Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Goons of August

Ralph Peters stands in awe of Vladimir Putin based on his invasion of Georgia this August. Peters calls Putin "the world's most effective national leader in power. He also might be the most misunderstood." He goes on:

As a former intelligence officer myself, I'm awed by his ability to analyze opponents and anticipate their reactions to his gambits (Russia is, of course, a nation of chess masters). Preparing for the dismemberment of Georgia, the prime minister accurately calculated the behavior of that country's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, of President Bush, of the European Union and of the Russian people. He knew he could get away with it.

Putin has a quality found in elite intelligence personnel: the ability to discard all preconceptions when scrutinizing a target. And when he decides to strike, he doesn't look back. This is not good news for his opponents, foreign or domestic.

Among the many reasons we misjudge Putin is our insistence on seeing him as "like us." He's not. His stage-management of the Georgia invasion was a perfect example: Western intelligence agencies had been monitoring Russian activities in the Caucasus for years and fully expected a confrontation. Even so, our analysts assumed that Russia wouldn't act during this summer's Olympics, traditionally an interval of peace.

Putin had been conditioned to read the strategic cards differently: The world's attention would be focused on the Games, and key world leaders would be in Beijing, far from their crisis-management staffs. Europe's bureaucrats and senior NATO officials would be on their August vacations. The circumstances were ideal.

Peters has it wrong and misunderstands the outcome of the Russian-Georgia War of 2008. War is not chess. The rules of war and politics are not nearly so clean and mechanical.

Putin achieved success at the tactical level--he gained the element of surprise when he attacked Georgia as the Olympics began. But what has Russia actually achieved by fighting this war?

Russia now has South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But Putin had those on August 6th. He didn't need to invade Georgia to get these bits of empire.

Did Putin get rid of President Saakashvili? No. A stream of NATO leaders, planes, and warships have gone to Georgia in support of Georgia's independence. Putin started to take Tbilisi. But he did not take Tbilisi.

Did Putin keep Georgia out of NATO? Well, in the spring, NATO seemed to be putting the Georgians off, perhaps indefinitely. Today NATO tells the world that Russia can't stop other nations from joining NATO. And honestly, by settling the immediate status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, we get to lay down the law to Georgia to get over those scraps of land and get on with their future. NATO won't fight Russia to regain them for Georgia. But Georgia can prosper in the West just as West Germany prospered without East Germany and South Korea prospered without North Korea. In fifty years, if Georgia plays their cards right, Georgia won't want those basket case client states of Moscow.

Did Putin intimidate the West? No, again. Europe hasn't been Patton-like in its response, but NATO will move to let Georgia and Ukraine in if they wish. And these NATO countries and others near Russia got a wake up call to arm up and draw closer to America. Our defensive missiles will go in Poland and our radars in the Czech Republic. The Baltic states want us on their soil. Shoot, how long before Sweden wants to join NATO?

Even Russia's Near Abroad in central Asia has cozied up to a disapproving China and won't be in the homeland by Christmas. The Chinese don't like the precedent of regions being carved out of the home nation as Putin did to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, lest Taiwanese and Tibetans and others get the wrong idea about who is in charge. Even Mini-Me Belorus wasn't exactly cheering on Putin.

To add insult to injury, Russia now needs to arm up its rotting military as neighbors move to defend themselves. Too bad about the price of oil dropping so much since the July peaks, eh? Good timing on that aggressive Russia policy, Putin. Foreign investment is fleeing Russia and we shall see if the people of Russia still love their splendid little war in a few years. Putin will find he is ill-prepared to wage a geopolitical war of attrition against his neighbors who are not intimidated by his display of aggression.

Further, the war has put the lie to Prime Minister Putin's fiction that he stepped down as president and turned over the reins of power to President Medvedev. We talk about Putin's Russia, as it remains. Medvedev is reduced to hand puppet status. I have to ask the question, how long will Medvedev go along with being the guy with the fanciest stationery who gets to speak to visiting heads of state and not the guy with the military and political power of Russia? Might not Medvedev begin to use what little power Putin left the presidency to begin a power struggle with Putin?

So in the end, Georgia was not a road to Russian domination of the West, the reincorporation of the Near Abroad, or even the absorption of Georgia alone--the tactical target of the August attack. And perhaps the seeds of civil strife within Russia were cultivated just a little bit by humiliating Medvedev as nothing but a messenger boy for Putin. Perhaps Russia, still a vast continent-spanning country, isn't done fragmenting.

This is how the aftermath of the war seems to be going right now. Since when is tactical success and strategic blunder given such a high mark? Remember that Japan's Pearl Harbor attack still looked pretty bad for America as 1942 opened. By 1945, nobody thought much of that brilliance.

I'm just not impressed with Putin's alleged effectiveness.

UPDATE: Secretary Gates isn't very impressed with Russia's war effort, either:

Russia's recent military action in Georgia was a Pyrrhic victory -- costing Moscow far more in the long term than any short-term gains it achieved.

"The Russian leadership might seek to exorcise past humiliations and aspire to recapture past glory along with past territory," he said. "But mauling and menacing small democracies does not a great power make."

Don't over-estimate their power. But don't under-estimate their desire to reclaim their past glory--and territory.