The perilous bargains that keep Putin in power

Timothy Frye
Foreign Affairs, May/June 2021

For 21 years, Vladimir Putin has reigned supreme over Russian politics. A skillful manipulator of public opinion, he wields the blunt force of repression against opponents at home and the sharp power of cyber-operations and espionage campaigns against enemies abroad. Increasingly, Western analysts and officials portray him as all-powerful, a ruthless former KGB man who imposes his will on Russia from behind dark sunglasses. This narrative, which the Kremlin goes out of its way to reinforce, is tempting to believe. Putin has jailed the closest thing he has to a political rival — the opposition leader Alexei Navalny — and crushed a wave of protests by Navalny’s supporters. Putin’s intelligence agencies brazenly hacked the U.S. government, and his troops are gradually eroding U.S. influence everywhere from Libya to Syria to Ukraine.

But if Putin is unrivaled at home, he is not omnipotent. Like all autocrats, he faces the dual threats of a coup from elites around him and a popular revolt from below. And because of the compromises he has had to make to consolidate his personal control over the state, Putin’s tools for balancing the competing goals of rewarding elites who might otherwise conspire against him and appeasing the public are becoming less and less effective. He has weakened institutions such as courts, bureaucracies, elections, parties and legislatures so that they cannot constrain him, meaning that he cannot rely on them to generate economic growth, resolve social conflicts, or even facilitate his peaceful exit from office. This leaves Putin dependent on the fleeting commodity of personal popularity and the hazardous methods of repression and propaganda.

Those who acknowledge these vulnerabilities frequently note that Putin is “playing a weak hand well.” But Putin has dealt his own hand, and it is weak primarily because of the tradeoffs inherent to regimes like the one he has built. Eventually, he will have to decide whether to continue the same balancing act, skillfully playing his weak hand even as it gradually diminishes his power, or try to strengthen his hand by introducing economic reforms that will threaten his core constituencies in the security services, the bureaucracy, and the private sector.

Putin was buoyed by an oil-fueled economic boom that sharply raised living standards in his first decade in office and a wave of nationalist sentiment following the annexation of Crimea in his second. As the sheen on these achievements has begun to wear off, however, Putin, in his third decade in office, has increasingly come to rely on repression to neutralize opponents both big and small. This trend will likely intensify as Russia’s problems mount, accelerating a cycle of political violence and economic malaise that could stymie Putin’s great-power ambitions and test his political skill.

The narrative of Putin as all-powerful is sustained in part by analysts who believe that to understand autocracy, one must understand the autocrat. Putinologists analysis makes for a compelling story of Putin’s Russia, but it does not explain all that much. After all, Putin was just as much an ex-KGB man in the early years of this century, when he favored liberal economic policies and better relations with the West, as he is today, with his strident anti-Western stance. More important, Russian politics follow patterns common to a subset of authoritarian regimes that political scientists call “personalist autocracies.” Studying this type of system, rather than studying the man himself, is the best way to understand Putin’s Russia.

Personalist autocracies are, as the name suggests, run by lone individuals. They frequently have political parties, legislatures, and influential militaries, but power over important personnel or policy decisions always resides with one person at the top. The former Soviet space has proved especially hospitable to personalist autocrats: such leaders currently rule Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Globally, personalist autocracies are now the most common type of autocracy, outnumbering both one-party regimes, such as those in Singapore and Vietnam, and military regimes, such as Myanmar’s.

Personalist autocracies exhibit a host of pathologies that are familiar to Russia watchers. They have higher levels of corruption than one-party or military autocracies and slower economic growth, greater repression, and less stable policies. Rulers in personalist autocracies also have a common toolkit: they stoke anti-Western sentiment to rally their base, distort the economy to benefit cronies, target political opponents using the legal system, and expand executive power at the expense of other institutions. They create new security organizations that report directly to them and appeal to popular support rather than free and fair elections to legitimize their authority.

