THE BLOG

Putin's Dangerous Folly

14/03/2014 07:44 GMT | Updated 14/05/2014 10:59 BST

It is said that those who do not learn from history are often doomed to repeat its tragic mistakes.

Judging from the recent heated volleys between Russian Federation President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin and the West over Crimea and Ukraine, it seems that history is regrettably repeating itself once again.

As with the un-heeded lessons in Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, Israel and Palestine, the First and Second World Wars, the Crimea and what it has represented in history, has many lessons to teach us.

For those who are indeed students of history and its lessons learned several things should be universally clear:

Most wars have been fought to secure the means of wealth production - access to seaports, oil, silk, water and other natural resources - there is almost always an economic element.

Wars are often an expression of an inherent right of both a nation and its leader to dominate those who are weaker and less cultured and who may pose obstacles to their course in history.

If former KGB Colonel Putin wishes to prove that his Mother Russia should carry the same clout as the Soviet Union because of its potential contributions to global well-being and not because it just happens to have an enormous supply of nuclear weapons, so far he has failed to do so.

With Sochi Putin tried to show off Russia as a real player on the world stage that could put on a glorious Olympics.

Unfortunately, without skipping a beat, he sent his troops in to occupy his neighbor prompting threats of reprisals and condemnation from the West.

The parallels of this latest situation in Crimea and the 1936 Berlin Olympics are not lost on those who have studied that period and those who remember it first hand.

The 1916 Olympics which was also scheduled to take place in Berlin was cancelled due to the Great War.

Two decades later, the 1936 Olympics was awarded to Germany by the International Olympic Committee in 1931 before Adolf Hitler became Chancellor.

Hitler, not by any account athletic, was prompted by Joseph Goebbels, his minister for public enlightenment and propaganda to put on a stunning 1936 Olympics which could be used to showcase the "New Germany".

Hitler spent 42million Reichmarks building an impressive 325-acre Olympic Sports Complex at a time when the German economy was more than just struggling.

Only two years later in an effort to unify the German speaking people Hitler annexed Austria.

Clearly his lust for conquest did not end there.

History warns of the pitfalls to avoid and if we care to heed its lessons, can also provide solutions to our most difficult challenges.

There is another lesson to be learned: Beware of the unappreciated and insecure despot.

According to Barbara W. Tuchman, in The Guns of August - which analyzes the climate and causes for World War I - it was Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II who expressed his regret that he was never invited by the French to visit the 'City of Light' and complained to Theodore Roosevelt that English nobility never visited Berlin but always Paris.

"Le Gran Diss" provoked more than words from the Kaiser who according to Tuchman used the threat that his "Great Navy" would gain him the respect he deserved.

This kind of rhetoric which is prevalent in our world today intensified the climate allowing for the Great War.

Tuchman in attempting to explain the causes of this war quotes General von Bernhardi a German cavalry officer and well know writer of the later 19th Century as saying "She [Germany] cannot attain her 'great moral ends' without increased political power, an enlarged sphere of influence, and new territory. This increase in power, 'befitting our importance', and 'which we are entitled to claim' is a political necessity' and 'the first and foremost duty of the State.'"

Perhaps Putin may be sympathetic to the von Bernhardi concept of manifest destiny.

After all, Putin is quoted as saying that the collapse of the Soviet Union "was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century."

Although in fairness, what nation does not consider itself great?

Putin's desire to be front and center on the world stage has put him in a vicarious position.

As we play it forward, what is not so clear today is what his actual plans or intentions are...but we are taking him very seriously.

It is true, that Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych put Putin in an embarrassing and difficult position by allowing the violent street protests to get out of hand in Kiev - for all the 24 hour news and social media to observe worldwide.

It was an embarrassing moment for Putin while he basked in the glory of Sochi.

Putin reacted forcefully when the street protesters chased the democratically elected Yanukovych from office and Parliament voted to free Yulia Tymoshenko, former opposition leader, from jail by sending Russian forces in to invade Crimea.

Although some believe Putin may have planned this all along, it is also equally plausible that he found himself in a difficult position with his domestic audience when a democratically elected president, who was friendly to Russia, was ousted by street protests.

Putin clearly did not want to suffer the economic consequences of a trade deal between the Ukraine and the EU.

In one of his latest moves, Putin working with the leadership in Crimea, is trying to put a democratic gloss on his on his move to make Crimea part of Russia with the Referendum.

The fast moving changes in Ukraine and Putin's aggressive moves to seize Crimea have also put President Obama and the West in a precarious situation with both their domestic and international audiences.

Obama needs to be seen as supporting democracy.

This is tricky since the US has taken almost no action when virtually the same thing happened in Egypt - and now here we go again!

The American public are becoming more and more skeptical of an aggressive US foreign policy which comes at a great cost of blood and treasure but yields little in terms of concrete positive outcomes for the US.

Obama has these domestic pressures to deal with on the eve of a mid-term election along with the responsibility of being a super power.

Now with Russia integrated into the borderless world economy, all sides have a great deal to lose.

Unless the West is willing to engage militarily, the only obvious way to get Putin's attention is by imposing real economic sanctions that have a real effect.

However the New Russia - which is integrated into the world economy - cannot be isolated by sanctions without severely damaging Russia's trade partners and investors in the West.

Although Russia can be "uninvited" to what was the G-8 and is now the G-7, billions of dollars worth of transactions and joint ventures cannot be unwound without significant damage to all parties.

Perhaps it is time to borrow an historic solution from the Cuban Missile Crisis.

During those now famous thirteen days Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy went head to head escalating the stakes with each move and bringing the world perilously close to nuclear destruction.

In the end clever, behind the scenes diplomacy prevailed giving Khrushchev a promise he desired - US missiles out of Turkey - in exchange for removing Soviet missiles from Cuba.

Let's hope that there is some clever behind the scenes diplomacy going on now that will allow both sides to back down and save face before it is too late.