In my childhood there was a soi-disant “Armenian” joke that we used to tell, and it went more or less as follows. Is it true, one Armenian asks another, that Sarkisyan won a million in the state lottery? “Yes, it’s true,” replies the other Armenian, “but it wasn’t in the state lottery, it was at poker. And it wasn’t a million, it was a thousand. And he didn’t win, he lost.”
As the Russian troops, this time round with their insignia on display for all the world’s quislings to see, invaded Ukraine and seized Novoazovsk, the hallowed German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung came out with the headline “A Hopeless Struggle for the Lost East,” or “Aussichtsloser Kampf um den verlorene Osten,” to quote it in all its Teutonic grandeur. In the week’s other news, General Yuri Yakubov, who bears upon his epauletted shoulders the uneasy title of “Coordinator of the Department of General Inspectors of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation,” has publicly called for “a new doctrine” of defense, whereby “a preventive nuclear strike against the United States would be a permissible option.” The new strategic document, declared the general, “must clearly designate the United States as our likely adversary” – an operational designation absent in existing policy documents – against which the Russian military “must rehearse the functionality of aerospace systems in close interaction with strategic forces of nuclear containment.”
This is why that old Armenian joke has been on my mind of late. “Verlorener Osten”? Excuse me, but what was the hullabaloo of the last 30 years all about, if such is the state of play? Haven’t we been told time and again that, thanks to the salutary effects of Coca-Cola, MTV video clips, and the Internet upon the barbarian psyche, the East was not lost, but won? “Collapse of Communism,” “Fall of the Soviet Union,” “Peace Dividend” – what was that all about, meine Damen und Herren? Or were you just imagining pleasant eventualities and palming them off on the unsuspecting electorates of the West as geopolitical verities?
What of the hawks in the Kremlin, long pacified by the victorious doves? Remember them? And how about perestroika, glasnost, and all those other hastily coined Slavisms which my Windows spell-check does not underline in red, so ingrained into Western perceptions of Russia have they become? Where are that quack doctor and loquacious Pharisee out of Molière, “Dr.” Henry Kissinger, with his cross-party alter ego and hospital orderly out of Chekhov, Zbigniew Brzezinski, now that the wind has so suddenly changed and the going’s got tough? Truth to tell, they’re both still at it 20, 30, even fifty years on, mouthing whatever political banalities seem to best suit the moment: geopolitical chessboard… evolutionary path… political threat… military potential… sphere of influence… peaceful coexistence… Yes, they’re all still in place, like so many wooden pieces on the Great Chessboard of smug timeserving, as though the year is 1964 and Khrushchev has just begun writing his memoirs.
I have heard angry men say that President Obama is a fool, which on the face of it is quite plausible. But President Obama cannot bear the blame for the epochal folly of those tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of analysts, experts, advisers, sages, and gurus, who, in the course of the last half-century, have dithered, sputtered, and babbled while turning the West’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the totalitarian regimes of Russia and China into the unfunny Armenian joke that it is in 2014.