What Russia’s War Reveals

American Enterprise Instiute
USA Today
Leon Aron

August 13, 2008

With Russia’s agreeing to the France-brokered peace plan to halt its war on Georgia, the hostilities might be at an end. But the echo of this war is likely to reverberate in this part of the world for many years to come. Regardless of who started it and who, ostensibly, sought to “protect” whose “citizens,” what has become Russia’s war on Georgia has already revealed, or confirmed, a few crucial and troubling things about the Moscow regime that the West must take into consideration from this point forward.

The most important one has been Vladimir Putin’s role. Not only was he a de facto commander in chief and the spokesman for the Kremlin (the roles that constitutionally belong to President Dmitry Medvedev, elected in March), but the Russian news media also have gone out of their way to play up this pre-eminence of the prime minister, who is supposed to be working for the president and could be fired by him. Putin flew from the opening of the Olympics in Beijing (where he was the only unelected prime minister among heads of states) directly to the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz to lead the war. He was then shown on Russian television conferring with the local military and civilian leaders, instructing Medvedev about what needs to be done, talking to the refugees from South Ossetia and visiting with the wounded in a hospital. And, of course, angrily rebuffing the U.S criticism of Russia’s actions.

Setbacks for democracy

There could be big trouble ahead and the United States, regardless of who the next president will be, should be ready.

Thus, “Prime Minister” Putin confirmed to Russia and the world what many have suspected: The elections in Russia are a sham, and so is the constitutional division of power. Buried under the rubble in the Georgian city of Gori are also the vague hopes of Medvedev’s trimming at least the excesses of Putinism with domestic “liberalization” and a more accommodating foreign policy that his speeches had seemed to imply. All his words about the “rule of law” and “freedom of speech” and “anti-corruption” appear today to have as little credibility as the man who said them. To the extent that there were the “liberals” and the “hard-liners” among the Russian leadership, the distinction seemed to matter little when a decision was made to choose war. Most disconcerting, the Georgia incursion is a colossal setback for the already weak forces of democracy inside Russia.

This outcome augurs very badly for Russia’s behavior in the world as well. Plenty of authoritarian regimes have been relatively content to fulfill their domestic agendas, without indulging their foreign policy ambitions. Neither under czars nor under the Soviets could Russia be counted among such political systems. Russian authoritarianism historically seems to be wedded to warmongering, conquests, victories and defeats. Long before this war, Putinism had instilled the Russian policy, politics and public opinion with the key elements of what might be called a “restless” and imperial-minded authoritarianism:

The intensely personal system of power, in which the “national leader” rather than democratic institutions rule.

The state propaganda themes of loss and imperial nostalgia (Putin declared the demise of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century).

The idea of the besieged fortress Russia surrounded by cunning, ruthless and plotting enemies on every side.

Spy mania.

The labeling of political opposition as the “fifth column” traitors.

Even so, until this past week, Moscow had not sought to alter the rules of the game or change the partners: It denounced the pro-Western regimes in the Baltics, Georgia and Ukraine, but did not seek to punish or replace them by force. Now the line might have been crossed. Russia is not likely to walk away from this conflict without substantially and, more likely, fatally damaging Georgia’s ability to conduct independent policies inside and, especially, outside the country. Moscow’s insistence, from the very beginning, that “genocide” was committed by the Georgian leadership and that it intended to punish the perpetrators seems to have laid the ground for a longer-term intervention.

Will Ukraine be next?
If Russia indeed has reverted to the traditional role of warlike authoritarianism and if, as seems to be the case, it pays no or a very small price internationally for this war, then the next victim is not at all hard to name. It is the pro-Western, struggling democracy of Ukraine, teeming with millions of ethnic Russians (or Russian-speakers). In fact, in the past few months a steady and increasingly loud propaganda drumbeat has sounded in Moscow, echoed in the parliament, the Duma: Do not vacate the Black Sea fleet’s base of Sevastopol and, furthermore, reclaim the entire Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine! (“George,” Putin reportedly told President Bush at the NATO summit in April in Romania, “Ukraine is not even a real state!”) That is why Kiev has been so vociferous in its support for Georgia.

There could be big trouble ahead and the United States, regardless of who the next president will be, should be ready.

Leon Aron is director of Russian studies and a resident scholar at AEI.