Russian military lore is full of references to the cold months ahead in that part of Europe as "General Winter". So, it is no surprise that President Vladimir Putin, disappointed in the performance of his generals, is looking at "General Winter" to help him snatch victory from the jaws of defeat as it had helped Kutuzov against Napoleon.
Putin's reading of history, however, is slanted in favor of his illusions. In the Napoleonic war, "General Winter" was on the side of the defender, not the aggressor. With "General Winter" unlikely to work for Putin, he may have to look at another grand old man, this time a diplomat, to help him out of the hole he has dug for Russia.
While reports indicate that Russia is mobilizing massive forces for a new attempt at dismantling Ukraine as a nation-state, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, labeled "the grand master of diplomacy" by his adulators, is talking of peace with Vladimir Putin.
In an article published December 17, Kissinger writes:
"[T]he time is approaching to build on the strategic changes which have already been accomplished and to integrate them into a new structure towards achieving peace through negotiation.... A peace process should link Ukraine to Nato, however expressed. The alternative of neutrality is no longer meaningful..."
The paragraph just quoted shows that Kissinger is reluctant or afraid to say what he really demands, which is appeasing Russia.
He says "the time is approaching" but doesn't say at what speed or, if it is approaching, why not wait until it has arrived. He talks of "strategic changes which have already been accomplished", but doesn't say which changes and accomplished by whom. Does he see the annexation of Crimea and the presence of Russian forces in some 20% of Ukrainian territory as an accomplishment?
The grand old man of American diplomacy claims that the mumbo-jumbo he has just spewed would somehow create "a new structure towards achieving peace through negotiation." Later, however, he reduces "peace" to a "peace process" like the one he launched in the Middle East almost 50 years ago and which is supposed to be still going on fast to nowhere.
Kissinger demonstrates his inability to think, or at least to clearly state his thoughts by writing: "A peace process should link Ukraine to Nato, however expressed. The alternative of neutrality is no longer meaningful."
If anyone understands what the good doctor means, please let me know.
Last May, Kissinger proposed a ceasefire under which Russia would withdraw to the lines before the February invasion, but Crimea would be the subject of "negotiation."
He described the war as a "territorial conflict", unknowingly or deliberately misunderstanding its nature.
This war isn't about territory.
Russia has more "territory" than any other nation on the planet. Some claim that annexing Crimea was necessary to maintain Russia's naval presence in the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea. But that claim too could be dismissed as an excuse for aggression.
Ukraine had granted a 40-year lease to the Russian Navy to continue its presence in Crimea protected by 20,000 Russian troops. To offer further assurances to Putin, Ukraine had also agreed that the lease could be renewable at the end of its current term.
Kissinger may be making another error of analysis by identifying Russia with Putin.
In his new autobiography, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once a close Putin pal and a leading oligarch, even suggests that, when it comes to international relations, Russia should not be regarded as a single entity.
He suggests that in the vast stretch of land between Europe and the Pacific Ocean, sandwiching Siberia between them, three Russias exist side by side. The first consists of Saint-Petersburg, Moscow and a few large cities where living standards, socio-political culture and common aspirations are close to median European standards.
In that Russia, Putin's rule is tolerated, partly because it has offered economic growth and prosperity, at least until now. However, that Russia does not share Putin's expansionist strategy and is uneasy about the war in Ukraine. A majority of the thousands of Russians who have left the country since Putin declared a partial mobilization came from that Russia.
The next Russia consists of what he calls "sultanates," patches of territory ruled over by governors appointed by Putin and answerable only to him. In many of those "sultanates" ethnic Russians form a minority of the population. Some "sultanates" like Chechnya support Putin's war, but others, like Tatarstan or Dagestan, try to stay out of the adventure started by Putin.
The third Russia consists of numerous towns, cities and villages, spread across the vast land like an archipelago inspiring and sustaining a sense of "away from it all" isolation.
Putin's Russia is an empire and, like all empires, lives in fear of losing territory with a constant urge to acquire new territory to preserve the old ones. Russia, as the USSR, ended up losing vast chunks of land when the empire collapsed in 1991. Putin's invasion and annexation of South Ossetia, occupation of Abkhazia and creation of a Trojan horse in eastern Moldova were signs of that fear and that urge.
Other signs include stationing Russian troops in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Tajikistan.
Empires do not stop until they are stopped.
They resemble the wolf of the steppes which, in a short story by Chekhov, pursues a man driving a troika pulled by dogs amid a snowstorm. The man tries to ward off the wolf by throwing food at it until he himself runs out of food. He ends up throwing the dogs at the insatiable wolf that remains in hot pursuit. At the end, only the man himself is left as food for his determined pursuer.
With his policy of détente during the Nixon and Ford administrations, Kissinger arguably helped prolong the life of the Soviet Empire by treating it as an equal partner, playing a leading role in the Helsinki Accords, and providing it with access to global capital markets among other favors bestowed.
If he skims through the Kremlin media, Kissinger would see that Putin won't be satisfied with just a chunk of Ukraine, as he has said many times, and has already set the theme for "protecting our kith-and-kin" in Moldova and Estonia, with less direct musings about a pan-Slav empire that could include Poland, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro.
If implemented, Kissinger's "peace plan" could become a prelude to endless war, cold, lukewarm and hot, in Europe, and the most disastrous attempt at appeasement since the Chamberlain-Daladier duo went to Munich.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.