These tendencies are readily explicable when one considers what personalist autocrats stand to lose if they leave office. The leaders of military dictatorships can retreat to the barracks, and the heads of one-party dictatorships can retire to plum posts in the party, but personalist dictators enjoy their wealth and influence only as long as they stay in power. And once they relinquish it, they are at the mercy of their successors, who rarely want once formidable rivals waiting in the wings. Over the last 70 years, personalist autocrats who lost power have tended to end up in exile, in jail, or dead.

The similarities between Putin and other personalist dictators do not end with his worries about removal. Like his Filipino, Hungarian, Turkish, Venezuelan and Central Asian counterparts, he has gradually eroded the powers of the legislature, subdued independent media, subverted elections, and usurped authority from previously powerful regional officials. Last year, Putin pushed through changes to Russia’s constitution that will allow him to run for office in 2024 and 2030. Given the potential downsides of leaving office as a personalist autocrat, this effort to prolong his rule came as little surprise. Faced with similar term limits, every personalist autocrat in the former Soviet Union has made the same choice.

But by undercutting the kinds of political institutions that constrain executive power, Putin has reduced certainty about policy and increased the vulnerability of elites. As a result, investors prefer to park their capital in safe havens outside Russia, and many young Russians have taken their significant human capital abroad. Even superrich Russians feel vulnerable: they hold far more of their wealth in cash and have more volatile incomes than do their peers in other countries, and they have resisted the Kremlin’s calls to bring their capital home.

Without strong formal institutions to legitimate his rule, Putin relies on great personal popularity to deter challenges from elites and keep protesters off the street. Over the last 20 years, Putin’s approval ratings have averaged a remarkable 74 percent, and there is little reason to believe that Russians are lying to pollsters in large numbers. But these high approval ratings were largely driven by the economic boom that doubled the size of Russia’s economy between 1998 and 2008 and the unique foreign policy success of annexing Crimea in 2014. Since 2018, Putin’s popularity has wavered. His approval ratings remain in the mid-60s, but Russians express far less trust in him than they have in the past. In a November 2017 poll, when asked to name five politicians they trusted, 59 percent of respondents named Putin; in February 2021, just 32 percent did so. During the same interval, support for a fifth Putin term fell from 70 percent to 48 percent, with 41 percent of Russians surveyed now saying that they would prefer he step down.

Putin is constrained not just by his need for high approval ratings but also by the challenges of governing a modern society with an unwieldy bureaucracy. Russia’s enormous size and bureaucratic complexity mean that Putin inevitably must delegate some decision-making authority to lower-level officials, all of whom have their own interests. And because Russia’s state institutions are weak, Putin must also work with powerful businesspeople who are more keen to make money than to serve the state. As Putin’s authority is channeled down through this chain of bureaucrats, businesspeople and spies who may or may not share his preferences, slippage inevitably occurs, and policies do not always get implemented the way he would have preferred.

The problem gets worse when the Kremlin seeks to maintain plausible deniability. To covertly supply rebels in eastern Ukraine, for instance, Putin partnered with Konstantin Malofeev, a Russian oligarch who allegedly funded a band of private mercenaries that maintained indirect ties to the Russian military. In July 2014, however, these rebels appear to have inadvertently shot down a Malaysian commercial airliner, killing almost 300 passengers and crew members.

In order to camouflage its cyberattacks, the Kremlin similarly relies on hackers who work for private-sector front companies but who answer to the Russian security services. In 2016, it was the sloppiness of these hackers that allowed the United States to identify Russia as the source of the Democratic National Committee hack. The Russia analyst Mark Galeotti has dubbed the Kremlin’s outsourcing of dirty work to groups with murky ties to the state “adhocracy.” This method of statecraft hides Moscow’s hand, but it also loosens its grip on policy.

