Fareed Zakaria, an author and scholar I greatly admire, recently published his assessment of the Georgian crisis, framing it as a strategic blunder on the part of Russia. While I agree with his overall assessment of modern-day Russia, particularly as it was analyzed in his book, the Future of Freedom, I believe he is mistaken in his judgment of Russia’s actions in Georgia.
First, the positive:
As the price of oil and other natural resources has risen over the past decade, Russia has become more dysfunctional, corrupt, dictatorial and assertive. And oil wealth everywhere — from Venezuela to Iran to Russia — breeds independence from and indifference to international norms, markets and rules.
This is more or less true, and wholly predictable. As he outlines in the Future of Freedom, historically the poorer a country is in natural resources, often the more susceptible it is to democratization, because the people are more tied to the government due to the government’s need for tax revenue (i.e. France and colonial America in the late 18th century). When a country is rich in natural resources — and perhaps no country has more natural wealth than Russia — people are more easily contented by the government, because it can demonstrate progress while drawing from the resource wealth rather than the population through taxation.
Such is certainly the case for Russians, which given their cultural tendency towards autocracy find themselves in a situation in which for most, life is improving, and as long as the government can keep that streak going, they will remain overall indifferent to the details and nuances of how the job gets done. This will be a continuing struggle for Russia in the years to come, and strong reason why the United States should not expect democracy to sprout up there as naturally as it has in the West.
Despite Zakaria’s insightful view on Russia, I believe he misjudges the country’s current predicament:
The attack on Georgia will go down not as the dawn of a new era of Russian power but as a major strategic blunder. Russia has scared its neighbors witless, driving them firmly into the arms of the West. For almost two years, Poland had been dragging its feet on the American proposal to deploy missile interceptors there as part of a continent-wide shield. Days after the Russian invasion, Warsaw agreed to the deployment. Ukraine had long been divided on whether to have closer ties to the West. A few years ago, 60 percent of the country wanted some kind of federation with Russia instead. Now Kiev has asked for a path to NATO membership.
Vladimir Putin has done more for transatlantic unity than a President Barack Obama ever could. The United States and Europe are in greater strategic agreement now than at any point in the past two decades. Even the autocracies in the Caucasus have reacted negatively, refusing to endorse Russia’s actions and legitimize the new facts on the ground. China has refused its support.
And what did Russia get for all this? Seventy thousand South Ossetians.
First, the deal in Poland for the Missile Shield was probably inevitable from the get-go. Second, relations with Russia, and the Georgian crisis are still controversial political issues in Ukraine. Yes, the pro-Western Ukrainian government is pushing for inclusion in the NATO alliance, but such was the case long before the outbreak of war between Russia and Georgia. And, although I haven’t seen recent polls, I doubt the large portion of the Ukrainian public that considers itself Russian — and not Ukrainian — has suddenly turned on its ethnic identity due to recent events. Furthermore, while Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has expressed solidarity with Tbilisi, there is hardly solidarity within Kiev on the matter as the country’s prime-minister, Yulia Timoshenko has actually come out in support of Russia in the conflict.
I also believe he overstates the concrete solidarity the crisis has created among the transatlantic allies. Despite tough talk from the West in general, only the Baltic states and a sprinkling of other former Soviet republics in the European Union have made serious calls for sanctions. While French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has said sanctions will be on the table for the European response, they will not actually be carried out because such sanctions would hurt Western European powers nearly as much as they would hurt Russia. The crisis has also, in fact, weakened ties within the NATO and has exacerbated the alliance’s existential struggle of determining its purpose in the post-Cold War world. Most NATO members have shown reluctance to commit to military engagement in Afghanistan and have shown little will to stand up for its future projects like Georgia. An emergency NATO summit on the subject of Georgia could only agree upon a creation of a NATO-Georgia Council, punishing Russia because it “contained the words NATO and Georgia simultaneously.” Experts have even questioned whether the alliance would have responded had Georgia actually have been a member of NATO.
In the end, we will have to see what consequences and benefits each side will endure from this crisis. In my mind, however, it won’t be Russia that loses face.