Is Russia morphing into another USSR?
Well the Ukraine girls really knock me out
They leave the West behind
And Moscow girls make me sing and shout
That Georgia's always on my mind.
I'm back in the USSR
You don't know how lucky you are boys
Back in the USSR
- John Lennon
and Paul McCartney
It's not only the South Ossetians who are back in the USSR this morning. Other Georgians; countries in Russia's "near abroad" from the Caucasus to the Baltic; "national minorities" such as the Chechens; the West; and even Russians themselves now have to deal with a country and political leadership that bear an eerie similarity to Soviet models. They are authoritarian, militaristic, greedy and not overly concerned about where their borders end.
How lucky we should all feel about this is another matter.
In recent years, the Russian state has been credibly accused of murdering an exile in London; expropriated foreign investments on behalf of an energy company controlled by itself; cut off energy supplies to states as a means of political intimidation; assisted secessionist rebels in neighbouring states in order to keep their newly independent governments off-balance; and in the past few days - no more Mr. Nice Guy - invaded and bombed the sovereign state of Georgia.
Sometimes, these actions have worn a thin disguise of tax law enforcement or "peacekeeping." "Democracy" has been a similar camouflage for an authoritarian system in which power and wealth increasingly gather in the hands of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and other siloviki (or former intelligence bureaucrats). But although the siloviki know how to seize property, they have no idea how to create wealth. They generally mismanage what they seize - and so eventually need to seize more.
This parasitic system has been exported profitably to the "secessionist" regions of Georgia, which the Kremlin claims to be protecting. Almost all the senior officials in the South Ossetian "government" are former KGB officials from various Russian provinces. Its "Interior Minister," for instance, previously served in the Interior Ministry of North Ossetia. As Yulia Latynina of Novaya Gazeta dryly points out: "South Ossetia is not a territory, not a country, not a regime. It is a joint venture of siloviki generals and Ossetian bandits for making money in a conflict with Georgia." The result is a squalid depopulated entrepôt for drugs, smuggling, money-laundering and other criminal endeavours.
In addition to making money for the siloviki, South Ossetia exists for the purpose of destabilizing pro-Western Georgia. Its sporadic shelling of nearby Georgian villages provoked Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili into a seemingly catastrophic military response.
But if Georgia had taken no action, Russia would have incorporated the breakaway province by degrees. Mr. Putin had already given South Ossetian residents Russian passports. Both trapdoors led to the same result: Russian expansion; the punishment of Georgia for daring to be an ally of the West; and the annexation of South Ossetia, now occupied by Russian "peacekeepers."
Yes, it's "back in the USSR," boys.
Will Mr. Putin's redrawing of international boundaries stop there? Russian tanks crossed into Georgia proper last night. Might he dismember the country still further and block the one pipeline that brings Central Asian energy to the West without going through Russian territory? And if so, will the West let him get away with it?
Moscow apparently calculates that its brute seizure of another country's territory can be disguised as a "peacekeeping" operation to prevent "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" by the Georgians. A sophisticated press operation to popularize this mendacious "narrative" is being mounted internationally and at home. Initially, it found a hearing among those Western commentators for whom any enemy of George Bush or his friends must be in the right.
It has been widely argued, for instance, that Mr. Putin's recognition of South Ossetia was a response to the recognition of Kosovo's independence by the United States and European Union. Since Russia has been helping the secessionists for 16 years, this would make Russia's response a unique event in history: the first occasion on which an effect preceded its own cause.
Another excuse employed to soften criticism of Russia is that Mr. Saakashvili had angered Mr. Putin by seeking to join NATO. This argument is a particular application of the general proposition that, as philosopher Roger Scruton ironically puts it, "defence equals aggression." What the past week has demonstrated is that Mr. Saakashvili was right to seek the protection of NATO membership from Russian aggression. If granted, NATO membership would at least have given the Kremlin an additional serious reason not to risk this week's invasion.
This blend of a sophisticated Russian media campaign and the cultural masochism of Western public opinion might have persuaded the West to swallow a Russian seizure of South Ossetia and even Abkhazia, issue a few protests and then proceed with "business as usual." That may indeed still happen - German public opinion is especially susceptible to such pacifist temptations. But three obstacles now stand in the way of this appeasement.
The first is the actual sight of Russian tanks trundling through Georgian territory. On the 30th anniversary of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, it awakened all the old memories of Soviet brutalism. The second is that the tanks have kept on rumbling into Georgia proper. That seriously undermines the Russian "peacekeeping" narrative and is very hard to distinguish from outright aggression like, well, like the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. And, third, former Soviet satellites now in NATO and the EU (including both Slovakia and the Czech Republic) form a permanent lobby for a strong defence against Russia. On Saturday, Poland and the Baltic states issued a joint appeal for both bodies to oppose Russian aggression.
But how can the West do so? Russia has an overwhelming strategic predominance in the region. Maybe the best Western diplomats can accomplish locally is to "re-freeze" the conflict along lines that allow Russia to keep its kleptocratic enclaves, but demand a retreat from Georgia proper. Given Russia's continuing military advance, such a settlement would now look almost like an achievement.
The longer term is another matter. If Russia is morphing into another USSR, then the West will have to defend the post-Cold War international structure and the independence of post-communist nations against Mr. Putin's neo-imperialism.
Any outright conquest of Georgia would lead to a new Cold War and Western economic sanctions. It would also pose risks for Russia locally, since the entire Caucasus is unstable and the Russian army increasingly reliant on Chechens and other national minorities for recruits. The combination could be catastrophic for Moscow - remember Afghanistan.
Even lesser Russian actions invite serious political responses. Thus the Central Europeans angered by the Georgia crisis might immediately accept the missile defence system opposed by Mr. Putin. His attack on Georgia would then be seen to have backfired drastically. A renewed offer of NATO membership to Georgia would similarly show that punishing the country had merely pushed it into a closer alliance with the West. The same offer might also be made to Ukraine, since the Russian attack on Georgia is seen in Kiev as a proxy warning to them. And finally, the West could increase the economic price of South Ossetia to Russia by rejecting Russian passports held by South Ossetians as invalid for travel and imposing other sanctions on its trade. The Kremlin would then be left managing an impoverished, troublesome and money-hungry province.
Wider economic sanctions should probably be held in reserve. They are more powerful as a threat than as a reality. So the West could warn that if Russia reacted violently to its political measures, they would impose economic sanctions, beginning with expulsion from the G8. Given Russia's overdependence on energy, its fast-declining population and its need for Western capital and markets, it cannot treat such threats lightly.
Of course, Russia has an economic sanction of its own - cutting off its energy supplies to leave Europe sitting in the dark. But if that's in the cards, maybe we should know it sooner rather than too late?
Otherwise, not only Georgians may be singing along with the final chorus:
Show me round your snow peaked mountains way down south
Take me to your daddy's farm
Let me hear your balalaika's ringing out
Come and keep your comrade warm.
I'm back in the USSR
You don't know how lucky you are boys
Back in the USSR