The Kremlin struggles with more mundane tasks, as well. In 2012, Putin issued a detailed set of targets to increase economic growth, improve bureaucratic efficiency, and support social programs. That these decrees were poorly formulated was one indication of the bureaucracy’s weakness. But even more telling was the lack of follow-through. On the five-year anniversary of these decrees, Sergei Mironov, then the head of the Kremlin-friendly party A Just Russia, reported that the bureaucracy had implemented just 35 of the 179 decrees monitored by his committee in parliament. Autocrats have long struggled to elicit honest information from their subordinates and make sure their policies have taken hold, and Putin is no exception.

Imperiled and constrained by the very compromises that enable them to amass power, personalist autocrats struggle to balance defending against the two main threats to their rule: coups by the political elite and protests by the public. Those in the leader’s inner circle typically have a stake in the regime’s survival. This is true of Putin’s cronies, who have become rich beyond their dreams. But these elites also pose a potential threat. Cronies can capture personalist autocrats who lean too heavily on them for support. Moreover, rare is the political insider who thinks he could not do a better job than his boss, if given the chance. According to the political scientists Barbara Geddes, Joseph Wright, and Erica Frantz, between 1945 and 2012, leaders of nondemocracies were more than twice as likely to be replaced by an elite coup as by a popular revolt.

Autocrats also face threats from below in the form of protests. The “color revolutions” toppled rulers in Georgia in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kyrgyzstan in 2005. Few worries animate the Kremlin more than the possibility of a popular uprising, and many analysts argue that it was the large protests against corruption and electoral fraud in 2011 and 2012 that prompted the Kremlin to sharply increase the penalties for attending and organizing protests.

These dual threats put Putin in a bind, because steps that might reduce the risk of a coup by elites can increase the risk of a popular revolt, and vice versa. Investment in the security services that buys the loyalty of elites may necessitate cuts to social services that stoke popular anger and risk igniting protests. Conversely, generous social programs that placate the public and forestall a revolt may require cuts to state spending that anger regime insiders and make a palace coup more likely. In general, Putin must walk a narrow line between allowing his cronies to engage in enough corruption and self-dealing to keep them loyal and promoting sufficiently broad-based economic growth to keep the public from protesting.

Putin likely knows that he could boost economic growth by charting a less assertive foreign policy. He continues to challenge the West, and the United States in particular, to boost his popularity among nationalist voters. But as with all of Putin’s strategies for managing threats to his rule, stoking patriotic sentiments comes at a cost — in this case, broad-based economic growth.

Like all personalist autocrats, Putin has relatively blunt tools for managing the tradeoffs inherent to his position. He has succeeded in exerting control over the media, but he is no master manipulator. If he were, public opinion would more closely mirror the Kremlin’s line on foreign policy. The Kremlin has also conducted a noisy anti-American campaign in recent years, but Russians are about as likely to hold a positive view of the United States as they are to hold a negative view. According to a January 2020 opinion poll, two-thirds of Russians believe their government should view the West as a partner rather than a rival or an enemy. Attempts by the Kremlin to shift blame for Russia’s economic malaise to foreign countries have largely fallen flat, and few Russians believe that their government is capable of improving their economic situation. In what Russians call “the battle between the television and the refrigerator,” the latter is winning.

Putin retains the trump card of force, a card he has played with increasing frequency as the economy has stagnated and the warm glow of the annexation of Crimea has faded. Since 2018, the Kremlin has dealt with political opposition far more harshly than in the past, making it harder for independent candidates to run for even local office and using force against protesters as a rule rather than an exception. In late 2020 and early 2021, the Kremlin further restricted protest activity, sharply increased penalties for unsanctioned protests, expanded the definition of “foreign agents,” and made slander on the Internet punishable by up to two years in jail. The arrest of Navalny, his sentencing to almost three years in prison, and the brutal treatment of those protesting on his behalf are the logical extension of this repressive trend.

Skillful repression has helped keep Putin in office and pushed the political opposition to the margins, but it has done little to resolve the underlying problems that threaten his power. It has not promoted economic growth, strengthened property rights, or reduced corruption. On the contrary, it has made the problems worse by empowering the security services and the corrupt government officials who benefit most from them, and it has encouraged the flight of human and economic capital, which are essential to economic growth and good governance. Emblematic of this issue is the fact that in 2018, Russia spent more on prisons and less on prisoners than any other country in Europe.

The parliamentary elections slated for September are likely to be fraught. Approval ratings for the ruling United Russia party are lower than ever, and so the Kremlin will need to clamp down on the opposition while also keeping the regime-friendly Communist Party and Liberal Democratic Party in the fold. And relying on excessive voter fraud would be risky. After a stolen election last year, neighboring Belarus saw months of protests, a fate the Kremlin would like to avoid.

Looking further down the road, the expectation that Putin will stay on as president past 2024 will only reinforce Russia’s economic stagnation and heighten popular frustration over the Kremlin’s inability to raise living standards or improve governance. The result will most likely be a steady increase in pressure on the regime and in repression against its opponents.

Russia remains a great power, albeit a diminished one. Although Leonid Brezhnev, who led the Soviet Union at the height of its global power, would be appalled by the country’s current military capabilities and geopolitical status, Boris Yeltsin, who inherited a country in collapse, would view them with envy. Russia’s nuclear might, geography, and seat on the UN Security Council ensure that it ranks among the great powers — as do its educational, scientific, and energy prowess. The country has more college graduates as a proportion of its population than almost any member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. It produced an effective COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year, and it will provide Europe with low-cost energy for years to come and remain a major player in global energy markets. Those who dismiss Russia as a regional power are mistaken.

Putin faces no immediate threat to his rule. He is a deft tactician with considerable financial resources facing a disorganized opposition. Yet no amount of shrewdness can overcome the agonizing trade-offs of running Russia the way he does. Cheat enough in elections so that you don’t risk losing, but not so much that it signals weakness. Rile up the base with anti-Western moves, but not to the extent that it provokes an actual conflict with the West. Reward cronies through corruption, but not so much that the economy collapses. Manipulate the news, but not to the point where people distrust the media. Repress political opponents, but not enough to spark a popular backlash. Strengthen the security services, but not so much that they can turn on you. How the Kremlin balances these tradeoffs will determine Russia’s immediate future. But the trend toward greater repression over the last four years, and its likely continuation, does not bode well for Russia or its leader.

This article has been edited for space and was published in PeaceMeal, May/June 2021.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Russia remains top threat to U.S. homeland, general says

The four-star general who oversees the military command dedicated to defending the U.S. from attack says Russia remains the most “acute challenge to our homeland defense mission,” even as attention turns to China as the biggest emerging threat. “Russian leaders seek to erode our influence, assert their regional dominance, and reclaim their status as a global power through a whole-of-government strategy that includes information opera-tions, deception, economic coercion and the threat of military force,” Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the head of Northern Command, said in written testimony on March 16 to the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The continuing military challenges posed by Russia took a back seat during President Donald Trump’s administration, and China continues to be described by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as the “pacing threat” that will determine the capabilities needed by the U.S. But it’s Russia that “continues to conduct frequent military operations in the approaches to North America,” VanHerck said. The U.S. and Canada last year “responded to more Russian military flights off the coast of Alaska than we’ve seen in any year since the end of the Cold War” in the early 1990s. These Russian military operations include multiple flights of heavy bombers, antisubmarine aircraft and intelligence collection platforms near Alaska that show “Russia’s military reach and how they rehearse potential strikes on our homeland,” VanHerck said.

In recent years, Russia has deployed “advanced cyber and counter-space weapons and a new generation of long-range and highly precise land-attack cruise missiles, including hypersonics” that “complicate our ability to detect and defend against an inbound attack from the air, sea and even those originating from Russian soil,” he said.

Russia hopes to field a series of even more advanced weapons “intended to ensure its ability” to attack the U.S., including the “Poseidon transoceanic nuclear torpedo and the Burevestnik nuclear-powered cruise missile which — if perfected — could enable strikes from virtually any vector due to its extreme range and endurance,” VanHerck said.

– edited from Bloomberg, March 16, 2021
PeaceMeal, March/April 2021

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100,000 flee ‘worsening oppression’ as Russia tightens grip on Crimea

Russia’s occupation of Crimea has caused about 100,000 people to flee the territory — twice as many as had been thought — according to new figures compiled by a Ukrainian charity. The number of fugitives has jumped in the last two months because of “worsening repression.”From the moment that Russian troops fanned out across Crimea and seized the region from Ukraine in March 2014, those who were unwilling to accept the Kremlin’s rule began to leave. Most settled elsewhere in Ukraine, including the capital, Kiev.

New evidence suggests this exodus was significantly larger than had been thought. About 21,000 people from Crimea are officially registered in Ukraine as “internally displaced,” but many more are known to be undocumented. The total number of fugitives from Crimea was probably between 50,000 and 60,000, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, a Geneva-based group.

But Tamila Tasheva, the cofounder and coordinator of Crimea SOS, a Ukrainian charity, said the real figure was as high as 100,000. “There are more and more people leaving Crimea as the repression becomes worse,” she said. “Our offices are full of requests and applications for help for people and their children.”

If so, about five percent of Crimea’s entire population has fled, representing an almost unprecedented departure from a region that has not suffered war or natural disaster.

As for why this outflow is taking place, campaigners point to Russia’s escalating campaign against dissent. Arrests and unexplained disappearances have become routine in Crimea. No one is regarded with greater suspicion than the Tatar minority, a 230,000-strong community viewed as the original inhabitants of the territory.

In 1944, the Tatars were deported from Crimea and resettled in Soviet Central Asia. They lived in exile until the 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev allowed them to return. Having suffered so grievously at the hands of the Kremlin, Tatars are presumed to oppose the return of Russian rule.

Alim, a 17-year-old Tatar, is one of the fugitives from Crimea. Along with his family, he left for the safety of Kiev a year ago. “It was uncomfortable being in Crimea. I was afraid to say something wrong,” he explained. “I was studying in a Ukrainian school and they converted it into a Russian school with the Russian language.”

Alim, who did not wish his full name to be disclosed, added, “I was afraid because I had pro- Ukrainian views. The Russian security forces were everywhere. If they hear you saying something wrong then, I don’t know, there could be a bad reaction.”

The evidence suggests that the pace of departures is quickening again. Last November, the Kiev office of Crimea SOS received only 14 requests for help from displaced people. The following month, it recorded no requests at all. But in April this year, by contrast, 183 people contacted the charity to ask for assistance. Another 97 did so in May.

“There is an atmosphere of fear in Crimea. That’s why citizens feel forced to leave," said Ms. Tasheva.

Last year, Russia prevented the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe from sending a human rights assessment mission to Crimea. The group gathered evidence elsewhere in Ukraine and interviewed people remotely inside Crimea. They concluded that Russian rule had “dramatically impacted” the “human rights and fundamental freedoms” of all residents of Crimea, particularly those “who were opposed to the annexation.”

Russia, however, points to Ukraine’s own behavior to explain any hardships. Last November, Ukraine’s government cut off Crimea’s electricity, leaving the region in darkness for over two weeks. Russia has since been able to guarantee Crimea’s power supply.

But Ms. Tasheva pointed out that Russia, as the occupying power, has legal responsibility for the welfare of the region’s people. “Of course we might name Ukraine as responsible because they don’t make life easier for the people of Crimea,” she said. “But Russia is ultimately responsible because they are occupying the territory.”

– edited from The Telegraph (U.K.), June 11, 2016
PeaceMeal, July/August 2016

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Putin signs tough anti-protest law

ST. PETERSBURG – Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law on June 8 a bill to hugely increase fines for people who take part in protests that violate public order. He took the action just days ahead of the next rally planned against his 12-year rule. Participants in protests where public order is violated could now face fines of 300,000 rubles ($9,100) — more than the average annual salary — and the organizers of such rallies could be fined up to 1 million rubles. The fine for participants used to be 1,000 rubles ($30).

