At Large

The Growling Bear

He doesn't care who wins this fall.

By 9.5.08

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With the pundits questioning the next Washington administration's ability to handle the reborn aggressive and demanding Russia, the Putin/Medvedev junta has made clear their intentions. President (pro-tem) Dmitry Medvedev has defiantly said, "We're not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a new Cold War."

The Russian leaders really don't care who is running the United States. They are committed to getting their country once again recognized as a political equal to America -- thus again a true international power. Vladimir Putin, ever the tough guy, will challenge John McCain, the fighter jock, or alternatively will have his acolyte Medvedev intellectualize and con Barack Obama. They have it all clearly figured out.

In the meantime Putin has taken the traditional Czarist position of building support within the armed forces. Invading Georgia was a gift preceded by several years of massive materiel buildup and promotions at key positions from non-coms to field grade officers. No longer does the former security chief have to rely solely on his ex-KGB siloviki. Obviously Putin believes a happy army is a Russian leader's best friend, even if he has the intelligence services in hand.

Putin has persisted in pursuing the line that Washington was behind the entire Georgian situation. He posed the sarcastic question during a recent CNN interview when asked about the U.S. role: "Why seek a difficult compromise solution in the peacekeeping process? It's easier [for the U.S.] to arm one of the sides and provoke it into killing another side...and the job is done."

Apparently the Kremlin's effort to shift the ultimate responsibility for the Russian invasion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to being a response to American aggression has not worked with China or the other central Asian summit members meeting in Tajikistan. This group of former Soviet republics plus China refused to support Medvedev's personal plea for approval of the Russian action in Georgia nor approve of Moscow's decision to recognize the independence of the two breakaway territories.

The concept of supporting claims for independence by regions ethnically different from the central government is clearly inconsistent with China's own policy. More importantly, however, Russia had failed in its effort to put a benign face on what was an obvious power play to exert Moscow's authority in the post-Soviet environment.

The Putin/Medvedev thought process appears to be to gain leverage over that group of former Soviet republics and contiguous states that they refer to as the "near abroad." By not granting such suzerainty, the Western nations are said to have insulted and, to use Putin's own term, sought to humiliate the post-Soviet Russia. Imperial Russia lives in the hearts of all those recent ex-communists.

That is the crux of the matter. Russia still yearns for the days of the Czars, and most particularly the successful ones. St. Petersburg is named that for a reason. Of course the average citizen doesn't want the exploitation that was part and parcel of the past authoritarian regimes, communist or czarist. But they do revere, and follow, the strong leader, even if he is heading an autocratic government.

Democracy for Putin and his team of born-again disciples means using the devices of the electoral system to manipulate government so as to remain forever in power. It is not a unique bastardization of the democratic process, but the post-Soviet Russians really caught on quickly. The problem is that their apologists blithely characterize the Russian application as not much different from what goes on elsewhere.

Killing and "disappearing" journalists, assassination of dissident former security officials and ethnic leaders, imprisonment for oligarchs unwilling to turn their criminal gains over to the government's preferred criminal oligarchs are the sine qua non of the "reformist" Putin/Medvedev regime. These are typical incidents in a nation that pretends its misfortunes are all a result of the humiliation heaped on them by the West following the fall of their beloved and misunderstood communist empire.

The next American administration is going to have to deal with an increasingly paranoiac Russia as it oil production, which desperately needs substantial new investment, begins to deteriorate. Russia's corrupt bureaucracy and exploitive commercial taxation have made foreign investment and needed technical assistance in Russia's energy sector increasingly questionable.

Medvedev, as the former chairman of the gas giant Gazprom, knows well the government has been killing the goose that laid the golden egg. Putin's pretense to political sovereignty over any state with Russian ethnic minorities (e.g. Baltic States, Ukraine, etc.) further endangers Russia's investment attraction.

The next American administration will have to deal with a Russia under stress. The bear will be growling.

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.