Russian politics is very tough. While I'm no expert, I've followed it for many years. In 1994, when the State Department placed a former top aide to then President Boris Yeltsin with me for several weeks as he moved around the country learning American politics, I remember that he spent much of his time on the phone to Moscow, trying to deal with physical attacks on his reformist friends.
Moscow is not such a Wild West under Vladimir Putin, whose KGB expertise has led to consolidation, but aggressiveness is a major factor in its politics. Which brings us to the debacle of Russia v. Georgia. While the politicians in America talk through their hats about what they're going to "do," here are eight key things to know -- and one big question -- about the Russia-Georgia War.
** Who gave the greenlight to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to launch an offensive against the capital city of the breakaway republic of South Ossetia? America has hundreds of military advisors and trainers in Georgia. To prepare Georgian troops for service in Iraq (they were the third largest national contingent, behind the US and UK) and for the intended NATO membership. It's inconceivable that US officials didn't know about the Georgian offensive. Who gave the greenlight for what became a debacle for Georgia? Russia used the move as a rationale to pour its troops into South Ossetia and as a pretext to then shatter the Georgian military and do everything else it's done in Georgia.
Russia's military has gotten plenty of practice in Chechnya and Dagestan, which is how Putin came to power in the first place. It helped the US take down the Taliban in Afghanistan. But US sources say they were "very surprised" by Russia's rapid and decisive reaction to the Georgian offensive against the capital of breakaway republic South Ossetia. Being very surprised is never a good thing in politics. Some 1,650 US troops conducted a joint exercise with the Georgian military in mid-July. As a show of force. But they were gone when the Georgians attacked Tskhinvali. And the Russians invaded Georgia. So much for the show of force.
** The price of oil actually went down during the war. Contrary to widespread predictions, and what frequently happens during a geopolitical crisis. The oil markets seemed actually to have confidence about the Russian move. And no concern about supposed Russian attempts to destroy a major oil pipeline in the country, which led the Drudge Report to proclaim "The Pipeline War." I keep a live near real-time link on New West Notes to world oil markets every day, and the sense of calm was striking.
** As a result of its military being smashed, Georgia had to withdraw its forces, some 2000 troops in all, from Iraq, another blow, leaving the US even further holding the bag there as Britain draws down its own forces.
** Russia's move exposed the hollowness of US security guarantees to Georgia, whose leader is an American-educated lawyer who named a street in his capital city after President Bush and employed John McCain's chief foreign policy advisor as his lobbyist. There were simply no American forces which could be brought to bear against the Russians. And the Pentagon, pinned down in the Middle East, has no interest in fighting nuclear power Russia.
** Which makes the long-standing American policy of expanding NATO up to Russia's borders -- a policy that goes back to President Clinton -- look good so far for not much more than annoying Russia. Which it does, immensely. Along with the proposed US anti-missile shield to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, supposedly to guard against, um, Iranian missiles.
** Russian pride has also been wounded by Kosovo. The treatment of Serbia during the 1999 Kosovo War, when Russia was still in chaos and less powerful, rankled, as did the righteous ouster of Slobodan Milosevic. I predicted at the time that a rump battalion of Russian paratroopers would move on Kosovo's only airport, in Pristina. It was a rare moment of pride which didn't accomplish much, though it did infuriate then NATO Commander Wes Clark. This year, Russia had to stand by as Kosovo finally gained its independence. But unlike Georgia, Kosovo isn't next to Russia.
** Russia has much better cards to play now. There is its major role with Europe. McCain has been saying all along that Russia should be expelled from the G-8 group of eight advanced industrial nations. But the major Western European countries won't try to isolate Russia. French President Nicolas Sarkozy worked out a ceasefire accord in Moscow that is advantageous to Russia. Germany's foreign minister just poured cold water on the idea of shunning Russia. Russia is big business for Europe, its main supplier of natural gas, oil, and uranium.
** And Russia has a huge role in the Middle East. The truth is that the various facets of the war on terror have been very good for Russia. Geopolitical instability means high oil prices. High oil prices are great for the Russian economy. And it's one of the world leaders in weapons technology and arms dealing. Their best anti-aircraft systems in Iran, for example, could make that troublesome nation virtually invulnerable to attack from Israel or the US. That may be why Israel has agreed not to sell weapons to Georgia. And Russia's help is very important to America in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions.
So what does it mean? It means that most of what you're hearing from the politicians in America is just rhetoric. And that Russia has scored a big win. Let's see if it can avoid turning it into a loss.