Tickling the tail of the sleeping dragon. It’s an expression the physicists at Los Alamos used to describe the process of discovering how much u235 uranium to add to existing material to create a critical mass, without creating the actual chain reaction that would cause an atomic explosion. Can you imagine, tickling the tail of the sleeping dragon to see how far they could actually go before catastrophic calamity that would impact most of the southwestern United States?
I thought of this ominous metaphor when I was pondering Vladimir Putin’s motivations for invading Ukraine. History is a great teacher and history teaches us that in modern times Russia has predictably been a voracious bad actor, always in pursuit of a greater geographic empire (East and West), always the bullying bear, and never in post-modern times has it seemed interested in being a part of the cooperative fraternity of Western European nations.
The sleeping dragon metaphor has further relevance. During the post-Cold War period, Western Europe had itself become a sleepy, uninterested and lethargic bystander when it comes to Putin’s progressively bad behavior in places like Chechnya, Georgia and the Baltic Sea. NATO had hypnotized itself into a self-satisfied and negligent trance. So we have a two-headed dragon, a sleeping NATO that Putin has been promiscuously tickling to see how far he could go before reaching a “critical mass” with NATO and the European Union, and a Russian-headed dragon that had transmogrified into a bear out of hibernation resuming with its voracious appetite for an expansive realm in Eurasia.
Vladimir Putin, in his delusions of grandeur, is living in the 18th century imagining himself, plainly, to be like Peter the Great.
John Hay, secretary of state to Teddy Roosevelt and a literary advisor to Abraham Lincoln, once said about Russia’s perfidious behavior, “Dealing with a government with whom mendacity is a science is an extremely difficult and delicate matter… (but) we are not charged with the cure of the Russian soul.”
I appreciate Hays’ frustration, but it’s more about the delusions of grandeur of Russia’s historical leadership than the soul of the Russian people. But Hays’ frustration became metaphorically eloquent when he told President Roosevelt, “Four years of constant conflict with the Russians has shown me that you cannot let up a moment on the “bear that talks like a man.”
Last month Peggy Noonan, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, wrote an update to an article she had initially written in 2014 called “Russia, Same Country Different War.” Her conclusion was prophetic: “Here we see our parallels to today, which are obvious. Russia wanted something and they went for it alone. A disapproving world expected it to crush little Japan and was shocked when it didn’t, as was Russia which had overestimated its military and underestimated Japan’s spirit.” (Russo-Japanese War 1904-1905)
Tickling the sleeping dragon’s tail of NATO was a risky thing for a delusional Russian leader to do, but it fits unambiguously and historically with the grandiose ambitions of Russian imperialistic leadership.
NATO and the European Union have indeed awakened, and they seem to be committed to putting some distance between themselves and Russia. But is it enough? Over time, this must include tough defensive military ramparts that will make any further attempts by Vladimir Putin to expand and to try to recreate the Soviet Union a non-starter.
Colin Powell once said that there’s no point in taking military action unless it is a genuine threat to the country’s national security, and then if it must be done, it must be done with overwhelming military might. This is a big problem when you’re fighting a proxy war with Russia and the battlefield is a non-member of NATO. Vladimir Putin may be crazy, but he’s not stupid which is why he’s picked this fight, albeit, he should have read the Powell Doctrine.
U.S. howitzers and medium-range rockets may make a difference over time, as may armaments from the UK and other NATO countries, but it’s going to be a gritty fight and Ukraine may ultimately have to give up large parts of eastern Ukraine.
There’s no question Putin’s calculation is that he can get away with tickling the dragon’s tail, because he’s got the NATO alliance in a military and energy straight jacket. It’s up to the NATO countries, which includes the United States, to figure its way out of the straight jacket and in Teddy Roosevelt’s words, wield the “Big Stick.”
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.