In the summer of 1787, determined to show foreign ambassadors the might of Russian power in the newly-subjugated Ukraine and Crimea, Catherine the Great organised a boat trip down the Dnieper past modern-day Kiev.
Her trusted field marshal, and her lover at the time, Prince Gregory Potemkin, organised a series of mobile villages to appear as soon as the imperial barge, stuffed with innocent and gullible foreign dignitaries, came into view.
When the riverbank came within earshot, the villagers would break into a spontaneous, sycophantic chorus of praise for the Empress, giving the perplexed foreigners the impression that not only had Russia pacified Ukraine, it had also managed to win over the local peasantry, which was no mean feat in the 18th century.
As soon as the imperial barge turned the corner, the villagers would dismantle their villages and rebuild them overnight further downstream, with a view to performing the same malarkey the following day.
This continued each day for over two weeks. The overwhelmed foreign dignitaries then reported back to Berlin, Paris and London on the marvel of the Russian conquest and pacification of Ukraine. Thus was born the “Potemkin village” approach to economic and political progress.
This was all part of the Great Game.
Over the years, the Russians have perfected this approach of half-truths, misinformation, disingenuous analysis and obfuscation. Russian and Soviet governments perfected the art of identifying culprits on whom to pin the blame for their own failings: Jews, Poles, profiteers, priests, intellectuals, kulaks, enemies of the revolution, and so on. Typically, if there is a problem, a few culprits are rounded on and grandiose decrees are announced to fight the evil, whether it is economic, social or political.
Along with the entirely invented triumphs of the five-year plans, the Soviets deployed the Potemkin tactic to pretend that they were more powerful than they actually were.
The West believed the Potemkin villages, and maybe this is why no one foresaw the overnight implosion of the Soviet Union, despite the billions spent on so-called “intelligence”.
No one predicted Russia’s move on Crimea, nor did they see Russia’s move in the Middle East, where it is now supplying arms to Egypt despite the fact that the US is Egypt’s biggest aid donor.
The reason why no one saw this coming is because Russia has camouflaged its recent massive investment in its military complex, and the West’s intelligence didn’t seem to notice.
Then it kicked the bear with its ill-advised support of Ukraine’s nationalists, and suddenly it was dealing with a strong Russia; stronger than anyone thought.
It is clear that Europe is in a bind because counter-sanctions (the Russian reaction to Western sanctions) are giving corporate Germany the jitters. After all, there are 3,000 German companies heavily invested in Russia. They stand to be isolated if this crisis between Russia and the West continues.
We are seeing these concerns in the worrying collapse in German business confidence since the beginning of hostilities in Ukraine.
Until then, German business confidence was roaring ahead. But now it is heading downward. And when Germany wobbles, so too does the rest of Europe.
The German industrial supply chain is the European industrial machine. Nothing else matters, and now we are seeing German industry pulling in its horns, cancelling orders and holding off on plans until the dust settles. But will it settle?
There is a massive power play going on. In the next 50 years, two major factors will become even more evident than they are now, and this will drive geopolitics in Europe and the regions.
The first is that a non-nuclear Germany is a massive factory at the end of the Russian gas pipeline. If it stays non-nuclear, it is entirely dependent on Russia. To avoid this it may try to get into bed further with Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states or Iran.
But, as Iran is Russia’s mate in the Middle East, it is hardly likely that the Iranians will do deals that will adversely affect Russia. As for the other four entities, who’s to say whether they will even exist as countries in a few years? Qatar is on a collision course with Saudi Arabia over Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia itself, as the sugar daddy to both Isis and its older brother al-Qaeda, is hardly the safest regime in the world. It may still end up eaten by its own young.
So Germany has to do a deal with Russia. In fact, the most logical long-term alliance in Europe is the mutually beneficial alliance of resource-hungry Germany with resource-rich Russia.
This is terrifying to Washington, because it elbows the US out of central and eastern Europe.
Therefore, the US is trying to drive a wedge between Germany and Russia via continued hassle in eastern Ukraine, where America has no vested interest at all and can’t win.
The only country to gain out of all this is Poland. In a sense, the Polish tail is wagging the European dog. Have you noticed how many leaks concerning Ukraine seem to come from “sources” in the Polish foreign ministry?
This is all part of the Atlantic alliance – mainly the US and Britain – to thwart the emergence of a power nexus in eastern and central Europe. Henry Kissinger would be proud of these diplomatic games in Europe.
A second factor driving geopolitics now is the fact that the US will soon be self-sufficient in energy, particularly gas. The shale revolution in the US is real. The only problem is that it can’t get the gas to Europe.
As the US becomes less energy-dependent, it will become less concerned, both in Europe and in the Gulf.
The energy dynamic will drive Germany closer to Russia, as the US becomes less worried about energy and a newly-federal Britain loses its admittedly small influence on the world stage. After all, if a constituent member of your own country wants out, you can hardly lecture the rest on nation building!
The Great Game is still on.