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What Game Is Putin Playing?

I do not know. Personally, I tend to regard Putin as an ex-KGB thug with an unfortunate nostalgia for the Soviet Leviathan. But Henry Kissinger had a point when, earlier this month, he observed that “for the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one.” The Manichean temptation should be resisted in world affairs as well as in matters of theology. It is easy and dramatic to draw up armies of angels and devils. The actual troops on the world stage are seldom that easy to distinguish.  In the case of the Ukraine, Kissinger is probably correct: “Far too often the Ukrainian issue is posed as a showdown: whether Ukraine joins the East or the West. But if Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.” Kissinger warned that Moscow must not move to force the Ukraine into satellite status “again.”  At the same time, he wrote, the West “must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then.”

Which leaves us where? Without as neat a story as we have been telling ourselves about Vladimir Putin and the Ukraine. Goldman ends with more food for thought: “If Washington chooses to demonize Russia, the likelihood is that Russia will become a spoiler with respect to American strategic interests in general, and use the Iranian problem to twist America’s tail. That is a serious risk indeed, for nuclear proliferation is the one means by which outlaw regimes can pose a serious threat to great powers. Russia confronts questions not of expediency, but of existence, and it will do whatever it can to gain maneuvering room should the West seek to ‘punish’ it for its actions in”— well, Goldman wrote “Georgia,” for this was 2008, remember, but were he writing today he would have written “Ukraine.”

Goldman’s scenario, like Kissinger’s, lacks the gratifying simplicity of an Us-versus-Them morality tale.  Like so many dramas on the world stage, it is really, if we could but scratch the surface, a case of Us playing alongside the other chaps, who are also Us.  It’s up to us — all of us, not just us in the West — whether that degenerates into and Us-versus-Us that is an Us-against-Them. “The test,” as Kissinger wrote, “is not absolute satisfaction but balanced dissatisfaction. If some solution based on these or comparable elements is not achieved, the drift toward confrontation will accelerate.”  He ends with a sober observation: “The time for that will come soon enough.”  As they used to tell us unruly boys at my Jesuit school Ver. Sap. Suff. — Verbum sapienti sufficit: “a word to the wise is sufficient.”  It seldom was, because we were seldom wise.