The Mobile World Congress (MWC to the cognoscenti) took place in Barcelona during the last week of February. It was a four-day exhibition of the digital world’s latest and coolest. Phones, tablets, “wearables.” All of it very cutting edge. One of the big winners was the Yota, a dual-screen telephone from … Russia. Not the first place you think of when your mind turns to smart phones. But the Yota is a hot ticket, according to press reports. Not yet available in the U.S. but, maybe, soon.
And, then, there were the Olympics, also in February. The Sochi games were a $50 billion festival celebrating the 21st century Russia. The host country put on an extravagant, show for all the world to see and came in first in the medal count, as well.
It was a good month, then, for modern Russia.
But in March, the old Russia reappeared and reasserted itself. This is the Russia not of the Yota but the Kalashnikov. This time the world sees not bobsleds, but tanks. Russia has a history with tanks. They are part of modern Russia’s genetic makeup. Long before they began to compete in the smart phone marketplace, the Russians made the world’s most fearsome tank, the T-34.
Russia and tanks seem, somehow, to go together. The T-34 made it all the way to Berlin while Hitler’s Panzers stalled 30 miles from Moscow. During the Cold War, the Russians went into Budapest with tanks to keep the Hungarians in line. They went into Prague with tanks to keep the Czechs in line. They tried it in Afghanistan where it didn’t work and, now, they are going into the Ukraine with tanks where, most likely, it will. The Russians may not have a perfect record in these things but they come close. It is what they do, and they do it well.
Which is why it is so surprising that so many in the West seem so … well, surprised. Did they think that Russia had changed that much? That smart phones had made tanks somehow obsolete. That there really is such a thing as “smart power” in the affairs of nations? And that they knew how to wield it skillfully enough to stop tanks?
"You just don't in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text," says Secretary of State, John Kerry.
Well … if you are Russia, yes you do. And if you are Vladimir Putin, you don’t much care if John Kerry or Tom Friedman or any other 21st century savant considers such an invasion gauche and retrograde. The 19th century wasn’t so bad, to his way of thinking. In a lot of ways, those were the good times.
Mr. Kerry tells us his boss takes the situation in the Ukraine seriously.
Everything is on the table, Mr. Kerry says.
Mr. Putin is the leader – the strongman in chief – of a nation that lost 27 million people in what it calls the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany. It was led, during that war, by a man who had brought a disputatious and recalcitrant Ukrainian population under control through forced and massive starvation. Ten million people may have perished. There may not be many old enough to remember, first hand, Stalin and the terror and the Great Patriotic War but it doesn’t matter. Because the memory exists independent of people who experienced the events.
Putin may not be Stalin but he is of him. So is Russia.
Western statesman, including Mr. Kerry, are already following through on their promises to retaliate against Russia’s heavy-handedness in the Ukraine. To show they mean business, they are canceling preparations for a conference of the G-8 which is scheduled to be held in a few months, in Sochi, scene of the recent Olympics.
No conference prep? Well, that, certainly, ought to show them.
And if it doesn’t, then perhaps we should taunt them another time.
Mr. Putin plays by the old rules and he plays to win. If he were to back down just because some frock-coated diplomat threatened to cancel preparations for a conference, he would not be able to look himself in the mirror ever again. And he does, it appears, admire his manly visage.
Putin made his move because he wasn’t going to allow himself to be viewed as weak. And because he is of the type formerly known as “tyrant,” and not especially insulted if you accuse him of behaving in a 19th century sort of way. He probably isn’t even all that impressed by the fact that his own nation produces a smart phone to rival those of Samsung and Apple.
His interest runs more to tanks. And their effective use.