The return of the strong
Sorry, folks. It’s thinky time.
Originally I had intended to write to you today, explaining why I thought a lot of people were needlessly confused by Vladimir Putin. This confusion expressed itself in all the hot takes from the ‘What Does Putin Really Want?’ desk.
But Putin has been telling us what he wanted for nearly twenty years now - the restoration of Russian power and influence over all the lands east of the Oder River, and acceptance of this new-old order by those to the west. A restoration which requires the dismantling of NATO and the European Union in its current form, and the return of a hundred million people to vassalage under Kremlin rule.
No biggie. It’s not like he’s been hiding it.
But what people should’ve really been asking themselves is how the maximum Russian gangstacrat will get what he wants?
In the old Soviet Union, the communist boyars held fast to a tripartite division of politics into doctrine, strategy and tactics.
Doctrine was high order holy writ; bullshit like Putin’s rambling botox-zombie cri du coeur this week that, “Ukraine is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space.”
Strategy is more practical and rooted in the world of real things, but still kinda high-falutin’. Strategists ask questions like:
• Do we use our proxies in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk to push out beyond the line of contact, reclaiming their territory from Kyiv, and forcing Zelensky to resist or see the rest of his country taken piece by piece.
• Do we simply sit on the border, using a 190 000 strong force equipped with heavy armour, artillery and air support, to put our boot on Kyiv’s throat and press down, waiting for them to pass out, and hopefully to die.
When those questions are finally answered, as they were by Putin himself in the early hours of yesterday morning, Moscow time, we pass from matters of strategy to simple tactics.
With limited stocks of precision munitions, for instance, do we instruct our field commanders to overwhelm key Ukrainian transport and communication nodes with these scare and valuable weapons, or do we hold them in reserve against the remote possibility of western intervention, relying instead upon huge numbers of dumb munitions with much greater likelihood of mass civilian casualties?
Like we did in Grozny.
These are all questions which would have been settled in the war plan many weeks if not months ago.
What hasn’t been settled, because Putin has neither succeeded nor failed yet, is what the invasion of Ukraine means, not strategically, but somewhere further up the concept chain, beyond even the rarefied level of doctrine; in those spiritual places, as old mate Vlad might put it, where our beliefs about what the world is and what it should be are forged.
This is a tough ask for most of us in the decadent West.
We lucky few haven’t had to think seriously about such things for decades, and in that long interregnum we’ve lost the reflexive habits of thought that most people have been forced to adopt through most of human history.
What do you mean, JB?
Have a look at the stunned, slack faces of the diplomats at the UN Security Council in the hours after Russia invaded Ukraine. In them we see the shock of otherwise intelligent people who have allowed themselves a lethally stupid indulgence.
They assumed that phrases like ‘rules based order’ and ‘international law’ had greater power, greater mass lets say, than a T80 main battle tank of the 1st Guards Tank Army. They assumed, with a few caveats on the periphery—Kuwait, Iraq, the Balkans—that humanity had evolved past all this. Or at least that we were evolving.
The historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari puts it better than I ever could, so Imma just let him do his thing.
… a tectonic shift has taken place in global culture. Many elites in history—Hun chieftains, Viking jarls and Roman patricians, for example—viewed war positively. Rulers from Sargon the Great to Benito Mussolini sought to immortalise themselves by conquest (and artists such as Homer and Shakespeare happily obliged such fancies). Other elites, such as the Christian church, viewed war as evil but inevitable.
In the past few generations, however, for the first time in history the world became dominated by elites who see war as both evil and avoidable.
It surely is evil, but turns out it’s only avoidable when everyone agrees on that. When history throws up a postmodern berserker or warlord, as it has with Vladimir Putin, that ‘tectonic shift’ can move sideways, hard.
It’s interesting that even now Putin feels the need to frame his war crimes as justified. In his public statements he is still attempting to legitimise an old fashioned conquest with appeals to modern sensibilities. This special military operation is purely defensive. The Ukrainians are threatening us. We are liberating our brothers and sisters from an oppressive regime.
It’s all bullshit, of course, but for now he seems obliged to make the effort. If he suceeds in his conquest, next time, he won’t feel quite as obligated. And there would be a next time, because there is no strategic ambiguity about what he wants. He’s been telling us for twenty years. The same way Xi Jinping has been telling us what’s going to happen to Taiwan. Probably in 2025.
That’s ultimately what the invasion of Ukraine means. Not just a reordering of security architectures or rule-based orders. It means a return to our Hobbesian past, to the state of nature that has obtained for most of human history, where the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.
And yes, you can easily argue that such a benighted existence was the norm for most of humankind even for the last seven and a half decades. But for a few short moments there, it did look as though some of us might have learned better.
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