Streetwise Professor

August 9, 2008

More Russian Delusions

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 9:34 pm

An anonymous Russian foreign ministry official recently gave an interview in which he denigrated the United States as washed up, in economic decline, bogged down in Iraq, etc., etc., etc., and touted Russia’s growing power and influence. As he does so well, Stephen Blank takes the guy apart piece-by-piece, and with it, deflates Russian pretensions:

Undoubtedly, the Russian riposte was issued by Putin and Medvedev, but it will have little effect. If anything, it reveals that the foreign policy elite is, to quote an earlier time and place, “dizzy from success,” and suffering from a rather common form of the arrogance of power, not unknown to other states as well.

The fact is that Moscow needs cooperation with the United States more than the United States needs cooperation with Russia. This unnamed diplomat obviously has very little comprehension of the real state of affairs in America or of the American mood (one would expect better of professionals), and has overestimated Russia’s potential and capabilities, which are much smaller than imagined, especially if inflation takes root and the price of oil keeps falling.

Nobody benefits from this kind of infantile chauvinism and it is, in effect, a form of overcompensation for weakness and defensiveness. One need not agree with McCain’s “harebrained scheme” to oust Russia form the G8 to know that it does not belong there, except as a misguided favor by Clinton to Boris Yeltsin.

As for Georgia, Russia’s policies and attempts to undermine its sovereignty and independence speak for themselves. There are good reasons for why no government in Eastern Europe really trusts Russia, and Moscow should not blame the mirror, or in this case, the United Sates, before throwing stones at it because it does not like the reflection. This kind of petulant and excessively arrogant posture is unworthy of a so-called “great power,” even of one that thinks it is rising and its enemy is falling.
Despite temporary Russian successes, nothing could be more removed from reality then these Russian pretensions of self-sufficiency. More and more, the government in Moscow sounds like the petulant, undeservedly overweening, self-isolating conservatives at the court of Alexander III, not a regime distinguished by great success. It is understandable that Moscow does not like lectures. Few despots do. But its behavior in reply shows why such lectures are needed, and that in fact, more of them on a constant basis are necessary

The Russians have been reading too much of the American media and the declinist literature. Re Iraq, the “bogged down” narrative is so 2006. Wake up guys–the US is on the verge of a decisive victory in Iraq. Indeed, this is so gobsmackingly obvious that even most mainstream media recognize it. Re the American economy–not great, but in my view recent events have demonstrated its remarkable resilience. A major banking crisis and a major energy price shock and a real estate collapse have slowed the economy, but not stopped it. [As an aside, I get a kick out of the talk-out-of-both-sides-of-the-mouth attitude of many Russians. They tout the lack of connection between the Russian and American economies when making the case for investing in Russia, but when the Russian stock market cracks–as it has done post-Mechel–Russian analysts say that its just following the American market. Can’t have it both ways, dudes.]

Any even remotely objective analysis of the relative positions of the US and Russia, and their future prospects, should dissuade the Russians from their “infantile chauvinism.” Don’t count on it happening, though. These guys seem to have to learn the hard way.

And today, Russia flexes its muscles in Georgia. It may well prevail in South Ossetia, and Abkhazia–in the short run. But whatever gains it achieves there will be more than offset by larger losses elsewhere. Perhaps Putin et al believe that they can bully their way back into great power status, and dissuade others in the near abroad from getting too close to NATO and the US, by smashing Georgia. What they are really doing, however, is making the case that Russia is a danger to its neighbors, and that they need to move closer to the US and NATO, not further from them.

A few observations on the Georgian situation. First, I suspect that hostilities may expand to Abkhazia, with a Russian move on the Kodori Gorge. Second, the speed with which Russia moved heavy forces into South Ossetia means that at the very least Russia was waiting for the opportunity to escalate, and may well have provoked the conflict at this time in order to achieve its objectives of annexing the area and perhaps toppling the Georgian government. Third, Medvedev’s touching rationale for the Russian intervention–the need to protect Russian “citizens” in South Ossetia–makes it perfectly clear that Russia had long been planning this move. It has long been suspected that the Russians provided passports to the Ossetians merely to provide the pretext to seize the province when the time was ripe. These events verify these suspicions. Fourth, the Georgians’ operational performance leaves a lot to be desired. The only way that they could have prevailed was by cutting off the Roki Tunnel to isolate the province–they didn’t. Fifth, the Georgians claim that they have destroyed numerous (as many as 16) Russian aircraft. I find these claims not credible, but the Russians have acknowledged the loss of at least two aircraft (it is unclear whether these are fixed wing or helicopters), which is not a very good performance.

Sixth, and most importantly, the larger implications of what is happening in Georgia depends crucially on how the Europeans react. Will they advocate further appeasement of Russia, going further down the path blazed by Merkel and the Germans at the recent NATO summit? Or will they decide that the events in Ossetia are the wages of their past appeasement? In the aftermath of NATO’s German-led decision to deny MAPs to Georgia and Ukraine, Georgian president Saakashvili warned that Russia would treat the refusal as a green light to advance its revanchist ambitions.

I (along with Edward Lucas) am firmly convinced of the latter view. I fear, however, that the Europeans that matter will take the former. Energy, economic relationships, their now reflexive fixation on flaccid (excuse me, soft) power and aversion to conflict all predispose them to appease, rather than confront.

And one last comment, offered only partially tongue-in-cheek. Given the Russian markets’ response to these events, hard on the heels of the Mechel-induced selloff, makes me wonder whether Putin and the siloviki are short Russian stocks, bonds, and the ruble.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress