Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Because They Can -- and a New Congress of Berlin?

I thought that Moscow might decide to enhance Europe's diplomatic efforts by fully implementing the cease-fire--on the grounds that let Europe show it can do something with Russia without the U.S. and to enhance the notion that Europe and Russia, left to themselves, can do something productive.

Instead, it seems that the imperative is, to paraphrase the 2004 U.S. election slogan, that Russia needs no "permission slip" to pursue its interests and that no outside power can stop Russia; that Russia will stop by an act of its own will, not imposed from without.

So I think my somewhat pessimistic tone from earlier this week is justified as to where all of this ends up.

It also means the likelihood of a 19th century-style "Congress" solution under the parameters many feel might be the most viable--very broad autonomy for the provinces but with retention of Georgia's territorial integrity, perhaps a role for Russia along the lines Ireland obtained for the welfare of Northern Ireland in the 1985 Anglo-Irish accords (which at the time some vociferously opposed for weakening London's sovereignty), soem sort of neutral status for Georgia along the lines of what the Finns got after World War II--which enabled, by the way, Finland to enjoy good economic prospects and remain a part of the West in everything but military terms--is probably out the window.

But it raises a question, prompted by the Simon Jenkins quote in an earlier post: are there lessons from the Congress system that are applicable today? Generally the goal was to satisfy some demands from each of the powers; no one got entirely what they wanted; but the system did seem to work to tap down the prospects for conflict.

One final note: Tony Blankley, Anatol Lieven and Morton Abramowitz don't usually agree with each other on many issues and even on the Russo-Georgian conflict they disagree. But I found it interesting that each concluded that the lesson for the U.S> is that this isn't the 1990s anymore and, to quote directly from Abramowitz: "that the mythical world of the 1990s is goneā€”to cease believing that U.S. and NATO utterances can make the Russian sea recede whether it is in the Caucasus or central Asia." In other words, better not make promises you can't keep.

Nixon, just before he died; observed that "Russia is down but not out" and that "we need to treat Russia with respect".

That advise fell on deaf ears - now doesn't it always?
First off, best wishes at the Naval War College, Nick. Hopefully this blog continues?

This issue is more than vexing to any thoughtful observer. As usual, our policy makers dove into something that played well politically - Georgian democracy -- assuming that everything else would follow per our virtuous intentions. We committed all the mistakes the realist abhors.

My problem is that I see us as inherently inclined to do this, when in the name of democracy. We sense that the Declaration of Independence commits us to support institutions of freedom, and our defining cultural characteristic is an enterprising, adventurous, disposition.

Now, our principle of supporting freedom is under direct challenge. Maybe there's a way to parse the issue differently, but Russia's post-ceasefire movement seems to put that challenge of principle beyond fudging away.

Failing to back our principle here puts us on the slippery slope of flagging in our commitment to democracy elsewhere. Start with, say, Taiwan; in the extreme case, how far would we go to preserve our own democracy? We mustn't play the hand of Austria Hungary in 1914, but our polity is not obsolescent in nature, and we can construct smarter responses, perhaps along lines of Mr. Krauthammer's editorial in the WP today.

Ultimately, opposition to Russia needs to account for the risk of nuclear confrontation. I hope we prove willing to accept risks for our deepest principles. But I think we need better definition in public discourse, of when, and to what degree, we will put principle on the line. How can we divine where we stand today, on this matter? Sadly, our political process often muddies the picture until someone else tells us our values are on that line. For now, we're all flying by the seat of our pants. I hope this wake up call spurs clarity rather than more partisan posturing.

George Paik
Nick, I wanted to get your take on how the politics in Russia, Putin vs. Medvedev is playing into all of this...Do you think, given that this is the first major challenge for this arrangement, that the impetus is on both men to act as tough as possible (in line with the Russian populace and the military)? Obviously, it seems clear that Putin is in control, but is Putin acting tougher than he might normally act because of a concern that Medvedev could adopt a harder line than him on the Georgian issue? Medvedev had that statement on the Russian markets that seemed to undercut some of what Putin said...Might Mr. Medvedev be seeking opportunities to seize some power in Russia?

Just a thought.
will s:

Why do you assume that it must be 'Putin vs. Medvedev'.

Why do you assume 'the impetus is on both men to act as tough as possible'?

The evidence is not adequate to be make confident judgements.

But it might be useful at least to consider alternative hypotheses.

It could be that these are two old colleagues who have worked together harmoniously for a number of years and have every intention of going on doing so.

It could also be that both of them -- together with the Russian military and the Russian populace -- thought they had absolutely no alternative but to draw the line, confronted by an attempt by a U.S.- and Israeli- trained Georgian military forcibly to reincorporate South Ossetia.

Neither South Ossetia nor Abkazia has the least desire to be reincorporated in Georgia -- any more than Kosovo has the least desire to be reincorporated in Serbia.
Will, perhaps this is less a clash between Putin and Medvedev and more Putin saying, there were certain things left unfinished when I was president and I will see them through to the end. Also it does mean Medvedev still is not seen as responsible for what has happened.
I haven't thought through yet the implications for the tandem in Russia and what the Georgian situation portends. Thanks, Will, David and anonymous for some interesting points to ponder.

George, I'll try to continue with this blog, time and duties permitting.
I haven't thought through yet the implications for the tandem in Russia and what the Georgian situation portends. Thanks, Will, David and anonymous for some interesting points to ponder.

George, I'll try to continue with this blog, time and duties permitting.
I haven't thought through yet the implications for the tandem in Russia and what the Georgian situation portends. Thanks, Will, David and anonymous for some interesting points to ponder.

George, I'll try to continue with this blog, time and duties permitting.

Perhaps I did a poor job at explaining myself.

The question (and its only a question) that I'm posing is, given the new arrangement in Moscow, is it unreasonable to think that perhaps Mr. Putin is looking over his shoulder. While Mr. Medvedev has clearly been his protege all of these years, would Putin conclude that on an issue like this one...there might be an opportunity for Mr. Medvedev to seize power from him? I completely agree that there was no other response for Russia to take given the circumstances and the potential political ramifications (from their perspective)...but is Mr. Putin more inclined to act tough so not to give Mr. Medvedev (whether he's prepared to seize it or not) the opportunity?

Moreover, what of the future? Let's say that something goes wrong with the U.S. airlift...Someone mistakenly shoots down a plane or there is a confrontation at a security post. How does Mr. Putin react? Does he back down because of the potential international/security implications, or does he confront the U.S. because of domestic political implications?

My thought is, and I'm not a Russian scholar (which is why I posed this question to Nick/forum) is that given the rather nasty history of Russian leadership transitions, Mr. Putin may rightly conclude that this conflict is a test of his strength...and therefore will be forced to confront it more aggressively than he might normally have done otherwise.

I think that this is an enormously dangerous situation that may in fact be getting more and more dangerous under the radar.

Just a thought.
will s:

The possibility of Medvedev attempting to get rid of Putin was discussed not long ago by the veteran Russian liberal journalist Sergei Roy. He dismissal ran as follows:

'Here we are stepping into the area of the irreal and imaginary, where anything is possible. Possible, but, in my view, highly improbable. Not only because, not even mainly because Medvedev is far from being an idiot with a hankering for political suicide. The real reason lies in the nature of what I insist on calling cohabitation of two men who have been toiling, climbing, and fighting together, shoulder to shoulder, for 17 years, with both men having worked out over time a sure knowledge of the other's reactions to any given situation. Even more importantly, though, they both have a common understanding of the reactions of the people whom they serve, and are aware that they can only go against the grain of those wishes and attitudes of the populace at their own peril - also in full accordance with the spirit and letter of the constitution.'

In Russia Putin is widely seen -- notably by former skeptics like Roy -- as the man who pulled Russia back from one of its worst 'times of troubles', which could indeed have been terminal.

As Roy points out, it would be suicidal for Medvedev to challenge him. But why should he want to?


In regard to Georgia, I rather doubt that domestic political implications are really critical at this point in the thinking of either Putin or Medvedev. On this point as on others, there is simply no reason to think that what their public wants them to do is any different from what they want to do.

Confronted by the invasion of South Ossetia by Georgian forces equipped and trained by the U.S., unleashed by a leader encouraged by the expectation of NATO membership, the risks of letting the Georgians get away were quite clear enormously less that the risks of decisively counter-attacking.

There are two key messages which I suspect both men want to get across, both of which are aimed at an international audience, not a national.

To the West, the message is that further encroachments on traditional Russian spheres -- such as for instance incorporating the Ukraine in NATO -- are liable to produce responses you may not like, and you need to work out whether you are prepared to take the risks involved.

To anti-Russian nationalists in the former Soviet space, the message is -- do not delude yourself into thinking that you can rely on support from the West. The Georgians were encouraged into trying to challenge us, and discovered that all the West would offer them was hot air. Do you want to follow suit?

We wait to see whether the messages have got through.

Very interesting indeed. Many thanks for the analysis.

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