International Relations

Does Putin Have Georgia On His Mind?

Ilya Somin takes a look at the deal ending the conflict between Russia and Georgia. He finds that it isn’t as bad as it could have been:

If this agreement holds (a big if), it’s a better outcome than I would have expected. Georgia’s democratic government will remain in place, despite Russia’s previous determination to overthrow it. The Russians will not have destroyed Georgia’s oil pipeline to Europe (the most important pipeline in the region that doesn’t pass through Russian or Iranian territory). And Russia will renounce future use of force against Georgia and reduce its forces in the secessionist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia to their prewar levels. I am skeptical that the Russians will fully respect the last two commitments. Nonetheless, the outcome could have been far worse.

The problem is that Russia clearly is sending a message, not only to Georgia, but to the rest of its former satellites: we can break you. Vladimir Putin and his crony Dmitri Medvedev will use whatever they can to ensure that Russia’s hegemony over the former Soviet Union is not challenged. Ukraine, another democratic, pro-Western state, is likely to be next in Russia’s crosshairs.

Putin wants to ensure that Russia, and not those upstart republics to its southwest, gets the benefit of supplying most of Europe’s natural gas. The Georgian crisis was draped with the idea that Russia had to protect South Ossetia, but the truth of the matter is that these last few days have been about nothing but realpolitik. Putin and Medvedev are trying to get money and power—and that is all too easy when the Russian Army can act as private enforcers.

President Saakashvili made a crucial mistake in provoking the Russians over Ossetia, although it’s not clear how much the Georgians were themselves provoked by Ossetian agents working at the behest of the Kremlin. The Georgian Army can’t match the strength of the Russian Army, and the United States was not about to get themselves involved in any conflict between the two. The Georgians unleashed something they could not control, which in war can be fatal.

Some are saying that the Georgians were warned of the danger. Whenever “unnamed sources” in government speak, it’s bound to be self-serving CYA. The US intelligence community seems to have been caught off guard once again—although appearances can be deceiving. Making sure that we’re not caught flat-footed in a situation like this is critical in the age of information-centric warfare. If the intelligence community can’t seem to notice the significance of major Russian troop movements, how can they be expected to track al-Qaeda?

The final question is what lies ahead. The Russians’ hegemonic ambitions in the region are not going to go away any time soon. Georgia and Ukraine are American allies—democratic states that are worthy of our protection. At the same time, Russia can be a powerful ally or a fearsome enemy, and we are better off with them being the former. We are caught in the kind of power politics that were supposed to have been a relic of the Cold War. Our brief holiday from history is over.


Vladimir Putin, Man Of The Year

Time‘s Man of the Year for 2007 is Russian President Vladimir Putin. It isn’t a bad pick (although I would have picked Gen. David Petraeus)—Vladimir Putin’s actions are most certainly of great import in shaping our world. The problem is that they’re not shaping our world for the better. Putin has been slowly but surely turning Russia into just another banana republic petro-state, and ultimately that course is not sustainable. Ss democracy in Russia dies, the potential for another wave of destructive totalitarianism grows.

The Time article plays into the idea that Putin just happened to amble into history and become President of Russia. This seems unlikely—more likely is that Russia is still being ruled by the same forces that ruled the country during the Communist age. Putin’s status as a former KGB agent and head of the FSB (the agency that took over from the KGB after the fall of the Soviet Union) serves him well when it comes down to doing the two things he does best: keeping Russia in line and ensuring that his political opponents cause him no trouble.

Putin is certainly a man with a mission:

Putin’s mission is not to win over the West. It is to restore to Russians a sense of their nation’s greatness, something they have not known for years. This is not idle dreaming. When historians talk about Putin’s place in Russian history, they draw parallels with Stalin or the Tsars. Putin, one can’t stress enough, is not a Stalin. There are no mass purges in Russia today, no broad climate of terror. But Putin is reconstituting a strong state, and anyone who stands in his way will pay for it. “Putin has returned to the mechanism of one-man rule,” says Talbott of the Brookings Institution. “Yet it’s a new kind of state, with elements that are contemporary and elements from the past.”

And there’s plenty that could go wrong. The depth of corruption, the pockets of militant unrest, the ever present vulnerability of the economy to swings in commodity prices—all this threatens to unravel the gains that have been made. But Putin has played his own hand well. As Prime Minister, he is set to see out the rest of the drama of Russia’s re-emergence. And almost no one in Russia is in a position to stop him. If he succeeds, Russia will become a political competitor to the U.S. and to rising nations like China and India. It will be one of the great powers of the new world.

Unfortunately, it won’t stay there for long. Totalitarian regimes—and Russia is already authoritarian and sliding more and more towards totalitarianism every single day—tend not to last very long. There are no purges, no mass executions now, but Putin’s authoritarian state makes it far easier for either him or the next dictator to make it happen. Putin can steer Russia towards the right course, but it would mean more openness rather than less, and a willingness to sacrifice his rule for the benefit of Russia’s future.

Putin’s Russia is slowly sliding away from democracy and towards tyranny, and Vladimir Putin is responsible for that. He is a man whose vision of Russia as a strong state is compelling, but ultimately he is sacrificing the future of his nation for his own ends. The line between autocrat and tyrant is a thin one, and Putin is already skating the edge—and once Russia crosses that line once more, it may be even harder for it to recover than it already has been.