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Colonel Vladimir Thursday

Once more the big bad Russian bear rears up on its hind legs and emits a defiant growl, and yet again the West stands idly by, petrified and ineffectual. 

Or so it is claimed by some of the more vigorous political commentators of the Anglophone media, by no means all of them from the loonier reaches of the right.  One can only presume that similar sentiments circulate freely in Mother Russia, although in Vladimir Putin’s Russia the word ‘freely’ may require considerable qualification.   

In both camps, then, the more assertive braves have donned war-paint, and are urging their chiefs on the tribal council to respond more vigorously – on the one hand to the latest example of bear-baiting, and on the other to Russian mischief-making. The war drums beat softly but incessantly in the background. 

Where are James Stewart and John Wayne when we need them?

The cavalry versus Indians analogy is a bit of a stretch, I admit, but the latest East-West furore – this time over the downing of a Malaysian airliner – does strike me as vaguely reminiscent, at least in tone, to some of those western films of the Fifties.  Broken Arrow and Fort Apache come to mind.  In both films, men of good will on both sides, striving for peaceful coexistence (now there’s a pretty phrase revived from the Cold War) are undermined by the actions of renegades with agendas that would benefit from the outbreak of hostilities.   

Remember Henry Fonda as Colonel Owen Thursday in John Ford’s Fort Apache

Dragged reluctantly to a peace conference with Cochise, the Apache chief, he wastes no time on diplomatic niceties.  He calls his counterpart a ’recalcitrant swine’, leaving both sides with no option but to stalk off to prepare for the inevitable military showdown.  The vainglorious colonel then compounds the felony by ignoring his advisers, and foolishly leads his proud regiment into an obvious ambush, in which his entire command is wiped out. 

Vladimir Putin is easily depicted as the villain in the latest incident – the eastern equivalent of Colonel Thursday.  It is doubtful, though, that he himself ordered the shooting down of a civilian aircraft, or that he would have done so if the decision had been his to make.   But we in the West firmly believe that he is perfectly capable of such an outrage, and that in any event his deliberate stirring up of Russian-speaking rebels in the Ukraine, and the provision of high-grade missile-firing weapons was indirectly responsible for the incident, even if he didn’t pull the trigger himself.    

Putin of course makes it all too easy to hate him.  He is a despicable, preening, ego-driven man by all accounts – and perhaps more importantly by all appearances; not so much a Colonel Thursday but a Blofeld, straight out of a James Bond film. 

He is regarded as, and may well be, a menace to those countries bordering on Russia, and perhaps beyond.  But he is not, I submit, a menace to western democracy. 

The muted responses of President Obama and Chancellor Merkel may be cowardly, or self-serving, or whatever other derogatory terms one might wish to assign to them.  But muttered sabre-rattling is a more sensible alternative to noisy sabre-wielding.  I for one do not wish to be dragged into a military confrontation over Crimea, or Donetsk – a country which I had never heard of until recently – or, as sad as it may be to write the words, the slaughter of three hundred innocents aboard a passenger airline.

Obama may be a wimp, as his critics and even many friends contend. Merkel may be more intent on preserving Germany’s gas supplies than upholding her nation’s honour.  But in the circumstances – mostly characterised by the desire to take Putin down a peg or two – do we really need an embittered Colonel Thursday leading his regiment into some blind canyon?

Britain can be counted among the hard-liners, but only in words.  David Cameron can fulminate all he wants in righteous indignation, but the country he leads now has even less military capability than it was able to deploy in Iraq.  And it is now plain for all to see how that intervention worked out.  

Putin is a pathological trouble-maker, he may even become in time a dangerous one, but I cannot for the life of me see what we can do about it unless or until he really goes mad.

Call me a wimp, or an isolationist, or an appeaser, if you must, but to misquote from history, Donetsk is not worth a Mass.  

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