Wednesday, 5 March 2014
What Does Putin Want?
So, what does Vladimir Putin actually want? In 1938 Adolf Hitler threatened Czechoslovakia because he wanted war. He claimed that he was only interested in protecting ethnic Germans living in the Sudetenland but his real aim was to manoeuvre the German army closer to the Soviet Union so he could eventually attack them. At Munich Hitler settled for taking the Sudetenland because that stripped Czechoslovakia of its defences, allowing him to seize the rest of the country in March 1939 while, at the same time, avoiding an unwanted war with Britain and France. Putin is now claiming that his only interest is to protect ethnic Russians in the Ukraine but this is probably nothing more than a threadbare excuse to further some other, more important, policy. So what is that? There are three possibilities. He wishes to seize the whole of the Ukraine to serve as a buffer between Russia and the West. He wishes to seize the eastern half of the Ukraine for the same reason without risking a direct military confrontation with NATO. He wishes merely to seize the Crimea to protect Russia's considerable military assets there. Whichever way you look at it though what Putin wants is a throwback to an earlier age when the "Great Game" was played out across the world and Europe was divided between competing power blocks. The idea that the Ukraine can be any form of buffer has some strategic mileage. If a war was to break out between Russia and the West then NATO forces would have to first traverse the Ukraine before their tanks could roll into Moscow. But how realistic is that? NATO is defensive in nature and clearly has no Hitler-like ambition for lebensraum in Russia. Seizing the Crimea makes more sense since that protects Russia's military assets there - especially the Black Sea Fleet. Yet even this makes little sense in the modern world. The idea that the Black Sea Fleet would then be free to break out into the Mediterranean in a winter naval campaign while the rest of its naval forces lie immobilised in its other iced up ports is ridiculous. Putin then seems to be playing a game that belongs more properly to the 19th or earlier 20th centuries and has little relevance in the 21st century. But to him that might make sense. Many world leaders look back to the 19th and 20th centuries with a sort of envious nostalgia and long to the return of a world where enemies were more obvious and a spot of gunboat diplomacy could solve most problems. It seems quite clear that Putin is such an avatar, eager to re-establish the greater Russian empire of yesteryear and keen to flex his military muscles to make him feel better about things. Of course this is all complete nonsense, but it is dangerous nonsense. It seems a pity that Russia has never fully put these things behind it and joined the rest of us in the 21st century.