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Sol Sanders Archive
Monday, August 25, 2008

Russia's agression and a world of unforeseen consequences

A fortnight can be a century in international geopolitics – but only after the fact.

The effects of the Russian aggression – and that was what it was, apologists of all stripe notwithstanding – in the Caucuses will have profound effects to Russia’s east. But they may be slower in becoming apparent than in Moscow’s relations with the U.S. and the Europeans in the West.

It is very unclear at this writing what are – or even if he knows – Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s intentions. It seems unlikely that the myriad conflicting statements by Russian spokesmen all are “disnformatsi”. So one has to be persuaded that strategy and policy-making in the Kremlin is formulated in the haphazard way it has been since the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1990.

Putin’s seemingly personalized decision-making builds on the old Russian tradition of “if the Tsar only knew” reflected in the churlish way in which statements and policies are spit out.

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It is clear, however, that the attack on Georgia was anticipated in Moscow. And in so far as the Russian military in the Caucuses is capable of it, given its long record of disaster in Chechnya, carefully planned for weeks if not months. [see Russia’s Preventitive War Planning]

But does Putin really intend to begin a series of such adventures in the half dozen or so territorial disputes Russia has with its former satellites and subjugated territories around its borders? Is there a long-term Russian strategy of “Finlandization”? [as it used to be called] of Russia’s former satellites? That would be using a combination of Soviet-style military aggression, subversion, and “active measures” to intimidate bordering states into accepting Soviet suzerainty.

It is clear that U.S. policy has sustained at least a temporary strategic defeat. But for a minimum, with the outgoing Bush Adminsitration and probably with either of the incoming presidential candidates, the U.S. has little alternative than to try to restore Georgia’s budding economic development. Destroying that along with “the energy corridor” through Georgia to the Mediterranean and world markets for Central Asian hydrocarbons which the U.S. was successful building has been a major target of the Russian Occupation.

Whatever Moscow’s intentions – and if the U.S. and its faint-hearted European allies cannot euchre the Russians out of the two separatist enclaves, and perhaps even “peacekeeping” activities inside the rest of Georgia – that would be a strategic minimum. Putin’s aim – and various Russian spokesmen have said it – is for “regime change” in the Georgian capital with the toppling of President Mikheil Saakashvili. If Moscow is able to accomplish that, Putin would have won an overwhelming strategic victory. It would send an important signal to all the former Central and East European states and the Central Asian republics Moscow once dominated that crippled as it is, the Russian Empire was on the march again.

On a still broader plane it’s extremely unlikely that a clearcut realignment of nation states – in other words, a new Cold War – is developing. There will be no gaggle of Third World wannabees trailing behind Moscow as they did during much of the late unpleasantness between the U.S. and NATO on the one side and Russia on the other from 1948 to 1990.

Globalization and the continued paramountcy of the U.S. as the only superpower, however much Russian President Vladimir Putin may have temporarily outmaneuvered Washington, dictate that.

The Soviet Union’s old friends, if they are still around, know full well Putin has not rebuilt the Russian military back to its glory days. Taking on a minor little country of five million struggling to modernize was hardly a Napoleonic feat, especially since preparation obviously took weeks if not months.

There are other issues, too, not known in the Cold War days.

The autarky of the Communist years is no more [as it is, of course, even more so in its erstwhile Cold War ally, China]. Ironically, that makes Russia more susceptible to economic pressures, even if a reluctant Berlin and the Europeans fear sanctions might be cutting off their noses to spite their face.

For example, Russia is breathing heavily now as it has had a run on finances. Moscow has had to throw tens of billions of its reserves into the currency black hole. There has been a flight of capital to more secure havens in Europe and the U.S. That is because unlike the Soviet Union of old, its very strength in hydrocarbon exports – as well as its weakness in a heavy dependence on imported capital tied to technology – makes it a different animal. And though the Russians have the third largest hoard of foreign reserves in the world, a few billions spent here, and a few billions spent there, and you are dealing with real money.

Depending almost totally on its oil and gas exports at a time of a faltering world economy and lowering energy demand could well puncture the oil price bubble for Moscow. Russian oil production – which has been falling – is not competitive with Mideast costs in a weakening market and its gas production has seen insufficient reinvestment in exploration, exploitation and in its decrepit pipelines. That means European exports could come a cropper if there is a very cold European winter.

