08/18/2008 05:39 PM

The Dangerous Neighbor

Vladimir Putin Takes on a Powerless West

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin approached the crisis in Georgia coolly and efficiently, prompting admiration even from some American observers. But Moscow's brutal strike against Georgian President Saakashvili has divided the Western world, with the split running straight through the European Union.

Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin: More Old World than New World

Russian Prime Minister Vladmir Putin: More Old World than New World

Russia's rebirth begins at 5 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2000, in a musty, inconspicuous room in the small Chechen city of Gudermes, on the highway between the capital Grozny and the coastline of the Caspian Sea.

A leaden darkness hangs over Gudermes, with only occasional gunfire erupting from the sky over Chechnya's embattled capital. At this hour, just as Europe is going to bed, a short, wiry man in a blue windbreaker is speaking to a select group of soldiers and officers of the 42nd Motor Rifle Division. "You are defending more than Russia's dignity and honor in Chechnya. You are also here to stop the disintegration of our country," says the guest, speaking in a biting voice, a cold, fishlike look in his eyes. The man from faraway Moscow, who is not yet particularly well-known at this point, is Vladimir Putin.

He has ordered his troops to increase their bombing of this insubordinate, separatist republic, and they have already set fire to refineries and factories. The renegade Chechens, who have been carrying the bug of separatism into the Russian heartland for the past six years, are on the verge of military defeat. Moscow's troops, deeply humiliated by the rebels, are beginning to regain their courage. They will never forget the new president for having come to speak to them at this late hour.

It is the hour of the beginning of Russia's comeback as a major power and of the unparalleled career of a man who his patron, former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, accurately described in this way: "He is tough as nails and sees his decisions through to the end."

Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, which translates as "Rule the Caucasus," is only 120 kilometers west of Gudermes. The early morning New Year's Day scene in 2000 repeats itself there on Aug. 9. Once again, Vladimir Putin has flown in unannounced. The Russians thought he was at the Olympics in faraway Beijing, where they saw him on television the night before, chatting with United States President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. And now, suddenly, here he is in Vladikavkaz.

This time Putin is wearing a white windbreaker, as a group of women, refugees from South Ossetia listen, spellbound, to what he has to say. The war in neighboring Georgia, triggered a day earlier by a massive rocket and tank offensive against the autonomous region of the South Ossetians by Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's army, has forced tens of thousands of terrified civilians across Georgia's northern border into Russia.

They tell Putin, now Russia's prime minister, who sees himself as the patron saint of the small province, about the harm the Georgians have done to their homeland, and they too derive new courage from Putin, with his biting voice. He tells them that the Georgians' behavior is "a crime," that after this act of "aggression" it will be difficult to imagine South Ossetia remaining part of Georgia, and that Russia will do everything to protect the Ossetians.

Graphic: Georgia and the Caucasus

Graphic: Georgia and the Caucasus

While the Russians may characterize the operation that unfolded south of the Caucasus Mountains as "enforcing the peace," it is in fact nothing less than Russia's effort to roll back Georgian power with its total military superiority. Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's ambassador to NATO, betrays that the Russian military action is about more than little Ossetia, a mountainous region only slightly bigger than Luxembourg. Speaking in Brussels, while Russian tanks are lumbering southward, he says, almost jubilantly: "America's favorite child is now going to hell."

The military operation, which has since caught the world's attention, is developing into the first real war between Russia and a former Soviet state, a war in which the actual cause is becoming increasingly insignificant.

The last secessionist movements inside Russia have long been crushed. The country is reunited and strengthened, but it is now becoming clear that the Kremlin wants to punish Georgia, which has become an American outpost in the Caucasus region under Saakashvili, its young, 40-year-old president.

The war lasted five days, and yet it still hasn't truly ended. The Russian army's advance deep into Georgian territory triggered a shock wave in the capital Tbilisi, and even more so in the Western world.

American Caucasus strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski has drawn parallels to Stalin and Hitler, equating the Russian invasion of a neighboring country with the Soviet winter war of 1940, when Moscow sought to undermine the sovereignty of small, sovereign Finland.

