In an address on the Ukraine crisis to some of Russia's future leaders, President Vladimir Putin alluded to his country's large stockpile of nuclear weapons.
"I want to remind you that Russia is one of the most powerful nuclear nations. It is better not to come against Russia," Putin told the youth forum.
A reporter said the President's words "sent shivers down the spines of leaders in the capitals of Europe" – which is exactly what it was supposed to do.
Let's be clear on this point. Putin has no intention of using nuclear weapons now or ever. He is well aware of the consequences, and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is just as relevant today as it was in 1962 when the Soviet Union and the United States pulled back from the brink over the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But the Russian leader knows his opponents only too well - even the oblique reference to his nuclear arsenal will retard European resolve over what to do with the fact his tanks are rolling into Eastern Ukraine in ever-increasing numbers. Playing the tough guy is likely to mean that any real provocation to Russia, such as providing weaponry to Ukraine's forces or the country becoming a member of NATO, will be firmly on the back-burner.
He is winning this game of bluff and counter-bluff because right from the start European leaders and United States President Barak Obama ruled out direct military intervention in support of the beleaguered Government in Kiev.
Putin could hardly believe his luck. It gave him a free hand to do what he liked in his ultimate ambition to absorb the biggest prize, if not directly into the Russian Empire, then certainly as a client State held as tightly as the Soviet Union once influenced the Warsaw Pact Governments in the days of the Cold War.
Yes there would be sanctions – and sanctions would damage the economy and hurt the Russian people. But, Putin would reason, the Russian people are used to suffering – if they survived the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis they can survive a few less choices of food in the shops – and anyway, the capitalists of the West will soon start whining over their losses and put pressure on their Governments to wind back the sanctions.
The Russian President has judged that Europe is too corrupted by the good life, too addicted to reality TV, celebrity gossip and fast food, to put up any serious opposition to his Grand Plan. So far he has been proved right.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel is obsessed with the idea that she has some kind of special relationship with Putin and will be able to convince him to pack his tanks away and go home. British Prime Minister David Cameron is full of bluff and bluster but little else. French President Francois Hollande was more realistic than most when he said that the worsening situation was on a path to all-out war, but had no new ideas about how to avert it.
The European Union's Foreign Policy Commissioner-designate Federica Mogherini stressed there could be no military solution to the crisis, giving Putin an ultimatum of one week to withdraw from Ukraine or face further sanctions – a 'threat' he will quite obviously ignore.
Only the President of little Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite, highlighted Europe's diffident response for what it is when she slammed a French warship agreement with Moscow for going ahead during the crisis. Ms Grybauskaite said values and security were being undermined for the sake of business.
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About the Author
Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.
He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.