Vladimir Putin, Teddy Roosevelt, the GIC & me on a Baltic Non-vacation

Author: David Kotok, Post Date: August 24, 2008

We left the Baltic region Friday morning concerned for the security of the EU.  We suspect the Russians have a trifurcated strategy:

(1) They will use the energy card (electricity, oil and gas production, pipelines, and the power grid) to project their power on the EU and NATO member states.

(2) They will use their newly tested success in Georgia to undermine US alliances around the globe.

(3) They will opportunistically use their military might or the threat of same with non-NATO, non-EU states in their neighborhood.  How the EU handles this remains to be seen.

Some analysts found comfort in the Friday afternoon interview with the chief US diplomat in Moscow.  “US Ambassador John Beyrle, in his first interview to Russia’s media, spoke of the US-Russia’s relations after that war.  He emphasized that the US told Georgia the conflict couldn’t be resolved by force…..Moscow has gone too far, Mr Beyrle concluded.”  For the English language version of the Russian daily Kommersant see: www.kommersant.com/p1014311/Beyrle_Georgia..

Opinions about Russia/Georgia now range widely.  At one extreme, America’s critics blame the Bush Administration’s arrogance.  One seems to defend Putin for wanting only to restore the Russian “sphere of influence.”  An editorial in the FT (August 20, 2008) by Singapore’s Kishore Mahbubani articulates the “let’s sympathetically understand this Putin action” view.  His op-ed doesn’t defend tanks, but he does place the Western alliance in a troubling perspective.

Mahbubani writes: “Indeed, most of the world is bemused by western moralizing on Georgia. America would not tolerate Russia intruding into its geopolitical sphere in Latin America. Hence Latin Americans see American double standards clearly. So do all the Muslim commentaries that note that the US invaded Iraq illegally, too. Neither India nor China is moved to protest against Russia. It shows how isolated is the western view on Georgia: that the world should support the underdog, Georgia, against Russia. In reality, most support Russia against the bullying west. The gap between the western narrative and the rest of the world could not be greater.”

The opposite extreme is best characterized as a US “neo-con” response which threatens to turn a developing 21st-century cold war into a 20th-century hot one.  In our view these hawkish threats are the 21st-century version of scolding the child when the parent says, “If you take another cookie from the jar I will punish you.”

Even more extreme is the harsh right-wing harrumphing of “shoot first and ask questions later.”  Armchair generals can easily say such things because they do not have to solve the problems of depleted troops or poor underlying economics or questionable reliance on allies and friends.  It is easy to say what others should do.  Much more difficult is the execution of policy in a practical sense when the policy originates from a political economy filled with Internet-informed, blogging voters.

We personally reject both of these extreme positions.  Georgia does not equal the 1939 invasion of Poland by the German army. That 20th-century action forced a treaty-based response.  Hitler wanted to bring all of Europe into a war of conquest.  Britain had a defense treaty with Poland.  Attacking Poland was a direct attack on Britain, and Hitler knew it.

We believe that Putin is way too smart to make that mistake.  Furthermore, he has no need to do it.  He seeks regional hegemony, not grandiose empire building.

The challenge to the US and the EU is to recognize that we are in the 21st century and we have 21st-century tools with which to avoid a repeat of 1939-1945 experience.  The key is to preserve and expand a now threatened global financial and economic integration which has raised the living standards of billions of people, including many Russians.  We admit that the task is easy to articulate, but the achievement of a successful outcome is difficult to obtain during periods of belligerency.

To understand how we got here, we must start with the premise that Russian has achieved its present power through its extraction industries.  As the world’s mature economies became dependent on oil, metals, and other commodities, it empowered those who provided them.  Western consumption profligacy and the growing global indebtedness of the United States made the Putins of the world stronger.

Thugs become statesmen when they have money.  Or at least they try.  Putin is not alone.  Look at Chavez for a proximate example.

In the 21st century, the key to successful US policy is to manage a change from debt dependency, imported oil dependency, and commodity dependency to a restoration of balance.  That may sound simple; it certainly is not easy in the US political system.

We must add a troubling caveat.  In our opinion both of the extreme views noted above are fraught with risk.  Why the higher risk?  There are two reasons.

First, we note that the present-day US is a political economy which is weary of war.  That means the arguments of paradigm shift made by America’s critics can have resonance.  War weariness is a constraint on any political leader, especially one newly elected in the US.

Secondly, an otherwise low probability of hawkishness is currently high because of 21st-century imaging.  Emotional buttons are easily pushed by professional media warriors.  That is what you get in this century of instant Internet and TV communication.  In the 20th century we learned of things from radio and then “Movietone News” in the WWII era.  We enhanced this with live video only after the Viet Nam-era images changed global politics.  In the 21st century, the Russians know how to embed journalists for their advantage, just as Americans do.

In this century, the Internet and the use of video imagery combine to make cyber warfare into a powerful weapon.  The US and the EU need to stress that in their preparedness.  The Russian incursion into Georgia was preceded by a cyber attack of several weeks.  Anyone who thinks that was a coincidence is delusional.  In the 20th century you bombed the beaches to degrade physical defenses, and you attempted to disrupt communication with paratroopers behind enemy lines.  This is all antiquated in the 21st century.  Much more damage can be done by disabling an electronic network.  Imagine if all the world’s Blackberries were simultaneously disabled.  Picture a 3G wireless communication disruption precisely at the onset of hostilities.  The thought is frightening.

Who is speaking softly and who is carrying a big stick?

In our view, soft-spoken Vladimir Putin has successfully tested the US, NATO, and the EU with a big stick.  All three organizations (much overlapped) failed because they were not prepared.  They had convinced themselves that Putin would not use an armored rifle division with coordinated close air support in such a heavy-handed yet efficiently executed way.  They did not believe the cyber attack was a warning sign.  Thus they were caught by surprise.  Russia’s Georgian exercise has skillfully executed the 21st-century equivalent of the mid-1930s Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland.

The West’s reactions now are a “ratcheting up” of tensions as we phase into the 21st-century version of the Cold War.  Each Western reaction begets a Russian counteraction.

The US-Poland missile deal is viewed by Russia as a response.  It is answered by a Russian negotiation of a Syria air defense deal.  Russia will also court Raul Castro to demonstrate its reach.  Putin has specifically said he plans on “restoring our position in Cuba.”  Military movement induces fear, and it works.  It appears that Kazakhstan is now accepting the prospect of pumping oil through Russia instead of via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, according to the Turkish daily Referans, August 21 (source: Stratfor).

Meanwhile the US faces an Iraqi government now asking us to leave.  We are failing in the quiet attempt to negotiate some settlement with Iran.  We see Taliban escalation in Afghanistan.  There is growing turmoil in nuclear-armed Pakistan.  I will stop listing here and leave the rest of the list for our readers to complete.

Washington will not admit that the policies of the last few years have weakened the United States.  We entered the 21st century as the most technologically advanced military power in the world, yet our “big stick” has been broken by our own leadership.  And we have not learned to “speak softly.

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