Real Clear Politics

The End of a Fairy Tale

By Ralph Peters


A specter is haunting Europe-the specter of Putinism. Confronted by a masterful Russian leader without living peer in brilliance or ruthlessness, the continent sorely lacks leadership and a sense of common purpose. In their muddled reactions to the Kremlin's invasion of Georgia, European states revealed a gap in perceptions that threatens to deepen: Those who suffered under the Soviet yoke sense the return of an existential threat, while those who thrived under the Pax Americana are merely annoyed at being disturbed. As Russian troops and their mercenary auxiliaries savaged a free, democratic country yearning Westward, the world got another lesson in how ineffectual Europe is in a crisis without American leadership.

The United States performed no better. Scorned for his aggressive behavior in the past, President Bush spent the first crucial days of the Georgia crisis as a bewildered observer reluctant to recognize the gravity of the problem. Putin went to war and the American president went to a basketball game--reinforcing the Kremlin's conviction that it could do as it pleased and get away with it. (Bush's gravest flaw is that he's a dreadful judge of character, stubbornly trusting undeserving men, from Iraqi schemer Ahmed Chalabi, through the incompetent Alberto Gonzales, to Vladimir Putin, who played Bush for a fool.)

The American president is furious now, but it's too late. High noon came and went, and the much-derided cowboy-president wasn't there when he was needed. Instead, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, well-intentioned and inadequate, took time off from the Feydeau farce of his personal life and rushed to Moscow to "demand" a cease-fire in Georgia.

The Putin regime was perfectly willing to let Monsieur le President return to Paris with a signed piece of paper. The Russians have drawn the lesson from Western efforts to negotiate with Iran and other rogue states that Europe can be narcotized with empty agreements and nebulous promises and that Europe has become a continent of bureaucrats who much prefer paperwork to reality. And there are no penalties when the agreements prove worthless. The Russian government was reasonably polite, but did not take Sarkozy seriously. Even as he presumed to speak for the European Union, he had no practical leverage with the Kremlin.

One can only admire the unrivaled acuity with which Putin, the old KGB agent, sized up the other players he knew would come to the strategic gaming table. He took his cue to begin planning his punitive expedition into Georgia last winter, when a core group of European states, led by Germany, refused to inaugurate concrete measures (such as MAPs, or Military Action Plans) to set Ukraine and Georgia on course to become NATO members. Moscow read NATO's Sendung as an abandonment, especially of Georgia. Thereafter, Russia's leader surveyed the international characters who had chips on the table: President Bush had convinced himself that Putin was his friend and could be blindsided; Europe's leaders could be depended upon to quibble among themselves while seeking to avoid incurring any serious costs; and the mercurial President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia could be goaded into a conflict at the time of Russia's choosing.

Putin chose that hour well. Beginning in late July, artillery barrages, sniping incidents and raids staged from South Ossetia increased in intensity as Russia's local clients prodded Georgia to respond. Politically and practically, Saakashvili had to react: no national leader can permit deadly, daily attacks upon his electorate to go unanswered. As Russian troops finished massing on Georgia's northern border, Putin notched the violence up again. Saakashvili took the bait on schedule.

Western intelligence analysts had been expecting a violent confrontation for many months, yet none believed it would come just when it did, assuming that Putin wouldn't act during the Olympics. But Putin saw opportunity where others saw impossibility-a hallmark of genius. He exploited the simultaneous opening of the Olympics and the departure of EU, NATO and national European bureaucrats for their August vacations. Key leaders would be in Beijing, far from their capitals and staffs, while the world's attention would be focused on swimmers and gymnasts. From Washington to Berlin, the best and the brightest would be standing down at their beach homes, Tuscan farmhouses or Wyoming ranches. Putin gained a decisive 100 hours.

From the start, Russian government voices all sang from the same score. Putin set the pitch, deploying lyrics he knew would resonate in the West, such as "genocide" and "response." With cold-blooded aplomb, the Russians accused the Georgians of doing precisely what the Russians were doing to the Georgians. Putin and his team understood that, in the Information Age, gaining early control of the narrative of events is essential and the Russians did it artfully. Throughout the first ten days of the crisis, the global media continued to find a moral equivalence between Russia's actions and Georgia's that was never there: untutored in the complexities of the region, lazy journalists accepted Moscow's proposition that a tiny nation with 87 decrepit tanks in its inventory had vigorously attacked a power that could deploy over 6,400 tanks.

The result? Russia won this war, energetically integrating the various elements of governmental power-military, diplomatic, intelligence, economic and informational-in the manner that Western doctrine preaches, but to a degree that Western powers have yet to achieve anywhere. While frightened Poland immediately agreed to participate in a new American anti-missile program and terrified Ukraine asked to be included, as well, the cocktail-reception anger elsewhere on the continent will dissipate rapidly. And the United States can do little in the Georgia case without determined European support. "Reason" will prevail, and Russia will suffer no meaningful penalties. Putin will, literally, get away with murder.

He'll murder again, as a consequence. We've seen this pattern played out in the United States, when, in the 1990s, the Clinton administration refused to take Islamist terrorism seriously: al Qaeda was supposed to fade away because we wanted it to fade away. But al Qaeda wasn't interested in our wishes. Likewise, Western European states that have enjoyed the richest, longest stretch of peace in their history don't want the party to end and so make excuses for Russia.

