Dmitri Sidorov, bureau chief for Kommersant in Washington DC, writing in Forbes:
The Russian proverb “trust but verify” gave Ronald Reagan some of his most memorable moments. He produced it repeatedly in interactions with the Soviets, including the 1978 ceremony to sign the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty in Moscow. There, he said it first in English, and then in Russian, incurring the displeasure of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
In July 2009 President Obama signed a number of documents in Moscow, and according to sources in the Russian capital and Washington, he received the Kremlin’s assurance that Russian troops will not invade Georgia again. But Mr. Obama, following the practice of his recent predecessors, shied away from publicly stressing the importance of verification, and emphasized instead the value of trust.
But this doesn’t work with the Russians. No matter which leader occupies the throne in the Kremlin, Moscow has no plans to waive its proclaimed spheres of influence in most, if not all, the former republics of the USSR.
Last Saturday the Russian Ministry of Defense accused Georgia of shooting at Russian troops stationed in the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia, which Moscow occupied after its August 2008 war with Georgia. “In case of further provocations threatening the republic’s population and the Russian military contingent deployed in South Ossetia, the ministry retains the right to use all available means and forces to defend the nationals of South Ossetia and Russian servicemen,” the Russian statement read, as distributed by government wire agency RIA-Novosti.
The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 started with an organized provocation at the border in which Berlin blamed Polish troops for shooting at German soldiers. Hitler’s concern for “the well-being of the German population” residing in Czechoslovakia was the pretext for his occupation of that country in 1938 and 1939.
We can probably assume that U.S. officials made numerous calls to Moscow asking for an explanation of the latest Russian statement on Georgia. The Kremlin’s statement was partially for U.S. consumption as well. It came soon after Vice President Biden left Georgia and the Wall Street Journal published an interview with him on U.S.-Russia relations.
The Kremlin was offended by Biden’s assertion that Russia is weak, and thus willing to cooperate with the U.S. Despite assurances to Moscow by White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, and later by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Moscow responded in tones that indicate the Russian leadership will not hesitate to attack Georgia again if it considers it necessary. This breach of the promises made to Obama during his visit to Moscow is the consequence of U.S. and European forgiveness of the Kremlin war against Georgia in 2008.
The Kremlin wasn’t just reacting to Biden. Vladimir Putin may be easily offended, but the vice president’s words differed only slightly from the many op-eds and stories about Russia that appear every day in international media.
The Russian statement showed that the Kremlin remains bent on regime change in Georgia, either by military force or political coercion. Economics, more than the personal distaste Vladimir Putin has for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, explains the Russians’ oblivious behavior.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, and the increasingly real-looking plans for the Nabucco gas pipeline, endangers Moscow’s European gas supply monopoly. It will also significantly diminish the Kremlin’s capability to dictate its policy to the European countries.
Russian tactics are similar in Ukraine, another country Biden visited last month. Military force is a less likely option there. Instead, the Kremlin relies on a policy of political coercion, regular promises to a number of Ukrainian politicians of a bright financial future and energy (gas transit) wars of the sort we saw in 2007 and 2008. Thanks to the soft response of the U.S. and Europeans, the outcome of the battle for Ukraine is largely unknown, as is the situation in Belarus, Europe’s last dictatorship, which is now trying to put its best face forward to the West.
Central Asia is another battleground for the Kremlin, and Turkmenistan is now on the front lines. Turkmenistan’s recent decision to join the Nabucco gas pipeline project, even as it constructs another pipeline to China, left Moscow with a bitter aftertaste.
Gazprom, the state-controlled Russian company that lays golden eggs for the Kremlin, has largely refrained from investing in the development of new gas fields in Russia during a period of high oil and gas prices. Instead, the Russian gas monopolist relied on exclusive contracts with Turkmenistan, purchasing gas there and re-selling it to Ukraine and other European countries.
The Kremlin is working hard to “bring back home” the countries of the former Soviet Union. Moscow doesn’t care whether it extends its influence to relatively democratic or authoritarian states. As soon as these countries are seen as vital to Russian political and economic interests, they’re on the list.
When Ronald Reagan described the USSR as an “evil empire” in March 1983, he was absolutely right. More than a quarter-century later the same words apply to the current regime in Moscow.
Like their communist predecessors, the present leadership of Russia has failed to employ diversification to strengthen the country’s economy, implement an effective democratic system with checks and balances plus basic freedoms and create trust within and beyond Russia’s borders.
The Obama administration should be on constant alert when dealing with Russia’s weak, aggressive and untrustworthy leadership. “Every step they take, and every move they make” should be weighed, watched and countered in the manner of a competent parole officer. Otherwise, it will be hard for the current administration to shirk responsibility for letting the Kremlin spread its poisonous influence where its predecessor once held sway.