All this is something that must be keeping Putin’s more learned money managers awake nights. They had just stopped worrying about the falling value of the dollar, about half their reserves, as it turned around against the other half in Euros and gold they had swung into two years ago.

Those who know Russia best, former members of the Soviet empire, have been restrained in their comments on the situation – even Moscow’s look alike tyranny in Belorus. Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan, expressed sympathy for the victims but stopped short of endorsing Moscow's view that pro-Russian separatist territories should never return to Georgian control. [Half his population are ethnic Slavs and Russia has claims there too.] Armenia, Russia's most slavish ally in the Caucasus, has said little publicly – not mysteriously since Yerevan’s impoverished trade travels through Georgian ports now bombed and blocked by the Russians.

However, a read of an only slightly disguised racist screed by Singapore’s self-appointed leading intellectual, Kishore Mahbubani [ The west is strategically wrong on Georgia] is a reminder. Mahbubani, whose most recent thrust into the limelight was as a defender of his master, Lee Kwan Yew’s rationale for autocracy, ‘Asian values”, takes the jackal’s view that the Georgians brought it all on themselves, aided and abetted, of course, by the Americans. He forgets that it is U.S. power which assures his little city-state, living off the ill-begotten gains of corruption among its neighbors, that its very existence, too, depends on the U.S. Navy shield. The long history of hypocritical fellow-traveling with Communist power in the Soviet Union will always find an echo among such spokesmen.

The truth is that much of Asia is as much more preoccupied with domestic crises as the U.S. is at this moment with its annual four-ring circus of presidential campaigns.

China is concluding an expensive Olympics. It remains to be seen whether the enormous political commitment Beijing made for the games was worth the risks. The Games have not demonstrated to the rest of the world an unvarnished image of “a rising China” ready to become a member of the great powers. The atmospherics – from environmental pollution to niggardly cheating around the edges – have soured the product. Security concerns limited the actual access for Chinese as well as foreigners. And not all the carefully contrived digital makeovers would have obscured it. Beijing policymakers, after all the medals are polished and hung away for 2012 in London, will have to return to a series of growing economic and political problems. Moscow’s [at least temporary] dynamiting of the energy corridor Washington was trying to construct through Georgia to world markets for Central Asian hydrocarbons has raised China’s costs just as the world economy has turned down with an almost immediate effect on its export-driven economy. Moscow’s purposeful aggravation of the energy price bubble finds China as a growing importer at the wrong end of the transaction – and the continuing argument about pricing Siberian fuel from Moscow to China is likely to get even more bitter.

India’s domestic scene is increasingly dominated by the coming elections. The Communist parties and other assorted fellow-travelers [only in India could there still be large and influential Communist parties!] have withdrawn their backing for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s coalition over the issue of the U.S. nuclear agreement. And that agreement is meeting opposition in the U.S. and from of the other “nuclear club” states, with China still not heard from. The Indian left will now try to prove that their instinctive [can it be called that?] anti-Americanism was correct going into elections next year. For after all, hasn’t their old sponsor, the Russians, just given the U.S.. a black eye in the Caucuses? In a sop to the left and the old Soviet lobby in the Indian foreign ministry, New Delhi has just placed a multi-billion dollar order for new weapons with the Russians. But that doesn’t obscure the continued failure of delivery and pricing on earlier purchases or a sad tale without end of a reconstructed aircraft carrier.

Nor can New Delhi ignore the political vacuum created next door in its Siamese-twin of Pakistan. Increasing penetration of India’s huge Muslim minority by Islamic fundamentalists has created new problems of terrorism. Growing turmoil in Kashmir could at any moment spill over into Indo-Pakistan relations, with the ghosts of 3 and a half wars between the two, in part over that issue, hanging over them. The coalition of so-called democratic parties which have pushed President Gen. Pervez Musharraf out of office are hanging together by a thread, over issues that go back to the corruption and incompetence that marked their terms in power before the military coup. Meanwhile, the running sore of Muslim militancy and terrorism on the Afghanistan-Pakitan border is turning in a cancer that threats civil life in Pakistan as well as defeating the U.S.-NATO effort to stabilize Afghanistan itself.

Now, we must sit back and wait for the unforeseen consequences. There is no law of nature that says some of them, repeat some of them, might not be helpful.

Sol W. Sanders, (, is an Asian specialist with more than 25 years in the region, and a former correspondent for Business Week, U.S. News & World Report and United Press International. He writes weekly for World and

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