The Odd Couple? Putin and Saddam

Watching the brutal and unexpected invasion of Ukraine by (imperial?) Russian forces, one cannot escape some bitter reflections. In 1941, my maternal grandfather Noach Rechtman was murdered by Ukrainian thugs, who collaborated enthusiastically with the Nazi occupiers. By 1944 Ukraine was liberated by Soviet Russian forces, in which my father had served as a military officer. On the face of it, I should have supported the Russian side, but I do not. My heart and my sense of justice go to the plight of the Ukrainian civil population. Though there could be no comparison with the Shoah, in a bitter twist of history the memory of Jewish refugees and victims have been recently revived by images of Ukrainian families looking desperately for refuge and shelter beyond their country’s borders. They come with their grandmothers and toddlers, clutching to their beloved teddy bears. Those bewildered families are led by the women of Ukraine, who become the spinal cord of their communities, as the men must stay behind and fight.

As a historian of modern Iraq I could not avoid noticing some likeness. In 1990, Saddam Hussein, the despotic ruler of Iraq, invaded Kuwait. In this, I see some resemblance to the current Ukrainian situation. Both Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Putin seem to have been intoxicated by power and they display narcissistic traits.  These absolutist rulers took little advice from professionals. Both are autocratic rulers who may have acted on the premise that l’état, c’est moi. Both men embraced a myth of stolen territories and lost status. Both have defied what they saw as unjust coercive alien systems that forced their countries to give up their God-given hegemonies, be it global or regional, and both were constantly looking for opportunities to redeem and correct what they saw as historical evils. Both made terrible mistakes by invading their smaller and weaker neighbors. Both were driven by misperceptions; Saddam thought that the West, led by the United States, would not stand up to Iraq’s “completely justifiable” moves. He had reassured himself that, for as long as the oil from Iraq’s 19th province, aka Kuwait, would keep flowing to the industrial centers, the feeble West would stand idly by.

Though the Ukrainian war is still not over, it seems that Mr. Putin, too, may have gambled too much on the West-European weakness and dependence on Russian energy. Like Saddam’s misperception of the American and Western coalition resolve in 1990, Putin may have not anticipated the international response. It remains to be seen whether the United States and Europe will go the extra mile and embark upon a stronger defense-related measures. However, even at this early stage the political, diplomatic, and economically crippling measures have already sent a powerful message of support for Ukraine and delivered a devastating blow to Mr. Putin and his ambitions – without a single shot fired.

Finally, Vladimir Putin may have taken advantage of some anti-NATO notions, nourished by fake news emanating from peculiar, conspiracy-led circles and corners, chiefly within the far-right in some countries. Russia, in particular, has mastered the art of manipulating global networks. However, when democratic and economically vibrant societies stand up to tyranny, they usually have the upper hand. They do not win by appeasement; it may take resolve and steadfastness, but this is how democracies usually work. Their economies dwarf that of Russia, whose GDP is smaller than that of American states like New York or Texas.

In a reminiscence of another conflict, this spirit was well attested to by an old British limerick from the Crimean war of the 1850s (in which Russia did not win, eventually):

“We don’t want to fight /

But, by Jingo, if we do /

We’ve got the ships /

We’ve got the men /

We’ve got the money, too”.

Or, in the words of President Bill Clinton, “it’s the economy, stupid.”

About the Author
An expert in Middle Eastern affairs, Shulamit Binah’s book, UNITED STATES – IRAQ BILATERAL RELATIONS, Confusion and Misperception 1967 to 1979, has been published by Valentine-Mitchell (London 2018). Dr. Binah retired from government service after a full career in analysis and evaluation. She lives in Israel.
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