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Judo Diplomacy

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The fact that Putin is adept at judo is well known and admired. I got a taste of this admiration a few years ago when I stopped into a Moscow photo shop across from INION to get picture for my library card. Hanging on the wall were two pictures of Putin. One looking all stately and serious; the other in full judo garb with arms steady for a throw.

Little did I know that Putin and a few of his fellow judo enthusiasts penned a manual of their best throws, tumbles, and dodges called Judo: History, Theory, Practice. That is until I happened upon Daniel Soar’s “Short Cuts” in new issue of the London Review of Books. Soar wonders whether Putin’s judo mastery influenced his recent diplomatic jousting with President Bush. The careful observer can see that it indeed does.

As Soar explains:

The excellent thing about judo – in theory – is that you don’t have to be stronger than your opponent to beat him. The idea is that you use the momentum of his attack to keep him moving in the same direction, and then, with a little twist, you send him flying onto the mat. The bigger they are the harder they fall. This should be useful to Putin, since Russia is so heavily outgunned and outspent by the US military machine that it can’t win the arms race the old-fashioned way. Putin provides a striking metaphor to demonstrate the judo master’s technique. He calls it ‘give way in order to conquer’. Imagine you are a locked door. Your opponent wants to break you open with his shoulder. If he is ‘big and strong enough and rams through the door (that is, you) from a running start, he will achieve his aim’. But here’s the neat bit. If instead of ‘digging in your heels and resisting your opponent’s onslaught’, you unlock it at the last minute, then, ‘not meeting any resistance and unable to stop, your opponent bursts through the wide-open door, losing balance and falling.’ If you’re even more cunning, you can stop being a door and stick out a leg, causing him to trip as he sails through. ‘Minimum effort, maximum effect’, as Russia’s effortlessly effective president says.

The evident ingenuity of this technique made me wonder why Putin didn’t deploy it in the run-up to the G8 dojo. It was puzzling. On his way to Germany, Bush went on the offensive. He visited Poland and the Czech Republic to publicise his plan to install ‘exoatmospheric kill vehicles’ – little missiles designed to hit bigger missiles – on sites close to the Russian border. Putin’s counter-attack was very bold. He said that if America was going to play silly buggers with its Raytheon EKVs, then he would point his biggest ICBMs at Western European cities. ‘A new Cold War!’ the papers screamed. The leaders of the free world were righteously outraged, whereas Putin had merely closed the door. Any moment now he would flip the latch and stick out a leg.

But the analogy was troubling. When would the door open, and where was his leg? At first I wondered whether Putin was readying himself for the long game, hunkering down, raising the stakes to force the US to spend more and more money on more and more weapons until it bankrupted itself and went pop. Except, of course, that this would be playing into Bush’s hands, since American military spending is what the US economy depends on. The need for more weaponry would mean an even mightier America. So Putin wasn’t so clever after all: he’d forgotten all his old teaching and had taken up gunslinging in a fight he could only lose. Or so I thought.

On 7 June the full genius of Putin’s strategy was revealed. Earlier, Bush had said: ‘Vladimir – I call him Vladimir – you should not fear the missile defence system . . . Why don’t you co-operate with us on the missile defence?’ Ingeniously, Putin now called his bluff, and unbolted the new Iron Curtain. He quietly suggested that the US base its missile interception system on a Russian military installation in Azerbaijan, an unanswerable solution if – as the Americans claim – the EKVs really are intended to counter an Iranian nuclear threat. Bush’s people, wrong-footed, could only say that his proposal was ‘interesting’ and that the presidents would discuss it further in Kennebunkport, Maine at the beginning of July. But this is likely to be the end of the missile defence plan for Poland and the Czech Republic. Ippon!

Ippon indeed.