The conflict between Georgia and Russia is turning into a struggle between Russia and the West, as the fighting in Georgia, a small, wine-producing country, expands into an international war of words. The cover of US news magazine Time read: "How to Stop a New Cold War." According to Robert Kagan, a key advisor to US Republican presidential candidate John McCain, Aug. 8, 2008 is as important a date for the world as Nov. 9, 1989 was, except that now the signs are reversed, with the earlier date marking the end of the communist phase in world politics. "Putin makes his move," Kagan writes in the Washington Post.

But what exactly is Putin's move?

The attack by a large country, Russia, on its small neighbor, Georgia, feels like a throwback to the 19th century in the middle of the 21st. Nowadays world conflicts develop differently, perhaps because Iran insists on building a nuclear bomb or because Israel is threatening an air strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities -- or because Islamic fundamentalists are intent on recapturing Afghanistan. By comparison, Russia's consolidation on its southern flank is simply old imperialism.

The difference is all the more evident when one considers that China, the poorer, more chaotic country during the Soviet era, has since embarked on a gargantuan effort to develop a modern, capitalist economy, while Russia is blessed with enormous oil and gas reserves. In yet another throwback to the past, Russia's primary concern is to expand its military strength instead of investing in the country itself and in developing new institutions.

In this sense, Putin is more Old World than New World. The Russia he leads is more interested in territory than modernity, more intent on gaining respect than promoting progress.

But how should the West respond to this modern and yet old-fashioned Russia? There is no doubt that Putin's goal is to regain geopolitical stature. He wants equality with America. Russia may not be as big as he claims, and yet his country is indeed entitled to have its say on many other global conflicts -- in Iran, North Korea and within the United Nations -- whether the West likes it or not.

Without Putin, the protagonist of a controlled, authoritarian democracy and petro-state, many things cease to function. He has great potential to do damage. The United States, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said smugly, must choose between partnership with Moscow or with the virtual Georgian leadership.

While prospering major power China celebrates the Olympic Games in Beijing with an iron fist, while a president stages his departure in the United States, while a divided European Union argues over the Georgian question and NATO sends ambivalent signals, Russia is busy working on its imperial renaissance. As endless columns of its tanks rolled across Georgia's streets, powerful Washington could do little more than fly in tents and blankets for its friends in Tbilisi.

The West is powerless in the face of Russia's imperialism. The Baltic states and Ukraine, still within Moscow's gravitational field, clearly have good reason to fear that they could be next to feel the brunt of Putin's capriciousness.

"We are bidding final farewell to the Soviet Union," Saakashvili called out to 70,000 supporters on Rustaveli Boulevard in Tbilisi, after Russia formally declared the armed conflict over on Tuesday of last week. It was a naïve sentence, though. Polish President Lech Kaczynski, standing next to him in front of the presidential palace, together with the leaders of the Baltic states and Ukraine -- who had also hurried to Tbilisi to demonstrate solidarity with Georgia -- could do little more than smile at Saakashvili's remarks. Kaczynski chose not to mention Putin's name, but he did venture a grim prediction: "If the world abandons Georgia, Ukraine will be next."

The West has presumably misjudged Russia under Putin until now. Even former superpowers suffer from phantom pain, but revanchism, imperialism? In truth, the signs were difficult to overlook. Putin has been getting his payback for indignities suffered at the hands of the West for some time now: in America's conflict with Iran, for which Russia is providing a nuclear power plant, in the conflict over Kosovo, and in the United Nations Security Council whenever the issue of sanctions against countries like Zimbabwe, Iran or Syria is on the table.

It was an illusion, at any rate, that Putin would step down as president and take on the role of elder statesman.

The changeover of power in Moscow happened only 100 days ago. The new president, Medvedev, was seen as a pro-market liberal, a lawyer instead of a former member of the intelligence service, the product of a family of professors. He lacked the macho persona of Putin, a child of blue-collar workers who grew up in a Leningrad courtyard, a man who refers to himself as a "highly successful product of patriotic Soviet education," and who chose confrontation with the West during his term in office. Washington, London and Berlin hoped that his successor, Medvedev, would bring cooperation, predictability and more openness toward Europe.

When he first visited Berlin in early June, Medvedev did in fact speak in conciliatory terms, proposing a common European-Atlantic security zone from "Vancouver to Vladivostok" and asserting that Russia, in the wake of the Cold War, had come "in from the cold." But soon it became clear that Medvedev was not pursuing a paradigm shift at all.

