on the silk road

Our view on the Georgia-Russia conflict: Guns of August reveal Putin’s larger ambition
August 13, 2008, 1:06 am
Filed under: Uncategorized


Ex-president flexes military muscle in bid to restore Soviet influence.

If there were any lingering doubt about who is leading Russia — and crafting its foreign policy — that has been dispelled in recent days. It’s Vladimir Putin. Putin is no longer president (he’s now prime minister, supposedly concentrating on domestic issues). But he is clearly directing Russia’s escalating war with tiny neighbor Georgia.

That’s unsettling, because Putin’s aim has long been to restore as much of the territory and influence of the former Soviet Union as possible. He has a habit of using deceptive maneuvers from the playbook of the old KGB, the former Soviet intelligence services that trained him.

And so it is with this war, which took an ominous turn Monday with Russian forces attacking deeper into Georgia and President Bush rightly denouncing the “dramatic and brutal escalation.” The tenor of this crisis, and the back and forth between Russia and the United States, has the unmistakable feel of the Cold War. Indeed, for those who recall the arms race, the bellicose rhetoric and the distrust that blanketed both countries for decades, the echoes are clear.

That being that case, the U.S. response is critical. The U.S. has limited military and diplomatic options to help its embattled ally, but failure in Georgia will only embolden a Russia that has now shown the world a new willingness to flex its military muscles. The immediate need is to find a way for all sides to calm down and seek a negotiated path back from the brink. International mediators in Moscow are trying to do just that.

The larger problem is that this conflict is about far more than South Ossetia, the breakaway enclave in Georgia that Russia says it is defending from Georgian troops by sending in its own forces. Russians for centuries have fretted about securing what they call their “near abroad,” or countries on their perimeter. In the couple of decades since the Soviet Union broke up, they have seen much of that “near abroad” fall into the Western camp. Ukraine had a democratic “orange revolution” and Georgia a “rose revolution” led by pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili.

Russia now wants to grab as much as possible back into its sphere of influence. It also wants to prevent the U.S. from using Georgia as a corridor to transport Caspian oil and gas without going through Iran or Russia.

Putin likely wants to topple the provocative Saakashvili and install a more compliant government in Tbilisi. Unfortunately, U.S. and Western powers have limited leverage. European nations depend on Russian energy supplies. Russia is flush with oil and gas money, so international creditors can’t put it in a financial squeeze. The West needs Russian help reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions; Russia has a veto on the United Nations Security Council. Even if the U.S. or NATO wanted to send troops to aid Georgia, they are stretched in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, of course, the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq in 2003 makes it harder for the U.S. to claim moral high ground now.

International pressure and outrage without an “or else” are not the strongest gambits, but they need to be played hard in an effort to defuse the immediate crisis. Even that, however, won’t remove the broader challenge of a Putin still in charge and dedicated to a Soviet revival.


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