Where’s Next In Vladimir Putin’s Sights?

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russia’s aggression towards Georgia, its long-range missile tests and the fiery rhetoric coming out of both Moscow and western capitals in the past week have provoked comparisons with the cold war. How worried should we be?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin

A graffito daubed on the wall of a Georgian army base at Senaki by Russian soldiers who looted the place last week reads, “Thanks Uncle Sam for the uniforms”. The Russians could not resist a swipe at America for arming, training and even dressing the Georgian armed forces.

Uniforms were not the only US kit that the Russians seized from the defeated Georgian army in the short but vicious war that appeared to have put paid to the country’s hopes of joining NATO. At Poti, the Black Sea port occupied by Russian troops, five US Marine Corps Humvees were captured.

They had been awaiting shipment back to America after being used in a military exercise with the Georgian army. Now their fate is uncertain. A Russian general called it a “detail” but his relish in the capture of American military hardware was a telling example of how East-West antagonism has been revived.

By late last week the sabre-rattling was reminiscent of the cold war at its most chilling: the Russians were test firing long-range missiles, NATO vessels were steaming into the region and Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, was being accused by Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart, of an “evil imagination” for voicing suspicions that the Kremlin, having gobbled up the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and Ossetia by officially recognising their independence, might move next on Ukraine or Moldova.

Today’s Kremlin is far different from the geriatric institution of the 1970s, when Soviet citizens were locked behind the “iron curtain” deprived of even the slightest whiff of the West.

Russian leaders these days are being advised by a slick New York-based public relations giant, their subjects free to gorge themselves on as much western decadence as they want, having long ago dumped the communist gospel.

Yet the crude nationalism that has replaced reverence for the hammer and sickle may pose a danger to the rest of the world if the Kremlin, skilled at manipulating it, were to lose control.

Britain’s relations with Russia have been at a particularly low ebb since the poisoning in London of Alexander Litvinenko, the former KGB agent, a murder that the government believes was ordered by Moscow; and relations will not have been helped by the visit last week of David Miliband, the foreign secretary, to Ukraine, the former Soviet Union’s bread basket, “to assemble the widest possible coalition against Russian aggression”.

Is this mere hot air? Is there any real danger of the cold war, when the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction hung over the world, being revived – and who should be the most worried about it?

When Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, announced his country’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia last week, he stood beneath a two-headed Russian eagle.

As a national crest, it seems an appropriate symbol for the contradictory instincts that have pulled Russia in two different directions for centuries and, as the past few weeks have shown, continue to do so.

One side wants Russia to adopt western standards in government and business, the other wants to bring back a modified Soviet model and go it alone, believing that “westernisers” have brought only humiliation for Russia. Today these “hawks” – in other epochs they were called “isolationists” or “Slavophiles” – have the upper hand.

Vladimir Putin, the former president who has recently switched roles to become prime minister, said that Russia was frustrated because: “There’s a feeling that the West treats Russia merely as a loser in the cold war, which has to play by the winners’ rules.” The intervention in Georgia was Russia drawing a red line.

Relations with the West have been strained by NATO giving membership to Moscow’s Soviet-era satellites as well as to the former Soviet Baltic republics. They have become vociferous critics of Russia within the American-led alliance.

At the same time, Russian officials have complained that Moscow’s cooperation with the West on key international issues such as the fight against terrorism, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea have failed to translate into a qualitative change in relations. “We cannot endlessly retreat with a smiling face,” said one Kremlin official.

Edward Lozansky, a former Soviet dissident who became head of the American University in Moscow, explained the prevailing view: “Putin was expecting some reciprocity for joining the antiterrorist coalition. What he got instead was further NATO expansion to Russia’s back yard and aggressive pipeline policy to weaken Russia’s position in the energy market.”

Not surprisingly, the Russian occupation of Georgia has turned into one of the most popular ventures ever undertaken by the Kremlin. But who was behind it?

Kremlin politics these days seem as opaque as they were in the cold war and, although tempting, it would probably be wrong to view Putin and Medvedev as the embodiment of that double-headed eagle.

Nevertheless, French diplomats report a comment by Putin over lunch with President Nicolas Sarkozy in the Kremlin not long after the crisis erupted.

He apparently described Medvedev and himself as “a good cop, bad cop routine”. It was the “nice” Medvedev who announced last week that Russia was not afraid of another cold war; and although Putin was widely believed to be calling the shots, Medvedev seemed to be emerging as his own man, winning popularity among the public because of the Russian “victory” in Georgia.

It prompted suggestions that Putin was getting jealous which inspired him, so the theory goes, to allege that America had goaded the Georgians into war to help the prospects of the hawkish John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate.

Some believed, nevertheless, that the crisis had strengthened Putin more than Medvedev and one Russian newspaper reflected the extent of public support for him by using a picture of a fist with the middle finger raised at America. Yet the peculiarity of this “new cold war” is that America, for once, seemed hardly to notice.

When Barack Obama, the US presidential candidate, stood up to deliver his speech at the Democratic convention in Denver last week, he was never likely to dwell long on foreign policy before an audience concerned mostly about domestic economic problems.

Even so, he gave short shrift to the crisis in Georgia, a measure of America’s startlingly relaxed response to Russian aggression. In his 44-minute address, Obama devoted just two sentences to the Russian threat, with a bland promise of “tough, direct diplomacy . . . that can curb Russian aggression”.

The candidate’s swift dismissal of what may prove the next US president’s most difficult foreign policy challenge confirmed a curious effect of the Russian invasion of Georgia.