But the party always ends. Vladimir Putin just put Europe on notice that time's up and the catering bills are due. Nonetheless, Western Europe will continue its efforts to duck out on its strategic creditors: The continent's oldest democracies will have to be cornered miserably before they accept the new, brutal reality created by Russia's new czar. In the short term, Putin will continue to terrorize Georgia. In the mid-term, his diplomats will placate Europe with promises. In the long-term, he'll do whatever he damn well pleases. For all his savagery, it's impossible not to admire Putin's Kampfgeist. He may well be the giant of our age.

That said, this latest burst of Russian imperialism will end badly for Russia-eventually. Russia's patterns are deeply ingrained, and Putin is the quintessential Russian in his ambitions (if not in his tee-totaling). Russia always overreaches, and Putin will, too. But the longer he is left unchecked, the grimmer and costlier the ultimate confrontation is going to be.

It's become a cliche to cite Putin's KGB past when explaining him. Yet, Russia's new strongman isn't an ideologue; he's an ethnic nationalist. There's no taint of dialectical materialism in the cold-eyed man from St. Petersburg; on the contrary, he's far more a creature from a Dostoevsky novel than a "new Soviet man" produced by Lenin. Even Putin's heritage as a secret policeman reaches farther back than the recent era of the KGB-or Cheka, or NKVD, or MGB. Putin harks back beyond the czarist Okhrana to the proto-Gestapo Oprichniki of Ivan the Terrible, whose twin concerns were internal order and the exclusion of all things foreign, and whose elementary traits were paranoia and cruelty.

The rise of Vladimir Putin is bad news for Russia's immediate neighbors (who realize it), for Western Europe (which struggles to deny it), and for the United States (which cannot act effectively against Moscow without European solidarity). Putin understands the principle of "divide and conquer." The founding-generation states of NATO appear to have forgotten the counter-principle of "unite and win."

What did Putin seek when he sent his revitalized military and its vicious auxiliaries across the Great Caucasus? Three things:

1. To punish Georgia for its Westward yearnings and to destroy its president. Putin meant to make it clear that Moscow's former possessions will not be allowed to create freewheeling, Western-allied democracies on Russia's borders. Additionally, Putin resembles Bush in one odd respect: Both men personalize diplomacy, but where Bush has a Texan confidence that he can make a friend of anyone, Putin assesses every interlocutor as a potential enemy. Now Putin is venting his personal hatred of Georgia's president, who had the audacity to talk back to the new czar.

2. To send a message to the strayed states of the old Russian (not Soviet) empire that Moscow still intends to rule all that the czars once ruled. Hungary, the Czech Republic and their Central European brethren aren't included in Putin's present appetite, but the entire Caucasus, Central Asia, the Baltic triplets, Ukraine and eastern Poland are on the Kremlin's strategic menu.

3. To gain hegemony over the last non-Russian-controlled pipelines delivering gas and oil from the Caspian Basin and Central Asia to the West. Like many historically minded Russians, Putin recalls how desperate the World War II-era Germans were to reach Baku and its oil fields. The lesson he's drawn is that, instead of merely depriving Panzers and Stukas of gasoline, reborn Russia can deny fuel to all of Europe in a crisis. Given that Kremlin-backed Russian energy interests have been able to hire a former German chancellor for a handful of Euros, it's difficult to envision Europe uniting to diversify its energy sources: Europe is strolling open-eyed into energy slavery.

The essential point here is that Russia has a strategic vision, while the West does not. Putin acts, we react. Russia plans, we improvise. Our behavior is both ineffective and woefully inefficient. Worsening the situation, the United States is weary and, increasingly, inward-focused. Meanwhile, Europe enjoys complaining about an over-engaged America, but it may find that it likes a disengaged America a great deal less. There is nothing that passes for a convincing strategic vision in either Washington or Brussels. We are simultaneously outclassed by our self-appointed opponent and determined to put off any unpleasant reckoning: The two richest and most-powerful continents in history cannot rally together against a middling state with an aging, dying population that depends on a single source for its national income.

The determination, especially in Western Europe, to minimize the importance of the rape of Georgia-Putin's actions amount to nothing less-is gratingly reminiscent of the cries of "Why Die for Danzig?" that echoed in Britain and France in the late 1930s. And, while politicians and pundits will do their best to minimize the perception of a military threat from the new Russia, it bears remembering that, in 1930, the German Reichswehr had 100,000 men and equipment hardly fit for a playground, yet, a mere ten years later, the Wehrmacht had millions of men under arms, the best weaponry in the world, and most of Europe under its boot-heels. While it may be unhelpful to be an alarmist, it's even less useful to be willfully nave.

Putin's team won the Georgia match and every point in play. In the absence of meaningful European unity and Euro-American solidarity, Moscow will win the next round, too.

Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer, a strategist and columnist, and the author of the new book, Wars Of Blood And Faith, The Conflicts That Will Shape the Twenty-First Century.

Page Printed from: September 28, 2008 - 03:03:31 PM CDT