If Georgia and Nato are the principal casualties of this week’s ruthless display of brute power by Vladimir Putin, the consequences are bigger still, the fallout immense, if uncertain. The regional and the global balance of power looks to have tilted, against the west and in favour of the rising or resurgent players of the east.
In a seminal speech in Munich last year, Putin confidently warned the west that he would not tolerate the age of American hyperpower. Seven years in office at the time and at the height of his powers, he delivered his most anti-western tirade.
To an audience that included John McCain, the White House contender, and Robert Gates, the US defence secretary and ex-Kremlinologist, he served notice: “What is a unipolar world? It refers to one type of situation, one centre of authority, one centre of force, one centre of decision-making. It is world in which there is one master, one sovereign. This is pernicious … unacceptable … impossible.”
This week, he turned those words into action, demonstrating the limits of US power with his rout of Georgia. His forces roamed at will along the roads of the Southern Caucasus, beyond Russia’s borders for the first time since the disastrous Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
As the Russian officers sat on the American stockpiles of machine guns, ammunition, and equipment in Gori, they were savouring a highly unusual scenario. Not since the Afghan war had the Russians seized vast caches of US weaponry. “People are sick to the stomach in Washington,” said a former Pentagon official. And the Russians are giddy with success.
President George W Bush has long proclaimed Teddy Roosevelt as one of his heroes, but he seems to have missed a crucial piece of advice bequeathed by the swashbuckling president of a century ago: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”
All of last week, Mr Bush loudly berated Russia, accusing it of bullying little Georgia and demanding that it withdraw its forces. “The people of Georgia have cast their lot with the free world,” Bush intoned, “and we will not cast them aside.” He promised a “robust and ongoing” military mission to deliver aid in Georgia, implicitly warning the Russians to stay out of their way. He repeatedly used the phrase “We expect Russia…” as if to convey authority. Russia, added his Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Friday, would face “consequences” for its action.
Despite the tenor of his statements, it was plain to see that there was no stick in Bush’s hand. No answer to an “or else what?”. In case anyone got the wrong idea – as did the Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, pouncing on Bush’s aid announcement to boast that the US military was coming to take charge of Georgia’s air and sea ports – the US Defence Secretary Robert Gates made clear that the aid mission was far more limited than Bush’s language had suggested, and that the US military had no intention of putting itself between Russian and Georgian forces.
A geopolitical convulsion measuring six points on the Richter scale is bound to produce aftershocks. The reverberations of the conflict in the Caucasus are beginning to be felt. We may be unwittingly bidding farewell to the “war on terror”. In any case, the international community has lost interest in Osama bin Laden.
The United States has spotted a promising new enemy on the horizon and an engrossing war may be offering itself, with infinite possibilities.
Needed: a new war doctrine. As often enough, Britain may be putting it all together. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in Churchillian tones, “The aggressive Russian force beyond South Ossetian borders has been something that really shocked many people … The sight of Russian tanks in Gori, Russian tanks in Senaki, the Russian blockade of the Georgian port of Poti, is a chilling reminder of times that I think we had hoped had gone by.” US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to the Georgian capital Tbilisi, promptly echoed Miliband, recalling the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
Five months ago, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, long a darling of this city’s diplomatic dinner party circuit, came to town to push for America to muscle his tiny country of four million into NATO.
On Capitol Hill, at the State Department and at the Pentagon, Mr. Saakashvili, brash and hyperkinetic, urged the West not to appease Russia by rejecting his country’s NATO ambitions.
At the White House, President Bush bantered with the Georgian president about his prowess as a dancer. Laura Bush, the first lady, took Mr. Saakashvili’s wife to lunch. Mr. Bush promised him to push hard for Georgia’s acceptance into NATO. After the meeting, Mr. Saakashvili pronounced his visit “one of the most successful visits during my presidency,” and said he did not know of any other leader of a small country with the access to the administration that he had.
Three weeks later, Mr. Bush went to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, at the invitation of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. There, he received a message from the Russian: the push to offer Ukraine and Georgia NATO membership was crossing Russia’s “red lines,” according to an administration official close to the talks.
Russia’s war in Georgia is about more than just punishing Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s pro-American President, whose doomed military incursion into South Ossetia 10 days ago caused the most serious crisis between Russia and the West since the Cold War.
The objectives of Russia’s Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, are much bigger: to create a new global order in which the US and Russia are equal partners again. Putin has frequently lamented the demise of the Soviet Union. He has described it as the greatest geo-political catastrophe of the 20th century. For Putin, the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin was a period of national humiliation in which a weakened Russia was forced to accept Western economic help and which saw former members of the Warsaw Pact embrace Nato, the West’s military club.
Over the past two years, Putin has given ample warning of his intentions to overturn the status quo in international affairs. Last year in Munich he launched a vituperative attack on America, denouncing its ‘unilateralism’. The Kremlin has criticised Nato’s westward expansion and the Bush administration’s deal with Warsaw last week to site missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. Nato membership for Ukraine and Georgia would, Putin made clear, be the final straw.
Putin’s aim, it appears, is to rewrite history, in particular the narrative that suggests that Russia lost the Cold War. Over the previous eight years as President, he has fashioned Russia into an advanced post-modern authoritarian state, governed by former KGB officers whose attitudes to the West were forged under communism. Putin has apparently never been reconciled to Russia’s new boundaries, which left millions of ethnic Russians living outside the borders of the Russian Federation in Ukraine, Georgia, the Baltic states and Central Asia.
Under pressure over impending impeachment charges, President Pervez Musharraf announced he would resign Monday, ending nearly nine years as one of the United States’ most important allies in the campaign against terrorism.
Speaking on television from his presidential office here at 1 p.m., Mr. Musharraf, dressed in a gray suit and tie, said that after consulting with his aides, “I have decided to resign today.” He said he was putting national interest above “personal bravado.”
“Whether I win or lose the impeachment, the nation will lose,” he said, adding that he was not prepared to put the office of the presidency through the impeachment process.
A human tide of more than 300,000 civilians has fled the al-Qa’ida badlands, amid indications that the fighting there has reached unprecedented levels, with the Pakistani army using massive firepower to attack jihadi militant strongholds.
Helicopter gunships, fixed-wing strike aircraft, tanks and heavy artillery have been used in the onslaught that followed the visit last month by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to Washington, where he was berated for Pakistan’s failure to wipe out the militants.
The offensive runs counter to perceptions that Pakistan’s new civilian Government is “soft” on Islamic extremism.
This will reassure Washington, whose ally in the war in terror for the past nine years, President Pervez Musharraf, was given by the Coalition Government until midnight last night (4am today AEST) to resign or face impeachment proceedings beginning tonight in the National Assembly.
Pakistani television showed thousands of civilians caught in the crossfire streaming out of the Bajaur, Mohmand and Kurrum agencies during the fighting estimated to have killed more than 500 militants. Tens of thousands of people are camping on the perimeter of Peshawar, the capital of the North West Frontier Province, and some have reached Rawalpindi, the garrison city adjoining Islamabad.
Pakistan looks to life without the general (The Observer)
Al Qaeda at 20 dead or alive? (Peter Bergen)
The candidate we still don’t know (Frank Rich)
The great illusion (Paul Krugman)
‘We are all Georgians’? Not so fast. (Michael Dobbs)
Russia in nuclear threat to Poland (The Times)
War casts cloud over pipeline route (Moscow Times)
Russia has called our bluff over countries we can’t defend (Neal Ascherson)
US worries as Maliki gets ‘difficult’ (Gareth Porter)