I pity friends who don't speak Russian

The other day an impeccably conservative friend (I really have no other) said he didn’t see any problems with Putin. Yes, he’s a bit rough round the edges, but no threat to us.

Mercifully this friend isn’t in the opinion-forming business. Alas, even many who are share the same gross, dangerous, potentially suicidal misapprehension.

Characteristically, none of my Russian friends shares it. This isn’t because they are cleverer than my English or French friends. It’s just that they have one indisputable advantage: they can read the Russian press.

That’s why they couldn’t understand the incredulity implied in the title of a Daily Mail article yesterday: Did Putin Just Threaten to Go Nuclear on ISIS?

Because they aren’t handicapped by the eponymous linguistic deficiency, my Russian friends know that hardly a day goes by that either Putin or one of his henchmen in the government or in the media doesn’t threaten nuclear annihilation – mainly of the US, but also of her allies.

The term that currently seems to be in vogue is ‘turning [insert the potential target, the US for preference] into radioactive dust’, but there are numerous variations, such as Putin’s favourite: “I’d like to remind [anyone who doesn’t like what Russia is doing in the Crimea, the Ukraine, Syria etc.] that Russia is a nuclear power.”

Indeed she is. And nuclear blackmail has been part and parcel of Russia’s foreign policy ever since 1954, when Putin’s role models tried an atomic bomb on unsuspecting live targets at the Totsk testing grounds. It worked as advertised, killing about 50,000 on the spot and God knows how many by delayed action. Since then the Russians have held a nuclear cosh over the West’s head like the sword of Damocles.  

So, to answer the Mail’s incredulous question, of course he did. Why stop now doing what he has been doing every day for at least 18 months, either personally or by proxy?

To Vlad’s credit this time he didn’t mention radioactive dust into which he could turn half the world. Instead he spoke in equivoques, an art he learned in the service of the KGB.

Having fired some submarine missiles 1,500 miles from the Caspian to Syria, Vlad couldn’t contain his glee:

“We now see that these are… high-precision weapons that can be equipped with conventional or special nuclear warheads. Naturally, we do not need that to fight terrorists, and I hope [my emphasis] we will never need it. But overall, this speaks to our significant progress in terms of improving weaponry… being supplied to the Russian army and navy.”

Allow me to translate from the KGB, a language I learned courtesy of my interrogators 45 years ago.

Vlad hopes a nuclear devastation of the Middle East will be unnecessary, but he isn’t quite sure. And make no mistake: going nuclear in a region where different groups fighting different enemies are densely intermingled would indeed be tantamount to indiscriminate annihilation.

You know it, I know it, everyone knows it. Vlad knows it too, which is why he isn’t going to nuke ISIS. His statement was merely the next instalment in the saga of nuclear blackmail written over the last 60 years, with new pages being added every day.

Weapons are after all designed to kill people. Since it’s clear Putin isn’t going to arm his Kalibre cruise missiles with nuclear warheads to fight terrorism, then why emphasise that capability to the world at large? Whom is he threatening to kill?

The answer is, Westerners. Us. Like the street thug he self-admittedly was in his youth, he’s hissing at us: “You may be taller than me, stronger than me, smarter than me. But I can slash your eyes with a razor.”

So he conceivably could. More likely, in the good KGB tradition he wants us to believe he could, to blackmail us into docility. This is all par for the course charted by his sponsoring organisation directly it was formed in 1918. No surprises there.

The only surprising thing is that our papers seem to be surprised. I’m not. But then I’m blessed (or cursed, depending on how one looks at it) with the ability to read Russian.