Making predictions is a mug’s game, so don’t worry – mine will be 100% wrong (again!)

IN his palatial City office in London’s Canary Wharf, my friend – chief economist of a major, global financial institution – sits behind a desk so gargantuan it could the solve the issue of Heathrow’s third runway.

Chewing the fat with him one day at the height of the 2008 banking meltdown, I asked this master of the universe when he thought the crisis would end.

Instead of answering, he just shrugged, then nodded towards an ornate plinth in the corner of his mini fiefdom, on which was mounted a soccer-sized crystal ball.

‘Take a dekko inside that,’ said my friend eventually. ‘You’ve a better chance of finding the answer in there than from me.’

I left, shaking my head and musing on the folly of making predictions.

This thought was rekindled last week, when I read an apologia from a financial whizkid, who wrote, ‘No-one expected this sudden, sharp drop in crude oil prices.’

His buzzword was ‘sudden’. Because, if the anointed experts had seen it coming, there would have been no shock.

STARDOM BECKONS: Cyberhackers will forced movie moguls to move to North Korea, so Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un will be an Oscar winner

STARDOM BECKONS: Cyberhackers will force movie moguls to move to North Korea, so Young Leader, Kim Jong Un, will be an Oscar winner for his role as Wonder Woman

In fact, looking back, the only person in my experience to make an accurate prediction was Madam Petrulengo, the palmist on Blackpool promenade, who forecast I’d get a ticket on my car parked outside on a double yellow line. She was right; I did.

So, generally, it’s been my firm prediction that the likely outcome to making predictions is the predictions will be totally wrong. And, so far, my record has been 100% accurate.

Nonetheless, since it’s that time of year, worst luck, when my arm is twisted into risking a spot of soothsaying, here goes…and heaven help us if I’m right.

Firstly, the nightmarish potboiler that’s a story of purblind Eurozone politicians will rumble on, with no consensus to ease the plight of the EU’s jobless, homeless and hopeless. Shovels will be issued to Euro commissioners, so they can did themselves into bigger holes.

Beyond-the-barmy, Right-wing parties – like France’s National Front, Hungary’s Jobbick and Greece’s Golden Dawn – will democratically vote to end democracy, while Brussels Europrats will take 2015 off and nobody will notice any difference.

Vladimir Putin will order Russians to bathe in oil, because – at $60 a barrel and sliding – it’ll be cheaper than water. The population of Moscow, barring oligarchs who can afford to import Evian by the tankerload, will assume a brackish, oleaginous glow, so they’ll be light-reflective. This will reduce the number of pedestrians struck down by drunk drivers at night, thus hailed as a health and safety success by the Kremlin.

END OF THE ROAD: With petrol-powered vehicles banned, rickshaws will be London's most popular form of transport

END OF THE ROAD: With petrol-powered vehicles facing a ban, rickshaw pullers will rush to become London’s most ‘eco’ form of transport

Americans will finally realise President Obama is actually a hologram, since he’s been as effective as one for the last half-dozen years. During 2015, he’ll gradually evaporate like the Cheshire Cat in Alice In Wonderland, with only a grin left behind.

Hillary Clinton will declare her intention to run as Democratic Party candidate for the White House and she’ll face Jeb Bush, brother of G Dubya and son of HW, who’ll fly the flag of the Republican cause.

US geneticists will then discover only members of presidential dynasties possess that unique strand of DNA – the two-faced, lie-through-the-teeth, back-stab helix – to be leaders, so there’ll be a nationwide hunt for descendants of Richard Nixon to stand in future hustings.

North Korean cyber-hackers will blackmail Hollywood’s movie moguls into relocating their studios to Pyongyang and the dashingly handsome Young Leader, Kim Jong Un, will be the next James Bond, Batman and Wonder Woman, a role for which he’ll award himself an Oscar.

A bloke called Nigel will decide who wins next May’s UK General Election.

