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[/audioplayer]It is always tempting, in the field of foreign affairs, to suppose we are led by dupes and fools while our opponents enjoy – or endure – leaders of boundless cunning. We are over-matched; they are playing three-dimensional chess. We are weak, they are strong. We are easily distracted, they are single-minded. We compromise, they are implacable. It is easy to over-estimate the opposition while under-estimating our own capabilities.
Sometimes this has unfortunate consequences. Saddam Hussein, for instance, had to be hiding something. The Iraqi dictator – notoriously full of dark cunning – would not be so stupid as to pretend to have WMD programmes he did not in fact possess. The less evidence there was for them the more that proved he must be hiding something. That we did not know what he was up to demonstrated he was up to something. He was not, after all, a stupid man. As it turned out, we mis-overestimated Saddam.
Perhaps – only perhaps for one cannot be wholly certain about such matters – we are mis-overestimating Vladimir Putin too.
It may seem as though Putin has the advantage right now. His troops are occupying the Crimea and they will not easily be dislodged. He retains the capacity to make mischief in eastern Ukraine too. Russian troops stand ready to “protect” Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Kharkiv, Donetsk, Odessa and elsewhere. And what, precisely, can we do to stop them? The Russians, not the west and certainly not the new government in Kiev, will dictate the facts on the ground. Putin does not care what the rest of the world thinks and this sets him free to act as he pleases. We are weak; he is strong.