Beginning of the end for Putinism

Many Russians persist in viewing Putin as a superman. If truth be told he is a failure

Many people are afraid of Russia, and with good reason. Bloodthirsty Cossacks left scars across eastern Europe. So, too, did the Red Army. But British Russophobia has different roots, stretching back to the age of imperial competition. Now that we have waved goodbye to the colonies and Russia has grudgingly shed most of the Soviet imperium, there is no reason why we should fall back on some atavistic fear of the Kremlin when shaping policy. Caricaturing Russia as an angry, hungry bear does not help; nor does demonising Putin.

Instead, Russia's intervention in Georgia must make us focus on two questions. First, how strong is Russia and what are its intentions? Second, what are western aims in the Caucasus and eastern Europe? Once these matters are clarified, it will be possible to judge whether we are on a collision course with Moscow.

Georgia was plainly a Russian trap. A tank army was in position, and the Black Sea fleet mobilised, long before the fickle Mikhail Saakash vili started to bombard South Ossetia. Dig a hole in front of the Georgian leader and he can be relied upon to walk into it. So why did Russia crave military action? Because it believes that the mountainous borderlands of the Caucasus define Russian identity. Westernise or Nato-ise these countries and you trigger the Russian fear of encirclement. Also, the Black Sea has rich gas deposits, lucrative enough to turn Russia's southern borderlands into prosperous, independent-minded rivals. Georgia is also a transit land for an oil pipeline that poses an alternative to Russian networks. Destabilising Georgia and instal ling a Moscow-friendly government is therefore a Russian strategic aim.

But Russia's invasion of Georgia was a sign of weakness rather than strength. My guess is it will mark the beginning of the end for Putinism, just as the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 sounded the death knell of communism. Something is going seriously wrong in Putinland. The Russian economy chips in barely 2.5 per cent to the total global gross domestic product. Oil revenues are being earmarked for modernisation, but the investment is likely to be mismanaged and trickle away. Last week I was in Sebastopol to witness the pride of the Russian Black Sea fleet, which has just seen action in Georgia. Expecting a superpower force, I saw nothing but rust-bucket vessels. Oil cash may be going to the armed forces of the "resurgent" Russia, but most of it is spent on pensions. China's investment in R&D now accounts for 1.42 per cent of its GDP. Russia, well ahead of China a decade ago, barely invests 1 per cent. It is a country in decline.

So how should the west respond? A weak but self-deluding state can, after all, be as dangerous as a muscular one. And there is no denying European dependence on Russian energy. EU leaders are meeting on 1 September to work out how to deal with a restless Russia. The risk is that they will simply devise a system of symbolic punishments that fail to address the fundamentals. Our interests in Georgia are to ensure that its oil pipe line is unharmed and to prop up Saakashvili, however cack-handed he may be. Anything else gives match point to Putin.

That means restoring international confidence in Georgia and strengthening its institutions. The answer to Russian aggression cannot be to set up missiles along its borders - it has to be to make the countries targeted by Putin more prosperous and more democratic. The EU should do more to modernise Ukraine - and convince the Russian minority there that its future lies in the west. We should engage countries such as Turkey that provide a counterweight to Russia in the Caucasus.

Will Putin pay any attention to what the west does? Probably not. But we have to convince the Russians themselves that his way of solving problems - squashing opposition at home, swatting uncomfortable neighbours - has no place in the 21st century. Many Russians still seem to view Putin as a superman. In fact, he is a failure, having missed the opportunity of a generation: to use the oil and gas money to usher in a golden age, a surge towards a prosperous society. The Russians deserve better than Vladimir Putin.

Roger Boyes is Berlin correspondent for the Times

Tags:Georgia

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