A Gift for Putin

Jeez. I figured that the opening of the Olympic Games meant I could sneak in a week of intermittent posting, and instead war breaks out in Europe. Obviously, with resident Russia specialist Richard Weitz around, I assumed WPR readers would be well informed, and I wasn’t wrong. Setting aside the actual issues at dispute in the Russian-Georgian conflict, when I saw the first reports of the fighting, I couldn’t help but think that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashivili had done the Russians an enormous favor in provoking an armed conflict, and this paragraph from Richard’s piece explains why:

By punishing Georgia militarily, Moscow presumably also [sought] to make clear to Tbilisi and its allies the extent of Russia’s military revival. Although Russian defense spending has increased in recent years, analysts remained uncertain about the extent to which the Russian military had experienced genuine improvements in its operational capability given its poor performance in Chechnya, morale problems, and lack of actual combat experience. Russian leaders have now demonstrated that Moscow has both the capacity and the will to use the country’s armed forces to advance Russia’s security goals.

As Richard goes on to point out, “. . .no NATO government is prepared to engage in a war with Russia on Tbilisi’s behalf.” That point was already driven home by last April’s NATO Summit, but apparently no one in Tbilisi got the message. So the Georgian military intervention, which depended on NATO and European military solidarity in the event of a Russian riposte, amounted to Saakashivili’s mouth writing checks that his ass couldn’t cash. Moscow, which by all indications was paying attention to the Bucharest NATO summit, jumped on the opportunity to demonstrate that it’s willing to push things to the brink.

It’s a pretty safe brink as precipices go from Moscow’s point of view, but it serves to illustrate the alarming shortsightedness of using NATO to lock Russia in to its humiliating 1990’s impotence. The Russians have been signalling very strongly, and for a while now, that the 90’s are over and that they expect to be taken seriously again. For the most part, that’s been most pronounced in their historic sphere of influence, although they’ve demonstrated the willingness to play a spoiler role elsewhere (ie. Iran) as a way of leveraging American interests against their own. References to a new Cold War, though, are misguided in that Moscow is not proposing an alternate global order in opposition to the West, but rather to assume what it considers its rightful place in the existing order.

While it’s true that Russia’s historic sphere of influence has in the meantime turned its hopes westward, the hard facts on the ground come down to interests and power. Russia has demonstrated it’s willingness and ability to back up the former with the latter in Georgia. I’m sure that we’d do the same if it were a question of Russian strategic bombers based in Cuba. But the events of the past week have demonstrated just how far away Tbilisi is compared to Havana, and that’s something that should be considered in formulating a post-Ossetian Russia policy.