For those old enough to remember the Soviet Union’s “intervention” in Czechoslovakia in August, 1968, but lucky enough enough not to have witnessed it up close, here is a joke that was very popular with Moscow wits. A newsreader announces, “An important meeting, dedicated to a settlement of the Czechoslovakian crisis has taken place in Prague. T. Dubchek and T. Svoboda represented the Czech side. The Soviet side was represented by T-34.”
The “T” in both Czech leaders’ names is the standard abbreviation for “tovarisch”, the Russian word for comrade. The T-34 is, of course, the model designation for the no-frills Soviet tank of WWII. Today, 46 years later, the presence of Vladimir Putin’s four warships not too far over the horizon from Brisbane demonstrates that, while the weaponry might have changed, the punchline remains grimly unaltered.
By bringing his aged toys along, Mr Putin has done his best to remind the other G20 participants that they must be exquisitely polite to the man from Moscow. And if they are not, well who can tell just what muscle Putin might opt to flex. A naval assault on Australia, you scoff? Well, yes, it is hard to believe, but not that much harder to believe than Putin’s deployment in Crimea of grim men in green uniforms stripped of anything to indicate name, rank serial number and country of origin. Might he even consider using one of his surface-to-air missiles to make a lasting impression? Not right this minute, but who can really be sure after what his friends in Ukraine did to Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Oh, but that was “a mistake”, or so we have been told, so Qantas jets overflying the flotilla are probably quite safe. Probably.
Putin, an extraordinarily sensitive soul, is very keen on being respected. Some people use ego defense mechanisms to achieve this, but our Vlad prefers the no-nonsense impact of integrated fire control systems, just like those of the four comforters that have trailed him to the G20 summit. It is no surprise that he was the only participant who felt the need to put military hardware on display, as this was a long-standing Soviet tradition during sensitive negotiations and, as a top KGB man, Putin is not one to break with the ways of the past. His ships are obsolete, true. But they make a point, just as his ancient bombers make a point when he sends them all the way across the Atlantic to remind Americans that he is a man who needs and demands respect. Neither ships nor planes would have any chance of surviving a modern conflict, but their battlefield longevity is not the point which Putin wishes to make, which is to enforce his reputation as a leader who must be taken seriously. Let us not marr this Brisbane gathering with ill-advised demands for explanation or apology about that “mishap” with Flight 17 — that is his message.
Propose sanctions against my Russia, he is saying! Such a suggestion demonstrates that you simply do not like Russians, all of you! It is not our fault that the Malaysian airliner plane returned to earth in an unorthodox fashion! It is always someone else’s responsibility, and to suggest otherwise proves that you are jealous of our Russian greatness! Those four ships of mine, take note of them and know how I little care what you lesser leaders and nations say about Russia, my Russia!
In this ongoing game Mr. Putin had succeeded beyond reasonable expectation. Since his assumption of power, Russia has been involved in wars in Chechnya, Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, all resulting in the destruction of human lives and property. The Georgia conflicted saw that small nation stripped of two provinces. Ukraine has lost Crimea to a creeping Russian annexation and remains at war in all but name with her giant neighbor. It is worth mentioning that the Russian Federation, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in exchange for giving up its nuclear weapons. What we are seeing is the most dangerous destabilisation of Europe’s security since the Cold War. It might even be, I am very much afraid, the moment future historians will mark as the first audible rumble of hostilities between Russia and the NATO allies.
The insane nationalistic game Mr. Putin is playing inspires that dire prognosis. He is appealing on many fronts to the wounded imperial pride of the Russians, both at home and abroad. In Latvia, a NATO member, he is stirring up the extensive Russian speaking minority, just as he did in Ukraine, by claiming Russian speakers are oppressed. This is total nonsense, but in its virulence and malice it is effective nonsense. Russian speakers in Latvia unwilling or unable to acquire the local tongue are thus made Mr. Putin’s allies and tools of his neo-imperial ambitions. The insidious propaganda pumped out by Russian TV’s overseas broadcasts, the most effective of Moscow’s tools of influence among the Russian-speaking diaspora, should not be underestimated.
Before I get to Tony Abbott’s promise to “shirtfront” Mr. Putin over the demise of 38 Australians on MH17, let us recall Paul Keating’s description of Malaysia’s then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad as “recalcitrant” for his refusal to attend an APEC meeting. Keating later declared that he had simply used the wrong word; what he really meant was “intransigent”. This seemingly trivial slip produced an extraordinary amount of huffing and puffing at the time, with much hand-wringing and predictions of impending doom. Such was the flap that one could have been forgiven for thinking that the turtle, upon which the flat Earth was thought by the ancients to rest, had broken its leg and the planet was poised to slide into the gulf of an unknown oblivion. Nothing like that happened, of course, and today few remember the incident with anything but amusement.
This tendency to over-dramatise, to invest mere words with the sacral meaning of magic formulae, is alive, well and thriving, as demonstrated by the coverage (and unhinged commentary) of Abbot’s promise to “shirtfront” Putin about the grievous loss of Australian lives. This mere use of an Australian sporting colloquialism by our Prime Minister has somehow been linked by our chattering classes to the presence in our part of the world of Putin’s naval cheer squad. This is sheer, unadulterated, concentrated and distilled bulldust. Putin would have sent them any way because that is the nature of the man and the Soviet mentality which shaped his view of how best to impress his will upon the wider world. Plus, a minor bonus, the flotilla’s arrival will have provided some small intelligence on the methods and readiness of Australian defence assets now monitoring its progress.
There is a lesson in this, however – those who live in a prosperous economy must be able to defend it, for there will always be a predator lurking, loitering with intent, waiting to take advantage. As the Romans used to say, if you wish for peace be prepared for war. Putin or no Putin, we will always need to defend what we have. Actually, we should thank him and his rust-bucket armada for reminding us of this simple fact of life
Dr Michael Galak and his family came to Australia as refugees from the Soviet Union in 1978