In the debate about whether Putin is a chess player or a great Russian slavophile/nationalist I would argue that there is no necessary contradiction between the two. After all, paranoids also have enemies. There is grave danger in assuming rationality and ignoring emotional content, as well as dismissing heated rhetoric as just blather.
Hitler, too, was seen by many in the West; in business, academia and in government as just a blowhard, and MEIN KAMPF as a meaningless bit of bombast for local consumption. His domestic policies were simply overlooked as Germany’s business. Weimar murdered? Well, it never amounted to much anyway and besides it didn’t pay its war debts. Rearmament? We can’t expect Germany to remain unarmed forever, whatever the terms of Versailles. Kristallnacht and the Nuremburg laws? Okay, not nice but not our business. Then came the Ruhr, Austria, Sudetenland, the rest of Czechoslovakia. Gee, he’s really getting uppity, isn’t he? But now that ninety-five percent of the Germans are under one roof, is he likely to risk a two-front war for the sake of the Danzig Germans?
No, he was not. Which of course is why he made an ideologically unthinkable pact with Stalin, in which they divided up eastern Europe.from Estonia to Romania. The German invasion and rapid conquest of Poland in September 1939 was followed indeed by declarations of war by France and England, after which for months not much of anything happened (the so-called “sitzkrieg”) on the western front, the French secure behind the Maginot Line and the English secure behind the Channel. Then the “sitz” was followed by the ‘blitz” and the German armies simply went around the Maginot Line (what an amazing flash of strategic brilliance) and knocked the French out, while convincing the Italian jackals to enter the conflict and bite off a piece of Provence.
Crimea was Putin’s Poland. Democracy (and some of its proponents) murdered; a decrepit military machine spruced up, a rehearsal in Georgia and zappo!, we swallowed Crimea and guess what? Nothing happened! Let’s bite off a bit more of Ukraine and see if we get away with it. And then perhaps the Baltic states (after all we already cyber-attacked Estonia some years ago and no one did anything).
Then in June of 1941, instead of organizing and digesting the entire continental European peninsula and preparing an onslaught on England that even the Channel couldn’t stop, while the U.S. did nothing whatever about the European conflict except send some supplies to England, Hitler made a gigantic strategic mistake and invaded his Russian ally. Four years later Germany was a pile of rubble. But what if he had waited until his scientists had perfected nuclear weapons, as they were certain to have done at least as quickly as the U.S. did? USSR reduced to a pile of smoking rubble and Britain on its knees begging for peace. After Pearl Harbor don’t declare war on the U.S., let the Japanese wallow in their own fatal strategic error after conquering all of east and south-east Asia except for parts of China and Australia.
The Greeks have a word for it. Hubris. The chess players become overly-enamored of their own strategic genius and overly-confident that the rest of the world will do nothing serious to stop them, no matter what they do. Putin is still in the chess playing phase, but the pusillanimous reaction of the leaderless West may very well induce him to follow the path of the Nazis and the Japanese militarists. Russia is indeed, I assert, a wounded bear, wounded in its psyche over and over again. Is it weak? Putin doesn’t think so. As Clausewitz said, military victory is a question, more than anything else of will. Let’s not forget that the great Nazi propaganda film was entitled THE TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. I am sure that Putin has seen it many times.
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