The West reacted with disappointment -- a "typical reflex of the West," which, according to Russian political scientist Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, still doesn't know its way around the corridors of power in Moscow. To be able to prevail in the eyes of the Russian elite, after a man like Putin, Medvedev is literally forced to make no changes to foreign policy -- at least not initially, says Shevtsova. And that foreign policy is based on the assumption that the world surrounding Russia is hostile to Moscow, but is also weak and divided. This, Shevtsova argues, explains why the Kremlin is resurrecting the global power game and is able to force the West out of its old spheres of influence.

This appears to be a correct assessment of the course of events. Meanwhile, the five-day-war against Georgia indicates that the man in charge in Russia is not the new Medvedev, but the old Putin.

Enormous Human Suffering

It was Putin who flew to Paris to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, when France assumed the rotating European Union Council presidency. And in late July, Putin sent Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, a close confidant and an adversary of Medvedev, to Cuba to indicate what could happen if Washington installed its planned missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The message of Sechin's visit was that Moscow could retaliate against Washington with its own medicine, and at its own back door -- as in 1962, when then Premier Nikita Khrushchev had nuclear warheads stationed not far from the Florida coast.

"He is a patriot and will pursue Russian interests with just as much determination as I do," Putin said to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, describing his successor. By then, he had already given Medvedev his marching orders in the realm of foreign policy, which included Russia's next steps in the case of the Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

When the hotheaded Saakashvili got carried away and attacked the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali, Medvedev -- the diminutive man with his friendly smile and relaxed posture -- was apparently not up to the task of commanding a military campaign, at least from Putin's perspective. Putin, 6,000 kilometers (3,737 miles) away in Beijing, became the first to appear before the television cameras, not Medvedev. And it was Putin, not the president, who traveled to the border to meet with the refugees and portray himself as their protector.

It had long been clear to observers that South Ossetia, a tiny strip of land in the multiethnic carpet of the Caucasus, would eventually spark a war. The Ossetians were divided after the breakup of the Soviet Union. The north went to Russia and the south, under international law, became part of the newly independent Georgia. But by 1990 South Ossetia had also declared its independence from Tbilisi. When Georgian irregular forces went to Tskhinvali to challenge the decision, the first war erupted. Tens of thousands of Georgians were driven out and 100,000 Ossetians fled to live with relatives in the northern section.

In 1992, Moscow and Tbilisi agreed to a cease-fire, but later the Kremlin gave Russian passports to most of the Ossetians remaining in Tskhinvali. This enabled Russia to justify the invasion by its army by claiming that the goal was to "protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens." Although it never recognized the separatist republic (or the breakaway region of Abkhazia in western Georgia), Moscow took no steps to resolve the conflict. On the contrary, it helped keep it alive for 15 years, knowing full well that it could eventually use the conflict as an excuse to settle its own tense relationship with Georgia. For nationalists, Georgia remains a Russian crown jewel. And isn't it logical that one would want to recover lost crown jewels?

Regardless who pressed the button on Aug. 8 to launch the major showdown between the two countries, this time the war over South Ossetia was more rancorous than ever. Whether in the South Ossetia capital Tskhinvali or in the Georgian city of Gori, the five days of fighting were enough to produce enormous human suffering.

Leila Jiojeva, for example, was living with her husband Valery in Hetagurovo, a village of 170 houses four kilometers (2.5 miles) west of Tskhinvali. The couple owned one of the largest farms in the village, which included seven cows, three horses and a small herd of sheep. Valery, 48, and their son Vitaly, 19, are both missing. The last Leila saw of them were their determined faces. Holding automatic pistols in their hands, they were covering the hatch to the cellar, where Leila and 20 neighbors had taken refuge, with planks and debris. "Grenades and bullets from machine guns hit the garden and the house," she reports. "The Georgians attacked us shortly after midnight."

Georgian troops had occupied the village by the next morning. Eyewitnesses told SPIEGEL that in some cases they fired on unarmed civilians. Albina, the 13-year-old daughter of Nikolai Chanazarov, a police officer, died when she tried to flee to North Ossetia in an old Zhiguli car. A sniper first shot the tires of the car and then put a bullet through Albina's heart.

