The trouble with Odysseus, the Ancient Greek mythological hero and King of Ithaca, was that his deceptions, while good in war, meant few trusted him in peace.
In Greek mythology, the contest between raw strength (bie) and cunning (metis) represented two sides of the same coin in the prosecution of war. Strength can be defeated by strength, yet deception is the art of war. As with the first Cold War, deception is continuing to shape the minds and actions of opponents – made more effective when one appreciates their moral and mental vulnerabilities.
When it comes to the crisis over Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been deceiving one step at a time to get what he wants. If a big European war does start, not only should we be mad at Putin, we should be mad as hell with our Western leaders for their dereliction of duty and for being neither strong nor cunning.
We are led to believe this crisis is new. In fact, Russian forces and Ukrainian soldiers have been shooting each other since 2014. Ukraine has been invaded previously. The re-taking of Crimea was part of Putin’s plan to take Ukraine. Many remain locked into a conventional construct of war. Russian troops and equipment, special forces, little-green-men, coordinating with Donetsk separatists, cyber-attacks, cutting basic services, restricting energy supplies, and psychological propaganda has been ongoing for eight years.
This is classic hybrid warfare.
Since then, 4,000 Ukrainian soldiers and over 13,000 civilians have died. Each move testing how the West would react. No panic from Western media then … although President Obama did apply sanctions targeting banks and separatist defence companies.
Western leaders failed to accept Putin’s audacity, while repeatedly reinforcing a pattern of behaviour with feeble responses. Putin has never been given a reason to forgo his strategic goals while the West displayed neither guile nor strength. Perhaps the saddest aspect of all is that not one Western leader has worked out Putin’s vulnerability. If they have, why have they not exploited it?
The true nature of Putin and his high-risk strategy can be found in Greek historian Thucydides (431 – 404BC), arguably the first to develop the concept of realism. As King’s College Emeritus Professor of War Studies, Sir Lawrence Freedom, explains the headlines from Thucydides were often taken to be descriptions of the irresistible nature of power and the imperviousness of the strong to the complaints of the weak.
For realists (as opposed to liberalism – look where that has got us), States act in their self-interest and remain wary of each other. In the modern era, power is underpinned by the capability to dominate across the maritime, air, land, space, and now cyber domains for access and control of resources. Realists accept this requires continual preparations for war. Coalitions are formed as webs of protection with the potential to be destabilised. Then there are the expectations (especially in our 24/7 information age) for quick fixes when what is required is strategic patience.
The European members of Nato have continually acquiesced to Putin.
Remember how offended Nato members became when President Trump called them out for their cheap-skate defence spending? Nato and the EU’s liberal path has contributed to where we are now, and Putin has sought to pull at the strands connecting allies. The West has heard crickets from Turkey (a Nato member), except for telling US Secretary Anthony Blinken it will not drop its acquisition of Russian S-400 air defence systems. As the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925 – 2013) explained, deterring wars and being in a position to win those forced upon one require continuous investment in defence and an unbending resolution to resist aggression. This is the realism of geo-politics. Not the liberalism of global elites where we will own nothing and be happy.
Thucydides said that displays of strength might actually be hiding fundamental weaknesses. As Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson explains, it is not dangerous and disciplined men who we should concern ourselves with. Instead, it is weak men who are society’s greatest risk.
At his core, Putin is a deeply flawed individual. Putin suffers from an inferiority complex like all maniacal leaders. Schoolyard bullies are like that. In 2007, Putin launched a tough-guy PR campaign. Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda published photographs of a bare-chested Putin vacationing in the Siberian mountains under the headline: Be Like Putin. Look deeper and you will see an awkward and introverted lonely man who only picks on easy targets.
Since Putin has been Russian President, Australia and the UK have had six and five Prime Ministers respectively, and America has had five Presidents. And yet no one has pushed back against him in a way that hurts. Putin biographer Stephen Myers explains in the New Tsar, that Putin believes he is ‘the living embodiment of Russia’s stability’. Anything opposed to him (internal or external) is disorder. Yet without disorder, he is irrelevant.
As a realist, Thucydides also understood the competing constraints of pleasing internal and external demands. If the US were to re-start its oil and gas production that flourished under President Trump, that would be one way to devalue Putin’s money pump for an economy that is anaemic. Instead captured by the ‘green new deal’ Biden stopped oil and gas exploration, banned the Keystone pipeline and made the US energy-dependent.
Since Biden has been in office according to the US Energy Information Association (EIA), Russia has become the third largest provider of oil to the US at an average of over 600,000 b/d from January to November 2021. It’s an external pressure point with internal consequences for the filthy rich Putin. One of the worst decisions of any EU leader was when former German Chancellor Angela Merkel ditched nuclear energy and made her country dependent on Putin’s gas. Putin knows in the face of disastrous domestic politics at home, the shambles that was the Afghan withdrawal, Biden is vulnerable. How we got here is bit by bit. It’s not even a KGB secret. Given this, it doesn’t take much imagination to guess what Chinese President Xi Jinping is thinking.
Lawrence explains, the Athenians were not holding onto their empire contrary to the common practice of mankind, but under the pressure of the three greatest human motives – fear, honour, and interest. Thucydides is most famous for his thesis that the Peloponnesian Wars between Athens and Sparta where expansion, alliances, and internal pressures that fed paranoia and fear. Putin displays fear and self-interest and he interprets the break-up of the Soviet Union as dishonourable. He doesn’t continually arrest or try to poison (allegedly) Russian Opposition leader Alexei Navalny because he is strong, in the sense that Putin is courageous, but out of fear. Putin fears competition that will expose his weakness. With Biden in the White House he is exploiting the weak.
Predictions are dangerous in world affairs. All this does not mean a third world war is out of the question, nor that it cannot be stopped. It’s politicians who start or stop wars. The 20th century is littered with conflict resulting from bad judgments made by world leaders that now appear implausible.
Stalin noted that everyone has a right to be stupid, but some people abuse that privilege.
As soon as possible, the West must ditch its obsession with wokeness and self-hating narratives and get back to being strong, self-reliant, confident, and applying practical intelligence to keep our enemies constantly neutralised. If not, as we are witnessing deception will become reality.
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