No, not that Nigel – the UKIP Farage one – but Nigel Dodds, whom nobody outside Northern Ireland (and few inside it for that matter) has ever heard of.

But with an expected mish-mash outcome to the result, with neither of the major parties winning a majority, the minor cast members will be crucial players in deciding who rules. In short, reprising 2010, the tail will wag the dog.

Which is where Doddsy comes in. Tipped to replace Peter Robinson as leader of Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – the bunch invented by the late Reverend Ian Paisley, who brought the fire and brimstone of religion to bear on politics – Nige could even emerge as Deputy Prime Minister, depending on which way he throws the dice of his eight MPs.

After much cogitation, as a huge fan of Wallace & Gromit, he will come out in favour of Ed Miliband for Prime Minister, since the Labour leader is a doppelganger for Wallace and Wensleydale is also the DUP’s favourite cheese.

NOBEL LAUREATE & CIGAR MAGNET: Pope Francis will scoop the Peace Prize and the Vatican worldwide rights to selling Havana cigars

NOBEL LAUREATE & CIGAR MAGNET: Pope Francis will scoop the Peace Prize and the Vatican worldwide rights to selling Havana cigars

The Tories will sack David Cameron, merge with UKIP to become the Conservative, Unionist and UK Independence Party and elect London Mayor, Boris Johnson, as leader, who’ll make Nigel – the Farage one – Shadow Foreign Secretary.

Nick Clegg will quit as head honcho of the Liberal Democrats; their core voters will switch to the Greens, who’ll demand a ban on all forms of petrol-powered transport, resulting in an influx of Hong Kong rickshaw pullers, in anticipation they will eventually replace London’s Routemaster buses.

In the Middle East, the Saudis will wreck the Iranian economy by driving down the price of oil to a bucket of camel dung a barrel and do a back-channel deal with Israel to buy the Matzoball Bomb – a doomsday weapon with a difference, since all infected by its fallout turn Jewish.

It will first be tested on the headbanging jihadi rabble of IS/ISIL/ISIS, thorns by any other name in the side of humanity, who will – en masse – discard their AK47s to become rabbinical students.

Pope Francis will be awarded the Nobel Peace prize for his role in patching up the 45-year US-Cuba tiff; the Vatican will be given the worldwide concession to peddle Havana cigars.

Finally, the space probe, Cassini, will discover huge gold and diamond deposits on Saturn; FIFA will announce the 2026 World Cup will be held there.

So those are my forecasts for next year. But they’ll be wrong all counts, because, from long experience, I learnt there’s  no future in making predictions.

The ‘peacenik’ President heeds a call to arms – but is it too little, too late?

THERE must be an awful lot of soap being used up in the White House and Whitehall, as ministers and their minions try to wash their hands of Iraq.

And I bet the label on each bar is stamped, ‘For ditherers only.’ If not, they should be.

Because the great brains of Western diplomacy haven’t a clue whether to stick, twist or chuck in their hand and allow violence to take its unnatural course in sorting out the latest Middle East imbroglio.

Various military acronyms rooted in WW2 slang – like FUBAR and SNAFU, whose meanings I won’t spell out for fear of upsetting those of a sensitive disposition – spring to mind as pertinent descriptions for the plight of those whose indecision may, or may not, be final.

And at the very top of the pile of confused, anguished hand-wringers is an American leader, whose default setting is to gaze at his navel, as if answers to the world’s ills miraculously lie within the lint of his belly button.

In 2008 Barack Obama was elected President on an anti-war ticket, redolent with slogans ranging from ‘Hope’ to ‘Yes We Can’ (whatever that meant). The following year he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, based not on deeds, but the same windy promises that shoehorned him into office. Even the man himself was flabbergasted.

Over six years later his main achievements of note have been extricating his gung-ho predecessor, George W. Bush’s ‘Coalition of the Willing’ from Iraq and downsizing troops in Afghanistan, with the aim of every Crusader GI quitting by New Year.

