Vladimir Putin and the Boy Who Cried Wolf
Headlines this week said a buildup of Russian forces near its border could mean Russia is about to invade Ukraine … and the world yawned.
After all, in recent months we’ve worried about such reports several times only to see Moscow conduct drills and then pull troops back without sending very many of them across the border.
If little or nothing came from those previous buildups, why should anything be different this time around?
Maybe nothing will be different. But maybe this pattern means Vladimir Putin has been contemplating the time-honored fable of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”
In that ancient tale, a shepherd boy repeatedly tricks his neighbors into thinking a wolf is attacking his flock. When a wolf actually does appear, the neighbors are so accustomed to the boy’s false alarms that they ignore his cries. Then, without any interference from the neighbors, the wolf eats the sheep.
People grow desensitized to threats. We are quick to label others as naysayers and alarmists if their warnings fail to rapidly materialize. Putin knows about this aspect of human nature.
With Russia’s buildup this time around, there is one factor that has some analysts watching more closely: “[M]any of the vehicles have number plates and identifying marks removed while many of the servicemen had taken insignia off their fatigues.” That was according to Reuters reporter Maria Tsvetkova, who saw and photographed the deployments on May 27.
This follows a pattern established last year in Crimea when Russia sent unmarked forces in to fight alongside pro-Russia Ukrainians. With insignia removed, Moscow was able to deny involvement and say all the forces were Ukrainian separatists fighting against the pro-Western government in order to bring Crimea under Russian control.
This tactic has proven very effective for Moscow in the past.
Writing for Vox, Max Fisher said he believes the removal of military insignia this time around could well mean that invasion looms. “It’s difficult to imagine another reason” for it, he wrote. Yet, Fisher says, “it is also possible” that the Russian buildup and drills “are not preparation for an invasion, but rather an act meant to intimidate and bully Ukraine.”
Kiev-based political activist Taras Revunets leans toward the view that the act is designed only to frighten Ukraine. He told the Trumpet on May 28 that Putin uses constant border troop movements as a “scare/diversion tactic.”
Whether the present buildup of suspiciously unmarked troops and tanks is a precursor to invasion or just an act of psychological warfare, it will serve Russia’s goal of keeping Ukraine unstable and on edge.
Maybe the troops will quietly disassemble, and inflict no harm on anyone. If that is the case, it will further condition onlookers to yawn when they see Russian troops—marked or not—massing near another nation’s border: There’s no real wolf there; there never is.