My clip files hold news stories from as far back as last September parroting government predictions that the taking of Grozny by the patriotic forces of the Fatherland was imminent. When former Gen. William Odom told me in December that the Russian army is still largely incompetent, I wrote it up for this site. Although Russian forces have since taken Grozny, they havenít done so in a way that makes me suspect Gen. Odom has been proven wrong.
Among the things Gen. Odom suggested to me then was that the Russian army as currently constituted doesnít seem to have much capacity for maneuver and surprise. It can form itself, lob lots of artillery from afar and move forward a few feet a day, he said, but donít look for lightning strikes to neutralize enemy positions or take out enemy capabilities quickly and decisively. (The only effort that has been publicized ended in the death of a number of Russian soldiers and possibly a general.)
Gen. Odom figured the Russians would eventually take Grozny after a long siege of attrition, and thatís about what happened. Whether it really amounts to a defeat for the Chechen resistance or a tactical decision by the Chechens to retreat for now in order to fight more effectively another day, of course, is subject to spin.
The question is whether the limited triumph involved in taking Grozny will be of significant assistance to acting president Vladimir Putin. On the one hand, the victory occurred before the March elections, at a time when some evidence had started to emerge that significant numbers of Russians were growing weary of a protracted, indecisive conflict. If the war had dragged on until the elections without any evidence of a victory Putin and his allies might have suffered at the polls. The taking of Grozny should help.
On the other hand, if the Chechen guerrillas really have retreated to the hills, there to harass and occasionally engage Russian forces for months and years to come, the "early" victory in Grozny might backfire. If the next few weeks bring notable setbacks for the Russian military, or even indecisive encounters that cost a lot of Russian lives, public opinion could turn against the war and against Putin.
If that happens, the interesting question will be who benefits from Putinís weakness? Will the outright communists gain strength or various nationalist factions? Could disillusionment with Putin create an opening for the tattered band of reformers who claim to want to move Russia more in the direction of a free market? Will it be so confusing that Gen. Alexander Lebed is resurrected as a national leader?
The danger looming is that whatever the results of the upcoming election Russia will continue to try to reassert itself as the head of the old Soviet Empire and a geopolitical player determined to make life difficult for the West. Putin recently dominated a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States, luring its members (including some who were quite reluctant) into at least a semblance of cooperation on foreign policy.
Thereís evidence that Russia is returning to a globalist vision of the world. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov took the first visit in a decade by a high-ranking official to North Korea (!) yesterday and today, with plans to sign a Treaty on Friendship that Russian newspapers have trumpeted as significant. Ivanov will also visit Vietnam Feb. 13-14. Both these meetings suggest a strong desire on Russiaís part to be more closely involved with Asian politics.
And on Monday "ultra-nationalist" Vladimir Zhirinovsky perhaps with the official governmentís encouragement, perhaps not announced an agreement with Saddam Hussein on the stationing of Russian warships at Iraqi naval bases. This comes in the wake of the dispute over the American seizure of a Russian oil tanker, allegedly carrying embargoed Iraqi oil, in the Persian Gulf. If Zhirinovskyís announcement turns out to be valid, the presence of Russian ships based in the Persian Gulf could complicate matters for the U.S.
All these new signs of re-emerging Russian imperialism seem to be (with the usual caveats about how difficult it is to guess at Russian public opinion) popular and almost populist inside Russia. Because it has more of an informal economy (some would call it a black market) than anyone wants to acknowledge Russia is not quite as much an economic basket case as most outsiders have reported.
But thereís little question that the shift from corrupt communism to corrupt crony capitalism has left few besides the most ruthless or those with connections better off, and plenty of people disillusioned. Combine that with political fecklessness and significant dissing from European and American leaders, and you can see how some Russians might view rebuilding the empire as a way to regain respect and geopolitical significance. (I have trouble seeing how a genuinely thoughtful person could identify a government with more capacity and willingness to kick foreigners around as a source of self-respect. Silly as the impulse seems to me, however, it exists.)
None of this means Western leaders should panic or take extraordinary steps to trump or counter Russian imperial ambitions and not only because the West, with its easy, oversight-free IMF money and tons of bad advice from Harvard economists bears some moral responsibility for Russiaís sorry economic state.