After the Russian army had driven out the Georgians and entered Tskhinvali, rumors began to circulate of atrocities, including rapes and Georgian troops setting fire to churches filled with refugees. It was difficult to tell what was true and what was propaganda. A few hundred Ossetians probably died under Georgian fire, but not the more than 1,600 reported by Moscow state television.

Saakashvili's military adventure also had terrible repercussions for Georgian civilians. The Russians bombed Gori, the birthplace of former Russian dictator Josef Stalin, which is not far from the breakaway republic, and South Ossetians later went on a looting spree through Georgian territory. Mikheil Basandarashvili, an unemployed man who fled to Tbilisi, says that one of these groups shot and killed his 60-year-old neighbor in Karalit, a village eight kilometers from Gori. Hundreds of such refugees are currently spending their nights at the train station in the Georgian capital and their days waiting in front of city hall to be assigned emergency quarters.

Were the Georgians truly at fault for this armed conflict, or did the Russians provoke them, as the military expert at the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta claimed last Thursday?

Both Russians and Georgians have invoked international law. Moscow claims that Georgia, by attacking South Ossetia, violated the prohibition of the use of force under international law, as well as the peace treaty that ended the first war of secession in 1992. The Kremlin is accusing the Georgians of genocide and wants to see Saakashvili tried before an international court -- just as the Serbian despot Slobodan Milosevic was.

According to the Georgian version, Moscow violated international law and instigated the war -- to dissuade other post-Soviet nations from following Georgia's example and seeking the protective shield of the Americans and, eventually, NATO, thereby giving Western countries even more say in a region Moscow sees as its exclusive sphere of influence.

According to Alexander Lomaya, the head of the Georgian National Security Council, the Russians' secondary target was an oil pipeline that passes through Georgia from the Black Sea port of Baku in Azerbaijan to the Turkish city of Ceyhan. Lomaya believes that Russian bombers targeted the pipeline (which the pipeline's operator, British Petroleum, denies) as a message to the West that oil and gas pipelines built to circumvent Russia cannot offer security to the West, with its thirst for natural resources. Finally, says Lomaya, the Kremlin's goal was to "test America," to see whether it could revise Russian borders "as it pleases."

In the wake of last week's war, international law experts are now debating a decisive question: Do wannabe states like South Ossetia and Abkhazia enjoy the UN Charter's protections against military intervention, even against forced reintegration into Georgia? If so, were the South Ossetians entitled to request assistance from their Russian friends to fend off the attacks from Tbilisi?

There is no doubt that the breakaway regions are still part of the territory of the sovereign Georgian nation. And any nation can, as a rule, use force to preserve national unity if necessary. But international law experts take a pragmatic approach: If the Georgian government has in fact been replaced by a secessionist power structure in South Ossetia and in Abkhazia -- that is, if the home country has allowed its separatist regions to become de facto foreign states -- then the community of free nations must respect this act of self-determination. The home country's hands are essentially tied.

In last week's debates before the UN Security Council in New York, the Russian representatives, instead of seeking to justify their invasion as "emergency assistance" for the beleaguered independent entity of South Ossetia, resorted to hair-splitting arguments, such as the claim that they had had to rush to the assistance of beleaguered Russian peacekeepers.

In contrast, it is beyond dispute that the example of Kosovo has played a crucial role in shaping Russia's Caucasus policies. In February, for the first time since the signing of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, part of a nation's territory was separated from it against its will when Serbia lost the breakaway province of Kosovo despite its own and Russian protests. Since then, Moscow diplomats have argued slyly, the principle of territorial integrity apparently no longer applies quite as absolutely for the West.

And now Russia has also invalidated that principle. After the battle over Tskhinvali, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said that Georgia “can forget about” its territorial integrity. On Thursday, Russian President Medvedev received the "presidents" of the two de facto republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the Kremlin, almost as if they were already members of the UN.

Losing the war has only aggravated Georgia's problem with the separatist provinces. The country lacks the political and military strength to win back the regions. As a result Russia, in the wake of the recent war, stands a good chance of retaining control over the two provinces as protectorates -- possibly even with unilateral diplomatic recognition, following the example set by Turkey when it recognized the "Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus."

