Last time I ended with the words of Sun Tzu: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. It is clear that President Putin appears to be following this approach. It is less clear how the outburst of Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky on Russia’s 24 TV channel on Monday that says Poland and Baltic States risk being “wiped out” in the continuing conflict over Ukraine fits into the picture, contrasting as it did with brother Putin’s more careful, if irritatingly tendentious, comments.
Vladimir Zhirinovsky who is the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and an opposition politician who is seen as a close ally of the Kremlin said: “They will be wiped out. Nothing will remain there. The heads of these dwarf states should think who they are”. In Zhirinovsky’s view, the fate of Eastern Europe is in the hands of one man, Vladimir Putin, who will decide “all questions of war and peace in general and in particular those relating to Ukraine”. And, in similar vein, “The Baltic States and Poland are doomed. They will be wiped out. Nothing will remain there.”
Gripping stuff. And it gets better. Apparently, the attempts by Polish and other CEE leaders to strengthen NATO’s defences in the region will lead to World War III. “Of course, nothing threatens America, because it is far away, but Eastern European countries risk being destroyed completely. This is their fault, because we cannot accept planes and missiles to be launched into Russia from their territories. We need to destroy them 30 minutes before the launch.” There was no indication as to how this 30 minute warning of launch would be discovered but no matter, facts cannot be allowed to get in the way of a good argument or, indeed, a bad one.
Meanwhile, back on message, President Putin said that Russia is sending an aid convoy to eastern Ukraine. With a reported 45,000 Russian troops gathered on Ukraine’s border, the Kremlin said that Russia, “in collaboration with representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross, is sending an aid convoy to Ukraine.” President Obama warned Moscow that delivering aid should not be a pretext for invasion and Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, also warned President Putin in a telephone conversation “against any unilateral military actions in Ukraine, under any pretext, including humanitarian”. According to the UN, more than 1,100 people have been killed, including government forces, rebels and civilians, and many thousands internally displaced, during the four months since the separatists seized territory in eastern Ukraine and the Ukrainian government launched its anti-terrorist crackdown. Kiev says it is now in the “final stages” of recapturing the eastern city of Donetsk, which would mark a turning point in this conflict.
Should we be worried, therefore, about imminent doom? Probably not. Despite this being the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, we seem to have passed 4th August unscathed, and NATO is showing some increased commitment to this region (please see Manoeuvre). Furthermore, the US and its allies are being drawn back into Iraq which, undoubtedly tragic for those affected, does perhaps give Putin pause for thought: is this an opportunity to act in the Ukraine while the US is distracted elsewhere or is the US back in the mood for military action abroad to defend its interests, be they in the Middle East or elsewhere. After all, in the words of Obama’s first predecessor George Washington, to be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace, and that includes demonstrating the necessary will.
Be that as it may, Poland is also responding pragmatically to the crisis. Russia’s announcement that it was blocking imports of Polish fruit and vegetables in response to increased EU sanctions has been greeted by the chairman of the Polish Fruit Growers Association saying that several Polish apple exporters are currently preparing a business trip to India, which will include taking part in trade fairs in Bombay as well as attempting to salvage ties with Russian fruit importers. And the Ministry of Infrastructure is working on a project to construct a canal that would connect the Vistula Lagoon and the Bay of Gdansk in the Baltic Sea, across the Vistula Spit, without the need to cross Russian waters.
Of course, I might be wrong. Barbara Tuchman, author of The Proud Tower and The Guns of August which described the outbreak of the First World War, wrote that war is the unfolding of miscalculations. Let’s hope that neither Putin nor the West miscalculates over the Ukraine.