29 August 2008

What do they hope to achieve?

In Wednesday's Wall Street Journal Bret Stephens's column argued something we have been saying on this blog for a long time: Russia’s flaying about and bullying neighbouring smaller and weaker countries are not a sign of strength, no matter what most of the media repeats ad nauseam; it is a sign of weakness.

Putin, supposedly the strong man of Russia and of the whole Eurasian sphere, has demonstrated his and his government's weakness on a number of occasions, in the international and, more importantly, the domestic arena.
"In Russia," wrote the great scholar of Russian imperialism Dietrich Geyer many years ago, "expansion was an expression of economic weakness, not exuberant strength."

Keep this observation in mind as Vladimir Putin and his minions bask in the glow of Western magazine cover stories about Russia's "resurgence" following its splendid little war against plucky little Georgia. The Kremlin is certainly confident these days, buoyed by years of rising commodity prices and a bullying foreign policy that mistakes fear for respect -- the very combination that made the Soviet Union seem invincible in the 1970s.
Then there is the question of demography. Russia is not reproducing itself by its birthrate and has the lowest life expectancy, especially for men, in the developed world (if one can really count it as a developed country). Given that its military strategy still seems to depend on "we have more soldiers than you have bullets", the demographic factor is very important as President Putin (before he became Prime Minister) for one, had noted.

Then there is the question of the all-important oil and gas production where many things are going wrong, not least because of the Russian state determinedly taking over and gradually easing out those Western firms that could provide investment and expertise.
There's bad news here, too. Oil production is set to decline this year for the first time in a decade, a decline that is widely expected to accelerate rapidly in 2010. Of Russia's 14 largest oil fields, seven are more than 50% depleted. Production at its four largest gas fields is also in decline. Russia drilled about four million feet of new wells last year. In 1990, it drilled 17 million.

None of this is because Russia is necessarily running out of oil and gas: Existing fields could be better managed, and huge expanses of territory remain unexplored. Instead, it is a function of underinvestment, incompetence, corruption, political interference and crude profiteering. "If you're running Gazprom but you don't really own it, then your interest is in maximizing short-term profits, not long-term development," a Western diplomat told McClatchy's Tom Lasseter.

Amazingly, the system is of deliberate design, as if nothing was learned from the collapse of communism. Parastatal companies are rarely if ever efficient. Yet Mr. Putin has gone about effectively nationalizing entire industries. Foreign investors crave predictability. Yet Mr. Putin has created conditions which his own president, Dmitry Medvedev, calls "legal nihilism." Foreign customers of Russia's commodities seek reliable supplies. Yet Mr. Putin has made no secret of his willingness to turn the energy spigot off whenever it suits his political convenience.
All of which makes one wonder why Russia has chosen to flex her muscle militarily rather than, as before, through her control of energy supplies now. For the attack on Georgia was carefully planned and was not a spontaneous reaction either to the Georgian attempt to reconquer South Ossetia or to the Kosovan declaration of independence.

It is not entirely clear what advice Saakashvili was receiving from his allies in the West or from his own cabinet, some of whom may well have wanted to provoke a fight at this point, knowing that the Georgian forces were not ready to fight a strengthened 58th Army (which is not an elite organization but quite the opposite).

There is some evidence that the Russian forces were not very well equipped technically, that the Georgian air force did rather better than expected and rumours that the Georgian ground forces managed to inflict more damage than the Russians had expected. Much of their advance, in any case, came after Saakashvili had ordered the Georgian troops to stop fighting and had asked for cease-fire negotiations.

The Russians are not releasing information about the numbers that had gone in or the numbers that came out after the long-delayed adherence to the agreement supposedly brokered by President Sarkozy but largely ignored by President Medvedev. Given that those early numbers about the supposed “genocide” in South Ossetia have been discarded even by the Russian authorities, any information emanating from that source can be described safely as mere propaganda. Independent journalists are not being allowed in to the occupied territories and the fog of war seems denser than ever.

It is possible to do a preliminary summing up of the situation. As these are largely well-known facts from news stories, there seems no point in linking them as it would be difficult to decide who to link to. On the other hand, if there is a story that has not been widely published, a link will be provided.

The Russian Duma, Prime Minister and President have all announced that the two break-away autonomous republics, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, will now be independent of Georgia. This is a reversal of Russian policy so far. Despite the presence of a large number of Russian "peace-keepers" in the two areas, there has been no formal recognition of their "independence" as Russia is not too keen on that subject, having the odd problem or two of her own in the Caucasus. The names of Chechnya, Ingushetiya and, possibly, North Ossetia spring to mind.

