifts his muzzle to the eastern wind and catches the unmistakable scent of bear. His sharp ears have already detected the snapping of twigs beneath leathery paws and the rhythmic huffing of this most feared of beasts. As the great Russian bear lumbers towards him out of the forest, the much smaller creature lets out a low growl and bares its teeth. Fearless and furious the Ukrainian hunting dog hurls itself upon the predatory giant.
From the houses and outbuildings of the farmstead other dogs come running. Leaping into the unequal contest: claws raking, jaws biting. The bear, confused and bleeding, pauses. All around him, the frigid air carries the angry protests of the neighbouring farmers’ dogs.
Miraculously, the Ukrainian hunting dog’s teeth make it through the monster’s hide – and what it bites, it holds.
Enraged, the bear rises up on its hind legs, roaring in pain and fury.
This is not what it expected.
This is not what any of us expected.
What has become of the shrewd and cynical Vladimir Putin? The ex-KGB officer who mixed boldness and caution in equal measure? The Russian President who always took as much as the West would let him bite off, but never more than he could chew – and swallow? A little chunk of Georgia, here; the whole of the Crimean peninsula, there; and, since 2014, a third of the Donbass.
For twenty years, that Vladimir Putin: Putin the chess-player; had slowly but remorselessly restored to Mother Russia her stolen pieces.
But Ukraine? Geographically, the second largest country in Europe, population 41 million, and boasting a much stronger and better equipped army than eight years ago. Ukraine was always going to stick in the Russian Federation’s throat and, if he wasn’t extremely careful, choke its president.
With his seventieth birthday just nine months away, did Putin feel the icy breath of his own mortality chill upon his neck? Was he struck with terror by the realisation that his time on this earth was fast running out, and with it all hope of making Russia great again? Did he feel the disappointment and reproach of those merciless ghosts gathered at his shoulder: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin, the man of steel?
Did no one tell Putin that history is a poor teacher – and an even worse guide? Did his Marxist instructors not instill in him the great truth that men do not make history, history makes them.
Like the former comedian-turned-Ukrainian-President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Dismissed as a pawn by friend and foe alike: a joke. But nobody’s laughing now. His social media broadcasts from the heart of his besieged capital would have done Winston Churchill proud.
Cometh the hour, cometh the one liners. Zelenskyy telling his American sponsors that he needed “ammunition – not a ride”. Telling his people: “I’m right here, where I’m supposed to be.” Or, the doomed Ukrainian garrison of Snake Island, ordered to surrender, snapping back defiantly: “Go fuck yourself!”
Putin saw a Ukraine wreathed in the mists of history: Ukraine as the mystical heart of Mother Russia. But, while he pursued this medieval mirage, History, in full battledress, was making a new Ukraine. A Ukraine that, henceforth, will define herself by the sacrifice and suffering of her heroes: the men and women who made her – at last – a free and independent nation.
That monstrous bear, in its fury, may kill the brave Ukrainian hunting dog. It may even kill his brothers and sisters who fight alongside him. But the Russian Bear cannot stay on the Ukrainian farm. It is a beast of the forest, and to the forest it will, in the end, be forced to retreat.
And Vladimir Putin? He will go to his grave with the taste of failure on his lips. Bitter as gall.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 4 March 2022.