Putin claimed there was nothing in the new law that was tougher than similar legislation in in a number of European Union countries, including Britain, Germany, France and Spain. He told a meeting of the country’s top judges in his native St. Petersburg that he decided to sign the bill despite objections from his own human rights adviser Mikhail Fedotov, who asked the president to veto it.

Opposition leaders said the Kremlin rushed the law through so that it could be in place before the opposition demonstration planned for the following Tuesday. Putin’s opponents said the bill could radicalize the opposition movement.

– edited from Reuters, June 8, 2012
PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2012

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Bloggers breach Russian rocket plant

MOSCOW – Russia’s deputy prime minister vowed in December to punish “sleepy” security officials after bloggers posted dozens of photos of an apparently unguarded, strategic military rocket-motor factory near Moscow. Blogger Lana Sator said she and friends met not a soul, much less any security guards, as they roamed around state rocket-maker Energomash’s plant, snapping pictures on five separate night-time excursions in recent months. She posted almost 100 pictures of decrepit-looking hardware from inside a rusted engine-fuel testing tower, the plant’s control room, and even its roof at:

Russian media cited a senior space agency official, speaking anonymously, who described the breach as a shock of the same scale as German pilot Mathias Rust’s brazen Cessna flight under Soviet radar to land on Red Square in 1987. “It showed a complete inability to protect anything whatsoever,” the official told Izvestia.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said the security failure was “unacceptable,” warning in a televised meeting with Vladimir Popovkin, chief of the space agency Roskosmos, that “sleepy cats” who failed to maintain security at strategic defense sites faced punishment. Rogozin, just appointed in December to oversee the Russian defense and space sectors, also criticized Roskosmos for a string of humiliating launch failures that marred the 2011 celebrations of 50 years since Yuri Gagarin’s first human space flight.

On February 1, 2011, a Rokot carrier rocket failed to send a military satellite to the designed orbit. On August 18, a Proton rocket carrying a $265-million communications satellite failed to reach the planned orbit. Only one week later, an unmanned Progress cargo ship crashed due to a rocket malfunction, thereby failing to reach the International Space Station with needed supplies. And what was to be post-Soviet Russia’s debut interplanetary mission to Mars’s moon Phobos, carrying a Chinese micro-satellite, was launched on Noember 9 but also failed to reach the intended orbit.

– edited from Reuters and Xinhua
PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2012

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Bush’s Cold War redux

President George W. Bush lit a match re-igniting Cold War tensions in November 2006 with his plan to put missiles into Eastern Europe as part of an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system — ostensibly to defend Europe and the United States against an alleged threat of attack from Iran. The plan is to deploy radar to track incoming missiles in the Czech Republic and 10 silo-based interceptor missiles in Poland.

Russia reacted to the announced plan with alarm. Russian President Vladimir Putin had already been sensitive to Russia’s loss of superpower status and the Bush administration’s military expansionism. He repeatedly warned about “those who would like to build a unipolar world, who would themselves like to rule all of humanity.” Last year he denounced NATO’s 1999 admission of nations from Russia’s former sphere of influence — Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland. Two of those nations are the very ones Pres. Bush has now recruited for his ABM outpost. The head of the Russian armed forces’ general staff, General Yuri Baluyevsky, observed, “An ABM area near Europe’s Russian borders is an unfriendly step, to put it mildly.”

The alleged Iranian threat is non-existent. Iran has no inter-continental ballistic missile capable of reaching Europe, much less the United States — which is good, because the U.S. “midcourse” interception ABM system doesn’t work. After 25 years of development and more than $120 billion dissipated, President Reagan’s “Star Wars” fantasy of shooting down a bullet with a bullet amounts to nothing more than a welfare program for the industrial part of the military-industrial complex.

