Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP)
It’s not the ghar wapsi that some Indians love to celebrate. Archbishop Visvaldas Kulbokas, the papal envoy to Kyiv, is urging suffering Ukrainians to convert not to a religion but to a cause. "Conversion means to become a real human person, living the solidarity and fraternity among people". That includes the followers of all religions as well as the thunderingly aggressive Russians who are now devastating Ukraine.
Mikhail Gorbachev, who started it all, lamented 10 years after the Cold War that the opportunity of building a new world order had been squandered. He squarely blamed the United States. "Every US President has to have a war." The question now is: Will Joe Biden’s need to prove himself prevent Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy making peace as the Turkish and Israeli mediators grapple with Vladimir Putin’s demand for a neutral, demilitarised Ukraine that abjures Nato membership, recognises the fait accompli in Crimea, makes concessions to Russophile Donbass and agrees to "de-Nazification"?
What cannot be overlooked is that despite the nostalgia for Catherine the Great’s Greater Russia in Mr Putin’s essay "On the Historical Unity of the Russians and Ukrainians", Ukraine has always been fiercely independent. Waiting at Kiev (as it was spelt then) airport in the Soviet era, I had to suffer a lecture from a man who had stopped to admire my elastic-sided boots -- a luxury in the USSR -- because I assumed he was Russian. "Russians", he repeated, placing both palms side by side on his left, "Ukrainians", and he repeated the gesture on his right. I had forgotten my father’s friend Obaidur Rahman, whose "Russian" wife always insisted that she was something called Ukrainian which no one in Calcutta (as it was then) had heard of, and whose daughter, I learnt accidentally many years later, had married the well-known journalist Willie Lazarus.
Mr Biden’s "For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power" only confirmed that, like George W. Bush and Saddam Hussain, he seeks regime change. As for evidence of Mr Putin’s misdeeds, one recalls US secretary of state Colin Powell solemnly telling UN Security Council members of incontrovertible proof about Saddam’s nuclear bomb. The frantic denials of White House officials only mean he hopes God will be the executioner. We don’t know what God thinks of the assignment but an exhausted Almighty supposedly murmured during the Second World War: "God save England, God save the King. God this and God that, and God the other thing. ‘Oh God!’ says God, ‘my work’s all cut out!’"
It’s the Cold War all over again, the Great Game that never ceases day and night. The silver double-headed eagle stopper of a cut-glass bottle that I picked up in a European antique shop says it all. The 15th century Tsar Ivan III had adopted the design as his coat of arms. Russia’s Presidents, ardent nationalists and monopoly capitalists, made it their own in 1992. Republican qualms obliged them to first plead the emblem was unofficial; then, that the imperial crown joining the two eagles would be removed. However, it became official and the crown in all its glory is Mr Putin’s insignia. He, too, has a penchant for larger-than-life statuary and has promised Muscovites a giant figure of Volodmyr the Great, the Kyivan Rus monarch whose 988 baptism was an epochal event in Slav history.
US Presidents have nursed hopes of regime change ever since the Soviet Union’s collapse prompted Richard Nixon to crow that the time had come for America to reset its geopolitical compass because "we have a historic opportunity to change the world". The attempts to grab that opportunity by drawing Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and the European Union turned the "Breadbasket of Europe" into a haggling bazaar. When the EU dangled a $838 million loan, Russia promised Ukraine $15 billion. When the EU demanded major changes in rules and regulations, Russia offered cheaper gas.
When Nato made overtures, Russia invaded Georgia. Coups, mass demos, revolutions and leader-toppling, the Crimea’s annexation and Moscow’s recognition of breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk warned of the perils ahead. Used to Arab and Asian refugees, Europe is for the first time besieged by destitute white, Christian women and children.
God not having helped out, the US in its lofty concern for democratic government and human rights turned to the probably more powerful and certainly more amenable Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. Forgotten is the American intelligence report that he personally approved the 2018 murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Forgotten, too, is the March 12 execution of 81 people -- the largest mass execution in modern history -- provoking worldwide outrage. The revered Franklin D. Roosevelt had famously made it obligatory to treat "our son of a bitch" differently from anyone else’s.
Saudi Arabia’s oil and gas will reduce dependence on Russian fuel as another coalition of the willing challenges the evil empire, this time from a safe distance. The Crown Prince has already promised to invest even more in American arms so that the US doesn’t feel the pinch of imposing sanctions. Mr Biden restored relations with Venezuela (oil again) and upped ties with Cuba. True, Saturday’s tirade dredged up Tiananmen Square, but an awareness that sanctions against China would hurt American voters far more than the Chinese persuades him to look away while Xi Jinping plays footsie with Mr Putin. With the Crown Prince and God on his side, Mr Biden might even accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi of being more than "somewhat shaky" if he doesn’t reciprocate Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s recent overtures.
Sadly, some dyed-in-the-wool pseudo-secularists in the Madras high court may have cramped God’s style with a recent judgment cutting divinity down to size. "Courts cannot be hoodwinked by encroaching and constructing a temple in the name of God", intoned the learned judge, whose literal interpretation of the injunction to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s" ignored Winston Churchill’s warning that every law has loopholes. Any rustic mahant knows that the trick is to parcel property into little plots and register each in the name of the 33 million deities in the Hindu pantheon. "God’s in His heaven, (and) all’s right with the world!", as Browning said, when land ceilings are respected.
But even God knows that peace will remain elusive until Russian demands are conceded. Ukraine’s Russian-speaking Jewish President may not have too much difficulty agreeing to most of them. But his mentors?