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Strongman Putin on the blitz

YOU have to hand it to the Bush administration. It is very ballsy. Even in its dying days, with its military stretched in the Middle East, it managed, after an initial few days of dithering and hoping the Russians would come to their senses, to find a remarkably effective response to the Russian invasion of Georgia. The US sent its military to deliver humanitarian aid to Georgia. It did this after the Russians had committed to a ceasefire. The Georgians immediately and deliberately misinterpreted the move as meaning that the US would be guarding Georgia's seaports and airports. 

No, that's not right, US spokesmen said. We're not doing that. But we do expect that the Russians will not interfere with humanitarian aid. And we will be protecting our assets.

This was a brave and dangerous move by the Americans. But it was calibrated. It was tough. And it might just do enough to keep the pro-Western Government of Georgia's President, Mikheil Saakashvili, in power.

The American move raises the stakes for everyone. It has its share of risks. But it puts the onus back on the Russians. Surely even Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at his most reckless would hesitate before killing US troops. It's one thing to attack Georgian soldiers and to murder Georgian civilians. It's another thing altogether to do that to the US Army or Marine Corps.

The American move keeps some degree of faith with the Georgian people, to whom US President George W. Bush had made extravagant promises of friendship.

Nonetheless, this is an exceptionally volatile situation. It is very difficult to work out its long-term consequences, as it is still unclear what all the parties to the conflict will be willing to settle for. It's hard to see how Putin does not emerge from his brutal power play a winner, at least a partial winner, at least in the short term. Putin has at a very minimum established total Russian dominance over the two Georgian breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. More crudely, he has made Georgia pay a fearful price for embracing a pro-Western foreign policy and a vigorous internal democracy. It may be that this is enough to satisfy Putin. The Russian leader has established a new tsarism and he is the new tsar.

Not the least of the consequences of the past week is that Putin has humiliated his own President, Dmitri Medvedev, who presents himself to the West as a moderate and even a reformer. But Putin made it absolutely clear that he is in charge, even bossing his President around in public. Russia now is not a democracy and it is not on the road to democracy. Because the Russians handled the post-communist democratic phase of the 1990s so badly, democracy now enjoys very low prestige in Russia.

There are plenty of Russian liberals but they are demoralised; and, in any event, critics of the regime in Moscow these days are either muzzled or, in some cases, killed. There is no longer an independent media. Purely because of the booming price of resources, the Russian economy is now booming. So, rather like the Chinese leaders, Putin has made raging nationalism the official ideology and attached it to authoritarianism at home and assertiveness abroad.

The Georgian Government was foolish in trying to retake South Ossetia by force, but Saakashvili claims there was repeated provocation by South Ossetian militias, acting under Russian orders.

It is in any event clear that Putin had premeditated this invasion for some time. It is also clear he wanted to smash the Georgian Government and replace it with a regime that would be compliant with Moscow's wishes on all strategic matters. He has described the collapse of the Soviet empire as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. This is pure Russian revanchism and it is a bizarre view. The Soviet empire was built by Joseph Stalin on the bodies of tens of millions of innocent people, and it was an empire of tyranny, terror and totalitarian control.

Nonetheless, Putin's view of the benign beauty of the Soviet gulag empire, combined with his ferocious military assault on Georgia, must send shivers down the spines of people in Ukraine, in the Baltic states that were formerly part of the Soviet empire, the Central Asian states in a similar category, and indeed even in other east European nations, which were only relatively recently freed from communism and Moscow's domination. It may be that Putin's deepest ambition lies in reclaiming some of those lands. Certainly Putin's savage suppression of Chechnyan independence aspirations has earned him great popularity at home.

However, until this week, Putin had shown no signs of sending Russian troops in combat beyond Russian borders. There must be a cost to Putin for what he has done, but at the same time Washington, and the leaders of western Europe, will not want to destroy their co-operative relationship with Russia altogether, if that is avoidable. What will the Georgians accept? It must be clear to them now that they have lost South Ossetia and Abkhazia for good.

Former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev has suggested almost total autonomy for these territories in loose federation with Georgia. That is the kind of deal that Georgia should have striven for, but it may no longer be available. Perhaps these territories will seek full independence, or even formal absorption into Russia. It will be impossible for Georgia, the US, the European Union or anyone else to stop this.

But it may be that the flow of American aid, and the presence of American troops in delivering that aid, as well as European support, allows Georgia to reconsolidate and rebuild on its remaining territory. This always should have been the priority for any sensible Georgian government. Disputed sovereignty is very difficult to resolve. There are normally only two methods. One is a savage war of conquest and subjugation. This option, apart from being morally abhorrent, is certainly not practically available to the Georgians. The other solution is decades of normalisation and economic development. This method is slow but it's peaceful and it sometimes works.

One of the most foolish elements of this dispute is the way so many Western commentators, not least in Australia, have resorted to their Pavlovian response of blaming Bush for everything that goes wrong in the world. Putin invades Georgia, so who is to blame? Naturally, Bush and the US, who else? I wonder what these commentators will do when Bush is no longer President. The centrepiece of their whole psycho-political system will disappear.

The US has huge interests at stake with Georgia, not least the future of democracy in that part of the world. If the US abandoned Georgia in its time of travail, its credibility would be severely compromised.

Now, it is important to recognise that the Russians bear the entire moral and political responsibility for their actions. Nonetheless, without engaging in the bargain-basement Noam Chomsky blame-America-for-everything syndrome, it is fair to ask if the US has made mistakes in its Georgian policy.

I think the US made three important mistakes. The first, under Bill Clinton, was not to realise how much of a stake the US had in Russian success in the '90s, when Russia was a democracy. The Russians bear primary responsibility for how they conducted their affairs in that decade but, surely, more effective policy advice could have been given by the US.

The second mistake, and the biggest, was expanding NATO up to Russia's borders. As the redoubtable Rich Armitage has often observed, an alliance means I'll fight and die for you and you'll fight and die for me. NATO involved that kind of commitment. The US risked nuclear war to protect West Germany, France, Britain and so on. I never believed the commitment to the new NATO members was as solid as this, and therefore the coin of US alliances, on which the whole global system depends, was cheapened. Further, it gave promises to east Europeans that may turn out to be false. Moreover, it inevitably contributed to Russian paranoia. Forestalling Georgia's likely membership of NATO next year was surely part of Putin's motivation.

Finally, when Washington gets as close to a government as it did to Saakashvili's in Georgia, and embraces it as a de facto ally, it assumes some responsibility for its military behaviour. At the very least Saakashvili exhibited very poor judgment in providing Putin with a pretext for invasion.

There are things Russia can lose from all this: membership of the World Trade Organisation, membership of the Group of Eight industrialised nations. They are not first order considerations but they are not insignificant. The US and Europe together need to get Putin to pull back to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and get Saakashvili to accept the loss of those territories. They must then work again at encouraging the liberal and humane instincts that still exist in the Russian polity.

It is a giant task. Success is not remotely guaranteed.

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