The sunshine of a continental spring morning fell gently on Moscow. The night’s arrests of protesters had finished. Policemen walked about their beats, beating no one, and Muscovites of all stations and stature made their way to work. It was a happy kind of morning.
Tucked away in one of his many official chambers, Vladimir Putin, had just finished several hours of discussion with his chief diplomat, Sergei Lavrov. Putin, whose vim had a near inexhaustible quality, was approaching something like total exhaustion. A pause was in order.
Putin moved to one of the twin Faberge-inspired wingback chairs, used for guests and interogees. He situated himself comfortably, and shortly a sweet restorative slumber set in.
It could not have been too long before the softly resting head of the Russian state was awakened by something of a clatter made by the noisy breaching of his chamber. Startled at having been awoken, Putin jerked with fury.
“I thought I said . . .” Putin started, but then fell silent. He recognized the imposing figure.
“I have been expecting you, Otto,” Putin said.
“And I have been looking forward to our meeting, Vlad,” said Otto von Bismarck. “We need to talk.”
Bismarck was, per usual, overdressed. His ceremonial Pickelhaub, which crowned his cuirassier’s uniform, gave another inch and a half to his six foot four inch frame. The high boots and massive saber were an excessive flourish.
Confident as ever, Putin gestured to the open chair and said, “Please relax a little, Otto.” Bismarck clattered into place.
“You are in a devil of a spot, Vlad,” said Bismarck.
“It’s not so bad, really, Otto. No need to be dramatic. Things are a bit jammed up at the moment. But it will work itself out,” said Putin. “You had your share of sticky situations and pushed through. You know, I’ve modeled my statesmanship after your own. Rebuild a lost empire, using a little force and taking a little risk here and there. I am on the brink of success. And that’s all that matters, right? Frankly, some of the fallout has been clarifying. No offense, but your boy, Scholz, has been a disappointment.
“As an advisor, Vlad, I am going to give it to you straight. You have done a very fine job, patiently playing the game. And you have taken pages right from my book. You have built a constitution around yourself. You’ve managed to manipulate the Russian people the way I used to manipulate the Hohenzollerns, for their benefit of course. You have acquired key territories and consolidated your gains. If you had vanished from the scene at the beginning of this year you would have been regarded as one of the greatest Russian statesmen in history. Having grown your lands and restored the Russian military’s formidable reputation, built a uniquely Russian paradigm at the center of Eastern Orthodoxy as the basis of a Russian secular claim to rule, and established peace with your neighbors. (You sure beat the shit out of those Chechens; they are like trained seals now.) Things looked pretty good. There was still work left to be done for a successor, but those would have been finishing touches on your masterpiece.“
“I agree, mostly, Otto. Except for one part. It was my right to make the finishing touches. Not one of my understudies, like that robot, Medvedev, could do it. And so I am doing it. I am playing chess as though all 64 spaces were open—including nuclear war—just like you did,” said Putin, a little proud of himself but also a little agitated.
“Not just like I did, Vlad” said Bismarck, leaning forward, and grinning aggressively. “I was still playing chess. I don’t know what you are playing now. But it’s not chess. It’s more like Jenga.” Bismarck, clearly satisfied with this insulting remark, stared at Putin.
Putin stared coldly back. Bismarck realized he was overdoing it a bit.
“Look here, Vlad. Don’t be angry. Let me explain. When I put together the German empire, as a servant of my king, Wilhelm I, I had several things in mind. One, I wanted the Bavarians, who really did not want any part of Prussia, voluntarily in the German empire, but, God forbid, not running it. Two, I made sure I had my financing in place before I spent the money. Three, I avoided making permanent enemies. An empire is not a fortress or a bank, and ultimately the people inside have to want to be there.” Bismarck paused there.
“Don’t patronize me, Otto. I have already made the case that Ukraine is not a real country and that Ukrainians want to be part of my empire. I have all the oil and gas I need to pay for my foreign policy. And I can’t be responsible for how the United States behaves. It’s thoroughly rotten, and led not just by one corrupt old fart, but two,” Putin said, “or maybe three or four . . . ” his voice climbing the octaves as his anger rose.
“Doesn’t matter,” said Bismarck. “Let me explain in some detail.”
Bismarck produced a cigar from his pocket and lit it. He ignored Putin’s visible frustration with this contamination of his microclimate.
“First of all, forget about the United States,” Bismarck said, blowing an obnoxious screen of smoke between the two chairs. “You are not in the same position, and neither was I. The United States is surrounded East and West by a moat, Canada to the North and Mexico to the South. Geostrategically, everything is more difficult for you, as it was for me. The United States can afford its incompetence. As I said, God looks out for fools, drunkards, and the United States of America. You, on the other hand, have to get everything right. It’s not fair, but get over it.”
“In my time the United States was isolationist. Now it’s got its fingers in every pie. But it doesn’t change much. Your fundamental problem, as was mine, is building an empire and getting along with your immediate neighbors.”
