Just above these words rests an image of the NATO crest. For 70 years, this stylized compass rose has symbolized the Western world’s refusal to be pushed around, and was a thorn in the paw of a succession of beetle-browed Soviet dictators, much as it is today for the thug now in charge of the Russian Federation. Vladimir Putin despises NATO. He’s on the record that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster in history, and nothing rankled more in the aftermath of that collapse than the Eastward expansion of the Atlantic alliance, which kept spreading, one former Soviet satellite after another, until NATO had member nations right on his front porch in the Baltic republics. Even Estonia! For the love of Christ!
I’ve read commentary over the years that this rapid growth of NATO past Putin’s comfort zone was a mistake, that it stoked fears in the Kremlin, which once counted on the nations of the Warsaw Pact as a buffer zone against Western aggression. To which I say: as if. As if “Western aggression” is a concept that makes a lick of sense. As if anyone righteous has anything to fear from the “encroachment” of free and peaceable nations. As if those countries were clamouring to join NATO for any reason other than the fervent desire to never again find themselves squirming under the cold Russian thumb.
There is no equivalence. There is no legitimacy to the Putin world view, however sincerely the twisted tyrant, every bit as brainwashed as the masses he steeps in his relentless propaganda, might believe in it.
Look, it’s simple. What Vlad wants is for Russia to be a big swinging dick again. He’s an eight-cylinder KGB-trained thug, and he wants the Soviet Union back. He’s got a problem, though: his kleptocratic regime has only hastened his mother country’s inborn tendency to slide towards being a basket case. His population is in long-term decline, its life expectancy growing shorter. His economy varies between parity with Australia at the low end, and Canada when things are going well – a lot depends on world oil prices, because Russia has nothing else, not a goddam thing, to sell to anybody. He makes a good show of throwing his weight around, but he only assaults the weak – like Georgia and Ukraine – while the shiny equipment he deploys to Syria constitutes a huge proportion of the functioning front line hardware his military can muster up. For every glossy new SU-35 he shows off at the air shows, there’s a long line of cranky old MiG-29s parked back at base. Russia is weak. Painfully so. How, then, to reap the benefits of being strong?
You pretend you’re strong and hope others fall for it, of course, but you also do what an eight-cylinder KGB-trained thug does best. You develop espionage assets, you play dirty tricks, you spread “disinformation” (a Cold War term) to undermine stability among your foes, and you do your damnedest to divide and conquer. If you’re good – if you’re real good – you play the long game and assemble big bulging dossiers on all the climbers out there who might one day run for President, knowing that the files will be stuffed to bursting with compromising information, the kompromat so beloved by Russian intelligence operatives. Climbers usually make things easy for you that way. When one of them does run, you put the hooks in the bastard and present him with a bargain even the Devil can’t offer – you’ll send him to Hell if he won’t sell his soul. Then you deploy every subterfuge at your disposal to get the poor vainglorious dumbass elected, and run him like the asset he is.
So here we are.
The beauty of all this from Vlad’s chair is that you don’t have to push a reluctant Trump into doing anything he doesn’t already want to do anyway. Cozy up to dictators and stick it to lefty Europeans? That’s like trying to persuade Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack to the kill all the gophers. He’s happy to. Shoot, you don’t even need a reason to do that.
Putin hasn’t quite got everything he paid for yet. Congress got in the way of lifting the post-Ukraine sanctions, but its early days, and now, horrifyingly, he’s going to be having a summit with his pet President, and only God knows what he’s going to instruct The Donald to do. Dismantle the Western alliance system, perhaps?
At the last G-7, Trump is said to have moaned to the other leaders that NATO is a raw deal for Murrica, and apparently he’s not hot on the World Trade Organization either. I’m sure it eludes Trump that all of these institutions and alliances, the G-7, the WTO, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the UN, and so on, were created by Americans to foster a rules-based liberal international order in which those rules favoured America. Yes, it was also about preventing the recurrence of the conditions that gave rise to WWII, and sure, other like-minded nations had plenty to gain too, but really it was about America and the kind of world in which Americans like to operate. It’s American money, American military might, American investment, American multi-nationals, American goods and services, that all flow and flourish within this system. America pays a disproportionate share because it is, by and large, an American playpen that it gets in return. It’s like paying your own mortgage, and then kicking in to help the guy next door pay his too. Yeah, you pay more, but the deal is that you get to raid his fridge, so it’s not so bad, plus he’s not allowed to sell to anybody you don’t like, or slap on an addition or put up a fence or some such unless you approve, and that’s nice too.
That’s not the best analogy, because it’s way better than that, the United States has made out like a bandit in the present world order, and it’s been so entrenched for so long that it can all seem inevitable. It isn’t. Take, for example, the status of the US Dollar as the world reserve currency. That’s just a choice other countries have made. It’s a preference, held to date because things are easier that way in America’s playpen. What’s easy can change. Do you suppose Trump even knows what a reserve currency is, let alone what that means to the balance of payments, the value of the buck in the international market, the ease of foreign investment, the fungibility of US T-Bills and so on? If Vlad was to sidle up and say “Would be better if Ruble was reserve currency, da?”, which do you think would be the most likely answer:
2. What’s a “rooble”?
3. Sorry, I wasn’t listening.
4. OK, sure thing.
Will Trump pull out of NATO? I’m not sure he can, on his own. I never had to consider it before. But it’s plausible, isn’t it? If Kim Jong Un hauled him around by his nose ring, the sky would seem to be the limit for Vlad. Putin may actually be on the threshold of pulling off one of history’s greatest geopolitical heists. It’s breathtaking, the scope of it, the audacity. More cautious voices probably warned him he could get a war for his trouble, messing around in America’s democracy that way, but he calculated the odds and went for it. Now look. Fortune favours the bold, da?
Now, I’m prone to fits of despair – no, really – but let’s try something instead. Lets see if we can affect the outcome. Donald’s a toddler, right? What do you say to toddlers? You say No! No, Donald! OK, join me now –
NO Donald. Bad! No No No No No No.
I’ll check in with you later to tell you if it worked.