Updated: April 4, 2022 7:00:02 pm
Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Germany, told the German parliament in 1876 that it would have been the height of folly to have invaded a weakened France the year before for fear that a resurgent and militarised France might attack Germany in the future. “Preventive wars,” he said, “are like committing suicide for fear of death”. I was reminded of this observation a few weeks back when I read that President Vladimir Putin had placed the Russian nuclear force on high alert in response to what he called the “aggressive statements by leading NATO powers”. It continues to reverberate in my head as the daily reports from Ukraine confirm that Putin has made a massive miscalculation and blunder.
I am of the view that continued discussions on the genesis of the crisis and the extenuating circumstances behind what is undoubtedly an egregious breach of the territorial integrity of a sovereign independent nation has limited value. What is now required are conversations on how to prevent a further escalation of this conflict. I am also of the view that India can and should play a role in driving such conversations. Its decision to abstain from the UN resolutions condemning Russia should give it negotiating heft with Putin; also, our PM is on friendly terms with him; and as the forthcoming chair of the G20 in 2023, India can claim locus standi.
President Putin has failed to achieve any of his objectives. That is an indubitable fact. He has not succeeded in overrunning Ukraine through a blitzkrieg military operation, in changing the Zelenskyy regime, nor in securing “imperia Rus” — a Russian sphere of influence comparable to what the 10th century Prince Vladimir of Kiev had created and which territorially extended even beyond the boundaries of the former Soviet Union. In fact, on the contrary, Russian forces have got bogged down by the fierce resistance of the Ukrainian military and Zelenskyy has emerged as the exemplar of the soft power of moral rectitude and communication. His retort to the Americans who offered to help him leave the country, “I want ammunition, not a ride” will mark his epitaph; and most former members of the Soviet Union which are today independent sovereign states are scrambling to shelter under the security umbrella provided by Article 5 of the NATO agreement. Moreover, NATO countries have not fallen over themselves in disagreement over their response to the invasion but instead have conjointly imposed the severest of economic sanctions, which according to economists will knock between 10-20 per cent off Russia’s GDP and in the words of Raghuram Rajan, should be likened to “weapons of mass destruction” for the misery it will bring to the Russian public.
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In the face of such a massive setback, the question has to be asked: What will President Putin do next? Will he look for a face-saving way out of the corner? Or might he compound his original sin by escalating the nature of the conflict? Might he, for instance, do what he did in Grozny and raze the Ukrainian cities to rubble? Might he unleash chemical weapons? Or in extremis, might he even cross the nuclear Rubicon?
I do not think anyone has an answer to these questions other than perhaps the psychiatrists who have had a chance to peer into Putin’s brain. But his biographers do provide useful guideposts and in the absence of alternative signage, these posts should be kept in sight whilst navigating the crisis. Putin grew up in straitened circumstances and lived in a communitarian establishment. He was short in stature and constantly set upon by the stronger boys in the neighbourhood. But instead of skirting confrontation, he took up martial arts and trained to give back as good as he received. He was determined not to allow his seemingly more powerful adversaries to cow him down.
This may be a leap too far but it is my view that these teenage experiences provide insight into the reasons for President Putin’s confrontational attitude towards the Western powers. He sees their actions through an ultranationalist lens and is convinced that they are looking to lever their economic and military superiority to check Russian nationalism and forestall Russia from regaining its rightful place in the pantheon of the international order. He may be bluffing but he has signalled that he is prepared to take the world to the brink of a nuclear Armageddon to counter these efforts.
The contemporary conundrum is how to get him to look at the world through a different lens. How to accept “defeat” without having to concede he has been defeated. Many argue that it would be a mistake to appease Putin and that given time and opportunity, he will return to the fray with the intent to secure his unrealised objectives. They refer to the Munich Pact of 1938 that did not bring “peace in our time” but triggered World War II. This is, I believe, a misleading equivalence. World War II was catastrophic but there was a victor. A nuclear conflict will be existential. There will be no victors. And, therefore, even though fraught with uncertainty and risk, the effort must be to crack this conundrum.
How can this be done? Again, there are no simple answers. But a good start would be to set out what should not be done. Putin must not be squeezed into a corner from which there is no escape. President Joe Biden’s obiter dicta that Putin must not be allowed to stay in power was in this context, therefore particularly injudicious. As also the comments that countries that buy Russian crude oil will find themselves on the “wrong side of history”. The effort now should be to create avenues for a face-saving backdown. India has the credibility and international clout and PM Modi has a personal equation with Putin. These should be leveraged to end this humanitarian tragedy.
This column first appeared in the print edition on April 4, 2022 under the title ‘Reading his mind’. The writer is Chairman, Centre for Social and Economic Progress
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