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Russian 'Hard Power' Changes Balance In Caucasus

Russian soldiers in the village of Zemo Nikozi, in Georgia, on August 11

Though the fog of war lies thick over the Caucasus, the outlines of a new order are starting to emerge from a few days of war between Georgia and Russia. The Putin restoration has embarked on its first decisive use of hard power beyond Russia's borders. Now is the time to understand what Moscow's real aims and motivations are, what is at stake, and how the West can respond.

Georgia's stance is clearest at present. Pushed back on its heels in a widening war against a vastly superior force, Tbilisi is suing for peace and pushing for the internationalization of the conflict. Thus far, it has received nothing more than statements of support from Western allies. This is unlikely to change -- Russia has chosen hard power to resolve its differences with Georgia; the Europeans and United States are not willing to risk direct involvement on those terms. This means that Russia holds nearly all the cards, making Russian motivations and aims crucial to understanding the conflict and its consequences.

The primary Russian aim is to show that it is the only outside power that can and will use military force to defend its proclaimed interests in a territorially defined sphere of influence that corresponds to the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), or the former Soviet Union minus the three Baltic states. The justification -- that Russia is protecting its peacekeepers and citizens in South Ossetia and acting to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe -- is less important. Having weighed, however briefly, the military risks and potential consequences for its relations with the West, Russia intervened.

Despite air attacks on numerous targets throughout Georgia and some reports of limited Russian incursions onto undisputed Georgian territory, Russia does not seem intent on a full-scale invasion. Rather, the apparent aim is to put a permanent end to Georgian claims to the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia by "enforcing peace" there on Russian terms, degrade Georgian military capabilities, and paint Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili into a corner as a failed adventurer who cannot count on real support from his Western allies when the going gets tough and who is no longer an acceptable interlocutor for the power that matters in the region -- namely, Russia.

But as is often the case with military interventions intended to make broad points, the devil is in the precise objectives and exit strategy. The Russian Foreign Ministry has announced that it is not seeking "regime change" in Georgia, yet Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's representative to NATO, has accused Saakashvili of genocide and war crimes. How does Russia intend to deal with Saakashvili then? Kremlin spokesman Aleksei Popov has denied Russia intends to occupy Georgia, saying, "We have enough territory to think of; we don't need Georgia." Yet AP reported on August 11 that Russian troops have captured a Georgian base at Senaki, on undisputed Georgian territory near Abkhazia. Are Russian forces establishing a buffer zone around the Kremlin-backed separatist regions?

It is entirely possible that Moscow has no clear vision of the endgame. Sending in the troops is easy; getting them out may prove much harder. Any ambiguities and uncertainties of Russian strategy should be foremost in the minds of Western diplomats as they attempt to broker a cease-fire and carve out a role for themselves in the aftermath of the war.

Which brings us to the European Union and the United States. Western states have reacted to Russian actions with varying degrees of consternation, tempered with unease over Saakashvili's impetuosity and leavened with a refusal to entertain the possibility of direct military support for Georgia. Looming over the reactions is a sense of frustration at how little leverage the West has now that Russia has crossed the proverbial Rubicon by using military force beyond its borders.

While U.S. President George W. Bush has condemned the Russian push into Georgia as "unacceptable in the 21st century," off-the-record comments by U.S. officials paint a different picture. Confronted with a quotation suggesting that the United States lacks "the wherewithal to do anything" and should probably "shut up," an individual identified as a "senior administration official" laughed, saying, "Well, maybe we're learning to shut up now," "The New York Times" reported on August 9. And, lest Georgia entertain any hopes of direct assistance, a "senior official" speaking anonymously told "The "Washington Post" on August 10, "We're not talking about anything beyond international diplomacy at this point."

What's more, the sudden crisis has revealed a deep split within the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. Two groups have emerged; they can neutrally be termed "realists" and "activists." The activists have placed the blame for the crisis squarely on Russia, urged a strong defense of Georgian democracy, and warned of recrudescent Soviet-style expansionism in Moscow. They include Anne Applebaum, Ronald Asmus and Richard Holbrooke, Robert Kagan, and William Kristol. The realists are critical of excessive U.S. support for Saakashvili, blame all sides for the crisis, and counsel greater attention to Russian interests in the hopes of reviving the U.S.-Russia partnership. They include Gregory Djerejian, Steve Clemons, Dmitri Simes, and, although he has not spoken out on this issue, Henry Kissinger in the background.

