‘Dictators ride to and fro upon tigers from which they dare not dismount. Discuss’
From memory, 3 decades later, my Politics Honours General Paper (an exam prerequisite to pass to get my Honours degree but which did not cover a particular topic I had studied as an undergrad), was an open question very similar to the one I have listed above – the first sentence of which is a 1938 quote from a speech by Winston Churchill.
At that time, the Cold War being in the process of ending, the idea that Dictators were riding tigers was a very salient one. The one in Romania had faced a summary firing squad not too long before, and others were nervous about similar endings.
A tiger is not a domesticated animal. It is not bred to be trained to obey human commands, and, like all other species of cat, I doubt that it ever can. Does anyone ever think that it is safe to ride a tiger?
In the context of Churchill’s comments, tigers represent the untameable monster of political tyranny. It is both untameable and unaccountable. Whilst a tyrant can ride the beast for a while, if he is unsaddled, then someone else will ride it, or it will rage out of control. In either event, there is a strong chance that it will devour the former rider.
Right now, we have Putin, who has shaped post communist Russia into a dictatorship of his own making. Russia itself was never a domestic cat, or democracy. It always has been autocratic at the very least, as in the time of the czars. Perhaps like in the episode in War and Peace, where Pierre has a prank involving a bear cub, Russia has been the political equivalent of a bear cub, a creature which could grow into a monster, rather than a democracy tame to the will of the people.
Putin is riding the grown version of that bear cub. As dictator, he does not have the checks and balances of a functioning political system or rule of law to protect either his subjects from him, or him from his subjects (in the event that he gets overthrown).
This political rodeo is not a comfortable ride. He must be looking over his shoulder quite a lot.
But there is much that we cannot overlook. Russia has 5,500 nuclear warheads. This means that it cannot be dealt with like a non-nuclear power. It does not like the idea of a near neighbour which it used to rule recently joining alliances which are historically against it, such as NATO. It sees this as a major threat to its own security.
Whether or not you like the idea of Putin as a tyrant invading the Ukraine, Russians as a whole would be uneasy with its neighbour the Ukraine becoming a part of NATO, its adversary of the past 75 years. That would be as threatening to Russia as would the idea of Mexico or Canada becoming members of the Warsaw Pact.
The West needs to tread carefully here. Negotiating a withdrawal of Russia from the Ukraine would be in everyone’s best interests (the economic consequences alone are going to be very costly). Guaranteeing that the Ukraine does not ever join NATO or the EU is a small price to pay for this peace.
And what now is the purpose of NATO anyway? It was set up to counter the Soviet Union. Antagonising a non-communist Russia now, one which has inherited the nuclear arsenal of the USSR but not the ideological agenda, is fool hardy. Unless NATO was to expand in the way that was proposed in the Jack Ryan novels by Tom Clancy (ie to include Russia and face off against communist China), I see little point for it to do more than maintain its position in Western Europe.