The Bear Goes Berserk

The cloud of war obscures much, but can anyone imagine a warfaring party that has gone as off the deep end as have the Russians? I mean, consider:

A top Russian general said Friday that Poland’s agreement to accept a U.S. missile interceptor base exposes the ex-communist nation to attack, possibly by nuclear weapons, the Interfax news agency reported.

The statement by Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn is the strongest threat that Russia has issued against the plans to put missile defense elements in former Soviet satellite nations.

Poland and the United States on Thursday signed a deal for Poland to accept a missile interceptor base as part of a system the United States says is aimed at blocking attacks by rogue nations. Moscow, however, feels it is aimed at Russia’s missile force.

“Poland, by deploying (the system) is exposing itself to a strike–100 percent,” Nogovitsyn, the deputy chief of staff, was quoted as saying.

As threats go, this one is probably quite empty; no one actually believes that the Russians will nuke Poland over the fact that it has accepted a missile interceptor system from the United States. But the mere fact that the Russians decided to escalate the rhetoric by orders of magnitude can’t help but boggle the mind. At a time when people are working to lower tensions, this “we will nuke you soon” statement will only serve to further rally international support against Russia.

As will, of course, this:

A Russian military convoy advanced to within 55 km (34 miles) of Tbilisi on Friday, a Reuters witness said, in the deepest incursion since conflict with Georgia erupted last week.

The advance by some 17 armored personnel carriers (APCs) and about 200 soldiers coincided with a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to secure Georgia’s signature on a French-brokered peace plan to end the fighting.

Initially 10 APCs moved along the main highway from the Russian-occupied town of Gori, 25 km (15 miles) from breakaway South Ossetia, before stopping in the village of Igoeti. Several APCs headed down side roads and seven more arrived later.

The exact mission of the incursion was not clear.

At a news conference after President Mikheil Saakashvili signed the agreement, Rice called for the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces.

It’s safe to say that a Russian withdrawal is not happening anytime soon–a fact that justifies President Bush’s tough statements against Russia. If the war of words and attendant international tensions increase, the Russians will only have themselves to blame. They could not be doing more to outrage international sensibilities if they tried.

All of this having been written, however, it is important to keep matters in perspective:

Many in the west seem to think there is nothing to be done. Authoritarianism is back in fashion and Russia’s return as a great power is one of the ineluctable geopolitical trends of the 21st century. The west must adjust to the reality, ceding the ground that Mr Putin seeks.

This analysis misses one of the paradoxes of Russia’s power. The riches and political leverage provided by gas and oil have restored Russia’s economic and geopolitical standing. Yet, for the medium and long term, almost all the other indicators point to a future of relative decline.

Low fertility and high mortality rates hold the prospect of a fast-shrinking population in a country where vast tracts of territory are already empty. Demographers estimate that the present Russian population of about 140m will fall by about 10m within a decade or so. By 2020 Moscow will struggle to find sufficient recruits to maintain its conscript army.

Demographic decline is mirrored by crumbling health and education systems and by decaying civil infrastructure. Corruption is rife. The present political leadership is better described as a kleptocracy than an autocracy. Vast amounts of Russia’s wealth are being siphoned off in bank accounts abroad rather than reinvested at home.

The price of Mr Putin’s aggressive nationalism has been to starve the oil and gas industry of foreign technology and investment. In spite of the emergence of a Russian middle class, there are few signs that the petro windfall is being used to broaden and deepen Russian prosperity.

Read it all. It is right for us to be concerned about Russian territorial depredations, but at bottom, Russia is a paper tiger seeking to relive the glory days of its Czarist and Soviet empires. Whether it is allowed to do so is solely dependent on the nature of the West’s response. A robust reply to Russian aggression plus a healthy recognition of the fact that as of now, Russian power is limited in scope will likely equal an outcome that will cause the Russians to reconsider their aggression–as well as to think again about whether they really have the power to influence international events in the manner they clearly wish to.