A June 2016 Levada poll found that 68 per cent of Russians think NATO troops in the Baltic States and Poland are a threat to Russia. Obviously, President Vladimir Putin’s domestic scare campaign worked. Most state-sponsored scare campaigns do work (refer Covid).
Those Russians who think that western countries wish to invade Russia have no idea why that would be the case. As the proverbial ‘man in the street’ (MiS)*, I ask: Why would anyone want to attack and invade a vast but poor country, whose energy resources (the only feasible prize aside from vodka producers) could be purchased easier and cheaper? Just ask Germany…
Putin’s agitation is not really based on his own fear of attack; it is driven by a mix of national pride, ego and a historic nostalgia for the days when he was a KGB officer (a master of the Soviet universe), as many commentators with more expertise than I, have observed. It is a sad and miserable mindset, maximised by his power to do as he wants, unhindered by pesky domestic challengers. (They die early … but that does not mean the critiques and the discontent evaporate; they continue to fester internally; even MiS knows that.)
No, it is arguable that the Putin gambit is to frighten the world as it has frightened its own citizens, making credible moves and threats until his will is done. His will is to feed the aforementioned weaknesses of character and a pumped-up dream of a Soviet-era empire.
Tough guy Putin is hardly shaking in his black leather boots at the thought of NATO sending missiles and/or troops into Russia. It won’t happen; why would it?
Putin is banking on being appeased away from invading Ukraine … it’s a poker player’s bluff. Actually, as even some Russian military have worried, notably retired Colonel-General Leonid Ivashov, invading Ukraine would be enormously costly in human lives, tangible resources (which it can’t really afford), and the ongoing challenge of occupation. The ambition to bring Ukraine into its sphere of influence (making it a Moscow puppet) has a massive price tag in every respect, not least the loss of credibility. China knows all about that; the isolation may not affect the swagger, but it gradually percolates into everything a country does officially and its people feel privately. Therein lies the risk of domestic alienation, the greatest danger to dictatorships.
Any MiS keeping up with international current affairs know that both leaders are playing to domestic as well as international audiences. Xi Jinping is in a slightly different power game via Taiwan, but there are similar risks for him domestically. Xi does actually desire to ‘have’ Taiwan inside the giant China tent. The costs and risks of invasion are perhaps even greater for him. Overcoming Taiwan and holding it would require a massive commitment of resources and political endurance on a global scale.
But Xi, too, is driven by those risky character weaknesses of ego, empire building, and power extension as Putin. Besties in beastliness … egging each other on, like sociopathic bullies.
But let’s remember that dictators are weaker than we think; they are propped up at home by vast security forces, armies of secret agents, spies and enforcers. ‘Threat-think’ is a tactic exported to the West as a means of control and manipulation. Putin and Xi are both banking on the West dancing like puppets to their threatening manipulations, if I’m not ‘MiStaken’.
*Man in the Street is a sex-inclusive phrase meaning any reasonable person. Woman in the Street has an altogether different connotation … and Person in the Street is a clunky translation to wokespeak.
Andrew L. Urban is the author of Murder by the Prosecution (Wilkinson Publishing) and edits wrongfulconvictionsreport.org
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