But, given the daily evidence of mounting carnage afflicting both rudderless states, there’s little to embellish Obama’s legacy, except for taking Hillary Clinton’s advice on obliterating Osama bin Laden.

RUTHLESS & MURDEROUS: The Sunni fanatics of ISIS have ignited  the power-keg of Iraq

RUTHLESS & MURDEROUS: The Sunni fanatics of ISIS march on, having ignited the power-keg of Iraq

Meanwhile, even starry-eyed optimists recognise it’s only a matter of time before the untamed Taliban return to Kabul and fill the void created by the exit of NATO troops.

An even more alarming spectre haunts Western policy-makers over the future of Iraq, where a sectarian strife has erupted in all but civil war, as murderous Sunni fanatics of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS, mop up the oil-rich hinterland and threaten Shia-dominated Baghdad.

It’s futile to rake over old coals, as former British leader Tony Blair recently did in justifying the 2003 invasion/liberation of Iraq, because history is already writ large, though it was always received wisdom the country would be a powder-keg for decades.

That it has exploded so ghoulishly is largely due to the ineptitude and arrogance of Nouri al-Maliki, the Shia Prime Minister, who ethnically cleansed Iraq’s government, army and civil service of virtually any Sunni and Kurdish influence.

Even if the nation’s religious demographics gave Shias a 65% majority, the vision for a democratic, post-conflict Iraq was intended to be an inclusive one, with a modicum of power-sharing.

Now, stability exists only in far-north, autonomous Kurdistan, while the rest of the country seems damned to imitate next-door Syria and descend into a sectarian bloodbath.

That the blinkered Maliki was stupid and overcome by megalomania is beyond doubt, despite having a democratic mandate.

But, as his paymaster and sponsor, Obama – for all his aversion to confrontation – should have had the wit to nip the shameless power-grab in the bud and read the riot act to the idiot of Baghdad much earlier.

Hence, now we see a battle-fatigued America being re-drawn into the conflict, after the President announced on Thursday 300 special operatives would go to Iraq and ‘provide technical support’ to help overcome ISIS, after Maliki pleaded for US intervention.

Talk about déjà vu all over again!

FAR APART: Obama is angry Prime Minister Maliki (right) has turned Iraq into a Shia-governed state

CLOSE TOGETHER, FAR APART: Obama is angry Prime Minister Maliki (right) has turned Iraq into a Shia-governed state

Meanwhile, how much difference 300 specialists can make – and whether they are too little, too late – is debatable, as is Obama’s vague threat of force, ‘if intelligence recommended it’.

But, at least, he took a sideswipe at the Iraqi leader, underlining the error of his ways.

Nevertheless, it bode ill for the 44th President, who’s hardly put a foot right dealing with crises on foreign fields since his election.

He and his diplomatic corps at the State Department – situated in aptly-named Foggy Bottom – utterly misread the runes of the Arab Spring, ignominiously backtracked over the ‘red lines’ warning to Syria’s butcher, Assad, tried and failed to arm-twist allies Israel into a one-sided peace deal with the deceitful Palestinians and contracted the ousting of Libya’s lunatic, Gaddafi, to France and the UK.

To add to his litany of follies, Obama has practically given Iran a free pass on its nuclear ambitions and allowed Vladimir Putin to run rings round him over Ukraine.

Rarely – if ever – has a US commander-in-chief commanded so little respect on the world stage, now a far more parlous place for his ineptitude and dithering.

The very real and present danger is that matters threaten to grow rapidly worse, because not only does ISIS make Al-Qaeda appear pussycats, their manifesto is to export terror worldwide, once they’ve established a Sharia caliphate across a swathe of Syria and Iraq.

The irony of all ironies is only one nation has sufficient military and diplomatic muscle to halt their charge and lift the West off the peg it’s impaled upon: Iran.

