Thursday, September 18, 2008

Russian Roulette

Riffing on George W. Bush's infamous comment about gazing into Vladimir Putin's eyes and experiencing what one can only assume was an optical illusion suggesting the presence of a soul, John McCain is widely quoted as having said, "I looked into his eyes and saw three letters: a K, a G and a B.” He's gotten a lot of grief over that from those who felt that he was being unduly and dangerously provocative. But, more and more, it's looking like yet another case of McCain-as-Cassandra.

Along those lines, this week's STRATFOR Geopolitical Briefing is a must-read. Here's an extended excerpt:

After the Aug. 7 confrontation between Georgia and Russia and the Sept. 10 deployment of Russian strategic bombers in Venezuela , there is little doubt that Russia is reasserting itself and that we are entering a period of heightened geopolitical tension between Russia and the United States. This period of tension is, as forecast, beginning to resemble the Cold War — though as we have noted in previous analyses, the new version will be distinctly different.It is very important to remember that while the hallmark of the Cold War was espionage, the efforts of the intelligence agencies engaged in the Cold War were far broader. Intelligence agencies like the CIA and KGB also took part in vast propaganda campaigns, sponsored coups and widely used proxies to cause problems for their opponent.


Fast-forward to 2008. Russia is no longer a Soviet republic in league with a number of other communist republics. Today, Russia is technically a constitutional democracy [ed. BWAA-ha-ha-ha!] with a semicapitalist economic system; it is no longer a model communist society or the shining light of Marxist achievement. In spite of these ideological changes, the same geopolitical imperatives that drove the Soviet Union and the United States to the Cold War are still quite real, and they are pushing these powers toward conflict. And in this conflict, the Russians will reach for the same tools they wielded so deftly during the Cold War.


Another consideration is that ideological change in Russia could mean Moscow will reach out to radical groups that the KGB traditionally did not deal with. While many KGB officers didn’t completely buy in to communist ideology, the Communist credo did serve as both a point of attraction and a limiting factor in terms of whom the Soviets dealt with. Since the Russian state is no longer bound by Soviet ideology — it is really all about power and profit these days — that constraint is gone. The Russians are now free to deal with a lot of people and do a lot of things they could not do in Soviet times. [emph. added]

If the preceding passages made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, then you were paying attention. Although it was supposed to serve the Party, the KGB was reputedly composed of steely-eyed sophisticates whose icy pragmatism left little room for grandiloquent Communist bombast. They had always been all about power, but at least nominally served the interests of the Revolution, and so had to at least appear to work within the strictures of Communist ideology.

Now, it appears, the only red you'll see is on the teeth and claws of an unchained bear in a very, very foul mood.

As I've said before, there were some precious opportunities during the early 90s to shore up the Russian state, support its fledgling capitalist economy, and make true allies of our long-standing enemies. Those opportunities were resoundingly squandered by the Bush41 and (especially) Clinton administrations, and are likely lost for the foreseeable future. What is left to us is a bitter adversary with a long reach, a lot of practice, and very full coffers.

I truly believe that, if it is properly and firmly contained and confronted, the threat represented by Russia will be reasonably manageable, and full-on hot war could very well be avoided. Russia has no interest in pushing the envelope so hard that it would be truly isolated in the world; its economy may be flush with energy revenue, but it is brittle and shallow for now. Introducing more supply into (and/or removing some demand from) the global petroleum markets could strengthen our hand in this game (and in so many others besides) by lowering prices and thinning out the revenue streams with which Russia (and so many others) tend to finance the worst of their mischief.

But make no mistake, Putin's Russia will push in every direction in search of soft spots, and will fill any void it finds. We and our true allies (notably those who remember what it was like, back in the USSR) need to be everywhere they look.

So, the reader is heartily encouraged to reflect at length on exactly who it is that they want sitting across the table from the man that this fine young fellow grew to be...

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