Despite warnings from numerous US officials that Moscow’s actions represent a serious long-term threat to the West, neither the US media nor most of the American public have shown the remotest interest in the turmoil in the Caucasus.

Indeed there was a widely expressed belief that this was a crisis that Europe ought to be able to handle. “The sooner Europe equips itself to confront the challenges of a resurgent Russia, the better,” declared Sally McNamara, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.

Nevertheless, President George W Bush will this week send Dick Cheney, his vice-president, to Europe and Georgia in the hope of stiffening backbones against the Russian menace.

Widely regarded as the only western politician who is more frightening than Putin, Cheney will visit Azerbaijan and Ukraine – and also Italy to try to dissuade Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi from cosying up to Moscow.

Yet the timing of the Georgian invasion and the prospect of a change of US administration in January have severely reduced the prospect of decisive American action and are already creating potential headaches for both Obama and his Republican rival, Senator John McCain.

“There’s the danger that things could be left in such a poisonous state that the next administration has no options and finds it difficult to get on a productive track,” said Robert Einhorn, a former arms control negotiator.

No one in America appears to have the stomach for a military response and, as officials reluctantly acknowledged last week, Putin was plainly aware that Washington offered little as a short-term threat. It was left to the Europeans to try to prod the bear back into the cage and Miliband, at least, was talking a big game.

However, some believed that his appearance in Kiev, where he was accused of ratcheting up the tension with his call for solidarity, was as much electioneering as it was a gesture of support for Ukrainian independence: there had been dismay in the Labour ranks that David Cameron, the Tory leader, had beaten Miliband to Tbilisi for talks with Mikhail Saakashvili, the embattled Georgian leader.

One respected Labour backbencher said: “David Miliband was caught short. Now he is running around trying to play catch up.”

Certainly his suggestion that the question for Russia was ultimately “whether it wants to suffer isolation and loss of respect” will not have left Medvedev and Putin quaking in their boots.

France holds the European Union’s rotating presidency until the end of the year and Sarkozy is deeply frustrated by Russia’s refusal to abide by the ceasefire agreement that he brokered.

He sees tomorrow’s extraordinary EU summit in Brussels as a big test of the newly enlarged Europe to pull together and would be happy with a communiqué “firmly” condemning Russia’s “unacceptable” recognition of Abkhazian and Ossetian independence.

The prospects for an agreement among 27 countries on anything, let alone sanctions against Russia, were not good. Poland, the Czech Republic and the Baltic states, still pained by memories of Soviet domination, were in favour of a tough response to the Russian “bully”.

But Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who was brought up in communist East Germany and has bitter recollections of the experience, joined the French and Italians in advocating caution, not wanting to risk Russian retaliation.

The key to their timidity is energy security. Europe relies on Russia for about 40% of its gas. With bills already soaring, politicians cannot afford to lose that supply. As the Kremlin’s relations with its former satellite states have deteriorated, it has shown that it is not afraid to use these tactics.

After the Czech Republic agreed to allow the United States to build bases for an antimissile shield in the country, Russia’s Gazprom cut supplies drastically. It blamed the shutdown on “technical” reasons.

Adopting similar tactics with the bigger EU countries would, however, be a huge gamble. Not only would Russia lose billions in revenues, it would also alienate its most important customers and catalyse European investment into alternative energy sources or providers.

“There’s always the possibility and the fear in people’s minds,” said Julian Lee, at the Centre for Global Energy Studies. “The Russians haven’t cut off gas supplies to consumers in western Europe before, but that is no guarantee they won’t do so.”

Gazprom’s answer to the paranoia is simple: it points out that even in the depths of the cold war it has never failed to fulfil a contract to western Europe. Alexei Miller, Gazprom’s chief executive, has also said: “Gazprom relies as much on Europe as Europe depends on our gas.”

Fears that Russia would shut off the pipelines that run through the Caucasus and supply the West have also proved groundless so far. The ountries that have most to worry about are the ones in Russia’s “near abroad”, especially those that do not have the protection of NATO, which regards an attack on a member nation as an attack on the whole alliance.

Ukraine and Moldova – which is already host to the Russian 14th army in its separatist Transdnistria region – are consequently next in the firing line.

The tension in Ukraine between its divided population, 17% of whom are Russian ethnically and live in the east and south of the country, has been building for years, particularly since the “orange revolution” of 2004. This had overturned the result of the presidential election which had been rigged in favour of the pro-Moscow candidate.

Crimea, where the Russian navy has a lease on a base at Sebastopol until 2017, is the obvious flashpoint. Ukraine has angered Russia by saying that it will not renew the lease.

It has also introduced restrictions on Russian vessels entering or exiting Sevastopol after ships based there took part in shelling Georgian coastal defences and landing troops there during the first week of the conflict.

Ukrainian officials fear that Russia is just waiting for a single act that it can portray as intolerable provocation to use as an excuse to seize the peninsula. The results of such an action could be catastrophic for the people of Ukraine, as Georgians know to their cost.

Last week hundreds of Georgian refugees from South Ossetia, displaced by the war and a wave of ethnic cleansing, were sheltering in tents erected in a dusty sports stadium waiting for permission to go back to their battered and looted villages.

They were a fraction of the tens of thousands who fled and are now scattered in schools, government buildings or with relatives across the country.

The economy is certain to shrink as foreign investment, which had begun to make Georgia feel prosperous, is frightened away. When winter approaches the unemployed queues will lengthen. “We’re looking at a creeping catastrophe,” said Peter Semneby, the EU ambassador.

And the Russian eagle, it seemed, was looking away from the West.

Source: TIMES Online