A Childhood Story Explains What's Wrong With Putin's Strategy in Ukraine


It turns out that we can learn a lesson in geopolitical warfare from a childhood tale.

Many would argue Russian President Vladimir Putin is playing with fire in Ukraine. He has supported the separatists and lost control of them. The tragic situation in Ukraine is now a tragedy for the for the entire world, after Russian separatists allegedly downed a Malaysia Airlines flight late last week. And many are looking at Putin to take responsibility.

Image Credit: AP. An investigator photographs the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

His mistakes in Ukraine are perfectly summed up in a scathing New Republic piece "A Parable for Putin," written by the couple behind the satirical Twitter account called KermlinRussia. Told as a childhood anecdote, the narrator describes a lesson learned as a 5-year-old that Putin clearly never learned.

In the story, the boy is jealous of his older, cooler cousins who adventurously light straws on fire and extinguish them before burning the entire haystack.

In a bid to be as "grown-up" and "cool" like his cousins, the boy begins to play the dangerous game himself: 

"I took a box of matches and went out to the haystack. No one could tell me what to do anymore. No one could tell me that I was little. I was cool. I was just as cool as my older cousins. With humiliation and envy in my heart and matches in my hand, I was unstoppable."

Rebellion is going great until he waits too long to stamp out the flame, setting the entire haystack on fire. The game leaves him screaming for help from adults. His older cousin tells him that he is a moron after the fire is put out. Further down the line, the author eventually learned the real moral of the story: 

"Today, I understand that they also behaved like morons, and I was just happily, diligently mimicking them.

I was five and I almost burned down half the village, but I remembered one thing forever: if you persistently kindle fires, there will come a moment when the whole f**king thing goes up in flames."

Transpose this story onto real life, and this is the moment when Putin has managed to light the entire town on fire. He now has to choose between his popularity in his home country and compromising in this stand-off with the West. Neither is particularly appealing.

He has convinced the Russian people that the separatists are heroes in the fight against fascism in Ukraine, but he can't disown the soldiers because that would betray his strong fan base. Meanwhile, the West is putting pressure on Russia to come clean about its support for the separatists.

Image Credit: AP. A Russian separatist guards the crash site. 

The moment when Putin lost control of the separatists represents the moment he was unable to extinguish the fire alone. From Putin's perspective, the KermlinRussia tweeted, "I said 'book the flight,' not 'buk it!'"

With 298 innocent civilians tragically dragged into the narrative, Putin is in seriously hot water.

The question now is: Will Putin extinguish the fire with saving face, like he's always done? Or will he "man-up" and alienate his supporters? The Russian leader has promised to use his influence with the separatists to pressure them to allow a full investigation into the downing of the flight, while simultaneously warning against Western intervention. 

As the story continues to develop, we'll see if Putin can manage to walk away from the situation unscathed. But if this childhood tale teaches us anything, it'll be a tough act to manage, even for someone as slick at Putin.