Putin salves wounds to psyche

Russian soldiers aboard an armored personnel carrier rolled past a destroyed Georgian tank in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali yesterday. Russian soldiers aboard an armored personnel carrier rolled past a destroyed Georgian tank in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali yesterday. (Denis Sinyakov/ Reuters)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ellen Barry
New York Times News Service / August 12, 2008

MOSCOW - Vladimir V. Putin, who came to office brooding over the wounds of a humiliated Russia, this past week offered proof of its resurgence. So far, the West has been unable to check his thrust into Georgia. He is making decisions that could redraw the map of the Caucasus in Russia's favor - or destroy relationships with Western powers that Russia once sought as strategic partners.

If there were any doubts, the last week has confirmed that Putin, who became prime minister this spring after eight years as president, is running Russia, not his successor, President Dmitri Medvedev. And Putin is at last able to find relief from the insults that Russia endured after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

"Georgia, in a way, is suffering for all that happened to Russia in the last 20 years," said Alexander Rahr, a leading German foreign-policy scholar and a biographer of Putin.

With Russian troops poised on two fronts in Georgia, speculation abounds on what Putin really wants to do.

Russia could settle for annexing the enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia - something its forces have largely accomplished. Kremlin authorities have also spoken of bringing Mikhail Saakashvili, Georgia's president, to a war crimes tribunal for what they say were attacks on civilians in Tskhinvali last week.

The most extreme option would be occupying Georgia, a country with a population of 4.4 million and a centuries-old distrust of Russia, where Western nations have long planned to run an important oil pipeline.

But while the West may see an aggressive Russia, Putin feels embattled and encircled, said Sergei Markov, the director of Moscow's Institute for Political Studies, who has close relationships with officials in the Kremlin.

"Russia is in an extremely dangerous situation," trapped between the obligation to protect Russian citizens and the risk of escalating into "a new Cold War," Markov said.

"Washington and the administration are playing an extremely dirty game," he said. "They will show Putin as an occupier even if Putin is doing nothing."

Putin and his surrogates have forcefully made the case that Russia has acted only to defend its citizens.

In recent days, Putin has appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up, mingling with refugees on the South Ossetian border - the very picture of a man of action. By contrast, Medvedev is shown sitting at his desk in Moscow, giving ceremonial orders.

"All his liberal speeches which he made in Berlin and elsewhere are forgotten," Rahr, who was on the German Council on Foreign Relations, said of the new president. "He is playing the game which is designed by Putin."

Yulia L. Latynina, a frequent critic of Putin's government, noted that on the eve of the conflict in Georgia, when President Bush and Putin were deep in conversation in Beijing at the start of the Olympics, Medvedev was taking a cruise on the Volga River.

"Now he can cruise the Volga for all the remaining years, or can go right to the Bahamas," she wrote in Daily Magazine, a Russian newspaper. "I must admit that for the first time in my life I felt admiration for the skill with which Vladimir Putin maintains his power."

In 2000, Putin was elected president of a shaken, uncertain country. Selling off state companies to private investors had led to an immense flight of capital. The economy was a shambles. But the bitterest pill of all was NATO's expansion into Russia's former sphere of influence.

Nothing highlighted this loss of face recently as much as Kosovo, where NATO helped an ethnic Albanian population wrest independence from Serbia. Russia has few allies closer than Serbia, and the 78-day American-led bombing campaign in 1999 seemed to drive home the message that a once-great power was impotent.

Putin was determined to change that. First, he reasserted state control over Russia's natural resources companies, installing loyalists to run such firms as Yukos and punishing oligarchs who challenged his power. With Russia then reshaped as a petro-state, flush with money from oil and natural gas, Putin has sent blunt messages to its neighbors: The flow of cheap energy can be turned off as well as on. Now, with Russia's swift progress in Georgia, Putin has asserted Russia's might as a military force.

It may take time to work out the messages Putin has sent in the past week, but this one is clear: Russia insists on being seen as a great power. "The problem is, what kind of great power is emerging?" said Dmitri Trenin, deputy director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Is this a great power that lives by the conventions of the world as it exists in the 21st century?"

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