Sooner or later, Putin must be confronted.
Western People 15.3.2022
‘Not too many people know that’ is a phrase attributed to the film actor, Michael Caine. Applying it to a very different world – the invasion of Ukraine – it might be said that, despite the acres of newsprint of commentary on that outrage, not many people know that Vladimir Putin has suggested a religious motive for what appears to most sentient beings as an irresponsible, amoral and indefensible military campaign.
Recently, in an effort to explain or maybe more accurately justify the death, destruction and misery he is inflicting on so many innocent people, Putin summarised a 5000-word essay he wrote last year in a broadcast to the Russian people.
It’s this. A thousand years ago or so, St Vladimir the Great was converted in what is now Kyiv (Kiev) and founded the ‘Holy Rus’, a sacred realm which incorporates what is now Russia , Ukraine and Belarus. Between this sacred land, the sacred people who inhabit it and the sacred Orthodox faith, the Holy Rus comprises (it is believed) a mystical union.
According to Putin, this Holy Rus is a holy space and he senses that he has a duty before God to preserve and protect it. Even though the conventional wisdom is that Putin is trying to reinstate a new version of the old Soviet Union in an effort to enhance global Russian influence, his religious motivation (if it can be described as such) is shared by none other than the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Even though, the outrageous and indefensible price that’s being paid for this quasi-mystical adventure poses fundamental questions about the wisdom of the whole enterprise, the Patriarch (and Putin) argue that the land comprising the Holy Rus is an icon, concealing and revealing the presence of God.
Or maybe, more to the point, Putin is simply using a religious belief of more than 1,000 years ago to elicit the support of a gullible religious constituency. As most people know there’s no limit to what some religious followers believe, even if restoring the mystical union of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, the three lands ruled from Kyiv by St Vladimir, is stretching credulity way beyond its normal parameters!
While Putin advances such an unconvincing religious justification for his invasion of Ukraine – in effect, as he argues, Ukraine is not a real country – the world is left with the challenge of dealing with a dictator who, if he is allowed to bully his way into subsuming Ukraine (or much of it) into the mystical and mythical Rus, will soon search for more excuses to further his expansionist agenda.
Bullies, as we know, keep bullying until someone gives them the equivalent of a kick in the shins. But what to do with Putin? Like other bullies, his power is in the threat he poses unless everyone concedes to him. In this case, he has indicated that he is prepared to use the nuclear option if anyone gets in his way. And the world shudders at the thought of what might happen to Planet Earth if a Third World War breaks out. It’s a Sophie’s Choice, but the reality is that if Putin isn’t faced now he will have to be faced again because his regime and the nuclear threat he hangs over the world will both remain.
This is the dilemma facing NATO. They argue that, if in the future Putin sets his sights on a country that’s a member of NATO, then that will justify the NATO allies coming to the defence of a member. In such circumstances there will be no reluctance on NATO’s part about entering the airspace involved – as there is now with non-NATO Ukraine.
Some may argue that NATO is splitting hairs and that the obvious threat that Putin and Russia represent need to be faced and that avoiding any confrontation is effectively delivering an open sky over Ukraine into Russian hands.
Another way of putting is this: how many more people will have to die, how many more millions will have to be displaced, how much more property will have to be razed to the ground, how much more trauma will need to be inflicted on how many more innocent children before the world says enough is enough and how many more maternity hospitals will be bombed?
The difficult truth is that Mr Putin, with or without his devotion to his namesake (the other St Vladimir the Great) is not going away and will continue to hold the nuclear option like a sword of Damocles over the necks of whoever he needs to bully on his next phase of expansion. And he will drum up another version – religious or otherwise – as to why he will have to get his way. Or else?
No doubt the free world will examine all possibilities in an effort to lift the siege from the horror Putin has unleashed. But the truth remains that sooner or later the Russian Bear has to be confronted or else Putin will interpret the vacant space not just as open skies but open season.
Meanwhile the advance on Kyiv continues (as I write). The intention is to surround it, isolate its citizens and, if the Russians have to level it to the ground, to do just that. Such is Putin’s style. He would then claim that the first stage of the re-establishment of his mythical ‘Rus’ has been achieved.
To paraphrase the actor, Michael Caine, a lot of people know that now.