March 10, 2022
ISLAMABAD – LATE last week, Vladimir Putin invoked the dreaded nuclear spectre in one of his delusional diatribes about the devastating military operation he has gratuitously unleashed, suggesting that the Russian alert level has been heightened. His adversaries saw it as a bluff. Western intelligence agencies claim there is no evidence of any shift in Russia’s nuclear posture. And, mercifully, the gesture has so far not been reciprocated.
But there are two other N-words to consider that could breathe life into the nuclear genie: Nato and a no-fly zone.
Nato and its allied states have thus far restricted themselves to supplying arms to Ukraine. That can be seen both as understandable in the circumstances, and as a recipe for prolonging the conflict. The no-fly zone that many Ukrainians, including their president, have been pleading for would be an extraordinarily risky manoeuvre. Notwithstanding reports of Russian aircraft being downed, an air offensive has not been a crucial part of Moscow’s playbook so far.
A no-fly zone, though, could mean a direct shooting match between Nato and Russia. Where that might lead is mortifying. That is why both the US and the main European powers have hesitated to comply with Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zelensky’s wishes.
The sweetest of the lot is the chant ‘Nyet voina’.
Compared with Putin, Zelensky comes across as a more empathetic character, the would-be saviour of his nation who is frequently on the phone pleading with his purported allies to directly step in and save the day. His impulses are understandable, given his unexpected role as saviour of the nation. Putin has warned that if Ukraine does not end its resistance to aggression, Ukraine will effectively cease to exist. As in so many other opinions, Putin is woefully mistaken. Ukraine cannot be obliterated, notwithstanding the weirdly ignorant history that Putin insists on propounding.
Contrary to what many Western commentators continue to claim, Putin is not interested in resurrecting the Soviet Union. If anything, he holds a grudge against the Bolshevik past, accusing Vladimir Lenin of conjuring up Ukraine in the first place, and then berating Ukrainians for toppling statues of their founding father. Ukraine’s past is far more complicated than that, of course — although Lenin did indeed stand out even within the Bolsheviks for insisting on self-determination (and the right to secede) for all nationalities. That idea was written into the Soviet constitution, but no one seriously assumes it retained any validity after Lenin’s demise.
It was resurrected almost 70 years later, though, and Putin’s former boss Boris Yeltsin was instrumental in signing the death warrant for the Soviet Union, alongside his counterparts from Belarus and Ukraine. These are the only two countries Putin is seriously interested in reabsorbing in some way — he has explicitly told the post-Soviet Central Asian regimes that he has no significant territorial ambitions in that part of Russia’s ‘near abroad’.
Putin’s nationalism embraces both ethnicity and the Russian Orthodox church, and lies beyond his appeal to white nationalists in the US and Europe. However, while much of the extremist enthusiasm remains intact, far-right political parties in Europe have recoiled somewhat in the wake of his latest excesses.
At the same time, Russia’s mistakenly nostalgic friends on the left — eg Cuba and Venezuela — and commercial allies such as India and Pakistan (could Imran Khan, incidentally, have chosen a worse time to pay his respects?) are also ambivalent about Putin’s aggression, tending to favour a peaceful resolution to this unnecessary conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett actually visited Moscow recently, holding two meetings with Putin. No one knows exactly what they discussed, and one can only wonder whether Bennett considered how effective a boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign of the kind Russia is experiencing would be as a response to Israel’s 55-year aggressive occupation of Palestinian territories.
That’s not on the horizon. Wars and occupations in the ‘rules-based’ global order everyone is expected to accept are judged by who is waging or sustaining them. War crimes tend not to be investigated if the US or its allies are the culprits. That’s why every atrocity in Ukraine is instantly Twittered or Instagrammed, but Yemenis and Afghans in similar circumstances barely rate a mention.
That’s why the most precious N-word is the one demonstrators in towns and cities across Russia have lately been chanting: ‘Nyet voina’. No to war.
That’s been echoed globally, of course, but Russian protesters — thousands of whom have been detained — deserve particular gratitude for risking their limbs and liberty to declare that this war is not in their name. And one can almost be certain that far larger numbers of Russian citizens would have been on the streets in the absence of the threat of violence. Putin’s war, hopefully, is sowing the seeds of a post-Putin future for Russia.