Russia Shows Its Weakness

Today’s Washington Post passes along word from US assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Daniel Fried, characterizing Russia’s recent intervention into Georgia as reflecting Russia “being angry and seeking revanchist victory” – “the sign of a weak [nation].” Putin, Medvedev & Co. seem to have gotten about all they wanted there, so is this just happy talk? Whistling past the graveyard? Maybe not; it’s a view also supported – and expanded upon – by Prof. Herfried Münkler of Berlin’s renowned Humboldt University writing in today’s Frankfurter Rundschau (The Russian Power).

Now, the good professor is fully willing to name Russian accomplishments inside Georgia for what they are. Through cynical manipulation of the terms of the cease-fire agreement it signed with Georgia, brokered by acting EU President Nicolas Sarkozy, the Red Army has managed to entrench itself at key positions within that country that will amount to powerful cards in any future negotiations, and which in the interval until such negotiations convene (if ever) are awfully handy for throttling Georgian transport and thus economic activity. (Prof. Münkler clearly wrote this article prior to Russia’s unilateral recognition of the “independence” of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, or he would have added to his list those political accomplishments, which push way into a theoretical future any consolidation by Georgia of the territory she feels belongs rightly within her borders.) Russia is now back in the world’s consciousness as a geopolitical actor to be reckoned with, leaving the disorganization and weakness of the Yeltsin era far behind and prompting hurried re-calibrations of the balance-of-power in any number of the world’s chancelleries.

But we should take a step back here, he says, and view what has happened within a larger context. “Beating a couple of Georgian Brigades in South Ossetia is one thing, playing as a World Power is another. And for claiming a World Power’s position according to the USSR’s example there are too many prerequisites unmet.” Prof. Münkler judges that status as a true World Power is still somewhat beyond Russia’s grasp – “and presumably the Kremlin leadership knows that.” It’s really only around its periphery that it can throw its weight around – and not everywhere there, in fact (think of Finland, China).

What weapons does it have to do that? Oil and gas: that’s about it on the economic front. There is no other source of trade or financial inflluence, and certainly no sort of ideological power. The Czars had the Russian Orthodox Church, the USSR had Marxism-Leninism, but present-day Russia has not only no ideological appeal to project beyond its borders, but also no actual ideology other than a crude nationalism. To sum up: there’s oil & gas, and if that doesn’t work the only remaining choice is the Russian military. He doesn’t really evaluate the size or nature of the Red Army’s threat to other countries on Russia’s periphery than Georgia, but you can speculate that it might not be all that great. Certainly the continued Russian efforts to subdue Chechnya do not bode well for that army’s effectiveness.

Prof. Münkler does feel obliged to devote precious space, at the very beginning of his piece, to one secondary aspect of the Russian-Georgian conflict that is really starting to rile Europeans. It was all mighty convenient, this geopolitical crisis, for John McCain and the Republicans, who suddenly had an Exhibit A for reminding American voters how the world can be an unpredictable and dangerous place that requires the sort of “A Team” for foreign and security policy that they claim only they can provide. And now McCain has come even with Obama in the opinion polls. Still, he writes, “[o]ne should not allow oneself to be diverted by this observation to construct wild conspiracies by which the gainers from these events were also their cause.” What, Professor, you never heard about Randy Scheuneman?

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