Few have had any policy proposals. One exception is Simes. Writing in "The National Interest" online on August 11, Simes harshly criticizes U.S. policy on Georgia and places much of the blame for the crisis on Saakashvili, but recommends a "red line" and, under specific circumstances, U.S. military assistance to Georgia: "The first priority for the United States should be to make abundantly clear to Moscow that any attempt at forceful regime change in Georgia will have severe consequences for the U.S.-Russian relationship and that the United States would help Georgia to resist on the ground. Though the U.S. will not send troops -- and Moscow knows it -- we can provide significant military assistance to Tbilisi and greatly complicate a Russian military advance."

The dispute between "realists" and "activists" is taking place between people who are drawing conclusions rather than making decisions. Decision makers would do well to focus on the following aspects of Russian aims and motivations, which remain the crucial element in the crisis:
  • The message Moscow is sending with its incursion into Georgia is not directed at Washington and Brussels, but rather at the capitals of other states in the former Soviet Union, who are to see the Russian military put to use abroad and the West powerless to stop it, and the domestic Russian audience, which is to gain confirmation of "Russia rising from its knees."
  • While the opacity of Russia's objectives and exit strategy may be intentional if the real aim is regime change and the removal of President Saakashvili, it more likely reflects the inherent opacity of a show of force intended to send a broad message. Whether the Russian mission creeps or drifts, there will eventually be significant opportunities for adroit diplomacy.
  • Effective diplomacy demands an accurate understanding of Russia today. It is neither a back-from-the-dead Soviet Union that must be opposed at all costs nor a partner-in-waiting that simply requires greater attention and respect for fruitful cooperation. Russia is ruled by a profoundly corrupt elite that cares first and foremost for manipulating the machinery of the state to serve its private financial interests, after that for the maintenance of power through a pseudo-democratic system of propaganda-massaged plebiscites masquerading as elections, and only then for the national interest as that is understood in Western democracies. Though the terms are hardly catchy, Russia today could be described as a "kerdocracy" (rule based on the desire for material gain) or "khrematisamenocracy" (rule by those who transact business for their own profit).
  • As a result, Russian actions cannot be understood through the sole prisms of neo-Soviet ideology or conventionally calculated national interest. Both factors are present to some degree in Moscow, but the financial interests of the various influence groups and clans within the elite are of paramount importance. The role former Soviet republics play in the elite's perceptions of its financial interests, which hinge on the export of oil and gas, is a complex subject that requires a separate analysis, but it is one that must not be ignored.
  • With oil and gas prices sky high, and Europe dependent on Russia as an energy supplier, Western leverage over Russia is perceived as minimal. This is largely true, but not entirely. The Russian elite's reliance on the Western financial system, often involving transactions of dubious legality, is a potential source of leverage.
  • Russia may have reached a tipping point at which domestic propaganda is beginning to force action abroad. State-controlled television, Kremlin-funded youth groups, and a veritable army of salaried propagandists have whipped up a storm of anti-Western paranoia and revanchist rhetoric. Georgia and its president, who is frequently depicted as a "fascist" in Russia, have come in for particular abuse. This may have played a role in the current crisis, as a regime that bombards its population with aggressive propaganda will eventually feel obligated to match words with deeds in order to maintain domestic credibility.

The new order that Moscow would like to see emerge from Russia's war with Georgia is one in which Russia polices a sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union with military power at times and places of its choosing, with the "international community" relegated to issuing statements, and one in which independent states across Eurasia are compelled to align their policies with Moscow's priorities. Those, in turn, spring from the mercenary vagaries of clan politics, blanket resistance to anything resembling democratic reform, and the feedback loop from bellicose propaganda.

Those, then, are the stakes. As Western policymakers formulate their responses, they can take comfort in one saving grace. Russia's aims and motivations bubble up from a domestic system of intertwined political and economic interests that is not nearly as strong, coherent, and ambitious as pictures of Russian tanks on Georgian soil might suggest. Cool-headed diplomacy and coordinated follow-through based on an accurate understanding of that system can do a great deal to prevent the emergence of an international order that would impose Moscow's rules on Eurasia for the foreseeable future.

Daniel Kimmage is RFE/RL's senior geopolitics correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

Clashes In Georgia: Chronology

Clashes In Georgia: Chronology

Video of the fighting in Georgia's breakaway regions, and the latest efforts to end the conflict (Reuters video). Play

For full coverage of the clashes in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia proper, click here.