Nothing that Vladimir Putin has done in gobbling up territories of the former Soviet Union is new. In fact, he simply apes every tyrant’s time-honored four-step plan of aggression.
INVADE, WAIT — AND INVADE
From Philip of Macedon to Napoleon, aggressors did not necessarily have a grand timetable for creating an empire. Instead, they went at it ad hoc. They took as much as they could at any given time; then backed away for a bit, if they sensed strong opposition was building — only to go back on the offensive when vigilance waned.
Hitler did not realistically believe in 1936 that he would within five years create an empire from the Atlantic to the Volga. Instead, he started out by moving incrementally — in the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia — testing where he might grab land without a war, always both surprised at the ease of his success and full of contempt for the appeasers who had so empowered him.
So too Putin. Once the Obama administration had reset the mild punishments of the Bush administration for carving out parts of Ossetia, Putin went back on the move. Obama’s reset was a green light for Putin. Who in the real world of serious diplomacy shows up in Geneva with a red plastic toy reset button, complete with a mistranslated Russian label? When Putin soon sized up the Obama administration’s appeasement around the globe — from fake red lines for Syria, to a scramble out of Iraq, to chaos in Libya — he moved into Crimea. And then he waited.
Western sermons followed; outrage grew. Then the Western hysterics predictably passed, as popular attention went back to the Kardashians and Miley Cyrus’s metamorphosis from Disney girl to vamp. After a bit of digestion, Putin was ready for his next Anschluss. He repeated the formula in Ukraine: a persecuted Russian-speaking minority, an anti-Russian illiberal government, civil unrest, denial of a just and much-needed new plebiscite, a need for paramilitaries to help out their brethren, a Russian army standing nearby just in case, a few bombers buzzing the West, and magnanimous promises to leave crumbs for the victims.
Putin then waited to gauge the reaction. As he swallows eastern Ukraine, he now eyes the Baltic States. He does not quite have a map on his wall of a new czarist Orthodox state the size of the Soviet Union, but he does have a general sense that there are a lot more former Soviet republics to be had — and he is eager to poke here and there to find out which will be the easiest to grab next.
All dictators feign craziness, or at least exaggerate their undeniably unhinged tendencies. Appearing capable of anything was always a dictator’s advantage, well before the North Koreans, Pakistanis, and Iranians started playing nuclear poker. Demosthenes warned Athenians about the obsessed, one-eyed, limping Philip II, who would ruin every part of his hideous body to destroy the free city-state. Napoleon fired on crowds and kidnapped and executed dukes to remind the old regimes in Europe that his was a new order in which nothing was quite out of bounds.
When Hitler sweated quarts under the spotlights and screamed his lungs out at Nuremberg rallies, neighboring European statesmen with their ties and umbrellas fretted that such a nut might try anything — and thus should be given a little something before his derangement destroyed their comfortable world. Who in his right mind, just two decades after the Somme and Verdun, would want a replay?
Obama laughs at the bare-chested antics of Putin on horses, up to his waist fishing in freezing water, and posing with comatose tigers. For the metrosexual Nobel Laureate Obama, Putin’s muscle-flexing is obviously an adolescent “macho shtick” — like what schoolboys do when they cut up in the back of the room. Cannot the world see how juvenile these antics are, so crass in comparison to mapping out the Final Four in front of the television cameras or hitting the back nine in circus-colored sportswear?
But Putin without a shirt is no different from Philip on a charger, or Napoleon with braids and sword, or the Kaiser in his spike-topped helmet, or Hitler in his knee-high jackboots. Who seems more likely to risk destruction for an agenda — Demosthenes in his robes or Philip in his armor? Chamberlain in his Savile Row suit or Hitler in his brown shirt? Putin with his biceps or Obama with his bike helmet?
Putin struts about, as one of his generals, in Goering’s Luftwaffe style, boasts about Russia’s big arsenal. Sometimes he accidentally-on-purpose sends a bomber too close to British airspace or a sub too near to Swedish waters. His message is the same as Napoleon’s and Hitler’s: “I am not your run-of-the-mill statesman, but a revolutionary nut quite capable of bringing the global house down upon all of you — unless you are willing to give up a little to save a lot.” Playing the sociopath has always won concessions, from Philocrates and Isocrates to Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain.
ALWAYS A VICTIM
Aggressive autocrats always have had a list of perceived grievances, what Thucydides once called prophases.