Nevertheless, basing missiles at Russia’s doorstep is a provocative and aggressive action, akin to Russia’s basing missiles in Cuba during the 1960s. Why would Russia not react defensively to our aggression now, as we reacted defensively to theirs then? Although the planned ABM system was characterized by Pres. Bush as benign relative to Russia, leading U.S. strategic analysts have explained that Russian planners must regard the system and its chosen location as a first-strike weapon.

The recent alleged Russian invasion of neighboring Georgia was used by the Bush administration as a pretext to conclude the agreement with Poland to place the ABM missiles there, thus, as Associated Press commentator Desmond Butler observed, “bolstering an argument made repeatedly by Moscow and rejected by Washington: that the true target of the system is Russia.”

The deal with Poland contains a highly unusual concession: a U.S. Patriot missile battery that can shoot down short-range missiles or attacking aircraft is to be moved from Germany to Poland, where it will be operated by a crew of about 100 American military personnel. American troops will join the Polish military, at least temporarily, at the front lines — facing east toward Russia.

NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe was described by former U.S. diplomat and Cold War expert, George Kennan, as “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era, [which] may be expected to inflame the nationalistic, anti-Western and militaristic tendencies in Russian opinion; to have an adverse effect on the development of Russian democracy; to restore the atmosphere of the Cold War to East-West relations.” Current efforts to expand NATO even further to Georgia and Ukraine could become extremely hazardous, especially in the aftermath of the August war in South Ossetia between Georgia and Russia. The five-day shooting war brought talk about a “new cold war” into the open.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a speech on Sept. 18, castigated Russia for its alleged invasion of Georgia. The following day, the Russian Foreign Ministry retorted in a statement that Rice had “grossly distorted the events caused by Georgian aggression against South Ossetia.” The statement said Russian military action had been undertaken solely to defend its citizens in the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali under attack by Georgia.

The key question — Which side was the first to launch military strikes? — is now receiving increased scrutiny that suggests Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili triggered the bloody war and then told the West bold-faced lies.

Information coming from NATO and OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, now paints a picture different from the one that prevailed during the first days of battle. It was already clear then to officers at NATO headquarters that the Georgians had started the conflict and that their actions were more calculated than either pure self-defense or a response to Russian provocation. Even more clearly, NATO officials believed that by no means could minor preliminary skirmishes that took place be seen as justification for Georgian war preparations.

The details extracted by Western intelligence agencies agree with NATO’s assessments. According to this information, Georgia amassed roughly 12,000 troops on its border with South Ossetia in July, along with a third of their military arsenal. Saakashvili’s plan, apparently, was to cut off South Ossetia from Russia. The detailed examination of the sequence of events is now seen as evidence that Russia did not act offensively, but merely reacted to a blitzkrieg attack by Georgia. There are now calls in Washington DC and Europe for an independent investigation of the matter.

Secretary of State Rice also charged in her speech that Russia is becoming “increasingly authoritarian” and “aggressive” — a highly ironic case of the pot calling the kettle black. She said Russia’s leaders are putting their country “on a one-way path to self-imposed isolation and international irrelevance.” Russian President Dmitri Medvedev countered the following day that no external circum-stances or outside pressure will change Russia’s strategic goal to modernize its military and raise its defense capability to a proper level, that is, to a level where the United States won’t throw its weight around in their backyard.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo ben-Ami, writing in the Beirut Daily Star, advised: “The U.S. ... must understand that, when excluded and despised, Russia can be a major global spoiler. Ignored and humiliated by the U.S. since the Cold War ended, Russia needs integration into a new global order that respects its interests as a resurgent power, not an anti-Western strategy of confrontation.”

As a country with a huge military machine, we must rein in our imperialist forays and engage our adversaries in cooperation for mutual security, not in provocation that can escalate dangerously.

– edited from Voice of America, Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Der Spiegel,, Washington Post and RIA Novosti
Peacemeal, Sept/October 2008

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)