Middle Israel: Putin's unwinnable war

Russia's obsession with raw materials will eventually land it in an economic dead-end.

amotz asa el 88 (photo credit: )
amotz asa el 88
(photo credit: )
Last week's hostilities in the Caucasus have left some decrying Georgia's adventurism, others the West's anemia and practically everyone Russia's brutality. While all valid, these charges still neglect the most striking aspect of this drama, which lies neither in the geographic scope nor in the humanitarian costs of Russia's new imperialism, but in its strategic folly. True, America's failure to do more for an ally that had risked thousands of troops in Iraq made Washington look impotent at best, disloyal at worst. And Georgia's failure to display the preparedness, poise and bravery that the fight it had picked with the Red Army so patently demanded made its leaders seem like statecraft cadets. The Georgians' lack of strategic sobriety has indeed been striking. It's not enough to know what you want, which in their case means that much land and this much independence. Before provoking an enemy as armed, trained and ruthless as Russia, one must have for an army more than seven fighter planes and several armored brigades, and for a strategy a lot more than naked exposure and chaotic flight. Had it had a David Ben-Gurion, Georgia would have avoided starting the war, and at the same time hid its army deep in its tall mountains, and from there maneuvered the Russians into the kind of guerrilla war that defeated them in Afghanistan. Even more perplexing was Tbilisi's misinterpretation of the West's warmth to its cause. One can understand Georgia's quest to arrive as deeply in the West's bosom as Romania, Poland or Hungary, all of which have joined NATO and the European Union in recent years. Still, unpleasant as it may sound from the Georgian viewpoint, its situation is inferior compared with other parts of the former East Bloc. The EU's and NATO's post-communist members don't border on Russia except two of the Baltic republics, but the Baltics were independent until World War II and are seen in Europe as an extension of Scandinavia. Georgia borders Russia, and though Christian it is seen in Europe as more Asian and Turkic than European and white. This is of course rude and appalling, not to say racist, but it is also a fact of Georgia's situation. Had Tbilisi sought the advice of any Israeli beside the frustrated IDF generals it hired as military advisers, it would have known all along to expect from the West no more than it had granted Hungary in '56 and Czechoslovakia in '68. For now, Georgia must concede that it is for Putin what Cuba was for Kennedy. Faced with that, it is better off eyeing the kind of foreign policy Finland conducted toward the Soviet Union. The Finns had also been invaded by Moscow, and unlike the Georgians they gave the Russians a fight they will never forget. Though it ended in their surrender, that war lasted a whole winter and cost the Soviets 200,000 men, 1,100 tanks and 684 aircraft. Eventually, the Finns retained their independence but at the same time remained neutral throughout the Cold War, and only joined the EU last decade. As for NATO, even today they have yet to join. The Georgian display of a diplomatic appetite that is so much greater than Finland's, coupled with a military performance that is so much less impressive than the Finns', only makes the Russians disparage them. And yet Russia's tunnel vision is even more ominous than Georgia's. THE RUSSIANS' first mistake was in marketing. Bizarre as it may sound, they actually hoped to appear in this conflict as the innocently attacked party. Never mind right now that the sparsely settled provinces that rebelled "spontaneously" against Georgia are all manipulated by former KGB agents; any first-year MBA student could have told Putin that any tears he would shed, as he did in live broadcast while lamenting the suffering of fellow Russians, would come across as crocodile tears, just like any Russian invasion of a small, weak and democratic neighbor will make the whole world - except Belarus, Libya, North Korea and Cuba - hate, suspect and besmirch Russia. Had he been prudent, Putin would have figured that all this is bad for business - even the business of imperialism. But Putin is not prudent, certainly not when it comes to business. That is why he has been conducting a spigot diplomacy whereby he habitually toys with his assorted neighbors' energy supplies according to the morning's political forecast, besides of course jailing opinionated entrepreneurs and allegedly whacking spies abroad and journalists at home. In seeking imperial sway Russia is not different than the US, China or the EU. Where it parts ways with them is on business. Russia's real casus belli, an oil pipeline from Baku to the Black Sea that would cross Georgia and bypass Russia, is but a continuation of its economic policy, which combines addiction to oil with submission to organized crime. In shackling itself to the commodity markets' whims, Russia is emulating deformed economies like Venezuela's, Nigeria's and Libya's, and in sucking other people's pipes it is behaving in the oil market the way Al Capone did in the bootlegging industry. CURIOUSLY ENOUGH, all this has arrived, of all places, at the oil fields of Baku, Azerbaijan, into which Moscow wants to tap the way Tony Soprano would extort a trucking company. Baku had once been the focus of someone's imperial folly - Hitler's. It was the quest for its oil fields that made the fuehrer split the forces he had sent to Stalingrad, thus fatefully weakening the Sixth Army, whose subsequent surrender marked the beginning of the Third Reich's demise. Post-communist Russia is not Nazi Germany. It is religiously tolerant, and with all its political flaws is still an improvement over what preceded it. However, in foreign affairs its thinking is much like Nazi Germany's and Imperial Japan's, where economics meant possessing oil fields and diplomacy meant conquering them. Wartime Germany and Japan learned their lesson amid great devastation. Russia's lesson might come less violently, as oil's already sharp depreciation hopefully accelerates and traps Putin behind the labyrinthine pipelines within which he is caging his country's economy. Because once oil plunges, Russia's economy will shrink, and its people will start asking the tough questions its media find increasingly difficult to raise, questions like: How is it that from Latvia and Poland to Ukraine and Georgia everyone hates Russia? Do Russians really deserve to be so hated? Is this hatred incurable, and don't Russians stand to suffer from it, in the long run, more than they will ever gain? And this oil boom they once had, what was in it for Ivan? And oil's subsequent collapse, how come Vladimir Putin prepared for it the way Georgia prepared for the Red Army's invasion?