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.


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