Through its religious ties, only it has the ears of Maliki and Assad, whose Alawite sect is a Shia offshoot.

However unedifying, the notion of Tehran’s terror-mongers and ‘The Great Satan’ of the USA finding common cause is increasing from possibility to probability, as back-channel chatter between the two is said to be buzzing.

The threat is not lost on Iran’s arch foe, Saudi Arabia, whose ambassador to Britain, Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf al-Saud, warned last week, ‘There must be no meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs, not by us or by the US, the UK or any other government.’

If a US-Iran alliance does come to pass, though, any slender hope of Obama leaving a legacy of a peace-maker president will be forever tarnished.

No wonder they’re busy passing the soap in the White House and Whitehall.

Paranoid Putin wants a Ukraine poodle – and the Kremlin bullyboy won’t stop there

FRENCH cynics have a phrase for progress. ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’, they sneer, which roughly translates into, ‘The more it changes, the more the same old claptrap.’

So, for those who imagined the collapse of Soviet repression was an overture to genuine democracy in Russia, the straightjacket and funny farm awaits.

Granted, there was a brief flush of hope in the early 1990s, when, for all his boozy buffoonery, Boris Yeltsin wrested power from the fading, old Red Guard and promised liberal reforms.

Fast forward to New Year’s Eve, 1999, when a 47-year-old ex-KGB officer and political rookie called Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin suddenly emerged as Russia’s new boss and the truth dawned on realists that progress, Kremlin-style, was a transient mirage…the leopard merely reshuffling its spots.

In the decade-and-a-half since, even the last pipe-dreamer can no longer doubt Putin’s take on democracy is whatever he says it is and Siberia welcomes dissenters.

Because, after centuries of unrelenting brainwashing, like Pavlov’s dogs, Russia’s masses are conditioned to respecting a strongman, who fans their raging national pride, not to say endemic paranoia.

Western statesmen appear to have overlooked this glaring trait. Or, in the case of that most malleable of US President, Barack Obama, they’ve lulled themselves into the misguided belief Russians are just as much residents of the global village as everyone else, therefore abide by the same norms.

They don’t. And the code Putin applies – recently slammed as ‘19th Century rules’ by American Secretary of State, John Kerry – is little changed from the policies of Ivan the Terrible, Lenin and Stalin.

In a nutshell Moscow believes might is right and actions speak louder than words.

WINK LINK: Kremlin-watchers believe Putin had a cunning plan to draw the West into the Ukraine rumpus

WATCH MY WINK: Kremlin-watchers believe Putin had a cunning plan to draw the West into the Ukraine rumpus

So, following his diplomatic coups in mesmerising Obama into imagining Iran’s devious mullahs were peace-seeking pussycats and Syrian butcher, Bashar Assad, was really a much- maligned nice guy, poker-faced Putin has scooped the ultimate jackpot over Ukraine.

Of course, it could have been mere coincidence weeks ago that goons, in green uniforms minus military flashes and brandishing hardware far more lethal than anything the local militia toted, suddenly turned up, en masse, and land-grabbed the Crimean peninsula.

And, just perhaps, the insurrection by Ukraine’s 17% ethnic Russians in the east was simply a spontaneous poke in the eye to the interim Kiev regime that had booted out pro-Moscow brigand, Viktor Yanukovych.

But when Putin branded the upstarts a ‘fascist junta’ eager to cosy up to the European Union, the mantra fell on willing ears, since it rang with poignant echoes of WW2, when too many western Ukrainians queued up to join Hitler’s SS.

Which is why the West-backed presidential election in a week’s time will be a waste of polling paper. However transparent, Russia has already trashed the outcome by blessing last Sunday’s ‘plebiscite’ in Donetsk, where a massive 89% voted to split from Kiev and demand self-rule.

