The term “rogue male”, denoting a rampaging bull elephant, is also used figuratively to describe a dangerously out-of-control, cold-hearted loner. It may be that Vladimir Putin has a cuddly side. If so, it’s well-hidden. Russia’s president fits the rogue male profile to a T – unscrupulous, vicious, cunning, and ever ready to trample on other people and countries.
Much recent effort has been expended trying to understand and explain Putin’s motives in threatening a wider war in Ukraine. Does he hope to restore past Soviet glories or crush Kyiv’s pro-western trajectory? Is it about his historical legacy or his need for a repeat electoral “Crimea bounce”? Such theories carry weight, but they all miss the essential point.
Putin is and always has been an unpleasant, smirking, devious, KGB-trained thug whose main aim in life, besides retaining power, is to weaken and divide the western democracies. His attitude, resembling a vendetta, is as emotional as it is rational.
Ukraine is but his latest solo sabotage operation. If he gets his way there, his one-man mission to create an updated Russian sphere of influence bordered by puppet states will accelerate. Next stop, the Baltic republics, the Balkans, or an increasingly politically isolated Poland.
The rogue male phenomenon is brilliantly explored in Geoffrey Household’s eponymous 1939 novel, in which a solitary huntsman sets out to assassinate an un-named European dictator, presumed to be Adolf Hitler – one rogue male tracking down another. The book amplifies one of history’s great might-have-beens: whether, with the Nazi leader dead, war could have been averted.
No one, as far as can be known, is planning to assassinate Putin to prevent war in Ukraine – and all good liberals would surely condemn so heinous an idea. Regrettably, he himself has exhibited no such scruples when silencing critics and opponents over 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 (rogue male syndrome) from which Putin evidently suffers. Just think about it. Almost single-handed, he has whipped up the biggest east-west confrontation of the post-Soviet era. Who sent troops to the border? Who is waving ultimatums at Nato? Who now hints at deploying nuclear weapons in “rogue states” Venezuela and Cuba, and plays footsie with Iran? It’s Putin.
As panicked western leaders scramble like Spitfire pilots (but without the same determination), a slight air of exaggeration and theatrical hype persists around Russian actions. Putin is certainly enjoying western discomfort. He’s already made significant geopolitical gains. But is he really serious about all-out invasion? Despite much Kremlin tub-thumping, there’s scant enthusiasm among the Russian public for a ground war in Ukraine – no great patriotic, nationalist surge, only fatalistic acceptance.
It’s obvious, too, that no western leader wants to lock horns (or tusks) over Ukraine, any more than in Crimea in 2014. EU disunity over what to do, typified by Germany’s fractious coalition and the way Brussels has let itself be bypassed, is embarrassing but telling. For all its tough words, Nato also hangs back. As for US president Joe Biden, he pledged to end wars, not engage in new ones. Last week’s excruciating “minor incursion” gaffe left his aides counting marbles.
Ukrainians, naturally, are against being invaded again. Their leaders are successfully leveraging the crisis to obtain greater security assistance and weaponry from the US and Britain. Ukraine’s defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, wants sanctions on Russia imposed immediately. But like western Europe, Kyiv’s strong preference is clear: no more war.
The same goes for Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, understandably worried that, if push comes to shove, Nato’s protective shield may not be all it’s cracked up to be. In Taiwan, they fret that a Ukraine invasion will create a precedent. But Xi Jinping, China’s president, is a more subtle adversary. He doesn’t want war with the west, either – not yet, anyway.
Russia’s worries over Nato’s intentions and future membership for Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are not baseless. But they are overcooked. If war comes, it will accentuate the pro-western trends in the old “near abroad” Putin so dislikes. As the US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, noted in Berlin last week, there is genuine western willingness to address Russian concerns.
It’s plain, in sum, that almost no one, Moscow hawks and Donbas militia headbangers aside, wants an escalating conflict. It’s plain, too, that if it happens, Ukraine will go down as one man’s 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’s overseen chemical weapons atrocities in Syria, hostile cyber operations in Europe, pernicious anti-democratic election meddling, and multiple murders and poisonings. Yet they continue, for the most part, to treat him as a normal leader.
Whether or not he ultimately attacks Ukraine again, directly or indirectly, Putin is a proven, ongoing global menace. He went rogue years ago. His behaviour grows steadily more threatening. So what kind of elephant trap would snare him? How to tie him down?
Start now by declaring Putin an international pariah. Launch multiple universal jurisdiction prosecutions over his alleged complicity in overseas assassinations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Sanction his cronies. Go after his money. Limit diplomatic contacts. Find alternative energy suppliers. Help democrats such as Alexei Navalny rid Russia of him. In short, freeze him out.
The world has been here before, many times. One screwed-up little man must not be allowed to start a war no one wants. Message to Putin from peaceful, law-abiding people everywhere: rogue off!