So far the Georgians seem to be in denial about the possibility that they may have lost the disputed territories once and for all, just as Germany once did when it lost East Prussia and Silesia. Saakashvili continues to defiantly insist that he will not give up a single square kilometer of Georgian soil. His most important campaign promise was that he would enable the hundreds of thousands of his fellow Georgians who had fled from Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the 1990s to return home one day.

The Lebanon of the Caucasus

The attempt to unite a country divided in three by force has turned Georgia into the Lebanon of the Caucasus -- a country that only exists as a single political entity in atlases. This is a phenomenal outcome for Moscow's geo-strategists, who have been forced to look on uneasily in recent years as Georgia, more than any other former Soviet republic, has distanced itself from the old protective power and turned to the Americans. Did the Americans encourage Saakashvili, in the days leading up to the war, to regain the separatist regions by force?

The fact that Saakashvili increased the military budget of his poor country almost sixfold, to $583 million (€376 million), in the last four years fueled suspicions, even among members of his government, that the president was counting on a military solution. He had also put himself under pressure because of his desire to have Georgia become a member of NATO as quickly as possible. As long as Georgia does not control all of the territory it claims, there can be no talk of membership of the western defense alliance. At their April summit in the Romanian capital Bucharest, NATO leaders also decided not to grant Georgia pre-membership status. The desperate attempt to gain eligibility for alliance membership by attacking Tskhinvali was probably the most momentous mistake in the hotheaded president's political career.

The New York Times reports that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned Saakashvili against a military conflict with Russia at a dinner on July 9. However, Rice was sending different signals in public, such as during a July visit to Tbilisi, when she assured Saakashvili that the United States would support NATO membership for Georgia. The "erroneous belief that he had friends at court" in Washington misled Saakashvili to launch his ill-fated attack on the South Ossetian capital, says Robert Hunter, a former US ambassador to NATO.

About 130 US military advisors, stationed in offices on the fourth floor of the Defense Ministry in Tbilisi, one floor below the office of Defense Minister David Kezerashvili, who emigrated to Georgia from Israel, probably also gave Saakashvili the confidence to risk a military showdown with Moscow and its South Ossetian allies. A deceptive mood of confidence in their chances of achieving victory developed between the Americans and officers in the new Georgian army. English-speaking Georgian security strategists, most of them under 40, and their counterparts from the United States would routinely reassure one another, over heavy Georgian wine and juicy kebabs, that together Georgia and the US were undefeatable.

But they failed to factor Putin into their calculations. The Americans may have suspected that Moscow could force a small Caucasus nation like Georgia to its knees with its military superiority. But it appears that hardly anyone in the Western world knows exactly where Russia is headed after eight years under Putin's rule.

China, for its part, freed itself from the wreckage of the Mao era and, within a single generation, managed to complete the transition to becoming a world power. No other developing country has grown as fast as China, and nowhere else have the ranks of the bitterly poor declined as quickly. China, following classic Marxist theory, achieved its successes through hard work.

But what about Russia? Moscow has never overcome its loss of superpower status, and is especially incensed over the West's attempts to push into its own backyard. But Russia has done almost nothing to emulate China's example of intelligent economic development work. The surge of petrodollars into Russia's coffers has yet to let up, and Moscow possesses enormous foreign currency reserves of more than €400 billion ($620 billion). Nevertheless, after almost a decade of strong growth, the country faces serious problems once again: double-digit inflation, an ailing banking sector and only gradual progress when it comes to keeping up with the high-tech economies of the West.

There is too little public discussion of the fact that besides oil and gas, Russia still produces almost no competitive products for the world market. Instead, the pro-government newspaper Isvestiya, citing Russia's encirclement by the West, called upon Russia to "focus all of its energy on rearmament." The commander of the Russian naval fleet, Admiral Vladimir Vysotskiy, recently announced plans to build five or six aircraft carriers and new nuclear submarines.

Moscow is also gathering round its few potential alliance partners with renewed determination. In 2002, Russia and Georgia's neighbors, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, joined forces to form the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). This means that, in terms of security policy, Moscow controls almost all of former Soviet Central Asia once again. Russia also maintains military bases on the territory of several allies, including 3,170 troops in Georgia's neighbor Armenia, 5,500 in Tajikistan and 500 soldiers stationed at an airbase near the Kyrgyz capital.

