NEW YORK – The custom-built Oculus headset delivered to my door by a hooded monk seemed to malfunction. The palace on the Place de Vosges appeared once again in the Metaverse but in black and white rather than bright cartoon colors, with less furniture and fewer objects d’art, with drab walls unadorned by the paintings I had admired at our last meeting.
A bit uncertain on my feet I wandered about the virtual-reality residence until I nearly stumbled on, or rather walked through, the translucent ghost of Cardinal Richelieu, the evil genius of 17th century France and master strategist of the Thirty Years’ War.
“Please accept my pardon for my reduced circumstances,” the Cardinal said after we exchanged the usual pleasantries. The budget has been under strain since Meta’s stock price collapsed.
That didn’t bother me; in truth, I preferred the damp ossuary of the Carthusian monks, numberless levels below the sewers of Paris, where I had first materialized the Cardinal’s spirit with the help of a magnum of Chateau Petrus and a spittoon. Virtual reality gave me headaches.
“Your time as always is gratefully appreciated, Eminence,” I offered. “And since your time is constrained,” I added quickly, “please tell me what will happen in Ukraine, and then what will happen elsewhere in consequence.”
Said the Cardinal:
That is an utterly moronic question, for everything of importance that might happen to that miserable country has already happened. Did I not tell you at our last meeting that Putin’s object was not to do this or that with Ukraine, or to rule Ukraine or to compel Ukraine to adopt one policy or the other, but to be done with Ukraine once and for all – to ruin it utterly, depopulate it and eliminate the possibility that Ukraine might become a venue for Western weapons pointed at Russia?
One hears from self-deluding Western pundits that Putin wants to be a new czar presiding over a new Russian empire, and that his attack on Ukraine was motivated by national pride and territorial ambition. If that were true, mon ami, he would not scorch the earth and drive out the people! The damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure alone exceeds $1 trillion, in a country whose national output did not reach $160 billion a year before the war started! Simply repairing the country would require six times the country’s national product, which of course is impossible.
Even if the money could be found, who would make the repairs? Before the war Ukraine had 45 million people on paper but only 33 million actually in the country, because half the adult population had left to work elsewhere. At least 14 million of those have been driven from their homes, and most of them will not return. After all, the Poles, Hungarians and Germans are short of people and will gladly accept immigrants from Ukraine rather than from the Middle East or Africa.
“But what of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men who returned to the country to fight the Russians?” I objected.
“They will find out that it is unpleasant to fight the Russians, as their grandfathers did during the Second World War. A few tens of thousands of them will be killed, and others will rot for some time in Russian prison camps as the Russians encircle and annihilate the main body of the Ukrainian army in the Donbass. Then they will join their families in Poland or Germany.”
“But surely the Americans won’t stand for this!,” I protested.
“About the Americans do not worry so much. They are becoming accustomed to humiliation. Does no one remember their unseemly departure from Afghanistan last year? They thought they were clever in cultivating Ukraine as a de facto member of NATO, perhaps with anti-missile systems that could be converted into short-range missiles with nuclear warheads if the need were to arise.
Putin believed that he had an agreement with the Europeans under Minsk II to keep Ukraine neutral and to guarantee autonomy to Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine in the East, and he believed – with some justification – that Washington sabotaged this agreement. So he attacked.”
Richelieu’s biretta began to flicker and for a moment I thought I saw a straw boater instead. It occurred to me that he was about to break into “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.”
“But Eminence,” I protested, “surely the Americans must have known that the Russian army might destroy Ukraine!”
The Cardinal sneered, his Metaverse mustache twitching violently, as he replied:
The Americans! They are as stupid as the Spanish whom I ruined during the Thirty Years’ War! Actually, Mazarin ruined them, but I had it sewn up well in advance.
The Americans thought Putin’s economy would collapse! It did not. They thought the Russian people would revolt! They did not. They thought their expensive toys, Javelins and Switchblades and Stingers, would stop the Russian army. They did not. They simply killed a lot of Russians. But as Hitler’s best general von Manstein said of the Russians, just when you think you’ve killed them all, another bunch of them comes over the hill.
The Americans understand nothing about the Russians. The Russias gripe, they get drunk and they follow orders. They do not need America’s high-tech toys. They simply send drones to scout the location of the enemy, feed in the coordinates and fire vast numbers of artillery shells and rockets. They are unimaginative, stolid and unrelenting. If you want to know about the Russians, I will introduce you to von Manstein, Charles XII and Napoleon. But the ghost whom you really should conjure is Bismarck. He said: ‘Kämpfe nicht mit Russen. Auf jede List reagieren sie mit einer unvoraussehbarer Dummheit.”
“Don’t fight with Russians,” I translated. “To every stratagem of war they react with some unforeseeable brutishness.”
“Bingueaux!” said the Cardinal.
“What will happen if the Russians succeed?” I demanded.
He was prepared for that question and answered immediately:
Every country in the world will call to mind Kissinger’s bon mot that it is dangerous to be an enemy of the United States – but to be its friend is fatal. America is generous with other people’s blood: Hungarians in 1956, Czechs in 1968, the Kurds in Syria and today the Ukrainians. American pundits say that from Ukraine, Taiwan should draw the lesson that it must prepare to defend itself now, like a porcupine. But it is quite a different lesson that the Taiwanese have learned – namely that it doesn’t pay to fight as an American proxy.
The Germans will have the choice of rearming, and in particular restoring conscription, or accommodating Putin. Which do you think they will do? The Hungarians will congratulate themselves for refusing to join the sanctions against Moscow. The French will remember that Marine Le Pen came within a cannon-shot of beating Macron in the last elections by proposing to remove France from NATO command, and Macron will carefully distance himself from Washington. The Poles will make a terrible noise, but to no avail; the difference between the Hungarians and the Poles is that the Hungarians do not make the mistake of thinking that they matter. And India will continue to buy Russian oil and sell consumer goods to the Russian market.
“And China, Eminence? What will China do?” I asked.
“China will eat melons, to use their idiom; they will stand on the sidelines, watch and do nothing at all except enjoy the misery of the United States. They will show the instruments of torture to Taiwan in the expectation that their actual application will not be necessary. They will build more hypersonic weapons and other nasty devices that make the American navy rather unwelcome in their part of the world. And they will quietly tell countries of interest to them that the United States failed once again in Ukraine as it failed in Afghanistan, and that China will have to be reckoned with as a new pole of global power.
“But surely,” I protested, “there is something that Washington can do to avoid sliding down this slippery slope!”
Richelieu’s face settled into a ghastly smirk. “Of course, there is something Washington can do! If I commanded a country with the power of the United States, rather than a mere France, I would …”
Sparks sprang from my Oculus headset, and I tried to remove it, but it seemed glued to my face. The Cardinal’s avatar began to disintegrate into random pixels and the three dimensions of the palace on the Place des Vosges collapsed into a flat plane. Nothing was visible of Richelieu except his mustache, which vibrated like the wings of a dragonfly, sending out a horrendous racket that drowned out his voice.
I awoke next to an empty bottle of Russian Standard vodka and a half-eaten blini wrapped in the editorial section of the Wall Street Journal.