Thursday, December 6, 2007

Russian Autocrats and American Hand-wringing

I wonder how my perspective would change if I were once again viewing the world through an American lens, rather than the expatriate sort. Strangely I worry much less about geopolitical threats than the domestic sort these days. In China, it is the trends in domestic affairs that are much more likely to land one in trouble.

A stateside friend messaged me recently to comment on the increasingly fearful rhetoric surrounding Russia. Russia? Hadn't that particular big bad bear lapsed into a vodka-soaked coma in the Yeltsin era? Has Putin really been so successful in his shadow-puppetry that Russia is now again considered a worry meriting distraction from the big bad panda and big bad camel?

I suppose it depends yet again on your perspective. To the Neocon persuasion, there can never be enough bogeymen with which to distract the American taxpayers. Some trends aren't looking so good for them. Al Qaeda seems to have been fairly quiet of late. In Venezuela, the populist Chavez ran his 21st century socialism into the shoals of unpopularity in a recent referendum. In Cuba, tourists and land-developers alike slaver over our dear old foe Castro's death bed. In China, the Olympics bring an odd assortment of cuddly anime-mascots and government clampdowns; problems too internal to much concern the average American. Most recently, our own spy-masters have downgraded the carefully prepped Iranian nuclear threat, and it seems that even irksome Kim Jong Il is succumbing to the warm fuzzy feelings that globalism brings. Blast you, Axis of Evil, you've foiled us once again! You were supposed to be a eternal threat (at bargain rates for today's discerning politician)!

By golly, this leaves us with the imminent possibility that the American public could forget all about foreign threats to the homeland, and focus instead on rather more inconvenient threats such as lack of health care, the social security crisis, and global climate change!

So whence should our newest threat, custom-designed to hand presidency and relevance back to the mis-fortuned Republican party, come? Now, how about Russia? Americans may have allowed themselves a daydream that the evil empire was finished, but how much convincing could it take to make them decide that the empire was preparing to strike back?

First, the opinions. As all Americans know, Russia is a naturally bellicose place. Its frozen tundras and steppes historically supported such blood-thirsty nomads as the Goths and Huns who overran the Roman Empire, and the great Mongolian hordes of Tamurlane and Chinggis Khan. A vast empire of frost and desert, empty steppe and shrinking inland seas, one shouldn't wonder that its inhabitants would feel a little bit peeved and looking for something to take it out on. Even the surrounding dictatorships of the 'near abroad' that sprung up after the death of the Soviet Union aren't so close anymore, following the recent 'color revolutions'. These grim facts of life wouldn't be helped much by a legendary state of constant intoxication.

Now, the facts. A cyber-skirmish was recently waged by unknown hackers (who could well have originated in the KGB) on the small Baltic state, Estonia. Russia aggressively taken state control over various portions of the Russian economy--notably the energy sector--and subsequently used energy cut-offs and rate hikes to threaten most of its neighbors. Even a very cosy relationship between the dictator of Belorus and the 'motherland' wasn't enough to stave off the bludgeon. In the economic arena, Putin has gone on a witch-hunt of all and any Russian tycoons not supportive of his regime as well as re-establishing political control over 'strategic' business assets (which may very well be the real reason the Western powers that be are crying foul).

So yes, Russia is not a very friendly actor on the geopolitical stage. She certainly has the capability to threaten any number of her smaller and weaker (and for the most part not-entirely democratic) neighbors. She may even boast a threat or two against the West. But I suspect that other growing economic powers that have thus far sat bemusedly at the sidelines of the current Russian/Western spats (namely China, India) would probably step in to help contain Russia if it ever looked like there was a serious possibility it would throw the lucrative Western markets into chaos. For this reason, Russia will probably continue to pick on the little guys--internal threats to the KGB's mandate, and Baltic and Caucasian states it deems naughtily wayward--and limit itself to the mere suggestion of threats against the bigger, wealthier ones to the west.

Perhaps Putin envies the growing eminence of the Chinese and merely wants to show that he (and the Russian Empire) still have cojones.

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