Ukraine # 2 Respect, Brinksmanship and Cold War Tactics?


The RAF escort a Russian Bear bomber off the coast of the UK. 19th Feb 2015 Image: RAF/EPA

(Not a corporate topic but interesting from a culture perspective)

Russia is demanding the Wests attention when there are lots of distractions. What is it that Putin is up to and should we be listening?

Some time ago I skimmed across the events evolving in Crimea, Ukraine and Russia. Since then eastern Ukraine has become the hotspot with Russian backed separatists (and Russians) fighting the Ukrainian army. In the meanwhile there has been a disaster when hundreds are murdered on Malaysian Airlines MH17. For a country supporting an undeclared civil and state war this disaster turns out to be just an irritating distraction from the real business. On top of that, the Russian currency and economy is imploding not least because of the fall in gas and oil revenue. So what’s changed? Nothing really. The paranoid Military Class (Note 1) Putin belongs to is still in charge and threatened by NATO encroachment through EU expansion. They were buoyed by their success in Crimea reinforcing Putin’s power, tactics and egotistical self. As the economy withered there was a moment when the political class and the Commercial class seemed like they might be heard. But it was just a moment as the rich (commercial class) and the citizens are still secondary and they know it – An Enclave of Powerful Russians.

Meanwhile the EU wants everybody to just calm down. Not a bad idea. And though I understand why the German Chancellor is leading the negotiations (with the French President along for support) I am also aware that she is negotiating with the macho guy from the Military Class who longs for the old Soviet Union and the respect it had. Angela Merkel’s gender might not be an issue for Putin but add that she is not a member of the Military Class and this will reassure Putin of his position and strategy (despite all the other clever people at the table). For the Russian military class the German offensives of the 2nd World War are not that long ago and they still remember controlling East Germany where the good Chancellor grew up. And did I mention, he would like the USSR back together again? Sure it won’t happen (not without a war) but when has having a fantasy been a crime. So while Angela does her thing, Obama talks about the US supplying weapons to Ukraine. That could keep the fight going indefinitely as the big boys stand behind the two sides. Of course the idea is that Russia (East Ukraine) might just realize it’s hopeless and start serious peace talks. But for now they come up with a cease fire at the talks and surprise, it doesn’t really hold on the ground. “Not my fault,” Putin can say and in some measure he is right. It’s hard to see them getting seriously behind the ceasefires right now and I’m guessing US support is just likely to reinforce Putin’s views about the interests of the West. Are you getting the feeling that there is not a lot of space to move in or that it is feeling a lot like the 1960s and maybe even Saddam Hussein’s brinksmanship before the second Iraq War? Putin risks leading us all to a dangerous place.

It is simple really, when somebody uses weapons and violence then others get dragged down with them sooner or later: their ethics/morals, their worldview, their honesty, their rationality and their bank accounts. (Note 2. Also see Cultures of War, 2010) Of course all this reinforces the role of the military class and Putin gets that. And he will use it! The cold war tactics are well remembered and return easily – lets fly a bomber within striking range of the UK. That will get their attention!

Putin is feeling emboldened, he will be enjoying the attention, he will play more brinksmanship, he will test and tease the boundaries. Where else can he go? He doesn’t believe in a more liberal society, he does not support more equality at home, he does not want to share power with the commercial classes and personally does not have the economic vision or expertise to make Russia an economic power and he wants external/foreign validation. It’s not a return to Totalitarianism but some of the stench is still there so there will be no attempts to improve democracy. No doubt the number of Russians now living around the West will have extended Russia’s intelligence network. Cue paranoia! Hollywood might just get back one of it’s great villains – the Russian spy.

Russia and Putin want something besides the old team and a buffer with NATO: Respect

If there is one thing a person with a hierarchical, authoritarian, superiority complex from the Military classes can’t abide it is disrespect. For Putin personally it will rankle that he is often mocked in the West though he is likely disdainful of those who do the mocking. And he can deal with that. However for Russia not to be at the centre of other countries foreign policy discussions and concerns (and trepidation) is to be disrespected and not taken as seriously as one should be. Putin (and his gang) remember when Russia was always near the top on everybody’s foreign policy concerns. And it is possible that for Putin and friends respect is more important than being liked. Hell, now a few well funded, violent, murderous, rag tag zealots from Syria with an internet connection get more attention. No invitations to dinner or the UN Security Council but they do get attention. And China with it’s Russian borders is getting way more powerful. What better way to send a message to China than showing your manhood on other borders?

Will fighting break out somewhere else? Well, once you’re on a slide/roll anything becomes possible – refer to any war in the last 200 years. Restraint for Putin may come from his sense of history and Sun Tsu’s warning that you should never fight on two fronts. Just don’t count on it. Hubris has led more than one military (and corporate) mind to think that wisdom and rules do not apply to them.

The world has been reminded of two things. The international diplomatic community cannot take Russia for granted and  Russia is far from having the integrated worldview that would assist in making international relations safer. (A view that would be more useful on the Security Council. No doubt there are plenty of Russians who do but they aren’t running the country.)

If you think all of this is speculation, then you are right. I am a distant and poorly informed observer. I’m just trying what I know to find a way into Putin’s head and understand the situation a little more. And I’m not suggesting you should get inside his head or that it is even a good idea.

If you got this far, thanks for reading.

1 The Military Class in many ways operates in parallel to a society and by necessity includes war and it’s associated behaviours within it’s worldview. When the military takes on civil roles it brings it’s worldview with it. Even the military’s worldview can evolve but that’s too big a topic for here.
2 Note that the number of Human Rights concerns and violations in Australia have steadily increased since it’s involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Timor etcetera while the associated refugee and border protection issues are the most obvious. And the cost have become huge. (Current, Refugees)

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