“Those who do not learn from History are condemned to repeat it.”—George Santayana
For all their earnest attempts at joint action to deter Putin, there appears to be a belief, however laudable, that international disapproval and economic sanctions can dissuade Putin from the course of action he has clearly been planning for years—the restoration of the Russian Empire.
The difficulty is that most Western leaders are enlightened human beings, brought up in peaceful democracy, where most people were generally happy with their lot and gently rising standards of living that made each generation more comfortable. Most people now pay only tangential attention to national politics and such interest as there is in international matters revolves mostly around holiday destinations.
Western leaders would be better equipped if they absorbed their own history. It seems that every century or so, some despot rises from obscurity on the shattered remains of a once-great country and embarks on a crusade to restore it to greatness, with uniformly disastrous consequences for all concerned. Vladimir Putin appears to be ou despot-of -he-century.
Look back in European history and it is not hard to find precedents. There have been minor figures who had their day in the sun—Charles XII of Sweden; Frederick the Great of Prussia; even Edward I of England—but none achieved continental, let alone global, scale impact. This was partly because their countries were too small, bit mainly because they were not surfing one of history’s great waves.
The wave in question is something of a political tsunami. It resembles the ocean phenomenon in several ways:
- It must occur in a large context—a major power, never in some minor state —(a tsunami does not happen on a lake)
- It requires some major event to trigger it— the collapse of a major country (tsunamis are triggered by major shifts in the seabed)
- The first indication appears to be harmless—the country appears prostrate, (the sea recedes much further than a low tide and all is quiet)
- Combining widespread support with audacity, a despot sweeps all before him (as the tsunami sweeps over the shoreline and far inland)
- But, eventually, the despot over-reaches, accumulates too much resistance and falls (the tsumani recedes, leaving devastation)
So, like a tsunami, despots don’t just ‘happen’. Putin is a product of circumstance that was 20th century Russia, and will also be a victim of it.
Consider his two predecessors as global despots: Napoleon and Hitler. Born at another time or place, we may never have heard of any of them. Like Putin, they didn’t just spring from nowhere to invade Russia in 1812 or Poland in 1939. There opportunities were shaped decades beforehand.
In the case of Napoleon, it was the Bourbon kings running a decadent empire that dominated Europe being brought down in 1789 and the subsequent decade of chaos that led proud French people to despair of ever recovering the glory that had been the wellspring of that pride.
When an unknown general ran rings around the Austrians and brought Italy into a struggling France’s orbit, they feted him, made him First Consul and celebrated a decade of victories that had France dominating all of Europe, except Britain and Russia. Then, in 1812, he over-reached himself and straggled home with a tenth of the Grande Armée.
In Hitler’s case, Bismarck had helped the Kaiser build a German Empire that was ground into dust by WW1. After centuries of political chaos in Central Europe, the pride that had engendered was also crushed and the weak Weimar republic that followed as a sickly substitute as inflation and the Depression sapped what was left. Along comes Adolf—hypnotic, decisive, telling them “Deutschland Erwache!” (Germany, Wake up!) and sweeps up votes to become Chancellor.
He then thumbs his nose at the humiliation of Versailles, restores the army and navy, invents an air force and stands up to the “victors” by re-occupying the Rhineland, annexing Austria and facing down Chamberlain and Deladier at Munich to take over Czechoslovakia too. Then his armies took out Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium and France in less than a year, and with apparent ease. To most Germans, restored to their rightful place in the world, he could do no wrong.
Seen in this context, the story of Vladimir Putin seems almost familiar. Obscure a couple of decades before seizing the world’s attention, it was circumstance and timing that propelled each of them into that position. Putin’s advantage was that, as a KGB operative in East Germany, he knew how the Soviet system worked, including how it was used to deceive the West. The post-Berlin Wall hiatus in Russia appalled many once-proud citizens in the same way the French were in the 1790s and the Germans in the 1920s.
“Cometh the hour, cometh the man.”—John 4:23
Once in power, he used KGB connections and methods to secure it. Keeping relatively amicable relations with the West through oil and gas contracts, he let the West preoccupy itself with Iraq and Afghanistan while he built links with backwaters like Syria and the new republics of Central Asia.
Having started rebuilding the rickety post-Soviet armed forces, he tested then out in increasing scale, starting in the Caucasus with Chechnya and Georgia. Noting that the West paid scant attention, he escalated, helping Assad crush his Syrian rebels and receiving a naval base in exchange.
But his real aim for a place in history was to restore, not the Soviet Union, but the Russian Empire, which had, a century ago, included Helsinki, Warsaw and Kishinev. The biggest piece missing from that puzzle? The rich, rolling farmland of Ukraine.
In 2014, Ukraine was like a well-meaning naïve adolescent. It had unilaterally given up a massive nuclear arsenal and was enthusiastically enjoying democratic development after centuries of Russian domination. But it also included Crimea, home to Sevastopol and the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The pretext to secure this base was too much for Putin, who took over all Crimea to do so. And, for good measure, he infiltrated the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region with unbadged soldiers who posed as partisans against Ukrainian oppression. This tactic of a political running sore became the pretext to foment hostility towards Ukraine and provide cynical justification for the present invasion.
At each stage, like Napoleon and Hitler, Putin milked reawakening pride of a major people fallen from grace and tested the resolve of the rest of the world to stop them. And, at each stage, the world has generally been too preoccupied, too timid and/or too indifferent to react. Which, as in earlier ‘playbooks’, serves to encourage the despot in question to push his luck further.
And here’s the rub. Once on his treadmill, the despot cannot afford to get off. Like Napoleon and Hitler, who had to double down until they bit off more than they could chew. Disaster then follows—not just for the despot, but for the people their Pied Piper has led then to.
At this point, only three days into Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to (in his words) “de-militarise and de-nazify the drug-taking ulta-nationalists who are committing genocide of Russian” it is unlikely that this constitutes his come-uppance, however many of us may wish it. But, what is certain, that he will lead his country into disaster because such a regime cannot ever stop. And there will be some ironic continuity with history in this, as Russia is involved once again in the dénouement.
Just as you can’t pause a tsunami, you can only take comfort from the fact it always recedes. But, like a tsunami, global despots on Putin’s scale always leaves shocked survivors to clean up their mess.