Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

11 August 2008

Putin’s Dangerous Game

While we were preparing to watch the Olympics, hoping to escape the cares of the world and our own interminable election campaign, Russia invaded Georgia. By doing so, it put the final nail in the coffin of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” fantasy.

Our president didn’t even come back from the Olympics. He stayed to watch the U.S.-China basketball game, in which our NBA all-stars beat China in a rout. No doubt Dubya was hungry to see a win, after presiding over seven years of the most appalling losses in U.S. history.

Very little is clear about Russia’s invasion. Russia’s aims and motivation are especially murky. Putin and Medvedyev claim that the immediate trigger was the murder of Russian peacekeeping troops in South Ossetia, an ethnically distinct and separatist part of Georgia that is friendly with Russia and apparently would like to be part of it.

A handful of Russian peacekeepers did die. But it’s impossible to tell who killed them and why. This is a part of the world where perpetrators of anything can’t be accurately identified without credible, neutral eyewitnesses, preferably several. Apparently there were no eye-witnesses. And even if there were, they couldn’t have observed motives or seen through clever disguises or corrupt official lies.

Therefore no one knows who killed the Russian peacekeepers. It could have been the Georgian military, as Russia claims. It could have been Georgian extremists, operating with or without the Georgian military’s acquiescence. It could have been South Ossetian provocateurs, hoping to trigger just such a forceful Russian response. It could have been Chechens—or even Al Qaeda—hoping to open a “second front” in their respective long wars against Russia. (Chechnya shares a border with Georgia.)

At this point, no one knows, but few care. Russia used the incident as a pretext to invade Georgia, in massive force. It applied the full power its ground troops, tank brigades, and air force. It quickly routed Georgian forces in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia, another Russian-leaning breakaway region on Georgia’s Black Sea coast.

Russia now occupies both separatist regions with little resistance. Far more troubling, it has bombed Georgian facilities in Georgia proper, including some near its capital, Tbilisi. There have been reports that Russian tanks are moving toward Gori, a key transit town in central Georgia well outside the separatist zones.

What are Russia’s motives? There are number of possible motives, two good and the rest bad. The good ones are to protect ethnically Russian and Russian-leaning people in the two separatists regions and to put a lid on the constant, low-level violence that has simmered there since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russia’s possible bad motives are many. First, it may want to teach Georgia a “lesson” for asserting its independence and courting the EU, the United States and NATO. Second, it has no use for Georgia’s President Saakashvili; it apparently wants to force “regime change,” removing him and his pro-independence, pro-democratic party from power in Georgia. Third, Russia may want to bring Georgia back within its own sphere of influence, whether Georgians want to go there or not. (Georgia was part of the Soviet Union and the birthplace of Stalin.) Finally, Russia may seek to prevent Georgia from opening up alternative pipelines for Russian and Central-Asian oil to the West, thereby depriving Russia of absolute control over these commodities.

There are other possible motives—all longer-term ones. Georgia borders Chechnya, the biggest current thorn in the Russian Bear’s side. Russia may suspect Chechen rebels of smuggling militants and arms through Georgia and may want direct control over the border or Georgian territory to stop the flow.

In addition, Georgia’s southern border is about 170 kilometers (as the crow flies) from the northern tip of Iran. Road and rail lines from Gori, through Tbilisi, connect with Iran through Armenia and Azerbaijan, two tiny former Soviet vassal states. Russia may want a direct, overland trade route to Iran (for nuclear materials or oil, among other things?), that doesn’t pass through Turkey or other pesky, Western-oriented nations. It also may want a clear overland line of attack in case its current policy of coddling Iran proves mistaken and Iran turns on it. Less likely, but conceivably, Russia may believe that the West is planning a military invasion of Iran and may want a piece of the action so it can get a share of the spoils.

Any or all of these motives may have figured in Russia’s decision to invade Georgia. We have no idea of the prominence or priority of each, or of what other motives there might have been. Domestic Russian politics also may have played a part, as Russian leaders sought to distract public attention from growing global economic problems by restoring Russia’s “greatness.”

While have little reliable knowledge of Russia’s real motivation, we do know something about its capabilities. Not surprisingly, it crushed the Georgian military in days. Taunting the Russian Bear is not a good idea even if you are the sole remaining superpower. It’s even less of a good idea if you represent a poor, relatively defenseless country with fewer than 5 million people.

It may be, as the Russians imply and many think, that Saakashvili failed the test of political realism and vastly overplayed his poor hand. It may be that Putin was looking for any pretext to do what he did. It may be that a third party caused the precipitating event, for reasons of its own. It will be decades, if ever, before we in the West know.

In the meantime, what matters is the consequences of the Russian invasion. No one in the U.S. wants to go to war with Russia, or even to rekindle the Cold War. But that’s where events are headed if Russian troops don’t stop at the boundaries of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia has a diplomatic fig leaf—the ethnic minorities issue—for maintaining de facto control over those regions. (We can safely leave the issue of formal or legal control to diplomats and lawyers.) If Russia does no more, Saakashvili, who foolishly promised to return both breakaway regions to Georgian control at any cost, is likely to lose the next free election in Georgia, thereby realizing Russia’s goal of “regime change” by peaceful means.

That’s as far as it should go. Both Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev should see that it goes no farther. If they try to annex parts of Georgia proper—let alone take over the whole country by military force—the U.S. will have no alternative but to rekindle the Cold War. It will have to see that Georgian rebels get plenty of supplies and arms and do their best to turn occupied Georgia into a replay of Afghanistan or Chechnya. No one wants to see that outcome, least of all the Georgian people.

We should never forget that Vladimir Putin is an exceedingly smart man. It is no accident that he began this invasion at just the time when the United States is exhausted and preoccupied with: (1) China’s big “coming out” party and the interminable political controversies surrounding it, (2) how to end our blunder in Iraq, (3) the war in Afghanistan, which is deteriorating and uncertain of outcome, (4) the lamest-duck presidency in our nation’s history, and (5) one of our most important presidential elections ever. He’s banking on all these distractions keeping us from mounting an effective response.

But as smart as he is Putin forgot one thing: American politics. By invading Georgia right now, he gave John McCain an issue tailor made to help him win the coming presidential election.

If the American people feel threatened by Russia—their enemy (in its Soviet guise) for the entire forty-year-long Cold War—they will likely turn to a war hero and inveterate Russia-hater, who has made no secret of his disdain for Putin and his policies. The result will be a resurgence of mindless nationalism in both countries and very likely a return of the Cold War. As an ex-KGB man, Vladimir Putin probably understands this point better than anyone else in Russia.

Putin is smart enough to profess no interest in or influence over the American presidential election. But he’s also smart enough to know that what he does, especially when it involves troops, tanks and aircraft, has more influence over our internal politics than almost anything else that occurs outside our borders.

If he’s really smart enough to see six moves ahead, he should content himself with current gains and halt his troops at the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Otherwise, history will return with a vengeance and a replay of the last century.

Afghanistan hasn’t exactly been a success story, whether for the Russians or for us. Georgia could turn into the same kind of morass if occupied by a foreign power that the locals hate. That’s the dangerous game that Putin is playing. Since we have few options for immediate response, all we can do now is see how well or how poorly he plays his hand.


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