For Philip, the pretext was supposedly Athenian aggression in northern Greece and cultural and racial disdain for his Macedonians. For Napoleon, it was foreign aristocratic cabals always plotting to overthrow his regime, forcing him to preempt and go on an offensive defense. For the imperial Germans, it was snotty colonial powers like France and Britain, neither of which was willing to accept the upstart unified Germany fully into their imperial club. For Hitler, it was the Jews, the socialists, and the Versailles Treaty that had combined to rob Germany of its destiny.
For the present terrorist Iranian theocracy, it is always the victimization of 1953 — as if Iran had never intrigued with Hitler, as if the Soviet Union in 1946 would have, on its own, given up its wartime presence in Iran, as if Mossadegh was a utopian democrat who had not grabbed emergency autocratic powers, as if the mullahs were democrats rather than co-conspirators in the efforts to see Mossadegh gone.
If the polis Greeks would just have allowed Philip to carve out a reasonable hegemony in his own region, he would have left the south alone. If Napoleon had been assured of a sphere of influence, he would surely not have gone east of the Rhine or challenged Britain at sea. If Hitler could just have returned all German speakers to the Third Reich, then he would have had no more territorial claims in Europe. The British and the French cared as much about “faraway” Czechoslovakia in 1938 as the Athenians did in 348 b.c. about faraway Olynthus.
Aggressors always assume there are, among their enemies, plenty of influential naïfs with whom such appeals will resonate. We hear today empathy on the Left with the Iranians and on the Right with Putin. Obama is talking, misty eyed, of a non-existent Iranian fatwa supposedly barring the development of nuclear weapons, as he sends both greetings and condolences to Iran’s theocrats.
If Putin can just be allowed parts of Georgia that were robbed from Russia in the chaos of the fall of the Soviet Union, he won’t take Crimea. If Crimea is rightfully given back to Moscow, then Ukraine can have its autonomy. If Eastern Ukraine is reunited with Russia, then the Baltic States will be safe from a satiated Putin.
Many in the West buy into Putin as the victim of a bellicose and opportunistic NATO, a money-grubbing EU, and a cowboyish America that conspired to carve up the corpse of the Soviet Union to ensure that the Russian people would never again become world players.
Every aggressor also advances sophisticated lies. These narratives appeal to the better angels of the naïve. They always seem somewhat logical, at least superficially.
For Philip, it was a grand Pan-Hellenic crusade under his aegis against the real enemy of Greek freedom: the slavish and effeminate Persian Empire.
Napoleon claimed that he was a reluctant autocrat, but that he alone had the muscle to protect the ideals of the French Revolution from monarchists at home and the old regimes abroad. He did not so much subvert the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity as ensure that they were protected by the proper revolutionary force.
Kaiser Wilhelm’s plans for a conquered Western Europe and Russia included something akin to a German Co-Prosperity Sphere, with swaths of France, Belgium, and Russia simply handed over to Germany.
Hitler wanted to redo the Versailles Treaty and convince the world that the Volk deserved most of Western and Central Europe — and a new Reich for all superior Aryan peoples.
Putin is every bit as crafty. He only wants two minor things: to honor the holy sites of Mother Russia and to save Western Civilization from itself.
Do we appreciate the sacred Russian soil of Ukraine, where in 1941 the brave Soviets fought to save Kiev — suffering 700,000 casualties in the greatest encirclement in military history? Does the West understand that the Russians lost another 120,000 in vain trying to save Sevastopol from Erich von Manstein’s Nazis? Does Obama appreciate that the Baltic States served as a direct autobahn for Army Group North to reach Leningrad — what is now once again St. Petersburg, as it was in pre-Soviet days — and starve a million people to death during the longest and most deadly siege in modern history?
Putin’s second story is more ecumenical. He claims to be the true knight of Western Civilization — not the counterfeit, decadent version that has sold out to the sickness of gay marriage, rap music, abortion on demand, and politically correct multiculturalism.
Indeed, from Pat Buchanan to the European Right, Putin is simply a reincarnated Byzantine Justinian sending out his knight Belisariuses to save what is left of the old Roman Empire after its collapse in the West from self-inflicted decadence.
NATO grandees talk of opposing Putin, but he is the most popular man in the Orthodox world. Countries like Greece, Serbia, and Cyprus prefer him to either the EU or the United States. Middle Eastern strongmen find him more predictable and reliable than Western leaders. Those who do not respect him at least fear him.
Nothing Putin is doing is novel, from his on-again, off-again digestion of nations, to his feigned uncouthness, to his victimization, to his idealistic and ecumenical agenda.
Putin is scary because his time-worn method of aggrandizement is as predictable as it is usually effective.