Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no secret by his actions that rebuilding his Empire of the East is part of his populist policy to remain in power in the Kremlin.
While the overall rebuilding of the Russian Empire in the Baltic and the Balkans remains Putin’s priority, the immediate target is the former Soviet republic of Ukraine - which significantly borders four of the current European Union member states - Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and Romania.
Even limited military action by the Russians against Ukraine could have the midnight oil burning brightly in Brussels as the EU presses the political panic button over Putin.
Tragically, one aspect of all wars and conflicts is the creation of a refugee crisis (and that even includes the Troubles in Ireland). Any action by Putin’s forces against Ukraine could trigger a four-way dash by refugees towards the supposed ‘safety’ of EU states to escape the fighting.
Ironically, Russian tanks rolling across the Ukrainian border could well buy seriously under-fire British Prime Minister the valuable time he needs to head off a coup within his own Conservative party.
Put bluntly, the economic and political controversies caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol will plummet down the EU’s ‘to do’ list if Putin decides on a military option to bring Ukraine back into the new-look ‘Russian Empire.’
Even a limited military strike by the Russians - let alone a full scale invasion - on Ukraine will unleash a major refugee crisis for the EU. Given the state of the so-called Ukrainian forces, the chances are Ukraine will not put up much of a fight against the Russians.
The EU panic buttons will be pushed as Brussels becomes concerned that Putin will build a so-called ‘Red Wall’ around the overall EU state borders.
While Boris Johnson will be worried by a rebellion among ‘Red Wall’ Tory constituencies where Conservative MPs have wafter-thin majorities over Labour, The BoJo supporters club of MPs will also use Putin’s designs on Ukraine to launch an equally full scale onslaught on the Protocol as a deflection against the highly damaging ‘Partygate.’
The so-called ‘double jobbing’ legislation - allowing Westminster MPs to seek seats in the Stormont Assembly - has been scrapped. With problems mounting for Boris inside his party, he has taken the gamble that he will secure his own job first rather than worry if the DUP will wreck the Northern Ireland power-sharing Executive at Parliament Buildings ahead of the expected May Stormont General Election.
Now is the time for BoJo to launch his attack on the Protocol using Foreign Secretary Lis Truss. A Protocol victory for BoJo will buy the PM valuable survival time. A Russian action in Ukraine will force the EU to take its eye ‘off the Protocol ball’.
Ironically, too, does Putin’s expansionist policy regarding the Baltic and the Balkans provide Unionism with an unexpected ace card should the Tories turn ‘Judas’ on Northern Ireland over the Protocol?
During my time at the Irish Daily Star in 2014, I penned a column urging Unionists to consider some form of arrangement, known then as the Celtic-Russian Alliance, with Putin. That column was kindly carried on The Pensive Quill.
During the era of the Cold War when Russia was an overtly communist nation, the Right-wing Conservative pressure group, the National Monday Club, issued a policy statement booklet warning that a united Ireland could become ‘Britain’s Cuba’.
Even if Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP boss, now that the ‘double-jobbing’ legislation has been dumped, decides to pull his ministers out of the Executive pouring cold water politically on the Assembly with a Covid pandemic still hanging over society, that’s no guarantee the DUP will win enough MLAs for it to retain the First Minister’s post.
Once again, the Tory Government has fed the DUP to the wolves. Under Theresa May as PM, the Tories ‘rewarded’ the DUP’s ‘confidence and supply arrangement’ with the disastrous Withdrawal Agreement.
Now the Boris Government has again fed the DUP to the wolves by axing the ‘double-jobbing’ legislation, which would have enabled Commons MPs from the party to use its ‘big guns’ possibly to win extra seats in the Assembly showdown.
What happens if that May election returns Sinn Fein as the largest party? What happens if the polls in the republic are correct and Sinn Fein also emerges as the largest party in Dublin’s Leinster House, and Unionism is faced with a Sinn Fein First Minister and a Sinn Fein Taoiseach?
What happens if Truss and BoJo cannot politically and economically neuter the Protocol, even if Truss triggers Article 16 on the flow of goods between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland?
What happens if Sinn Fein in the top seats on both states in Ireland leads to the much talked about border poll? Can the pro-Union community be guaranteed of winning that poll? In short, with their backs to the wall politically and staring down the barrel of Irish Unity in some form, what should Unionists do?
While there is little harm in Unionism discussing and debating its role in an imaginary united Ireland, Unionists need to box clever with the Irish Republic, Westminster and the EU. That’s a lot of political clubs to juggle, any one of which could give Unionism a nasty political migraine.
Just as Northern Ireland is facing the medical prospect of having to live with Covid for the foreseeable future, so too, the Conservative party may send a message to Unionism - you’ll just have to live with the Protocol.
Imagine how political underwear would change colour in Westminster, Dublin, and Brussels if a Unionist delegation arrived in Moscow to establish trading and educational links with Putin?
Imagine if that Unionist delegation, supping tea at the Kremlin, told Putin about Northern Ireland’s historic records in building ships and planes - and, of course, the potential for student exchange programmes between schools, colleges and universities.
The ill-fated Titanic was built in Belfast. The Sunderland flying boat, Skyvan passenger plane, and Stirling heavy bomber are all famous products of the aircraft manufacturing industry.
How many jobs could be created for Northern Ireland workers if Putin signed a deal with the Assembly to build Russian warships and planes and develop Belfast International Airport’s facilities and runways so that it could cater for Russian long-range bombers?
If Westminster slide or dumped Northern Ireland into some form of Irish Unity, how would London react at the sight of President Putin arriving in Belfast to formally launch the Harland and Wolff shipyard-built ‘Leningrad’ nuclear battleship?
The last number of paragraphs may be dismissed as Hollywood thriller-type movie scripts, but a couple of facts need to be made clear. Firstly, Putin is one global president - unlike America’s ‘Sleepy Joe’ Biden in Afghanistan - who will not run away from military action.
Secondly, if Putin does make a clear military take-over in Ukraine, alarm bells will sound loudly in the EU; Putin remains the EU’s Achilles heel.
And thirdly, and most significantly, Unionism needs to be thinking of how it protects its identity and influence in the coming decades.
Dumped by London; ruled by Dublin - would Putin bankroll an independent Unionist-run ‘Ulster’? Taken in that context, my call for the formation of an Ulster Russia Friendship Society honest sound so politically daft after all.
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.