Putin and the Little Engine That Could

by Bob Schwartz

Vladimir Putin - Little Engine

The pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and the Russian warnings to stay away and out, are not surprising. A fifth-grader doing a Social Studies assignment (if there is still Social Studies) had this one figured out.

So obviously did the American intelligence and foreign policy experts. They can’t tell us they know because that would give something away, even if that fifth-grader has already guessed. The other reason it isn’t officially talked about is that, officially, few are sure what to do next.

Vladimir Putin is well set up, for something. He can take little bites out of the region, or if Ukraine should erupt in instigated civil war, he can enter on the pretext of assuring the stability and security of a neighboring country. There is plenty of historical precedent for this strategy, and for this strategy working.

We—and this includes those who claim to know him—are not sure exactly who Putin is: cunning statesman, cowboy, sociopath? Whether he has himself killed people, up close, is a matter of conjecture, but many have no trouble believing it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany and knows him, suggests that he is out of touch with the realities of the situation. Former U.S. President George W. Bush just displayed his painting of Putin, which picture says as much about W. as an artist as it does about the Russian President.

Putin is not out of touch with reality, any more than those people who believe that visualizing an outcome will ultimately make it so. He is under no delusion that realizing his reality will be cost free. He is just willing to pay the price, or allow others to chip in, maybe profoundly.

The U.S. may have the most distorted view of war in history. It isn’t that great sacrifice or valiant service haven’t been made. The U.S. didn’t just participate in some of the most significant defenses of human freedom; it helped freedom prevail. But for a few generations, there has been a lot of blood and treasure sacrificed in a sometimes well-meaning, sometimes self-serving fog. The source of the confusion is that for more than 150 years, the U.S. has not experienced national war on its soil. Regional conflicts and shocking, fleet- and building-destroying hostilities, but not a national war, inside or on our borders.

Whatever the list of solutions to international problems and provocations, war shouldn’t just be at the bottom of the list. It should be in some strategic sub-basement, below the last resort. At this moment, war in Europe is where it should be: unthinkable. But if something is unthinkable, then everything else has to be more thinkable, more discussed. Right now, the U.S. body politic is fascinated with other matters major and minor, because we need a break.

But trust this: Putin doesn’t give a care for what happened to a plane that has been at the bottom of the Indian Ocean for weeks. He is single-mindedly like that favorite American children’s book The Little Engine That Could, chugging along: I think I can, I think I can.

We don’t have to be concerned about Ukraine or we can be concerned. We don’t have to take action or we can take action. We don’t have to go to war or we can go to war. What isn’t optional is talking about it in the public square, in a conversation led by the President and others. This is not jumping the gun. It is a sensible prelude to an emerging situation, which could at any moment escalate from blah-blah-blah to something more active and serious.

The U.S. has not been very good at sensible preludes. The run-ups to recent wars have been filled with hyper-drama, fueled by the occasional exaggeration or lie. Ukraine, Europe, and the world need something else. Putin thinks he can. Who knows what we think?

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