One does not ordinarily look to the New York Post for insightful foreign policy commentary (I certainly don’t), but occasionally, one finds a gem — even if that gem is covered in more than its share of dirt, as is common with the works of Amir Taheri.
Taheri, while managing to get many particulars wrong, hits on an essential point that is sadly lost on basically the entire foreign policy apparatus of every Western nation: Vladimir Putin has spent a decade and more rebuilding Russian power and hegemony through clever application of Russia’s petrochemical wealth and relative military power, and he has very nearly succeeded.
Enumerating Taheri’s errors is important to understand how bad the situation is even so. Georgia did not, despite what Taheri suggests, toss Mikheil Saakashvili from office at all; instead, they voted for his Opposition in parliamentary elections, not because his opponents are friendly to Moscow, but rather in spite of this — Saakashvili invited Russian adventurism in Georgia’s breakaway republics, consolidated power, and managed to encourage low-level corruption while losing a great deal of favor among his backers in the West. The Republic of Belarus has not been called Belorussia since 1991. Russia did not need to “bully” Armenia back into Russia’s orbit; Armenia willingly embraced Russia to hold its gains from its invasion and war crimes in Azerbaijan.
And the idea that Ukraine is effectively a Russian satellite because Viktor Yanukovych is now president instead of Yulia Tymoshenko would come as a surprise to every Ukrainian living in fear of freezing to death this winter because Yanukovych refuses to yield to Russian demands to join Putin’s Eurasian Union farce — demands backed by the sky-high natural gas rate Ukraine pays as a result of Tymoshenko’s abuse of power and disastrous natural gas treaty with Russia.
These errors do not obviate Taheri’s warning that Russia is resurgent; to the contrary, they amplify it. Russia is rebuilding its regional power base without an easily compliant Ukraine, without wasting time and treasure bullying Armenia, without staging some sort of coup in Georgia, where the name Russia is practically a slur. He is doing this because, as Taheri says, the United States has effectively washed its hands of intelligent engagement in the region during the Obama Administration; and as he does not say, because the European Union has been worse, and many of Russia’s neighbors little better.
This is not to say that a Romney Administration or any of the Oppositions in Europe would be better; Romney’s foreign policy speeches seem to suggest that his foreign policy team knows Western Europe, Russia, China, North Africa, and precious little else; and Europe’s political classes share the same foreign policy myopias. But eventually even diplomats realize what is happening around them, and it behooves them to realize what the world really is.
The world is a dangerous, vicious place, and while Putin’s Russia can never be the danger that the Soviet Union was, it can be a danger nevertheless — especially because the Soviet Union had a powerful, determined foe, and Russia has customers, clients, victims, and abettors.
Russia’s determination to rebuild its empire relies on bullying Ukraine, the most populous of its former slaves and the gateway for its petrochemical wealth into Western Europe, back into the fold. Yanukovych resists and points his people toward Europe.
Putin responds by labeling Tymoshenko’s trial politically motivated, an irony not lost in Kiev, and natural gas supplies into Ukraine become questionable. Yanukovych explicitly rejects the old ways of the Soviet Union and continues to point his country toward Europe. Putin provides (at least) rhetorical backing for the Ukrainian opposition and reminds Yanukovych that the natural gas can flow freely and cheaply if Ukraine will merely turn over its foreign policy and natural gas pipelines to Russia.
And as Russia rebuilds its shattered empire, the European Union refuses to bring Ukraine into the fold, whether because its view of Ukraine ended in 2004, because it is acceptable for Iceland but not Ukraine to convict its former prime minister of abuse of office, or because of sheer bloody-mindedness. As Ukraine shivers in a Russian-induced winter, the State Department and many European officials condemn Ukraine’s elections before they are even held, despite painful election reforms adopted by both the government and the opposition.
Russia’s power grows, and its empire, de facto and formal, grows. Ukraine shivers, faces West, and feels the warmth to the East. Europe and the United States leave it in the cold, and miss that they are slowly turning Ukraine to the warmth — and with it, the rest of the former Soviet Union.
This does not and should not have to be; but if the nominal statesmen of Europe and America do not soon realize what is happening, it will be.