James Sherr writes in todayâ€™s Telegraph:
… Russia is exasperated with the West and also contemptuous of it. In the Georgian conflict, as in the more subtle variants of energy diplomacy, Russians have shown a harshly utilitarian asperity in connecting means and ends. In exchange, we appear to present an unfocused commitment to values and process. Our democracy agenda has earned the resentment not only of Russia’s elite but of the ordinary people who are delighted to see Georgia being taught a lesson. Our divisions arouse derision.
I suspect that this kind of writing will seem alarmist in hindsight. For a while now, Iâ€™ve had the view that itâ€™s probably better not to talk up Russia and Russian strength. From the playground perspective, that kind of talk only encourages the bully. More importantly, it gets things out of proportion, and lack of proportion surely belongs to the psychology of escalation.
Thereâ€™s a distinct retrograde character to this weekâ€™s events. This makes following the news exciting, but nonetheless I donâ€™t think weâ€™re seeing the beginning of a return to the state of affairs pre-1989. For a start, with communism, for decades, there was the fear that maybe, just maybe, the reds might be outproducing us. In other words, whether or not communism was ethically sound, it worked. (And thereâ€™s more than a hint of this mentality with respect to China today.) I tend to believe that if you follow this road assiduously you get to a situation where – through reference to some sort of biological analogy – â€˜strengthâ€™ or â€˜fitnessâ€™ is given as the highest purpose of a nation. This bad.
Luckily, we donâ€™t need to go there: communism (at least, communism as practised by the Russians) turned out not to work. The consequences are still with Russia today, and can be seen at various levels and in various applications, including military applications. For example, shells fired from a Leopard 2 will likely pass clean through the hull of a T-80, but not vice versa. (Korolevâ€™s rocket designs were good, admittedly.) Itâ€™s only because military investment was such a high priority in the USSR that we see todayâ€™s Russia in possession of a variety of functional materiel.
Now that we can measure it,* we find that Russiaâ€™s GDP is approximately equal to that of
Portugal Brazil (which is not to knock Brazil). Much of Russiaâ€™s wealth comes from resource extraction: in other words, Russia is not making stuff. Is it thinking stuff instead? Well, is there a nascent biotech or semiconductor industry in Russia today? (Or is there maybe some other, more esoteric kind of activity that hasnâ€™t yet permeated popular consciousness?) How are Russian universities doing?
Russia is fairly populous, although no one would call it densely populated. However, its population is shrinking; in part, because it is not a healthy country.
So weâ€™re left with territory – Russia borders a lot of places – and with its military, which still has some potency. Put those two together, and maybe itâ€™s not surprising that some Russian tanks will pop across the border from time to time. Or at least, they’ll want to.
One thing I found hard to understand about the last few days was the BTC pipeline bombing. I donâ€™t think that anyone doubts that the Russian air force could hit it eventually, if they chose, but what would be the point? Thereâ€™s no short term strategic consequence: nothing exclusively depends on that particular piece of infrastructure. So unless the Russians bombed it every day – which in itself would delay a profitable peace – theyâ€™d only see the thing rebuilt. If on the other hand, they wanted the pipeline – preciousss – for themselves, theyâ€™d have to invade (and take any further consequences). This possibility must be on peopleâ€™s minds, but it seems less likely today than it did yesterday. My suspicion is that the Russians simply missed the pipeline, and then, having thought things through, decided not to have another go.
My geostrategic recommendation, for what little itâ€™s worth: have strong words with the Ukrainians so that the Russians are allowed to take their boats home unmolested. Negotiate the introduction of a UN monitoring force to be stationed somewhere in the vicinity of South Ossetia. Continue to reduce dependency on oil and gas. And wait. Looking back, one lesson is this: if the Georgians had been militarily competent, they could have made this particular excursion punishingly difficult. The terrain favours defence. Whatever training and equipping may have been going on, it was obviously not up to scratch: weâ€™ve just seen a failure of basic, local deterrence.
*Probably not a straightforward job