Another Hard Landing for Russia?

By Eugene Rumer

Russia’s victory in Georgia is payback for years of geopolitical irrelevance, for Moscow’s retreat from Eastern Europe and from the Soviet Union, for Western finger-wagging at Russian transgressions at home and abroad. Russia is back: Its gross domestic product has increased from US$200 billion in 1999 to $1.2 trillion in 2007. Moscow has more money from oil and gas exports than it knows what to do with.

The Russian military is showing off its newfound strength, punishing the Georgians for their sins, the greatest of which is forgetting in whose back yard they live. Moscow has warned Poland and the Czech Republic not to deploy US missile defense components on their territories. The Kremlin has also told Washington that it should mind its own business.

We have seen something like this before, though. Thirty years ago, flush with oil and gas revenue, the Soviet Union was threatening Europe and challenging the United States. In 1979, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan and seemed poised to keep going to fulfill centuries-old Russian ambitions of reaching the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. The West could do nothing to stop Moscow’s juggernaut unless it was willing to risk nuclear annihilation.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan drove the final nail into the coffin of detente — a policy of tentative East-West rapprochement. It also marked the start of one of the frostiest chapters in the Cold War saga, which ended with the Soviet Union’s collapse. A decade later, there would be no more Warsaw Pact. Europe would be sending humanitarian aid to Russia. The Soviet military would be defeated in Afghanistan. What caused all that? We are still not quite sure. The war in Afghanistan, excessive military spending, reliance on oil and gas exports for revenue, failure to reform the Soviet economy, and the lack of outlets for domestic opposition are all high on the list of regular suspects.

Fast-forward to 2008. Russia is riding high, making up for all that was lost in preceding decades. US and European leaders are flummoxed by how to punish the rising giant that they also badly need — to feed our oil addiction, to help us cut a deal with Iran and to go on buying our currency to keep its value from sliding further. But who is to say that Russia’s victory in Georgia will not lead to another disaster in a few years?

There is plenty of trouble brewing in Russia, not unlike the trouble to which Moscow turned a blind eye 30 years ago, as its tanks rolled into Afghanistan and caused a break in relations with the West. The vast Russian military can crush Georgia’s army of 35,000. But Russia’s own North Caucasus region, just across the border from Georgia, has been a simmering cauldron for nearly two decades. The conditions in Russia look different from the conditions of 30 years ago, but Russia’s reality is still grim. Moscow may have more billionaires than other European capitals, but the Russian population is still shrinking, the average Russian man is not expected to live past 60, oil still dominates the country’s economic future, and the taps are running dry.

No matter how the current crisis is resolved, the consequences for East-West (that Cold War term again) relations will be far-reaching. The stain on Russia’s reputation in the West will not be erased for years. It will take a very different — and most improbable — Russian attitude to repair the damage.

In the meantime, could it be that Russia, petro-confident and irredentist, seeking to reverse the record of the past two decades, is careering toward another 1989 or 1991? Will it heed the lessons of the Soviet era? What will happen if it does not? Will the North Caucasus break out of Moscow’s grip? Will the Far East turn into a Chinese colony? Will the West once again confront the prospect of Moscow’s former satrapies suddenly becoming major nuclear powers? Will the specter of Russian “loose nukes” keep haunting the West?

It will take skill and patience to get Russia to a soft landing from its present high. Moscow’s record at soft landings is not good. The consequences of it landing hard will be felt far beyond its borders. We should be thinking about that, even if the Russians are not.

The writer is a senior fellow at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies. The views expressed here are solely those of the author.

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