13 August 2008

Lessons from South Ossetia

Ceasefire or not, the Georgian/Russian conflict has already taught us some important (and unfortunate) things.

Vladimir Putin is the New Tyrant on the Block.

Call him Tsar Putin I or Vlad the Invader (or NTOTB), but Putin is now certainly the biggest baddest dude on the foreign policy block. This is yet another blow to Russia's democratic reformers, including former chess champion Garry Kasparov, who might have held out hopes that a change in Russia's Presidency would allow for an opportunity for reform. Instead, it is now blatantly clear that Putin is Prime Minister in name and President in function. (Russian "President" Dmitry Medvedev was on a boat cruise down the Volga while the invasion occurred; Putin was at the Olympic Opening Ceremonies, with all the other heads of state.)

The historical role of Russia as an authoritarian state with expansionist tendencies is back, and more dangerous than ever.

Historians will surely point to South Ossetia as the Sudetenland of the early 21st Century, with Putin now using the same "reunification" and "protection" as cover for blatant and open aggression, just as Hitler did in 1938. Combine that with Tsar Putin's assertion that the Soviet demise was the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century", and you have a recipe for disaster - a Russian nationalist dictator with Hitler's tendencies (including a top notch internal propaganda machine) and a lust for Stalin's brutality. Oh - and nukes. Let's not forget those.

The Cold War just reheated up, and America's prestige and international reputation is at stake, as is the promise of continued post-Soviet Eastern European democracy.

Only now, a new set of strategies will need to be employed. The old Cold War doctrine of containment may not be possible in the same ways as it was used in the last century. Georgia was applying for NATO membership, and was the third largest contributor of troops to the Iraq coalition. Yet it only had 30,000 troops at its disposal - absolutely no match for the Russians. If the Russians remain obstinate, and if, as now appears probable, Ukraine is next in line for Russian aggression, multiple democracies could get gobbled up into the new Russian empire without the West doing anything substantive to stop it. Would the US act militarily to protect one of Russia's neighbors? Doubtful - direct military conflict with the Russians is far too likely to go nuclear. Knowing this, Putin is free to act with impugnity, knowing that the old rules of Mutual Assured Destruction prevent us from stopping him. This is a tremendous challenge for NATO in a post-Soviet Cold War, now that most of Eastern Europe has gone the pro-US democracy route.

So, the leaders of the World (especially those of the free world) are going to have to figure out how best to punish Putin in a way that makes him think twice about future murderous land grabs. Ironically, any steps taken to destabilize Russia's economy would play directly into Putin's domestic political needs, making isolation very difficult. Also - we may be at a point where we need Russian oil more than Russia needs whatever the West is selling.

This will be the single greatest challenge the next President faces. Combine that with an ongoing civizational conflict with fundamentalist Islam, and the foreign policy outlook becomes rather grim. We are in for a long rough century, (or at least the next couple of decades) and it is going to take bold leadership and monumental strength of will for America to succeed.

As a postscript, I hold out zero hope that Barack Obama has either that will or that leadership.


Slava said...

Why do people assume that Russia has no national interests and that everything it does is driven by its "imperialist" aspirations. Come one, give me a break and open your eyes.

Anonymous said...

Really Slava, and just who was the aggressor here? Looting in streets and snipers shooting women journalists isn't a characteristic of some kind of imperialist control freak? I guess the utter stupidity of NOT realizing this as aggressive imperialism boggles the mind. Yes, very "interesting".