Jorge Luis Borges once complained that, despite dreaming of tigers when a child, he was unable to make them materialise. Other, on the whole far cruder writers have been more successful in making their fantasies come true, with horrifying consequences for millions of people. What may be called ‘geopolitical dreams,’ even outrageously unrealistic ones, of the kind nationalistic essayists and academics are prone to encourage, can become extremely dangerous if they start colonising the minds of autocratic rulers. So too, for that matter, can be the belief that at some time in the past history took a wrong turn and it is up to the generation now in power to return it to its proper track by exacting vengeance on those countries which benefitted from what happened.
As pointed out by a French specialist in Russia’s intellectual traditions, Michel Eltchaninoff, Vladimir Putin has long been under the spell of the writings of Lev Gumilev, whose theories about “ethnogenesis,” “Eurasianism” and the idea that “an irresistible inner urge to purposeful activity … in the name of a lofty, though sometimes illusory goal” was the key to almost everything, convinced him that the Russians are a very special people indeed he could lead towards their destiny. Gumilev’s mother, the remarkable poet Anna Akhmatova, must have been put off by her son’s musings but, had he survived the Bolshevik death squads, his father, Nikolai Gumilev, who was also a poet, might have found them appealing.
Like many Russians, Putin evidently feels his nation has been cheated by fate; just a few weeks ago he thought he could put things right. Does he still believe this? If he still imagines he can turn those Ukrainians who survive his ferocious onslaught into patriotic Russians, he is surely mistaken, but perhaps he clings to the hope that, at some time in the misty future, they could reconcile themselves to what he has in mind for them.
In any event there can be little doubt that Putin has filled his head with dreams which bear a strong family resemblance to many that were popular in the ruling circles of Germany and Japan before Nemesis, represented by a brief military alliance between Soviet Russia and the Anglo-Saxon powers, finally put a definitive end to fantasies of worldwide hegemony which, somewhat incongruously, fell for a time into the hands of a country whose leaders did not want it. In the United States, nationalists like Donald Trump and his strident supporters would much rather leave the rest of the world to its own devices, while those who think of themselves as internationalists do their best to outsource difficult problems to organisations such as the United Nations.
People in other countries find such attitudes perplexing. Despite rumours to the contrary, the United States is still by far the world’s most powerful and most influential country. She is also one of the most isolationist. Many, perhaps most North Americans take it for granted that their forebears broke their ties with the tyrannical “old world” they had left behind and should have as little as possible to do with its brutal squabbles. This is why politicians of all stripes, from Trump to Joe Biden, are reluctant to assume they should feel any responsibility for things that happen in other parts of the planet. They say every country, like every person, should learn to stand on its own two feet. And as they do not see themselves as imperialists, they think it is grossly unfair to ask their men in uniform to continue playing the role of “global gendarmes” as they have, thanks to the overwhelming wealth and military strength of the United States, found themselves doing since the end of World War II.
Most North Americans want out but others, among them Putin and Xi Jinping, very much want in. Unlike the many Western Europeans, who for decades had been happy to feel themselves safe under the US “nuclear umbrella” they were happy to rant against but are now alarmed by the possibility that from now on they will have to depend on themselves, Putin and, less ostentatiously, Xi welcome what is going on in Washington. For them, it marks the fast approaching end of what optimists once called the “American century,” so at last they can embark on the geopolitical adventures they have been mulling over for years.
Apart from the Ukrainians, who are currently paying the heaviest price for what many see as the North Americans’ hasty retreat from power and the awkward responsibilities that go with it, the most worried by recent events are the Europeans, closely followed by the Taiwanese. For three-quarters of a century, Germany, Italy and many other countries, including, though to a much lesser extent, the UK and France, have been in effect US protectorates. This is something the Germans have just realised, hence their stated determination to increase their “defence” spending – what were once ministries of War have long preferred to call themselves Defence ministries – to more than two percent of the national income as, to almost universal indignation, in his blustering manner Trump had tried to make them do.
The German historian Fritz Fischer made himself unpopular in his own country by attributing not just the Second World War but also the First to the obsession of its ruling elite and many pressure groups with the notion that world power was there for the taking. In Russia too, a similar way of thinking has long appealed to people at or near the top, the difference being that while early 20th-century Germany had the intellectual and economic wherewithal to achieve many of her objectives by peaceful means but ruined everything by going to war, present-day Russia does not have comparable resources. With a pint-sized economy which is smaller than those of California, Texas, Italy and South Korea respectively, to become a genuine world power Russia would have to reacquire an even bigger empire than the existing one.
This, presumably, is the main reason Putin is trying to grab Ukraine. It is not that he thinks his country needs more “Lebensraum” or natural resources because it already has more of them than any other, but it does need far more Russian-speaking inhabitants. As there are millions who would qualify but are living in the “near abroad,” neighbours such as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, where in some places half the population is of Russian origin, are understandably jittery, as are people in Poland and Finland, which once formed part if Moscow’s domains and, were it not for NATO, would have a prominent place on Putin’s hit list.