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.

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One Response to “The Burr Under Putin’s Saddle”

  1. Phil Myers Says:

    I was increasingly disturbed last night when Monica Crowley held forth her classic Cold War argument about the Russian-Georgia to do. In our undergraduate classes in Soviet history, as it was called then, or just Russian history, as it is called now, we learned that in modern times Russia would strike back some where and some how if she felt threatened. The resolution of such disputes with the powers was to negotiated the tensions out of the situation either by indifference, feigned or otherwise, or by peace conferences. Crowley, on the other hand, sees an eye for an eye, and in classic Cold War fashion, argues that if democracy is threatened abroad the protectors and purveyors of same need to jump in. Others on the panel, including Pat Buchanan, a conservative thinker about American foreign policy, argued hands off; and he continued that if we put missiles in Poland along with anti-missile defense systems, we are only provoking Russia more. Was Russia’s invasion of Georgia, an age old controversy, and the Georgian-Russian questions connected? In Russia’s lexicon of international relations, probably so; but if we put nothing in Poland, Russian-American relations would probably ease up, which is what we need right now with the specter of two presidential candidates grabbing any issue that they believe with arouse a following after Labor Day when the race heats up and becomes extremely nasty. Fortunately, the consensus on the McLaughlin Panel last night, despite Crowley’s classic argument to revive the Cold War, opposed her stand. She went to Colgate, she said, and I wonder how she became a classicist. No doubt she was presented with diverse views there; but she chose the Cold War we vs. them argument. Practical reasons, and Russia’s historic feeling of being constantly threatened by the West, need to prevail in this case. The young and inexperienced head of Georgia noted above provoked this recent clash, but Russia was spoiling for an excuse to make a devastating point in Georgia, which occurred. As one panelist pointed out: this is a localized incident and the timing for it coincided with a commensurate pitch of feelings to produce military action. Perhaps Russia accomplished her conviction that Georgia had to be humbled; and perhaps the coincidence of missiles in Poland made the situation more enticing for Russia’s invasion of Georgia. As another panelist said: pull back from Poland, realize that intervention in the Georgian-Russian dispute will only lead to trouble that the United States neither wants or need, or can afford, especially with Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan, in Russia’s back yard hanging fire for the foreseeable future. As in Iraq, Georgia is an ethnic issue. One panelist on McLaughlin said that there are a myriad of such ethnic disputes waiting to happen in the region, and this recent one is but one of them. Some of them Russia has nothing to do with. Anyway, the dice are rolled on this one, Crowley needs to stay on the sidelines and let cooler heads prevail.

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