The events in Georgia over the past week or so have caused many to talk about the development of a new Cold War.

For those who are interested in geopolitical events, we are posting an interesting perspective found in the Friday August 15th Financial Times written by Philip Stephens.

The vulnerabilities that lie behind Putin’s belligerence
By Philip Stephens
Published: August 14 2008 19:19 | Last updated: August 14 2008 19:19

Some time ago when the Kremlin distributed photographs of a shirtless Vladimir Putin brandishing a hunting rifle the temptation was to snigger. Another middle-aged man; another mid-life crisis. Alas, this week’s invasion of Georgia has confirmed that the Russian prime minister’s swagger was indeed a metaphor for his government’s foreign policy.

The argument about who started the latest war in the Caucasus will doubtless continue for some time. The Russian-backed separatists of the breakaway province of South Ossetia were engaged in a continuous strategy of provocation; and Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili badly miscalculated in thinking he could reclaim the province by force. The hot-headed Mr Saakashvili is no innocent in this grim affair.

Yet the precise casus belli has been rendered irrelevant by the manner and scale of Moscow’s response. If there were ever any doubts about Mr Putin’s plan to re-establish hegemony over the former Soviet space, they were dispelled by the ferocity of Russia’s assault.

Mr Putin and his colleagues go through the motions of denying it but the self-evident aim is to annex Georgia to Russia’s sphere of influence. Mr Saakashvili has never accorded Mr Putin the respect the Russian leader assumes is his due. A government in Tbilisi paying homage to Moscow would assure it monopoly control of Caspian oil and gas.

The message for Mr Putin’s apologists in Europe – why does Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi always spring so readily to mind? – could not be clearer. Mr Putin’s worldview has no place for the post-modern approach to international relations of his western neighbours. Europe stands for a global order based on co-operative norms and rules. Moscow prefers the use of force. Appeasement invites only further contempt.

Much has been said during the past few days of the striking parallels with the behaviour of the great powers during the 19th century. But there are plenty of unappealing echoes too of some of the more dismal moments of the 20th century.

Mr Putin cites a duty to protect Russian citizens (Moscow has been handing out passports in South Ossetia and the other breakaway province of Abkhazia for some time). Hitler used a similar pretext. Likewise the talk from the Kremlin of saving Georgians from a misguided leadership comes straight from the script written by Brezhnev. Did not the Soviets march into Prague in 1968 in order to liberate Czechoslovakia?
One intended implication, of course, is that Russia reserves the right to intervene on behalf of its citizens in Ukraine, in the Baltic states and in former Soviet republics in central Asia. Force, or the threat of it, sits alongside dominance of Europe’s oil and gas market as a supposedly legitimate instrument of Russia’s regional hegemony.

We should not be surprised. Mr Putin’s bare-chested vanity has scarcely been the only clue to his intentions. Not so long ago Mr Putin threatened to target Russia’s nuclear arsenal on Ukraine if that country persisted, alongside Georgia, with its effort to join the Nato alliance. Moscow has waged cyber-war against the Baltic states. Gazprom routinely disrupts gas supplies to former communist states that earn the Kremlin’s disfavour.

There were some hopes that Dmitry Medvedev’s elevation to the presidency would temper Mr Putin’s belligerence. Instead we have seen the hapless Mr Medvedev in the role of a finger-puppet tucked into the prime minister’s breast pocket – taken out from time to time only to affirm the reasonableness of his master.

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.

The second paradox concerns Mr Putin’s deep sense of grievance against the west. For all the talk that the US and Europe conspired in Russia’s humiliation after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the strategic threats facing Moscow lie elsewhere: in unresolved border disputes with a resurgent China in the depopulated far east and in Russia’s own separatist movements in the south.

They may share an authoritarian political instinct, but all logic says that Moscow and Beijing are more naturally strategic rivals than partners. Mr Putin’s support for separatism in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, meanwhile, sends a curious message to those in Chechnya and elsewhere on Russia’s southern border who want to be free of Moscow’s rule.

None of this, many will say, is of much help in resolving the crisis. If Europe’s impotence has been long apparent, the invasion of Georgia has also humiliated the US. Washington’s protestations have been brushed aside by Mr Putin almost as flea bites.

It will not always be so. Longer term, the west’s strategic response should be guided by a clear-sighted appreciation of Russia’s weaknesses as well as its strengths. There will come a time when Moscow itself badly needs the shelter of the international order Mr Putin now so visibly disdains. The US and Europe should not seek confrontation with Russia; but nor should they retreat when Mr Putin brandishes his gun.

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