This act of gathering together former Soviet territory has the appearance of a defiant reaction to the demise of the USSR. Ironically, Moscow's magnetic effect is strongest in those regions where the democratic potential of society is the weakest. In this regard, it runs the risk of collecting reactionary and corrupt regimes in its alliance that expect, as Russia's allies, one thing above all else: cheap weapons.

Because of its continuing economic impotence, Russia is playing the conservative keeper of the global political status quo -- as it did in the 19th and 20th century -- says Moscow political scientist Shevtsova. As a result, it seeks to string along the West until it can once again take part in shaping the new rules of engagement on the world stage. But, says Shevtsova, Russia is only alienating the countries along its western border with this approach. Moscow's relations with Ukraine, the nucleus of the former Russian empire, are also on the verge of rupturing.

Last week Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko signed an order that would require the Russian Black Sea fleet stationed in Sevastopol on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula to give Kiev 72 hours' advance notice of any ship movements. If he attempted to enforce the order, this too could lead to war. Moscow sees the Crimea, where more than 50 percent of the population is Russian, as traditionally Russian territory.

But because big brother in Moscow only seems capable of responding with threats to the former Soviet republics' and satellite states' efforts to align themselves with the West, these nations become all the more willing to flee into the arms of NATO. Poland's decision, on Thursday of last week of all times, to sign an agreement with the United States for stationing its missile defense system on Polish soil was a clear signal to the unpopular Russians.

To this day, Moscow cannot understand why, despite the Iraq debacle, the American way of life should be more attractive in Eastern Europe than its model of a "controlled democracy" -- an authoritarian style of governing that manipulates elections and suppresses the opposition. This currently leaves Russia with only one trump card: the energy weapon. It is no coincidence that Russian NATO Ambassador Rogozin described the war over Ossetia "as a conflict about oil and energy."

So how to handle this arrogant Russia, and what tone to adopt in dealing with Vladimir Putin, the director of Moscow's Kremlin policy? Last week, this was a question with which superpower America was becoming more and more concerned by the day.

There are two ways, the official and the informal, of looking at Putin in Washington. To determine which one prevails one needs to look at where one is speaking rather than with whom. In the public spotlight, Putin is seen as an aggressor after Russia's completely excessive incursion into Georgia. But in confidential conversations in the private sphere, he is a Russian hero fully in command of the language of power politics.

President Bush calls the Russian invasion "inappropriate and unacceptable." Ralph Peters, a former lieutenant colonel in the US Army, who was invited to speak before the conservative American Enterprise Institute, calls the same action "brilliant." The headline in the Wall Street Journal read "Vladimir Bonaparte."

"Whether we like it or not, Putin will undoubtedly go down in history as one of his country's great leaders," says Clifford Gaddy, the leading Russia expert in Washington, who works for the liberal Brookings Institution and occasionally advises President Bush.

Bush and Putin came into power at almost the same time, Putin in late 1999 and Bush just over a year later. "I looked into Putin’s eyes and I saw his soul," the American president raved after their first meeting. He saw the man he wanted to see in Putin: the reformed communist who was forced to choose a path leading to a market economy and democracy.

Conservative triumphalism was in fashion at the time, and in this spirit Bush had the National Security Strategy of the United States, an official document outlining the nation's position on foreign policy, revised in 2002. To this day, the document contains the following sentence: "The great struggles of the 20th century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom -- and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise."

Grim Non-Action in Washington

Putin is living proof of the fallacy of this statement, and Bush, in the wake of Russia's invasion of Georgia, has been exposed, once again, as a loudmouth. The new Russia is in fact absolutely opposed to looking anything like the old West, says Strobe Talbott, who served as deputy to former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. According to Talbott, the message Putin sent to the West via Georgia consists of three partial messages. First, Russia is back on the world stage. Second, Russia wants new power, but not a return to the days of political ideology and economic autarchy. Third, Russia wants to set the terms of its integration into the new world order itself.

But this means nothing less than that the premises of American foreign policy, from former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to the current President Bush, were wrong, says Talbott. This policy was always based on the assumption, according to Talbott, that Russia wanted to allow itself to be integrated into the existing Western architecture, including NATO, the Group of Eight (G-8) Industrialized Nations, the World Trade Organization and, in the end, perhaps even the European Union. "Now we know that this premise is wrong."

