What made Putin flip a switch?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whatever your feelings about her, was an extraordinary British woman.

She met with China's leader Deng Xiaoping in what was then known as Peking in late September 1982.

Thatcher was flushed with success after a successful war against Argentina in the Falklands.1 No doubt, she was in a winning frame of mind.

Two years later, she agreed to hand over Hong Kong to China on schedule in 1997.

There are varying reports of what went down at that fateful meeting. The consensus is that Thatcher flew in to propose continued British sovereignty over Hong Kong and was rudely surprised to find that China considered Britain's view irrelevant.

The version that I like quoting goes like this. Deng looked across the table at Thatcher and said: “I can put a million troops into Hong Kong in an hour. What will you do then?”

It's an image that comes to mind often because it bears an important life lesson which my friend Willem Nel first shared with me some years ago: “Nothing clarifies the mind like a lack of options.”

If you’ve been paying any attention to the news over the past few days, you’re probably aware that Russia has moved troops into the sovereign state of Ukraine.

The United Nations has subsequently held an emergency meeting to decide what to do. Russia has quietly proceeded to amass 150 000 troops along the border with Ukraine. Russian president Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he reserves the right to enter Ukraine if necessary.

What’s going on?

Well, let’s talk about another extraordinary British woman: Florence Nightingale, born 12 May 1820 and died 13 August 1910, is generally acknowledged to be the founder of modern nursing. She came to prominence while serving as a nurse during the Crimean War, where she tended to wounded soldiers.

The Crimean War – fought from October 1853 to February 1856 – was a conflict in which Russia lost to an alliance of France, Britain, the Ottoman Empire, and Sardinia (with some behind-the-scenes help from Austria).

The area of Ukraine that the Russians have moved into is Crimea.

Isn't it extraordinary how we are constantly unaware of historical patterns playing themselves out in the modern world?

The Crimean War began between Russia and the Ottoman Empire over Russia's rights to protect Orthodox Christians from the Islamic expansion of the Ottomans. Russia was poised for victory except for the fact that France and Britain entered the war in March 1854 on the side of the Turks.

Why? Well, the Russians were Orthodox Christians while the French were Catholic. The French and British did not want the Russians to gain territory at the expense of a declining Ottoman Empire.

(But wait, you say, these were Christians supporting Muslims against Christians? Yes.)

Most of the fighting took place for control of the Black Sea, with land battles on the Crimean peninsula (modern Ukraine) in southern Russia. The Russians held their great fortress at Sevastopol for over a year. When that fell, a peace treaty was negotiated at Paris in March 1856. The upshot was that Russia lost control of the Black Sea.

Two world wars followed which dramatically altered the context of the area. After World War 2, the Ukraine fell under the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics until the late 1980s when the USSR crumbled. Russia emerged independent, as did Ukraine.

Except the majority of Crimeans are still Russian.

Understand that I am not taking sides in this conflict. I am merely pointing out that Russia has an historical claim to the Crimea that was thwarted by the Western powers (then represented primarily by Britain and France) in the 19th Century.

Many parts of Ukraine society have become increasingly right wing – what we in this country would probably call “racist” – and those segments have aligned themselves with the West. No doubt the matter would have continued on this track going forward with the Russian sphere of influence under steady decline.

But late last year, something flipped a switch in Vladimir Putin's brain. He suddenly dropped all pretence of being a friend of the West and has begun a process of gearing Russia for what, to me, is clearly a new battleground.

What happened?

I believe the answer is to be found in Edward Snowden.

The revelations leaked by Snowden to the world showed a US government that has exceeded Orwellian predictions around state interference in the private lives of its citizens as well as those of other countries.

Snowden is now a “guest” of the Russians. I have no doubt that Putin has been extracting every bit of intelligence he can from that source.

And Putin has realised that the only response to uncontrollable American technological superiority is naked control.

Obama is making the right noises around the invasion of the Ukraine, but he can actually not do much else.

It's as Margaret Thatcher found out when she snuck out of Beijing with her tail between her legs. These are not the people that were trounced by treachery and duplicity in the 19th Century. They are armed. They are powerful. And they are not afraid of your threats.

Nothing clarifies the mind like a lack of options. Welcome to the new cold war.

  • 1. Cringing now reading this sentence -> "success after successful"; ouch.