Russia’s Willingness to Act

When I see Bob Gates struggling to formulate a response to Russia’sinvasion of Georgia, it makes me feel better about not having any easyanswers myself. A lot of people have been trying to come up withexplanations for why Russia is the big loser of the conflict, and whythe invasion was a strategic blunder. To me, Gates’ statementsundermine that argument, and reveal the hollowness of Condoleezza Rice’s more confrontational remarks.

What strikes me as obvious is that, despite our overwhelmingsuperiority in terms of the balance of force and power, the rolesbetween the U.S. and Russia have been reversed. From the end of theCold War through the start of the Iraq War, we acted and Russiareacted. The Georgian invasion signals Russia’s willingness to act, andour inability to react effectively. As such, it shows the degree towhich we were caught offguard, and the degree to which our power didnot translate into deterrence.

That’s a major problem for which we’d better formulate a coherentpolicy to deal with in the future, because it’s almost certain toreappear. That’s why Gates talks about showing resolve without drawingred lines. The Russians are smart enough not to confront us head on,but they will kick some dirt on any red lines we offer them, sort oflike a hybrid game of poker that combines penny ante with high stakes.And with the kind of pervasive uncertainty infecting the NATO alliance,it’s hard to see how we win that game.

Finally, a quick word on the argument making the rounds that the marketis “punishing” Russia for the invasion. This grows out of the vision ofglobalization that sees market liberalization as an instrument ofpolitical liberalization. To put it simply, this is a fundamentalmisconception. Markets do not punish political acts or anti-liberalvalues. They don’t, for that matter, even punish risk. They punishuncertainty and unpredictability. So long as risk can be calculatedinto the return, markets simply seek profit.

Russia, through its actions, created a climate of uncertainty andunpredictably, one that inevitably frightened global capital. Thatmoney will return as soon as the balance of power has stabilized in itsnew point of equilibrium, or the risk has become more predictable, forthe simple reason that there are still enormous profits to be made. Wecould conceivably try to maintain the period of instability as a way ofmanipulating the markets and using capital flight as a way to isolateMoscow. But given our difficulty in finding a response to the lastcrisis, that seems like a pretty risky bluff.

More World Politics Review