When Russian tanks rolled into Georgia and its fighter bombers and artillery bombarded Gori, the Kremlin well knew it was declaring that the Cold War had restarted. The Russian view is that the West has been well warned and if it didn’t want to recognize the fact, that was its problem.
Europe’s capitals and Washington are contorting themselves in avoiding the obvious. No matter the final outcome of the outrageously unequal political and military contest between Georgia and Russia, Moscow’s gauntlet has been thrown in the face of the West in general and the United States in particular.
Russia, still effectively led by KGB-trained and experienced Vladimir Putin, decided to teach a lesson to all of its former Soviet entities and satellites, with Georgia as an example. NATO also has been sent a message in regard to any planned expansion, most particularly in Ukraine.
The West Europeans, minus the still steadfast British, would like to whitewash current events and pretend there really is still plenty of room to negotiate a reasonable solution to this unreasonable situation. Thus they want to ignore that Moscow is perfectly happy to launch another Cold War now that it has the economic leverage to do so. The Russians have calculated the economic counteraction available to the West and have found the balance to be clearly in Moscow’s favor.
IT HAS BEEN ARGUED that the importance of oil and gas received through Russian-controlled pipelines to Europe is matched by the needed revenue that Russia gains. Supposedly this should deter Moscow from contemplating a cutoff of oil and gas shipments. But the leverage doesn’t equalize even if the equation is valid. The energy supply is more important to Europe in times of crisis than the revenue is to Russia.
Among other things, the Kremlin leadership has calculated that the Russian people are prepared to accept deprivation if it is blamed on the West to a far greater extent than the Europeans can deal with life without adequate energy supplies. This is Putin’s essential calculus. Russia can have its Cold War, flex its national muscle, and regain the international super power status it once had. Effectively the Kremlin is putting geopolitics before economics.
Washington, in the form of the next administration, has been given a clear warning that Russia will no longer be a junior player in the international power league. Interestingly, former Clinton stalwarts such as Richard Holbrooke and Madeleine Albright — possibly to toughen the Obama foreign affairs image — have been quick to take the bait and have called for a hard American line.
Lawrence Eagleburger, the pragmatic Secretary of State late in the first Bush presidency, has been far more circumspect in characterizing the Georgian issue as ultimately a matter for the Europeans to handle. He sees U.S. involvement with Georgia beyond humanitarian assistance and diplomatic pressure to be unsustainable. Russia knows the U.S. is in no position to respond militarily and has little to gain politically unless it is firmly backed by the European Union.
The Kremlin would like to provoke the future White House into a contest of wills. This is especially true in respect to Ukraine’s NATO ambitions. The eastern half of that former Soviet republic is very much oriented to Russia, economically and politically. Any outbreak of dissidence in the style of South Ossetia will certainly bring in the full might of the Russian army.
PUTIN’S SILOVIKI YEARN for the challenge. The invasion of Georgia has been their declaration that Moscow is reasserting traditional spheres of influence, as Defense Secretary Gates has forcefully noted. He is well aware that one of the objectives of Moscow is to obtain bargaining leverage to force the U.S. to halt the proposed emplacement of ten anti-missile batteries in Poland.
In historical terms Russia is playing the Great Power politics of the 19th century. It believes it has its principal rival, America, in the position of not being able to do anything at all other than threaten economically.
The Cold War gambit again suits the Russian chess players, and they are quite eager to get the game moving. The United States must decide whether it wishes to participate — and if so, to what extent. Or will the next Washington administration decide to leave history in the hands of the Europeans this time? And does any American White House any longer really have that choice?