The weakness of the West
Sep 11th 2008
Russia is on the front foot now—but not for ever
EVEN the most sanguine political observers would concede that dealing with a resurgent Russia may require a bit of a rethink. But George Friedman, the founder of Stratfor, a consultancy sometimes dubbed the “shadow CIA”, has floated a starker idea. In the latest New York Review of Books, he contends that the recent war between Russia and Georgia shows that the balance of power in Eurasia has already shifted—and sharply against the West.
His argument goes as follows. Vladimir Putin wanted both to re-establish the credibility of the Russian army as a fighting force and to show that Western security relationships mean nothing in the face of Russian power. The first was a close call (only hasty reinforcements allowed a victory over the Georgian army). But the second has been successful. Humiliating a close American ally has revealed the West’s weakness. The lesson of the war, writes Mr Friedman, is that “while the United States is tied down in the Middle East, American guarantees have no value.”
Moreover, American denunciations of the attack on Georgia have played into Russia’s hands, by contrasting bombastic rhetoric with empty actions. Does America really want Russia to sell modern air-defence systems to Iran and Syria, endangering Israel’s ability to defend itself? If not, America had better forget Georgia. Europe barely rates a mention, with almost no military expeditionary capability and growing gas dependency on Russia.
In short, Mr Friedman concludes, Russia has “backed America into a corner”. Every country in the region is now re-evaluating its links with Moscow. Russia is using the window of opportunity created by Iraq and Afghanistan to assert a “new reality”.
Is that right? Mr Friedman’s argument is lucid, but incomplete. The West still sells one thing that is not made in Russia: respectability. That matters to the class that Andrei Piontkovsky, a Russian commentator, calls “global kleptocrats”. They want their businesses audited, lawyered and banked by blue-chip Western respectability-merchants. Dubai, Mumbai and Shanghai may offer that eventually, but not yet. Restricting the sale of respectability while the West still has some in stock would be a powerful sanction.
The best route is to start off with sanctions against any business or individual doing business in South Ossetia or Abkhazia. That will establish scrutiny mechanisms (such as visa denials and financial blacklists) that can then be applied more broadly once they are running smoothly.
Secondly, the West still has soft power. The Russian consulate in New York is not besieged by Americans wanting to emigrate. Large numbers of Russians, especially middle-class ones, have that option under active consideration. The Kremlin propaganda machine may be doing a good job in persuading the public that Russia is in the right and even that living conditions are improving. But it has not succeeded in persuading the public that life in Russia is good. And how could it? Corruption is rampant, infrastructure crumbling, public services disgraceful. The West can do a better job of highlighting that.
Thirdly, Europe does count. Russia may be able to use its relationship with countries such as Italy and Germany to veto use of the sticks, but it cannot stop Europe offering some juicy carrots to the countries now being squeezed by Russia. Places like Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine are admittedly hard to help, but the task is not impossible.
In short, it is not (quite) as bad as Mr Friedman argues. The Russian geopolitical counterattack may falter because of internal divisions within the squabbling Kremlin elite. If not, it will prove self-limiting: the more it succeeds, the more opposition it arouses. But expect a nasty few months or years in the meantime.
Friday, September 12, 2008
The weakness of the West