TThe term “rogue male,” denoting a wild bull elephant, is also used figuratively to describe a callous and dangerously out-of-control loner. It may be that Vladimir Putin has a soft side. If so, it is well hidden. The president of Russia fits the rogue male profile to a T: unscrupulous, vicious, cunning, and always ready to trample on other people and countries.
Much recent effort has been made trying to understand and explain Putin’s motives for threatening a broader war in Ukraine. Does he hope to restore past Soviet glories or crush Kiev’s pro-Western trajectory? Is it his historical legacy or his need to repeat the electoral “Crimean rebound”? Such theories have weight, but they all miss the essential point.
Putin is and always has been a nasty, grinning, devious, KGB-trained thug whose main goal in life, apart from retaining power, is to weaken and divide Western democracies. His vendetta-like attitude is as emotional as it is rational.
Ukraine is just his latest solo sabotage operation. If he gets his way, his one-man mission to create an updated Russian sphere of influence bordered by puppet states will be accelerated. Next stop, the Baltic republics, the Balkans or an increasingly politically isolated Poland.
The rogue man phenomenon is brilliantly explored in Geoffrey Household’s 1939 novel of the same name, in which a lone hunter sets out to assassinate an unnamed European dictator, assumed to be Adolf Hitler: one rogue man chasing another. The book expands on one of the great questions of history: if, with the death of the Nazi leader, the war could have been avoided.
No one known is planning to assassinate Putin to prevent war in Ukraine, and all good liberals would surely condemn such an outrageous idea. Sadly, he himself has exhibited no such scruples in silencing critics and opponents for the past 20 years. The late Alexander Litvinenko, Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov are three among many. So the question now is how to treat the chronic RMS (rebellious man syndrome) that Putin evidently suffers from. Just think about it. Almost single-handedly, it has provoked the biggest East-West confrontation of the post-Soviet era. Who sent troops to the border? Who is giving NATO an ultimatum? Who now insinuates the deployment of nuclear weapons in the “rogue states” Venezuela and Cuba, and play footsie with iran? It’s Putin.
As panicked Western leaders rush in like Spitfire pilots (but without the same determination), a slight air of hype and theatrical exaggeration persists around Russian actions. Putin is certainly enjoying the Western discomfort. It has already made significant geopolitical progress. But is he really serious about total invasion? Despite many knocks in the Kremlin bathtub, there is little enthusiasm among the Russian public for a ground war in Ukraine – no big patriotic, nationalistic surge, just fatalistic acceptance.
It is also obvious that no Western leader wants to clash (or fang) over Ukraine, any more than in Crimea in 2014. The EU’s disunity over what to do, typified by Germany’s splintered coalition and the way Brussels has passed for tall, it’s embarrassing but revealing. For all its harsh words, NATO is also lagging behind. As for the president of the United States, Joe Biden, he promised to end wars, not to participate in new ones. The excruciating blunder of last week’s “minor raid” had his aides counting marbles.
The Ukrainians are naturally against being invaded again. Its leaders are successfully taking advantage of the crisis to get more security and weapons assistance from the United States and Britain. Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov wants sanctions to be imposed on Russia immediately. But like Western Europe, Kiev’s strong preference is clear: no more war.
The same goes for Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, understandably concerned that, if the time comes, NATO’s protective shield may not be all it’s cracked up to be. In Taiwan, they fear an invasion of Ukraine will create a precedent. But Xi Jinping, President of China, is a more subtle adversary. He doesn’t want war with the West either, at least not yet.
Russia’s concerns about NATO intentions and the future membership of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are not unfounded. But they are overcooked. If war comes, it will accentuate the pro-Western tendencies in the old “near abroad” that Putin dislikes. As US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken featured in Berlin last week, there was a genuine Western willingness to address Russian concerns.
It is clear, in short, that hardly anyone, apart from the hawks in Moscow and the heads of the Donbas militias, wants an escalating conflict. It is also clear that if it happens, Ukraine will become a one-man war, provoked, prosecuted and publicly owned by Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.
The West is complicit in this crisis. Its leaders have known what kind of man Putin is since the brutal second Chechen war. He invaded Georgia in 2008 and seized Crimea in 2014. He oversaw chemical weapons atrocities in Syria, hostile cyber operations in Europe, pernicious anti-democratic election meddling, and multiple assassinations and poisonings. However, they continue to, for the most part, treat him like a normal leader.
Whether or not he ultimately attacks Ukraine again, directly or indirectly, Putin is a proven and continuing global threat. He turned rebellious years ago. His behavior becomes increasingly threatening. So what kind of elephant trap would catch it? How to tie it?
Start now by declaring Putin an international pariah. Initiate multiple universal jurisdiction prosecutions for his alleged complicity in foreign assassinations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Punish your buddies. Go after his money. Limit diplomatic contacts. Find alternative energy providers. Help democrats like Alexei Navalny get rid of him in Russia. In short, freeze it.
The world has been here before, many times. A little fucked up man shouldn’t be allowed to start a war that no one wants. Message to Putin from peaceful and law-abiding people everywhere: say goodbye!
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism