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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Zaxi on Russia's Georgia Outrage

The bilingual blogger at Zaxi blog offers the following analysis of Russia's recent incursion into Georgia:

Russia-watching is never an exact science. But it strays into the field of psychoanalysis once the Kremlin adopts an Alice in Wonderland approach to its foreign policy.

What happens when a bomb etched with Russian writing drops from a plane with Russian insignia and falls on Georgia before said plane returns to Russia? Georgia gets accused of staging a provocation aimed at ruining Russia’s good name.

What happens when President Vladimir Putin suddenly discovers that Western strategic bombers carrying nuclear weapons have been circling Russia in a menacing way? He declares a defense of Russia’s borders – by ordering his strategic bombers to start flying sorties to Alaska and such for the first time since the Cold War.

And how does Russia try to sell its ties with China – and possibly Pakistan and Iran – at a regional meeting that includes Central Asian states and is meant to threaten the West with a new Asian military bloc? It picks an unprovoked fight with China by telling it to keep its nose out of Central Asia.

Russia fills the gaps by sending a lawmaker in a scuba outfit to plant a titanium flag under the North Pole and running a doctored front page of The Times of London on state television news.

Does zaxi really need to mention that Putin capped the quiet summer month by posing semi-nude during a fishing outing with the Prince of Monaco? zaxi ordinarily would not – but this all ties into a startling new pattern that seems to explain Russia’s future through 2012.

The spinning of myths has become an increasingly popular Kremlin hobby as the date of Putin’s departure nears. Some of them have concerned a rewrite of Russia’s Stalinist history. But a great deal more have been focused on making enemies of the West where none had stood days before – the North Pole expedition irritating four countries alone.

The resulting Soviet haze leaves no room for maneuver by anyone even most superficially linked to liberal or slightly forward looking ideas. First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev is not being groomed for the presidency of a nation that appears to have reengaged in ideological warfare.

Instead the stage is being cleared for his fellow first deputy Sergei Ivanov – although zaxi is still waiting for a sudden appearance by Putin’s other best buddy: the devoutly Orthodox former spook and current billionaire railways boss Vladimir Yakunin.

Does anyone remember the name of Russia’s new defense minister? One would think Anatoly Serdyukov had something to say about his bombs falling on Georgia or his “mothballed” – according to the US State Department – strategic bombers suddenly buzzing about the seas.

But it is Ivanov who now attends to such affairs on the news. He can speak with equal temper on subjects ranging from the Georgia bombing – a “theatrical production” by Tbilisi – to missile defense. Military analyst Alexander Golts notes that state television no longer identifies Ivanov as a first deputy prime minister in charge of industry. It seems silly for such a bureaucrat to be spewing about global affairs. He is simply called a Putin adviser.

Serdyukov’s curious vanishing act points to another detail: Russia can function quite well without a defense minister – just as it has basically run without an entire foreign ministry since Putin rolled through the Kremlin gates.

This concentration cannot hold with Ivanov or his double acting as president until Putin resumes duties in 2012. There must be a meaningful role for Russia’s spiritual leader – but one that also treads lightly on the mundane running of the state.

Which seems to explain both why foreign policy is suddenly coming to a boil and the role Putin envisions for himself: he will – for lack of a more formal job description – be in charge of recreating the Soviet Union on the global arena.

Putin will in effect function as Russia’s foreign and defense minister in one – speaking not only on behalf of Moscow but also the former Soviet republics that cannot stay free because of energy dependency.

It is a frightening scenario for the West but one gaining an air of inevitability in Moscow. Putin will be dropping in on world summits as a kind of Soviet ambassador who oversees future regional pipeline projects and military sales to Iran.

It really matters little that such a post does not exist today. Putin’s name would give any such job title instant credibility – one the West would have little choice but to accept. But two obvious possibilities are as head of Russia’s Security Council or as secretary of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

The second option is far more tempting for its obvious Soviet overtones. It is slightly more problematic because it would demand immediate subordination from the other ex-Soviet republics. It would also instantly shrink the size of the CIS itself – Georgia would be out the same evening while countries like Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan might pause for thought. Ukraine would threaten to crack apart again. But the CIS is already heading toward partial dismemberment if not outright dissolution. Russia would thus be creating a functioning superstate out of what has until now been a messy divorce court – one whose authority would only grow as it officially takes over duties being overseen by the Kremlin today.

The less aggressive approach involves the Security Council. The body sits headless after the timely departure of former foreign minister Igor Ivanov. It also serves no clear purpose and thus perfectly suits Putin's plan. Ivanov was unofficially engaged in secret negotiations with Iran over the Bushehr nuclear power plant and its members – all the top ministers – still meet regularly with Putin every Sunday morning. ITAR-TASS issues the exact same dispatch after each session saying the group discussed “foreign and domestic affairs.”

Either option will work to correct history’s greatest injustice in Putin’s eyes – the dissolution of the Soviet state. Domestically Russia is now centralized economically and politically monolithic. A foreign vision however remained largely undeveloped. Its turn has come.

So the West should get used to the image of a barrel-chested Soviet “muzhik” casting his fishing line further and further out. It can think of this as Putin’s extended fishing vacation.

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