“Let’s look at my situation with Bavaria. Do you think foreign powers were not playing around in Bavaria? What do you think the Ultramontanes were doing? The French? Come on, Vlad. The Bavarian king was a nut too. It was like your problem with Ukraine but I did not invade Bavaria, did I? “
“You invaded France,” interrupted Putin.
“Uh no, Vlad. I did not. What I did was get France to invade Germany. Let’s remember how I played chess. Isabella II abdicated from the Spanish throne. Spain went shopping for a new monarch and found a Hohenzollern without a portfolio and was considering installing him on the throne of Spain. Napoleon III freaked out about being bracketed by two Hohenzollerns, and Wilhelm I felt compelled to back his family member. We were on the brink with France, until the Hohenzollern candidate decided he’d rather tend a vineyard or something than rule Spain. Much to my disappointment the situation diffused. I was at a loss. No war with France, no German Empire. Anyhow, the French ambassador met with Wilhelm I at Bad Ems. I got my hands on the dispatch, did a little editing creating the impression that the king had insulted France, and boom, as expected, French pique compelled France to declare war on Germany. France drew first blood and invaded Germany, but thanks to Von Moltke we were pouring our armies into France within days. And they started it!”
“This stuff matters, Vlad. The Americans had Fort Sumter. You make the other guy start it. So in your Ukrainian situation, you needed to . . . ”
“Get Ukraine to attack Russia?” injected Putin.
“No, use the brains the KGB gave you! Get a NATO country to attack you, and ask Ukraine to help you! It’s not easy but you have to think a little bit. A good many Ukrainians don’t want anything to do with you. All the poisonings in the world won’t change that. They make it worse. What you needed was a common cause with Ukraine against a third party. You failed to do that legwork.”
“There wasn’t time,” protested Putin.
“How long have you been at this? Don’t answer that. Twenty years,” Bismarck rolled his eyes. “What’s done is done. Face the mistake,” Bismarck continued.
“Next thing is the financing. When I started tiny Prussia down the road to empire the first thing I did was set up my finances. I went to see Mayer Amschel Rothschild down in Frankfurt about doing Prussia’s banking. Rothschild was a practical man, and he saw the issue right away: Rothschild had too many conflicts so he sent me to Gerson Bleichrӧeder.”
“Bleichrӧeder set us up with all the bonds for the Danish war, the Austrian war, and the Franco war. The most important thing, though, was that Bleichrӧeder was Prussia’s banker. We could not be cut off from financing by a conflicted financier.”
“But you, Vlad, knew that you could be cut off. All your money guys are in Switzerland, Monaco, London, New York, Italy, Norway, you name it, and all your financial and communications infrastructure is integrated with the West. You figured the West did not have the guts to pull all the strings they had, and you did not have a plan B other than some Wahnsinn about you and China being eternal friends. I am not getting that part. Your financing had to be secure for the war you wanted to wage which, as you know, I think was against the wrong party in the first instance.”
“Okay, okay,” said Putin, looking a little shorter than usual.
“I’m not done. The last thing I always did was avoid making permanent enemies,” said Bismarck.
“Like France,” said Putin, smirking a very Russian smirk.
“Fine. You make a point. But that was Wilhelm I’s idea. I wanted to make no territorial claims in France, and leave Alsace-Lorraine alone, just like I did with Austria. When we had finished with Austria in 1866, my king, Wilhelm I, wanted to make a territorial claim as a reparation. I had to work like the devil to block that, threatening to resign. I even cried. I do that, okay. Wilhelm felt he was dishonoring himself by not taking a prize for the incredible victory I had delivered him. He did not understand the purpose of the war, which was to make sure the future German empire was Lutheran, Prussian controlled and at peace with Austria. Anyhow, I got my way there. I failed in France. And Germany paid for it later when I was gone.”
“Now look at your situation. Your financing has dried up. Two thirds of Ukraine hates your guts, and would rather align with Turkey, or anyone, over you. The West is afraid of you, and rearming. China is distancing itself from you, because you have almost no friends. Only India, which needs your arms sales, is on board. India, and a few unimportant states in Africa and Latin America. And the Norks. Nice. It’s a mess.”
“Your case for Ukrainian incorporation in a greater Russian sphere depends on actual opinion, not op-eds. That was a great article you wrote about the history of Ukraine as an artificial state but it only matters if it persuades someone who matters—and in this instance, Vlad, that’s not you. This is probably one of the biggest diplomatic blunders in history. You have to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and try to grab on to His coattails as He marches past. You are playing dress-up and trying to catch your own coattails. You should cashier that idiot, Lavrov,” said Bismarck, grimacing. “He got you into this trouble with his ineffective diplomacy!”
With that Putin jumped to his feet. Bismarck leapt from his chair and put a hand on his saber. “Get out!” screamed Putin.
“You are just like that little brat with the withered arm! Dismiss me if you want. You’ll still be a little fool” boomed Bismarck.
“Get out, I say! Get out!” howled Putin.
Suddenly there was a crashing sound as Putin’s security burst into the room.
“Get him out,” shouted Putin, bursting a blood vessel in his eye as he bellowed and waved his arms in the air.
But there was no one there. Just the smell of an old cigar.
The security detail made a special note.