And if that result doesn’t deter Western adventurism into what Russia sees as its backyard, Putin’s banker bet is that NATO won’t mix it – just as it failed to do in Georgia in 2008 – if he orders phalanxes of T-95 tanks and Spetsnaz Special Forces to pour over the border and annex eastern Ukraine, as a postscript to Crimea.

Meantime, if this is the prelude to a new, Cold War world order, the big money’s on Putin saying, ‘Bring it on – see if I care.’

So no amount of Obama sanctions against his henchmen – which, tepid as they are, have rattled EU states reliant on Russia energy – will deter the expansionist, Russian bullyboy.

Notably, last week Germany signalled its mounting fears by warning its nationals in eastern Ukraine to beat a hasty retreat, foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, warning that the country is only a ‘few steps’ away from ‘military confrontation’.

The chief twerps in creating this stand-off are the EU. As America’s diplomatic eminence gris, Henry Kissinger wrote – during what I guess was an severe attack of verbal diarrhoea – ‘The European Union must recognise that its bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination of the strategic element to domestic politics in negotiating Ukraine’s relationship to Europe contributed to turning negotiation into a crisis.’

That might sound utter gobbledygook, but the master tactician of realpolitik is stating the blindingly obvious: the EU was too slow, too stupid and too arrogant in imagining it could prise free a cornerstone of Putin’s defensive rampart.

And the procession of Western big wigs, who rushed to Kiev to congratulate the rebels for bravely ousting Yanukovych – including Britain’s silly Billy Hague – made a colossal misjudgement in thinking they could de-claw the Russian bear.

Putin was not only expecting EU meddling, Kremlin-watchers reckon he long ago hatched a cunning plan to spark, then check it, by skyrocketing the price of Russian gas to Ukraine in anticipation of the West charging in like Custer’s Seventh Cavalry (and no reminders about what happened to them!).

EURO FOOLS: Elder statesman, Henry Kissinger, believes the EU is to blame for trying to woo the new Kiev regime

EURO FOOLS: Elder statesman, Henry Kissinger, believes the EU is to blame for trying to woo the new Kiev regime

Now, no amount of diplomatic embroidery will patch up the beleaguered country, even if some dodgy fudge is fashioned, whereby the eastern provinces are granted autonomy – under Moscow’s protective wing, naturally.

All this runs counter to the 1994 deal hammered out in Budapest, whereby Russia, the EU and US guaranteed to respect Ukraine’s borders.

However, since this was five years before his Kremlin putsch, Putin isn’t inclined to honour it; besides, Vlad The Invader has invented the perfect excuse for intervention: defending ethnic Russian minorities.

That same logic applies to Estonia and Latvia, where some 25% of their populations are descended from detested Russian incomers, transplanted during the communist era to slap down local aggro.

Unlike Ukraine, though, both states are NATO members, which is why the West is growing increasingly edgy over the future of its Baltic flank.

Though in no mood for military confrontation, Obama and friends must know if they don’t face down Russian thuggery there, they might as well shut up for good.

Because, while the Kremlin’s bully has changed faces from Soviet times, he still spouts the same old claptrap.

‘Plus ça change, etc…’ as the French say.

 

 

Q: So, where’s NATO when you actually need it? A: Not At The Office (note new name)

WAY back in the 1960s, there was a telly ad running on TV, guaranteeing that should any disaster befall your life, home, health, jewels or car, fear not…restitution was at hand.

‘Get the full strength of the insurance companies around you,’ was hardly a snappy slogan. However, even if it didn’t exactly catch the mood – like: ‘Don’t forget the fruit gums, Mum’ or ‘Go to work on an egg’ – it was an implied reminder of the perils that can afflict the uncovered (and I’m not referring to nudists).

In the then icy bite of the Cold War, insurance on an international scale was needed to safeguard the West’s wellbeing against the threat of Soviet expansion, so the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (a.k.a. NATO) was born.

The Russians countered with the Warsaw Pact and, for over three decades, a military stalemate existed, predicated on the tacit understanding that mutual nuclear annihilation was assured if ever World War III was sparked.

