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Disaggregating Russia

medved090808.jpgAs the West grapples with how to respond to the Georgian crisis, one policy most likely to yield results, as part of any strategy, is that of disaggregation. This means finding ways to punish those in Russia responsible for pushing the Kremlin into its current trajectory, while supporting those who have a contrary view of their country’s place and opportunities in the evolving world order. Believe it or not, there are many who believe that a strong and successful Russia is not mutually antagonistic to friendly, cooperative, and law abiding relations with the outside world (I count myself among them). The war in Georgia is wildly popular among Russians today, but this support is thin and precarious for the long run. Russian people will not long support an isolationist gamble when it begins to jeopardize their newly comfortable lifestyle, monthly bottom line, or relative perceived stability. What may seem like a political masterstroke this fall may become Putin’s Katrina, as evidenced by the slide in the markets, desperate efforts to shore up the rouble, and the catastrophic damage to the country’s image. More importantly, however, is that the approval or disapproval of the Russian people is virtually irrelevant in this governing model. This is not a country where any accountability exists or elections really matter; its leadership is one that manufactures public opinion rather than being responsive to it. With near total control over the press, the Kremlin will continue to determine poll results and have its own story told. But still we can learn from these expressed perspectives how the Kremlin hopes to get out of this crisis, and what levers may be available to disaggregate.

The dominant view in the Kremlin is that there is parity between Kosovo and Georgia; that the world needs more than one policeman and more than one rule-maker. Nothing will convince most Russians otherwise.What is clear from 8/8 is that however prepared the 58th Army may have been to invade, the seemingly unprepared Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately lost the information war waged by Georgia.This reality disconnect with respect to inter-ministry communications is nothing new. Russia’s government is one of information silos, where insufficient coordination is only compounded by the lack of a motivated civil service corps in the face of deep corruption at every level (something we have seen evident in the Bill Browder case and the corporate raiding problem). For its highest priorities the Kremlin can crack the whip, but the default position across the public service is one of cynicism and lethargy. Not the ideal team to consolidate military successes, and indeed, there were many reports of Russia’s armored divisions more or less making up their own orders with no control from the central authorities once in Georgia.Don’t get me wrong. For its part, and until now, Gazprom and the key elites associated with it have done an extraordinary job disaggregating Europe while co-opting the continent’s political leaders and preempting nearly all plans for energy diversification.Yet on the big issues of dealing with Brussels, Washington and Beijing, there has been far less success. Rare has been the moment when Russian interests were so poorly projected in all three capitals concurrently, as has been the case with the Georgian crisis. (And it’s not for their lack of profligate spending on the world’s best lobbyists.)In order to get a fair reception from the media, someone should tell the Kremlin, one must play to the audience and show a certain level of intelligence and rationality in order to underscore the legitimacy of your grievances. The Russian leadership has failed to this. For example, to expect Beijing to support the invasion of Georgia is to miscalculate Russia’s strengths and China’s weaknesses. Sovereignty and non-interference are bedrock principles of the present Chinese leadership. Meanwhile, with respect to the Europeans, handing out passports and annexing territory is far too reminiscent of recent very negative history.The invasion of Georgia seems to have been promoted by certain clans in Moscow that see the isolation of Russia from the West as an inherently positive development. In the old debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers, these folks fall resolutely on the side of the Slavophiles.For the more aggressive Kremlin powerbrokers, the loud international reaction to Russia’s move into Georgia is splendid proof that the world has heard their wake-up call, justifying the need for their iron-fist control over all aspects of society. Yet the extent of Russia’s growing isolation, and the broad potential repercussions, appear to have worried Prime Minister Vladimir Putin enough that he has joined the public relations fight by appearing on CNN. Russia and its present leadership may be experiencing a Katrina moment from which they will find difficult to extricate themselves.The Western response to this crisis should be mercantile and specific. The West should attack the visas, bank accounts and financial transactions of those involved in the planning of this invasion, as well as those who intend to invest in these occupied territories. Those who wish to isolate Russia live in the corridors of power in Moscow. Let’s not make them at home in London or Paris, where they so frequently like to travel, shop, and invest, not to mention send their children for education.While not subject to sanctions, new investments by Russian state-owned enterprises in the West should be scrutinized under a renewed risk calculus.Most importantly, any response must be targeted and should avoid the grand insults (think civilization vs. barbarism, and that whole misplaced narrative) that will bind the people within Russia together against the West. A separation is already occurring between Russia’s real national interests, and the private objectives of its hard line silovik leaders. Let’s not help them repair this opening gap.