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Sword and shield

After the Theresa May gave Russia an deadline to explain why a Russian-made nerve agent was used against Sergei Skripai and his daughter Kremlin spokesman Maria Zakharova replied "one should not threaten a nuclear power".  So given the provocation Britain had to do precisely that or become a nothing.  With a little help from their friends.

The US led strike on Assad's chemical weapons facilities was probably more about the Salisbury than Syria.  About the need to draw a line somewhere because it had never been drawn before.   In many ways the strike was an attempt to make amends for years of policy inaction that emboldened Putin until, perhaps without realizing it, he went too far.  The Kremlin strongman refined his hybrid warfare tactics against the training set of Obama/Clinton and may have been genuinely shocked when the tactics which once served him so well have suddenly stopped working.

But the belated response is also dangerous.  The Western alliance is now in a situation of calculated risk, for Putin whatever he may be, he is one of the "only men who can end the world in an afternoon". Any course which will stop Putin now is inescapably fraught. Piers Morgan understood the dilemma when he warned, shortly before Trump unleashed the strike: "don’t bomb Syria, Mr President. We should have taken out Animal Assad years ago but thanks to our dithering he and Putin are about to win and posturing now isn’t worth risking all-out war."

But the die has been rolled and we can only hope for the best. In a democracy, figuring the odds used to be a collective process. At the highest level of generality it involves Congress. But, mesmerized by the Collusion drama Congress has neglected to do this.  The Washington Post,  under its ironic banner "Democracy Dies in the Darkness" confessed as much writing "lawmakers agree there should be a ‘strategy’ on Syria — but what that should be is an open question".  It is as if America suddenly awoke in the Big Cold War Casino, with no memory of how it got there and a two week growth of Access Hollywood beard on it's face.

If there's any silver lining it is that the Western response has converted Putin's "hybrid warfare" into an open dispute.  It can no longer skulk like a U-boat in the depths of ambiguity; in green men, front organizations, in swarms of trolls.  The shock of recent events has forced it to the surface, where all the cards are on the table.  The sight may be frightening to the public but better that the common man can see it than where it could not.

Yet the drama of recent days should not obscure the fact that war -- hybrid or otherwise -- is essentially a defensive  instrument in the long conflict against Putin.  It can contain but it cannot defeat a nuclear power.  War in this case is but a shield.  It is economics which is the sword. If Putin falls it will not be to missiles but to gas prices.