It is prudent to be aware that rebuild-the-Empire talk is gaining some traction and to monitor efforts to move in that direction. But whatever Putinís or anybody elseís ultimate ambitions might be, the Russian military is still in a state that makes it not much of a threat beyond its immediate neighborhood. And unless Russia finally adopts a real free market rather than one built on the quicksand (just ask Japan, though many there still wonít admit it) of state subsidies, it will find that it simply doesnít have the resources to compete in the 21st century world power game.
Perhaps itís too late, but a different approach than the standard tough talk combined with increased military spending might still yield results with Russia. Forget the IMF loans and the international bureaucratic experts. They have almost certainly done more harm than good anyway. At the same time, however, Western diplomats would do well to give Russia a certain amount of respect in international forums. It would help if Western countries could avoid getting so all-fired-no-turning-back determined to do stupid things like pursuing a war in Kosovo, of course. But even that could have been handled in a way that left the Russians a modicum of dignity rather than with a taste of bitterness and grounds for future resentment.
I canít resist a couple of comments about Joerg Haidar (youíd think with all the advancements in computer technology I would have a machine that included the option of an umlaut, but I donít), leader of Austriaís Freedom Party. Iíll start by noting that while itís wise to view any politician with a gimlet eye, what Iíve been able to dig out of his actual statements suggest carelessness and error more than incipient Nazism.
Even the chairperson of the Johns Hopkins Center for European Studies, interviewed on a Southern California NPR station the other day, noted that Haidarís party chose, over the last several years, to fill a void the establishment parties had left wide open, especially with the end of the cold war changing political dynamics. (The program was introduced, of course, by referring to Haidar as a "Nazi apologist," and not in an especially pejorative way but as if the announcer simply viewed that as an objective description. Once the Nazi slur is bandied about and the congenital intellectual sloppiness of most of the media kicks in such falsehoods are fairly predictable.) There are valid, serious, non-Nazi reasons to question whether the increasing political integration of Europe under the European Union is a good idea. And there are plenty of people who are not Nazis or racists who question how much immigration Austria can absorb, especially since it doesnít have the cultural tradition of large-scale immigration that the United States has. (In the old imperial days Austria, or at least Vienna, was remarkably cosmopolitan, but until recently it had experienced little immigration.) And Austria had become corrupt, over-regulated and excessively bureaucratic, with the two major parties complacently wallowing in the system (sound familiar?).
So Haidar and his party filled the political void and got 26 percent of the vote, which in any multi-party democracy would make them logical candidates to be invited into a coalition government.
The interesting question is why it is considered so necessary to trot out the old Nazi slur and to take such extraordinary steps to express disapproval of allowing Haidar to represent the large portion of the Austrian people who had voted for his party. One must remember that this is something of a departure for the European Union. The essential premise of the union is that each country agrees to give up a bit of economic sovereignty to bureaucrats in Brussels and the keepers of the Euro, but would retain political sovereignty. Indeed, there is no EU-wide mechanism for withdrawing support, approval or diplomats from a member country, so each European country has had to take steps independently.
Haidarís real sin, I suspect, is upsetting the complacency and sense of inevitability of centralizing Eurocrats and other denizens of the New World Order. The idea that Europe must become unified under one government is so widely accepted in the governing and chattering classes that itís hard for them to conceive of serious opposition. The fact that 26 percent of Austrians would vote for a scruffy party whose main plank is resisting European centralization had to hit these folks like a cold fish in the face.
The Freedom Partyís electoral success, despite the universal scolding of all the better sorts of people, suggests the potential of more effective resistance to centralization in other European countries. It hasnít been polite to talk about it, and itís been customary to chalk it up to sheer provincial ignorance and stupidity (confirming that such people need a lot of supervision) on the rare occasion when itís acknowledged. But not everybody in Europe is as enchanted with the prospects of centralization as those who earn their living implementing it. Approval of the Maastricht treaty wasnít as sure a thing as advertised, and since its implementation the bureaucrats have laid the ground for concrete rather than simply theoretical grievances (as would happen no matter what specific decisions they made).
I suspect movements similar to the Freedom Party will gain support in other EU countries. And I suspect the Eurocrats think so too. Thatís why felt they had to call out the hoary old Nazi accusations and make such a big deal of shunning Austria for allowing Haidar a place at the table.
The shunning campaign does reveal a gut-level, essential intolerance for any kind of dissent on the part of New World Order enthusiasts. And I suspect it will backfire in two ways. It is likely to make Austrians more determined to resist dictation from outside rather than ready to back down. And instead of intimidating incipient nativist-localist-nationalist political movements in other countries itís more likely to fire them up.
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