Interestingly enough, China has distanced herself from Russia, as have the other member states of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization, though that is not how the Kremlin likes to put it.
In a joint statement, the leaders of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan said they "support the active role of Russia in assisting peace and cooperation in the region."

The six in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) also "express their deep concern over the recent tensions surrounding the South Ossetia question and call for the sides to peacefully resolve existing problems through dialogue."

Echoing language used in the West over the conflict, a portion of the statement also said the summit members supported the principle of "territorial integrity" of states.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the statement showed a "united position" on the Georgia conflict, and Kremlin officials indicated they were happy with its phrasing.

China's foreign ministry reiterated, however, its concern over Russia's decision to recognise two breakaway Georgian provinces as independent states, and experts were split on how to interpret the Dushanbe statement.
This is not good news for Russia. They were undoubtedly expecting hostility from the West, though maybe not the NATO fleet in the Black Sea, which has produced some venomous statements from President Medvedev and various military spokesmen. One would expect a certain amount of venom but the shrillness of attacks both on the United States (whose fault it all is, naturally) and on its allies from the hitherto mild and rational Russian president has taken a lot of people aback. Though I must admit that his description of the EU's carefully worded non-threat of possible sanctions as the product of a "sick" and "confused" imagination made me smile.

President Medvedev's virulent language that descended into gutter speak at times in the weeks since the beginning of the invasion of Georgia indicates either that he is prompted by Prime Minister Putin, who has always spoken in that way, or that he is trying to show himself to be as tough as his predecessor was.

Of course, the two ex-Georgian autonomous republics are not going to be independent and from various reports it would appear that this fact is beginning to dawn on the unfortunate inhabitants there. While, one assumes, many were hoping for nothing more than Russian protection, the stark truth is that they will be subsumed into the country. How anyone who lives on Russia's border can make such a mistake is a mystery. Then again, they had very few choices.

Occupation forces in the guise of peacekeepers (Russian ones only) will be positioned in both republics with many missiles in South Osssetia. Abkhazia appears to be in the process of being bought up by various Russians who have always liked holidaying in Sukhumi and its surroundings.

Over and above that, the Russians are staying in a security zone that extends 14 kms beyond the borders of the two regions. Since most of the troops have been withdrawn from Georgia, leaving behind a certain amount of devastation and, as usual, tales of extensive looting, those occupying the security zone will be a sitting target, should the Georgians decide to take a leaf out of other Caucasian people’s book. Then again, the Kremlin might welcome some attacks, in order to re-invade.

All round, this does not appear to be a sufficient reward for what may have been unpleasant fighting and for losing whatever position they may have managed to achieve in international affairs. The idea spread by the Kremlin and its busy propagandists is that the West will forget after a while, since they need Russia as a supplier of energy and in the fight against terrorism.

As for the second, Russia is a questionable ally in that she plays a complicated game, which is of little use to any other country. As for the first, Russia’s behaviour may well be encouraging more European countries to start looking round for alternative sources of energy, especially as at some point in the not too distant future Russia may well have to start making decisions on whether to continue to sell abroad and deplete the domestic market with all that entails, or to satisfy the domestic market and forego income from Europe.

Another interesting development is the defiance shown by countries that may be next on the Putin-Medvedev shopping list, such as Ukraine. This is being openly encouraged by several Western countries, with the US and Britain in the lead. Reports of the military effort that was needed to invade Georgia does not indicate that Russia is ready to move into Ukraine, a much larger and more populous country with a better equipped military.

Of course, there is the possibility of fomenting a civil war, which will result in Russian intervention to guarantee stability there as well as in the Caucasus and the detaching of Crimea to be subsumed into Russia.

In the meantime, the expression a new Cold War has taken over all public discourse, whether it is the Foreign Secretary warning Russia not to start one or President Medvedev saying that Russia is not afraid of it or simply everybody discussing whether we are heading into one or not. One wonders whether all those somewhat pompous critics of Edward Lucas's book, like the ex-ambassador, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, who was so sure that Mr Lucas did not understand Russia, are feeling a little silly at the moment. Probably not, if I know anything about ambassadors (Charles Crawford being the honourable exception).

Was this really what the Putin-Medvedev ménage had intended? Or is the whole unpleasant saga aimed, as previous foreign sorties had been, at the domestic market? Is the invasion of Georgia, in other words, yet another way of whipping up fear in the Russian population?