Though the Pact is dead, following the implosion of Soviet communism, NATO still exists, with some ex-Pact members even joining the now 28-nation alliance.

You’d imagine, then, that the small print in our insurance policy with the world’s premier military muscle would be vigilantly scrutinised right now, after Vladimir Putin’s Spetsnaz stormtroops invaded Ukraine and land-grabbed Crimea.

It isn’t. And the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, whereby the West and Russia agreed to protect Ukraine’s territorial integrity, isn’t worth the paper it’s scrawled on.

And, as regards the numerous NATO projects designed to forge closer ties with Kiev, aimed at beefing up Ukraine’s military capabilities in the event of attack, they don’t apparently to matter an iota, either.

NO FROM NATO: Designed to protect the West, the 28-member organisation has no contingency plan for Ukraine

NO FROM NATO: Designed to protect the West, the 28-member organisation has no contingency plan for Ukraine

This was made abundantly clear by US Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, who dismissed suggestions the alliance should do something – anything, even a slight rattle of its sabre – in response to Putin’s outrageous and unprovoked act of belligerence.

Nope, blithely stated the five-star general, his tailored ‘blues’ so overladen with ribbon it’s a wonder he can stand up straight. NATO has no contingency plan to deal with Russian thuggery. And even if there was one gathering dust somewhere in the organisation’s opulent Brussels HQ, it wouldn’t be adopted. Full point, as the Yanks would say.

It’s not unreasonable, then, to ask: what exactly does NATO stand for today…Not At The Office, perhaps? Because it sure seems to have passed the buck, as the Yanks would also say.

No-one is proposing the West and the rest actual go to war over Ukraine. But some true grit show of defiance – a tad more potent than the tut-tutting response that’s been the order of the day so far from the European Union – might just send a signal to Vlad The Invader enough is enough.

Small wonder former communist bloc countries, like Poland and the Baltic states which joined NATO for the protection it promised, are aghast at how supine the West’s military tiger is.

All this procrastination and lack of resolve must be music to Putin’s ears and grist to his mill of reconstituting the old Russian empire.

And, if anyone believes his incursion into Ukraine and annexing of Crimea are Vlad’s last territorial calculation, then welcome to Cloud Cuckoo Land and have a nice day.

FORWARD HO: Russian troops advance into Crimea, before the Ukraine province in annexed by Vladimir Putin

FORWARD HO: Russian troops advance into Crimea, before the Ukraine province in annexed by Vladimir Putin

Hence, his forces continue their intimidating war games along Ukraine’s border, while casting covetous glances at Moldova’s quirky, Russian-speaking enclave of Trans-Dniester, notorious for its chicken-smuggling industry (no, I kid you not; that’s its chief source of revenue).

But wait a mo’, you say. We are taking stern steps to punish Russia and curb any notions Putin has of further aggression.

And they’ve started…by freezing the assets of a half-dozen Kremlin apparatchiks you’ve never heard of, while expat oligarchs – like Roman Abramovitch – might be forced to hand back their Tesco loyalty cards.

We’ve even expelled Putin from the exclusive G8 club, which is as stinging a sanction as being blackballed by the Grand Order of Freemasons.

The only problem is the wannabe tsar isn’t quaking in his Timberland boots and billions of roubles mysteriously fled Moscow – to destinations unknown, but probably London – days before the infamous Crimea referendum saw the accommodating citizenry vote, almost unanimously, to re-join Mother Russia.

But diplomacy not NATO will rein in rapacious Putin, insists Barack Obama.

For once, however, in a passionate speech to the now G7 in Brussels last week, he sounded robustly presidential, shelving the ‘peacenik’ image embedded in his core, like Blackpool or Coney Island runs through a stick of rock candy.

