For those of you keeping score, the PWB was silent last week. For the first time in over a year and half, we turned out the lights and took a breather from the business of ranting and raving about whatever frosts our collective butt on a weekly basis.
The staff expressed their appreciation for the time off by forgetting to close the fridge door before departing the office for the week, which in turn increased our monthly electric bill tenfold and depressingly led to disastrous beer warming on a scale that would make Al Gore weep. An independent investigation is underway — led by a bipartisan committee of underemployed senators — to determine who is responsible and how we can avoid similar beer warming crises in the future.
Under the category of “Did anything interesting happen while I was out?” ... Apparently, sensing that the PWB was off duty, Russia took the opportunity to invade a neighbor. Now while we all have some lingering fascination and possibly even nostalgia for the old Cold War days, I don’t think any of us actually had much interest in seeing Russia rebuild the Soviet Union.
But while we were focused elsewhere, it seems we didn’t notice Vladimir Putin was busy channeling Stalin and measuring the small, democratic country of Georgia for a brand new yoke. Regular PWB readers will know that our favorite global dictators have long been Putin, Iran’s Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo “Celebrities Love Me” Chavez. Well, needless to say, those other two have gotten all moist and moony-eyed over Putin’s march into Georgia. It’s a strongman’s dream come true, the humiliation and temporary (or not) occupation of a neighbor that had the gall to turn to democracy and befriend the west.
First, just let me express sympathy for Russia’s supposed President Dmitry Medvedev. It can’t be comfortable spending all that time sitting on Putin’s lap with his hand in your back making your lips move. It was anticipated when Putin stepped down as president that he wouldn’t completely relinquish control, but having Medvedev dress like Charlie McCarthy during press conferences seems to confirm that the new president may not be calling the shots.
How did we get to this point? The potential for trouble in Caucasus has been brewing for some time and the U.S. administration was growing increasingly worried over the potential for conflict between Georgia and Russia. Possibly due to the complexity of the region and the players involved, we’ve received a large number of requests from readers asking for insightful analysis of the situation. We’ve dutifully steered those readers to publications and Web sites where they specialize in insightful analysis.
For the rest of us, here’s a basic primer that should help to clear up any confusion over Russia’s recent actions. This is the same briefing that the PWB prepared and presented to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the NSC and the fellas down at Buzz Boyer’s 8 Ball Room and Brewpub.
Georgia is a country located above Turkey and below Russia. It shares the same name as the U.S. southern state, but really has little else in common. An important point to remember is that Russia used to own Georgia (the country, not the state) and occasionally forgets that they lost it in a fire sale a few years back when the Soviet Union disbanded due to lack of interest.
Russia is run by Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian leader who is a master politician, former KGB officer and really testy about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Putin once referred to the demise of the USSR as the biggest disaster of the 20th Century. He clearly never saw Waterworld, Heaven’s Gate or Rocky 3 thru 5.
Putin recently stepped down as president, preferring instead to run the country from the prime minister’s office where he now sits, and in reality, enjoys a much better view than he did in the president’s office suite. Occasionally he’ll let new president Medvedev attend State functions, make statements for the press and drive the presidential golf cart around the Kremlin. Otherwise, Vladimir wears the big boy pants in the government and has shown no intention of releasing his kung fu grip on power.
As if the collapse of the Soviet Union wasn’t enough to send Putin into cardiac arrest, a number of other events took place over the recent past to make him think the world was making a grab for all his marbles. Many of the countries that had been blessed with the munificence and selfless, gentle governance of Moscow drifted to the West.
This would include Georgia. Some of these countries entered the NATO sphere of influence, some enhanced trade with the United States and its allies and others were quick to shed old Soviet trappings for the joys of McDonalds, South Park and other western cultural treasures. Georgia was recently considered for membership in NATO, but many of the NATO members were either too girlie or too busy burnishing their ineffectual status to vote Georgia in to the club.
Nonetheless, just the vote itself made steam come out of Putin’s ears. Luckily, the Russians had been fomenting trouble in Georgia for some time through support of pesky separatists in two regions of the country, South Ossetia (located in the north) and Azbakia (located in the west and last seen in the spellbinding "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azbakia").
Both regions have been agitating for autonomy from Georgia for years and have long accepted top cover from Moscow, which found it handy to have enclaves of support inside the former puppet state. Russia provided money, administrative support, Russian passports and goody-bags to the South Ossetians and citizens of Azbakia, all for the low, low price of fealty.
In the early 1990s Georgia signed ceasefire arrangements with both regions. The Russians, always magnanimous, placed Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia to ensure that they had a steady stream of intelligence and a physical toehold.
This brings us to the present conflict. Despite admonitions from the U.S. and others to turn the other cheek, the Georgian government finally grew tired of provocations from the South Ossetian separatists and their Russian peacekeeping pals. In a strategic move completely devoid of strategy, thus making it simply a move, tanks were ordered into South Ossetia in an attempt to quiet the secessionists and assert Georgia’s central authority.
Putin — who by the way played this whole situation masterfully — took the opportunity to throw a modernized and revitalized Russian army and air force into the fray. Using the excuse that they viewed Georgia’s move in South Ossetia as a threat to Russian peacekeepers, the Russian military rolled through the region, took the opportunity to also overrun Azbakia and, for good measure, moved troops, tanks and support elements into Georgia proper, including within miles of its capital, Tblisi. No, I did not leave out any vowels in the spelling of Tblisi.
What was the west’s response to Russia’s invasion of a free, independent and democratic ally? Exactly what Putin suspected it would be. All quiet on the western front as the U.S., NATO, the EU, the U.N. and others scrambled not to upset Putin and the energy-rich Russia. While nobody is advocating for a military response from the U.S. or the west, that would be almost as stupid as Georgia provoking Russia in the first place, something stronger than a blank stare and some quiet tsk-tsking would have been nice.
In reality, Russia knows that there is almost no appetite in the west for a return to Cold War days. Russia’s coffers are stuffed full of Petrojack, they’ve demonstrated their willingness to use oil and gas as a weapon against its neighbors and Europe, they have spent countless resources from oil revenue updating their military over the recent past and there is an increasing nationalistic movement within Russia that Putin has successfully exploited.
Layer onto that the view that the U.S. has been weakened by its efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and has lost moral authority around the globe, the usual inability of the U.N. to do anything quickly (other than to routinely criticize the United States), NATO’s somewhat tenuous grasp on what it means to be a fighting force and the inability of the European Union to tie its own shoes and it’s clear that Georgia is somewhat on its own.
To be fair, the U.S. has stepped up its rhetoric towards Russia during the past week as it became clear that the Russian military, while claiming they would be leaving soon, was actually busy homesteading and acting as if Georgia would soon need to rethink that whole democracy thing. The problem is that rhetoric, chest-thumping, humanitarian aid and general huzzahs from the west for democracy in Georgia will have little to no influence on Putin. Aside from aggressive diplomacy, possible financial threats against Russian business overseas and stomping our feet, there’s little to be done.
To show how limited our options are, I actually heard some very smart individuals say that one of our best moves would be to threaten to boycott the 2014 Olympics, scheduled to be held in Russia. Russia has invaded Georgia, based on a very complex collision of events, political concerns and national interests, and we think that a boycott of the Olympics in 2014 might do the trick. What a load of crap.
That concludes the primer for today. Next week, we’ll have a sneak peak at Putin’s plans to overthrow the Ukraine.
Til’ next week, stay safe.