If I Were Vladimir Putin (August 15, 2008)

10May14

Russia has recently invaded Georgia. There appears to have been some provocation justifying some action on behalf of Russian speakers in two provinces that evidently preferred to be aligned with Russia, or possibly to be independent, rather than remain part of Georgia. Russia has far overplayed any such justification, however; Russian forces have invaded, and now substantially threaten, the continued viability of Georgia itself.

Georgia is small fry. If, as appears likely, Putin wishes to reconstruct something in the nature of the U.S.S.R., he would be well advised not to try for too much in Georgia. Conquest in Georgia, given that country’s positive reputation in the West, would remind too many, too vividly, of the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. Putin is already positioned to demand most of what he needs from Georgia without crossing that additional bridge.

What makes far more sense, from Putin’s perspective, is to capitalize upon what he has learned in the experiment. The West is not currently able to present a united front against the exercise of power by Russia. The results from that test are already finalized. For all the strong talk, it is clear that the U.S. is much weakened by its commitments and expenditures elsewhere, and by its own domestic economic disarray; and there is no immediate prospect that European nations will rush to act in concert against further Russian moves.

Hand-wringing is entirely reasonable when dealing with simple misunderstandings. One hopes and prays that the mistake gets sorted out. But this is not a misunderstanding. Russia’s people believe what they read in the state-controlled press; they support Putin’s muscular efforts to restore Russia’s pride. This is a land that is in growth mode.

Putin’s best course would nonetheless be to encourage the forces of appeasement in the West. People really don’t want a war, and he should not push them to prepare for one. The stronger hand for Russia, for the time being, is to manipulate Western opinion by citing logical arguments — good ones, preferably, and not silly pretexts — to justify the actions taken so far, as well as any actions taken next. People in the West have become alerted to and concerned about Russia. That should be allowed to die down before taking any further military steps to enlarge Russia.

A good approach for Putin, in presenting reasonable arguments regarding Georgia, would be to retain high-quality public relations expertise, so as to put a positive spin on the actions taken thus far. To the extent that Russia was defending legitimate concerns of Russian-speaking people in a land where their concerns were being ignored — where, apparently, violence had been undertaken against them — Russia may conceivably have had a rationale for what it has done. But the adventure further on into Georgia has been a blunder. Perhaps it can be spun as a sincere effort to firmly suppress any thought of military resistance by Georgia’s leadership. Certainly there should be an emphasis upon “armed social work,” in the sense of portraying Russian soldiers as good people who are authorized to stop looters and defend persons of all ethnicities against attack. But insisting upon a change in Georgian political leadership is just hamhanded. It costs more than it would be worth to Russia.

One valuable lesson from Georgia, for Putin, is that this matter of looking out for the defenseless could play well elsewhere. Simple opinion polls in Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, for example, could establish that there is some reasonable interest in safeguarding the rights of those persons as well. Should negotiations with Ukraine fail, a comparable military incursion may be defensible there, especially if it is postponed until things have calmed down and the West has become distracted by some other concern. As in Georgia, the mission may not be to seize the whole country, Soviet-style; it may be simply to secure ethnically relevant segments and, conceivably, to weaken, destabilize, or even demand representation within the larger political entity from that basis. This sort of thing can be very amorphous and difficult for Western public opinion to get excited about. It may be slower than an armed march, but it could also be more permanent, less expensive, and less likely to incite underground and foreign opposition movements.

There is some chance, however, that Putin simply enjoys the exercise of power, or is perhaps beefing up in anticipation of an eventual challenge from China — that, in other words, he is not motivated to seek the most savvy and inconspicuous growth for his nation, over a longish period of time, but is rather inclined, like Hitler, to seize what he can, whenever he can. In that event, Bush may have done the West a service by drawing a line in the sand at Poland. There is precedent for that: it was Hitler’s invasion of Poland, after all, that finally ended the period of appeasement and prompted the British declaration of war against him. There is no comparable tradition or history with Georgia, Ukraine, or other former Soviet republics that Putin may covet. The U.S. could possibly have moved more aggressively into those places when the opportunity existed, but it remains doubtful that we would actually have gone to war for them. At worst, the Russians might have overrun a few U.S. crews, and we might have declined to do anything about it, thus signaling that we would shrink from direct conflict and that our supposed advance line in the sand was inconsequential.

In a larger sense, Putin may be asking for a rewriting of the history of the Cold War. Conventional wisdom places that war in the past, terminated by the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. A return to a highly confrontational standoff between Russia and the West could simplify things greatly for Putin, in the sense of clarifying where he does and does not have a sphere of influence. If Poland is the line in the sand, then the Baltics and at least part of Ukraine may have been implicitly ceded back to the neo-Soviet sphere. Putin has the military means to explore that vacuum, and is surely now emboldened to do so.

That is not the course I would take, if I were Vladimir Putin. Doing so would place Russia ever more firmly outside the flow of international relations in the 21st century, and in the long run would likely impoverish Russia just as it has always impoverished itself. But for now he may have oil money and power, and that is heady stuff. It is too early to compare him to Hitler and Napoleon, but those historical figures did seem to experience an expansion of their ambitions along with expansion of their latitude for action.

Putin has tested the water in Georgia, and has found it is fine. He has shown his power, and nobody has stood up to it effectively. There is some chance that he will press on, much more aggressively than I would advise; and it is conceivable that he will not stop until the West has finally shown where it will fight — if then. Putin may suspect that the West will hardly fight at all, especially against Russia, and in that case he may prove to have enormous opportunity for territorial expansion and growth of power. The larger experiment is still underway.

(This item was originally posted in my old computer blog.)

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