One hundred years after the events of 1914, we watch events in Ukraine unfolding — with grief, with a heavy heart. Nothing has been learnt in all that time; there is no mistake that will not be repeated, by both aggressors and defenders. Men who live for power, and rule through force, cannot be taught to care for the consequences of the abuse of power; men who resist them are never prepared for the ruthlessness with which they will seize their opportunities.
As a pundit, writing years ago about Vladimir Putin’s rise to power, I made comparisons that struck my readers as absurd. For instance, I compared Putin’s outlook to that of Bismarck, the embodiment of the old militarist spirit of Prussia; the man who made himself the pragmatic “brain of the operation.” I suggested then that Putin would prove a statesman of cold, even psychotic ruthlessness; that he had a larger view than any competing statesman of the possibilities of his situation. Though a product of the KGB, he was not a Communist. He was intelligent enough to see that the Party ideology was dead, and he would abandon it decisively. He remained nevertheless a statist and a dirigiste, whose task would be the recovery of Russia as a world power — as a hegemonic power. The lost Soviet empire would be re-assembled as a new Russian empire, formed in the image of himself.
Those who think with the aid of little ideological clichés and slogans, such as “democracy,” “free markets,” “rule of law,” “civil society” and the like, are defenceless against a statesman like Putin. He understands all four, and more, in a perfectly cynical way. For all the monstrous, extra-legal manoeuvres he has done to see off his domestic opponents, he has kept a cool and steady course. By means of low taxes and a surprisingly “open” regulatory regime — it works more like a nimble protection racket than a lumbering bureaucracy — he has done wonders for the Russian economy. By focusing the interest of the state on gas and oil, he has built a more formidable economic autocracy than his socialist predecessors knew how to do. He has also worked assiduously to rebuild the armed forces: not only with budget but with discipline and some technological flair. As Europe and America continued to disarm, and to sink in the mire of debt and welfare, Putin kept his attention on the live issue of power alone.
He accepted his humiliation in the Ukraine in 2004 — when the Orange Revolution seemed to displace all that remained of the old Soviet order in that “client state,” and his man Viktor Yanukovych was first chased from the presidency in Kiev. Putin did not have, then, the options that he does now. He has always played a longer game, and his patient manipulation was naturally supported by the deep corruption in Ukraine’s post-Soviet political and economic order. Ukraine became more and more a basket case, till finally she is utterly dependent on outside aid. She could get it from the West or the East. The West can’t deliver — we seem unable even to put together the paltry 20 billion the country needs to avoid immediate foreclosure. Putin’s East has all its ducks lined up.
Putin’s challenge now is to reclaim this “Little Russia” for his “Greater Russia,” without actually provoking a world war. In Western politicians like Barack Obama and the clowns of the EU, he has his ideal “negotiating partners.” They will keep drawing their “lines in the sand” a few steps behind where he has already trodden. He showed what he could do in Georgia, unhindered by naïve and inept western politicians. I would guess that his plan is now to start with Crimea, and continue — remorselessly bleeding Ukraine until the whole of it faints into Big Russia’s welcoming arms. In this respect it will have been a textbook KGB takeover operation, with action coordinated throughout, both under and over the table.
He is entirely committed. Putin’s own power base in Russia depends, like that of any tyrant, on visible success: on his personal prestige and the fear, cowardice, and silence of his domestic opponents. He has intentionally stirred Russian ethnic and national chauvinism — this is his powerful “democratic” card — and the Russian people will support him, though only so long as he is winning. He is hardly going to change course now. His opponents at home and abroad must realize changing that course requires, and has always required, rendering Putin powerless; he will hardly concede anything voluntarily. The diplomats trying to reach his foreign ministry on the phone are wasting their time. President Obama himself wasted ninety precious minutes of long distance, reminding Putin (whose English is excellent) of his own inconsequentiality.
So far, so comprehensible. But the world is not comprehensible to men, and Putin is now playing at an order of risk where the consequences of the small and unexpected, of little oversights and miscalculations, can be very, very large. This is just what the Prussian inheritors of Bismarck’s ambitions did one hundred years ago, in their arrogance, plunging all Europe into “the war to end all wars.”