Writing in The New Yorker David Remnick usefully tries to look at the events in the Caucasus from Vladimir Putin's perspective.
Taken individually, the West’s actions since the collapse of the Soviet Union—from the inclusion of the Baltic and the Central European states in NATO to the recognition of Kosovo as an independent state—can be rationalized on strategic and moral grounds. But taken together these actions were bound to engender deep-seated feelings of national resentment among Russians, especially as, through the nineteen-nineties, they suffered an unprecedentedly rapid downward spiral. Even ordinary Russians find it mightily trying to be lectured on questions of sovereignty and moral diplomacy by the West, particularly the United States, which, even before Iraq, had a long history of foreign intervention, overt and covert—politics by other means. After the exposure of the Bush Administration’s behavior prior to the invasion of Iraq and its unapologetic use of torture, why would any leader, much less Putin, respond to moral suasion from Washington? That is America’s tragedy, and the world’s.
Imagine that Georgian President Saakashvili was a KGB plant. He couldn't have done a better job than what he did of giving Putin's gang an excuse to solidify their hold on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Saakashvili was like a bull who saw red as Russian and South Ossetian puppeteers provoked the Georgian response that gave Putin the opening he was looking for.
There is little doubt that the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, provided Putin with his long-awaited casus belli when he ordered the shelling of South Ossetia, on August 7th. But Putin’s war, of course, is not about the splendors of South Ossetia, a duchy run by the Russian secret service and criminal gangs. It is a war of demonstration. Putin is demonstrating that he is willing to use force; that he is unwilling to let Georgia and Ukraine enter NATO without exacting a severe price; and that he views the United States as hypocritical, overextended, distracted, and reluctant to make good on its protective assurances to the likes of Georgia.
Putin's demonstration war should be treated as a wake-up call for European economies increasingly dependent on Russian oil and gas exports. Europe needs nuclear, wind, and solar energy in order to free itself from dependence on the KGB alumni who run Russia.
Remnick finds the rhetoric that compares Putin to Stalin and Hitler as overblown and not useful. I agree. We would do a much better job of understanding the world if we didn't limit ourselves to so much repeated use of the same small bag of World War II analogies. Human history is long and vast and full many many subtleties. Remnick says that the game Putin is playing is subtle. Our response should be subtle, clever, and wise.
But how high are the stakes? I doubt Russia will be able to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO. Also, I do not expect Russia to try to invade any NATO countries. So the stakes seem limited to the Caucasus. Russia might get some more oil profits in the future since any new oil pipeline through Georgia will be seen as too risky to construct. But what else does Russia gain? A greater feeling of pride, of having power that the Russians can exercise.
But Georgia isn't the only economy that now suffers from a risk premium as a result of the war between Georgia and Russia. Russia itself has a bigger risk premium for investments in part due to the events in Georgia but also because of the way the Russian government puts the squeeze on foreign investors in the oil industry. Russia is a dangerous place to invest where the government is not seen as an impartial arbiter in commercial disputes.
Russia's recent gains in the Caucasus will matter little in the long run. Russian power is set to decline for both demographic and energy related reasons. First off, Russia's population is shrinking by about 400,000 per year with some projections putting Russian population below 110 million by 2050, Muslim ethnicities within Russian borders are making more babies than ethnicities that are non-Muslims, and Russian oil production is near peak and might already be in a permanent decline.
Russia's turn-around since bottoming out around 1998 has been based largely on commodities, most importantly, oil and natural gas. Russia's industrial sector outside of the extractive industries shows few signs of positive developments. Unless Russia can find a lot of oil offshore in the Arctic what we are witnessing right now is probably the peak of power for post-Soviet Russia.
|Share |||By Randall Parker at 2008 August 16 06:58 PM Russia|