This left the members of the Bush administration looking somewhat helpless as they stood in front of their star-spangled banners throughout last week's crisis, although it did not prevent them from sharply criticizing and threatening Moscow. Britain's Guardian newspaper promptly characterized the West "as a bunch of tough-talking windbags."

US Vice President Richard Cheney proved to be the supreme windbag when he said that the invasion "must not go unanswered," even though everyone in Washington knows that the only answer will be grim non-action.

The verbal escalation reached its high point last Wednesday, when Bush, escorted by Secretary of State Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, appeared at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden to read the following message: With its behavior, Russia risks its place in "the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century." At the same time, Bush announced that two military transport aircraft containing food and blankets were on their way to Tbilisi.

But that was the extent of it. When Georgia's president thanked Washington for the assistance and said that a "turning point" had occurred in the conflict, now that America was willing to defend Georgia's airports and keep its seaports open, Bush had no other choice but to make sure this was promptly denied. No one in Washington wants a military conflict with the Russian army. Even the widely read columnist Charles Krauthammer dismissed the notion. "Let's be realistic," he wrote in the Washington Post.

Politically speaking, however, the Americans now have their hands full trying to rescue the international reputation of their Georgian ally, Saakashvili. Shortly after the end of their military action, the Russians demanded his head. Tens of thousands of Georgians gathered around their president last week on Rustaveli Boulevard in Tbilisi. In a bizarre mixture of mourning and defiance, men's choirs sang solemn songs while two young girls, with fear in their eyes, held up a hand-painted sign that read: "We are not afraid of Russia."

But many Georgians are also irritated with their president, who last week led them into their greatest defeat since independence. Political forces are already waiting in the wings to bring about a change in direction.

In addition to Levan Gachechiladze, the presidential candidate who lost the election in January, two former members of the government are among Saakashvili's irreconcilable adversaries: Georgy Khaindrava, the former minister of conflict resolution, and former Foreign Minister Salomé Zourabichvili. Both resigned from the government after accusing Saakashvili of abuse of power.

Now another long-standing ally of Saakashvili is distancing himself from the autocratic leader. Nino Burjanadze, the former parliamentary speaker, accuses him of "not including the opposition in the political process." Burjanadze, who enjoys strong connections within the Georgian elite, is seen as a smart tactician. Moscow could very well accept her as a compromise candidate.

But that point hasn't been reached yet. International shuttle diplomacy is currently the order of the day. After EU Council President Nicolas Sarkozy's mediation effort, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State Rice also visited the crisis region. They explored the terrain, attempting to discover how far Putin, who has now turned over the diplomatic formalities to President Medvedev, would go.

What is happening in the Caucasus? What happens next? In the best case scenario, Moscow will withdraw its troops from Georgia. The country will survive, but Saakashvili will have to write off the contested provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia once and for all. The military adventure will likely cost Saakashvili his job, if not today, tomorrow. In the longer term, dreams of NATO membership, both for Georgia and Ukraine, will likely turn into pipe dreams.

Perhaps the rest of the world will now look more closely at the hidden spots between Europe and Asia, into provinces and ethnic groups whose names they can hardly pronounce. The West's outrage over Moscow's military escapade will likely subside in a few weeks, and even America will return to politics as usual. Washington urgently needs Russia, both to keep Iran in check and as a counterbalance to China, a rising major power. America's new president, whether it will be Democratic candidate Barack Obama or Republican John McCain, will have to seek allies again to grapple with the world's conflicts.

But Russian Prime Minister Putin is clearly the victor here, after having taken control of the Caucasus crisis decisively and efficiently, by Russian standards. The world now knows that Russia is asserting stronger claims to be a major power alongside the United States.

The war is as good as over, and Putin the military commander is withdrawing. It was Medvedev who was forced to meet with foreign dignitaries who had come to complain about the Georgian conflict. Russian state television also returned to coverage of the nominal head of state.

After completing his work, Putin returned to a more behind-the-scenes role. He was seen conferring with financial experts in the drab Moscow conference room at his headquarters. They were discussing the planning for the Russian national budget -- until 2023.

It looks like he will be around for some time to come.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.


Related SPIEGEL ONLINE links:

All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH