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Putin and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Putin and the Law of Unintended Consequences

Friday, 4 March, 2022 - 05:45
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

As Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine enters its second week, the naughty little law of unintended consequences is lifting its head above the parapet.

The most striking illustration of this so far is the debunking of Putin’s brazen claim that there is and has never been a Ukrainian nation and that Ukraine is nothing but Russia misspelled. Putin insisted that Ukraine was nothing but a creation of Lenin, ignoring the fact that it was Lenin who signed away Ukraine to the Germans in the Brest-Litovsk Treaty.

Putin also claimed that Ukraine has “always been part of Russia”, although the principality of Kyiv appeared before any Russian identity took shape. Ukraine and Russia, along with numerous other ethnic groups and nations, had been parts of the Tsarist and then Soviet Empires but neither had been a part of the other. For a while, much of Ukraine was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, in fact, it was against Austrian rule that Ukrainian nationalism first took shape.

To be sure Russian and Ukrainian languages are as close to each other as are American English and UK English. But, although some of the greatest writers in Russian, notably Nikolai Gogol and Isaac Babel were Ukrainians, Ukraine has had its distinct literature since the 18th Century. Putin’s invasion has reminded many Ukrainians of their rich heritage. In the past few days people in many parts of Ukraine have been reading, reciting and signing some of the patriotic poems written by Taras Shevchenko, Levko Borovykovsky and Tomasz Padura. Rather than burying Ukrainian identity under his bombs, Putin may have given it new vigor.

Putin wanted to nip Ukraine’s European aspirations in the bud. There, too, he may have achieved the opposite. Ukrainians have suddenly realized that looking east towards Russia means suffering invasion and colonization while looking west towards Europe could mean freedom and prosperity. There were no lines of Ukrainians seeking shelter in Russia or Belarus; the long queues were at Polish and Romanian borders. President Volodymyr Zelensky was reflecting his people’s wishes when he asked for an immediate membership of the European Union.

It was only year ago when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov mocked the European Union as a “sinking ship” from which people were trying to jump off, starting with Brexit. Last week, however, even “Brexit Boris” was conscious of a collective European responsibility to defend the rule of law.

For years, Putin had worked to “de-couple” the United States and the European Union, hoping that, without the American behemoth, the European “midgets” would be easily cowed. The current crisis, however, showed that the Europeans can take the lead in being much tougher than the Americans under the risk-averse Joe Biden.

Putin also wanted to destroy NATO’s image as a protective shield for democratic nations. After all Donald Trump had declared NATO to be “irrelevant” while French President Emmanuel Macron had pronounced it “brain dead”. Inside Ukraine many did not see why joining NATO would be in their nation's interest.

Now, all that has changed as the octogenarian alliance is experiencing a second youth.

Even Germany under a Social Democrat Chancellor, has suddenly decided to drop seven decades of anti-military posture with a whopping $100 billion rearmament project. Even non-NATO European nations such as Austria, Sweden and Finland have fallen into line to oppose the aggressor. In European countries not yet in NATO the accelerator is pressed for faster membership. Unwittingly, perhaps, Putin has become a salesman for NATO insurance policies.

European popular reaction to Putin’s invasion is in sharp contrast with how Europe reacted to Hitler’s annexation of Austria (Anschluss) in 1938.

For 20 years the Putin wolf played grandmother in disguise.

That disguise enabled him to get away with invading Georgia, dominating Belarus, massacring Syrians, propelling the mullahs of Tehran, annexing Crimea, taking joyrides in various parts of Africa, poisoning people in Europe, and trying to disrupt elections in several countries through cyber-attacks. All that time almost a quarter of his income came from oil and gas sales to Western democracies-oil and gas produced thanks to Western capital, technology, management and marketing.

Now, however, even the most naïve in the West know where that grandmother got her teeth.

Putin thought that wiping Ukraine off the map would put the whole world at his feet.

The opposite has happened. Even China has refused to endorse his adventure.

At the time of this writing, he is in a lonely-hearts club that includes Ali Khamenei in Tehran, Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk, Burmese jackboots, Sudanese military rulers, and a couple of ageing Latino Marxists. In Western countries his long-time admirers on the right and left are trying to mumble a new narrative to obfuscate their past peccadillo.

Even once big politicians like former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and former French Premier Francois Fillon feel uneasy about riding in Putin’s gravy train for oligarchs.

Putin’s new version of the long dead Warsaw Pact has attracted no more than a few fellow autocrats.

The Ukraine adventure was also designed to establish Putin as a successful empire-builder whose personal power ad charisma would forever guarantee the safety of the ill-gained fortunes amassed by a couple of hundred oligarchs. Putin would fight and win while the oligarchs and their trophy wives basked in the sun of the French Riviera or bought football clubs across Europe. That equation, too, has been upset. The Ukraine adventure is now threatening the very system of international corruption that allowed such amazing rag-to-riches stories to shape.

For years, the average Russian has tolerated a good dose of repression from Putin because he seemed to keep the country out of big trouble while the economy improved thanks to energy exports.

The invasion could change all that. Russia is heading for big trouble while the golden goose of energy exports may lay fewer eggs. Worse still, proud Russia may find itself hat in hand in Beijing, offering to mortgage the farm to Chinese overlord Xi Jinping.

Putin has always boasted that he wants to secure a seat at the top table for Russia and revive the global leadership ambitions of the Tsars and their Bolshevik successors. Right now, however, he has lost even the side-chairs that Russia had been granted here and there, becoming an international pariah.

Putin may yet crush Ukraine with his far superior fire power. But he would do well to remember Sir Winston Churchill’s note: “There are no certainties in war.”

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