The Burr Under Putin’s Saddle
Why the Russians chose to invade Georgia remains a matter of considerable conversation and controversy. If one discounts (or at least views skeptically) the self-proclaimed reason of saving the beleaguered South Ossetians and Abkhazians from their Georgian oppressors (although that may have been a valid concern), what is one left with as an explanation for an action that has clearly inflamed relations between Russia and the West, and especially the United States?
Part of the explanation that is gaining some traction is that the action was Vladimir Putin’s way of demonstrating unequivocally that Russia was back and was no longer to be taken lightly. The Russians have made the “near abroad” (their designation of the former Soviet republics) a little closer to the breast of the Russian bear; their pointed ignoring of entreaties to leave and apparent violation of their agreements to cease their invasion sends a clear message that old-fashioned spheres of influence have not disappeared from world politics. They laugh, appropriately, at the pious, hypocritical plea of George Bush that countries don’t invade other countries in the Twenty-first century.
Admitting that all of this is part of the calculus, there is another explanation–the burr under Mr. Putin’s saddle. That is the missile defense system the United States just finished negotiating with Poland. The Russians have been objecting to missile defense schemes for 40 years and to this one since Bush proposed it. When Russian General Anatoly Nogovitsyn of the Russian General Staff said the final decision to deploy the system in Poland (with supportive radars in the Czech Republic) and to defend the complex with Patriot missiles was a provocation that “cannot go unpunished,” hie words were dismissed as Cold War-era bombast. But what if they had more meaning?
I must make a confession on this subject. I have thought missile defenses were a bad idea for over a quarter-century. My first objections–basically that they are hyper-expensive boondoggles–was made in 1983 in a book, The Nuclear Future (University of Alabama Press), and in reviewing what I said then, not much has changed. The current scheme, which has been a Bush hobby horse since he was elected, proposes a “thin” screen against an attack by a “rogue state” (read Iran). Like all such schemes, it probably won’t work, but fortunately, the threat against which it is proposed is so unlikely that that doesn’t matter much. It does, however, exercise the Russians in ways reminiscent of their opposition to Ronald Reagan’s Rube Goldberg scheme, the Strategic Defense Intitiative, in the 1980s.
New York Times writer Steven Lee Myers captures the Russian objection well in an August 15, 2008 article (“No Cold War But Big Chill over Georgia”): “No matter how much the Americans argue that NATO is now focused on other threats, for Russia, it remains an enemy force. And no matter how often the Americans say missile defense is aimed at Iran and other so-called rogue nations, it remains an existential threat to Russia’s aging and shrinking nuclear capability.”
NATO has increasingly encircled Russia, and proposals to extend the alliance to Ukraine and Georgia (which John McCain supports) would only tighten the knot, part of Putin’s burr. The Russians have always been paranoid about missile defenses, and completing the deal with Poland–which the Bush administration presumably sees as part of its permanent legacy–may have been the final burr under the saddle that caused Mr. Putin and his colleague Mr. Medvedev to say, enough is enough. And so they struck back and let us all know that we mess with Russia at our own risk.
I wonder how Mr. Bush missed that kind of determination when he looked in Mr. Putin’s eyes seven years ago. And while Mr. Putin certainly does reflect his KGB past, did Mr. McCain see this concern when he lashed out and said he wants to kick the Russians out of G-8 and, in essence, potentially start a new Cold War? Not trying to justify what the Russians have done in Georgia, it may help to put the whole thing into perspective.