16 August 2008

Russia Steps More Deeply Into Its Quagmire

Russian troops are digging into positions deep inside Georgian territory--despite signing a cease-fire committing them to honour Georgia's territorial integrity. To Putin, it is something personal. He wants Saakashvili's head on a platter. Georgia's president failed to give Putin the respect Putin demands. So Putin orchestrated a premeditated invasion of Georgia--timed to coincide with the Beijing Olympics.

Putin's gambit has clearly failed, but Putin is too stupid to realise it. By immersing his armed forces and national prestige in a border conflict with a tiny and inconsequential country, Putin has set the stage for an extended quagmire-like debacle for Russia's entire autocratic, but fragile government.

It took a decade for Russia to incompletely pacify tiny Chechnya, an enclave with little international support. Georgia is a completely different story. Georgia represents a lot of things to Europe and the west, but the most practical thing it represents is a means of sidestepping Putin's chokehold on Europe's energy supplies. Europe really needs the energy that would flow through the Georgian pipelines. If Russia closes the energy supply route to Europe by force of arms, the precedent Putin sets will be almost impossible for him to outlive.

Look at the map of Russia. Look at the size of that country! Russia is immense, and full of natural resources. A country that large requires a strong, vigorous, forward-looking population to develop and defend it. It requires a strong and broadly based economy, with a scientific and technological infrastructure at the cutting edge of human discovery. But what is the reality? The Russian people are dying off. Almost a million ethnic people drop off the face of the Earth every year, without being replaced. Russian men die in their 50s of complications of drug and alcohol use. Russian women advertise themselves as mail order brides in the desperate hope of a new and better life in the west. They certainly do not want to bring new babies into the hollow dying world of today's Russia.

The vast energy wealth of Russia is concentrated in the hands of a few, and flows constantly out of the country into the banks of Switzerland and other financial havens. Russia's wealth and infrastructure is being dismantled under the noses of the people, converted into hard currency, and shipped to safer places than Russia has become. Who can object? They would only end up dead.

Putin's personal vendetta against Saakashvili has landed the faltering giant in a particularly deep mess. Russia has no friends, and is quickly turning neutrals into its enemies. Putin uses Russia's oil wealth like a weapon. But oil is only wealth so long as it is scarce and in demand. Those days are numbered.

Putin throws the Russian army around as if he were in command of the Soviet Union at its height. Most of the world knows better. The Russian military is in rapid decay, just like the Russian population at large. The equipment is old and breaking down, the infrastructure for improving and maintaining the military machine is crumbling. Even the vast nuclear stockpile that Russia inherited from the USSR is deteriorating.

But as long as Putin can maintain the illusion of military might for the undiscerning analysts in western media, academia, and government, he will have a few more turns in this game. But his time is running out.

The wise move for Putin would be to withdraw from Georgia, begin making genuine alliances with neighbors and rivals, and act as a responsible world power. But then, that would not be the Putin we have come to know. Such a more friendly Putin would have to give up his dreams of Bonapartist empire, and godfather thuggishness, and become a cooperative player in the larger game. That is most unlikely.

Russia is dying. A huge land mass loaded with wealth, Russia is surrounded by peoples that it has bullied for hundreds of years. Soon Russia will be too de-populated to defend itself, too empty of workers to man the oilfields, too lacking in manpower to maintain basic infrastructure. Long before that time, Russia's neighbors will begin moving in, like scavengers feeding on a large animal that is still alive, but barely.

Putin believes it is better to be feared than liked. So Putin has made Russia the enemy of the entire world--except perhaps for Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and a dying Fidel's Cuba. China is merely waiting for the chance to grab Siberia away from the bear. The rapidly growing populations of the muslim nations surrounding Russia have no love for the bear. Russia's time for making meaningful alliances is running out, and Putin is wasting that precious time getting bogged down in Georgia!


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