After lambasting Russia, tellingly Obama tongue-lashed the EU’s timid stance against Putin and rapped Europe’s lamentable attitude to defence – particularly that of Germany – demanding a review of military spending ‘to examine whether everybody is chipping in.’

Whether or not NATO does what it says on the tin, the US now picks up 73 percent of its tab, so it’s not unreasonable for the President to ask (Angela Merkel in particular), ‘Show me the money.’

Obama even displayed some business acumen, suggesting a solution to economically moribund Europe’s reliance on Russian energy…by selling it America’s surplus of gas and petroleum it’s eked out from fracking.

Obliging, he’s even willing to lay on a fleet of colossal tankers to transport the fuel, rather like the WW2 Atlantic convoys.

After all, what are friends for, maybe the President added.

For his part, poker-faced Putin isn’t blinking an eyelid, but spending $400-billion on refurbishing his rust-bucket navy and quarter-mastering his armed forces with the latest lethal gizmos, which begs the question: Why?

He must be betting, too, he’ll continue running rings round Obama in diverse arenas of conflict like the Middle East, where he’s just signed a contract with Egypt to supply $2-billion of ordnance, after the US refused – on ethical grounds – to replenish the country’s military stock.

As for NATO, in Russia’s evaluation, it’s a paper tiger or whatever is the equivalent of a busted flush in the Cyrillic alphabet.

 

 

‘Mini’ Crimea War result prediction: Vlad The Invader 1, Wobbling West 0

THE question facing Ukraine’s Crimean citizens in today’s referendum ought to ask, ‘Do you prefer to be part of Russia again – or be mashed into a gooey blinis topping by a bunch of uniformed goons, who’ve apparently arrived from nowhere to offer fraternal greetings?’

Because, however quasi-democratic – and America dubbing it ‘illegal’ – the plebiscite’s outcome is a given: the Crimea, once Stalin’s holiday playground, will revert to its previous status of a Russian entity, this time as part of Vladimir Putin’s new, expansive, nationalist empire.

It will also signal the culmination of one of the slickest coups d’état, a ‘mini’ Crimean War  that’s a throwback to Soviet power plays, with all the familiar Kremlin agitprop used to justify crushing upstarts (think Hungary, in 1956, and Czechoslovakia a dozen years later).

Also, it’s an ominous reminder of Hitler’s 1938 annexation of the Sudetenland, carried out in the name of ethnic Germans living in the Czech province.

Back then Britain and France gave the Nazis a free pass, but the warning signs were glaring. Thus emboldened, Germany invaded Poland – again on the specious pretext of defending nationals there – and the Second World War was up and running.

Like Hitler, Putin claims he’s intervening in Ukraine to protect ethnic Russians and spare the country from ‘fascist, racist revolutionaries’, who overthrew their democratic leader.

CALLING THE TUNE: Putin shows off his piano-playing prowess and makes sure all sing from his hymn sheet

CALLING THE TUNE: Putin shows off his piano-playing prowess and makes sure all sing from his hymn sheet

For the record, that was Viktor Yanukovych, a thieving bruiser with a penchant for sharp suits and tyranny, who hot-footed it to safety under Putin’s protective wing when the people tired of his lies.

As an aside, totally disregard any scurrilous rumours the mysterious horde of heavily-armed men – in uniforms minus regimental flashes – who turned up weeks ago to corral Ukrainian forces into their barracks, are Russian.

They are merely local patriots, insist Kremlin mouthpieces, outfitted by a nearby army surplus store I wish I had shares in, who only sought to restore law and order. That they can’t speak a syllable of Ukrainian is a by-the-by.

So, game, set and match to V.V. Putin.

The only issue to be resolved is: what will be the grand bully of diplomatic chess’s next gambit?

Will he ‘liberate’ the rest of eastern Ukraine, with its Russian-speaking majority, who magically appear as a rent-a-mob to decry the ‘neo-Nazi’ usurpers in Kiev?

Or could other soft-touch nations bordering the Black Sea, like Moldova, be on Vlad The Invader’s wish list, because surely it’s a matter of time before he flexes his muscles again?

And who’s going to stymie the ex-KGB thug’s pursuit to rebuild the Russian Empire?

Enter the brave, bold West, with a procession of foreign ministers trekking to Kiev to allay fears that ‘free’ Ukraine has been abandoned.

Perish the thought, intimated Britain’s William Hague, as his boss, Squire Cameron, fulminated about ‘the most serious crisis in Europe this century’ and ‘unacceptable’ Russian expansionism.

Tough, if empty talk, because the reality was laid bare when a Downing Street policy document was inadvertently revealed, stating, ‘We should not support, for now, trade sanctions or close London’s financial centre to Russians.’

Heartening news, then, for estate agents in Mayfair and South Kensington, if not gladder tidings for Putin: British bluster is a sham.

Conversely, if briefly, it seemed President Obama – or The Great Ditherer as he’s now known – nearly discovered he had a backbone, after announcing, ‘Putin must know that there is a price to pay for his actions.’

HOT LINE: But Obama inaction is interpreted by the Russians as weakness, says a NATO source

HOT LINE: But Obama’s dithering is interpreted by the Russians as weakness, says a NATO source

Inexorably, he reverted to type and sabre-rattled with a penknife, merely despatching a squadron of Phantom jets to Poland and a couple to safeguard the Baltic republics…feeble gestures, indeed, and unlikely to wipe the smirk off Putin’s face.

But hark! More sanctions are being threatened, like Russia being kicked out of the G8, visas revoked, asset freezes on Kremlin apparatchiks and – who knows – oligarchs banned from Harrods’ food hall.

For its part, the punchless, witless European Union vacillates from the sidelines, despite Ukraine proverbially being in its backyard (as was Kosovo, remember – and look what a mess they made there).

Unsurprising, I suppose, since so many EU nations – notably Germany – rely on Russian gas, EU leaders just gassed on, condemning Putin’s moral, political and legal bankruptcy, but paying only lip service to diplomatic retaliation.

And, as regards Obama, the nationalist tsar sussed out long ago he was no Cold War warrior in the Reagan mould; that this occupant of the White House was a navel-gazing poseur, more social-worker than commander-in-chief, whose foreign policy – if, indeed, he has one – is anchored in the biblical credo that the meek shall inherit the earth.

For all Putin’s paranoia over perceived Western encroachment eastwards into Russia’s sphere of influence, like his inglorious Soviet predecessors, he recognises wobbling when he sees it.

As a NATO official noted last week, ‘The Kremlin respects strength and despises indecisiveness – they see comprise as weakness.’

So, for all his macho posturing, Obama has reverted to a default setting that’s hands-off and isolationist – or, in Russia’s eyes, jelly-kneed and wimpy.

Putin probably first recognised it when the President shelved plans to base missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2009, then scotched talk of Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO.

The next signals were Obama backing the losing, Islamo-fanatic side in Egypt’s ’s Arab Spring counter revolt and a retreat on Libya, when he subcontracted the destruction of Gaddafi’s maniacal regime to the RAF and French air force.

Then came the vacuous ‘red lines’ warning to Assad over chemical weapons in Syria, which vaporised into nothing and left Putin – of all people – orchestrating US foreign policy towards the Butcher of Damascus (NB: so far it’s going nowhere).

Worse still, security analysts agree almost universally that America’s deal with Iran over checking its nuclear weapons development was a diplomatic farce, with only one winner – the mad mullahs of Tehran.

Little wonder last week The New York Post heaped further scorn on the gullible President, dubbing him ‘Jimmy Obama’ in an unsubtle reference to James Earl Carter, probably the most inept US leader in living memory.

So apologies to the valiant Ukrainians. None of what I’ve said is any consolation, but be assured that with friends like us in the West, you don’t need enemies.