The world shook this August, overturning the equilibrium not just of forces on the ground, but of people’s ideas and prejudices. The gigantic Olympic Games in Beijing displayed China’s will to power, a major challenge for the twenty-first century. The invasion of Georgia alerted the world to the return of an imperial Russia without frontiers. But neither event should have surprised the West. It has been 30 years since China, having swept aside Marxist dogmas, laid the foundation of an economic miracle that has raised its economy to second or third place in the world. Soon it will be ten years since Vladimir Putin, the leveler of Grozny, made himself a new Russian czar. Neither Beijing nor Georgia was hard to foresee. The veil ripped away was that of our illusions.

Consider the Russian question. What right do we have to make a show of disappointed innocence about the aggressiveness of Putin, who seduced George W. Bush with his blue eyes, Tony Blair with his good manners, Silvio Berlusconi with his frequenting of the Italian Riviera, Gerhard Schröder with a Gazprom chairmanship—and who received the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honor from Jacques Chirac? The Kremlin has proclaimed the axioms of the Putin Doctrine loudly and clearly, but no deafness is so profound as that of those who will not hear.

Putin spoke the first of these axioms in 2005: “The greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union.” The First World War (10 million dead), the Second (50 million), Auschwitz, the Gulag—these are but profits and losses in his accounting. The true abomination, in his view, remains the treason of Boris Yeltsin, who, after Mikhail Gorbachev refused to send armored tanks to attack the peoples of Eastern Europe, allowed Ukraine, the Baltic nations, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and others to throw off 70 years of Bolshevik oppression, achieve their independence peacefully, and severely weaken Putin’s hierarchy—provisionally, he hopes.

The second axiom: mass democratic movements, such as Georgia’s Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, are signs of a “permanent revolution” that threatens the foundations of the Russian state; such subversion receives financing from the CIA, NATO, foreign interests—and bad Russians. A few days before she was assassinated, my friend Anna Politkovskaia told me about the disproportionate panic that the joyous Kiev and Tbilisi uprisings provoked in high places in Moscow. Exaggerating the danger beyond reason, the frightened Kremlin bigwigs anticipated a shower of cannonballs in their own country. Hence their unmeasured repression of all protest: they censored the press, muzzled dissident voices, and assassinated or imprisoned the obstinate. Hence, too, their attempt to suppress their neighbors’ desire for emancipation, whether by brutally stopping the flow of natural gas in the middle of winter, clumsily buying off political opponents, or, when necessary, deploying tanks. The march on Tbilisi sent a clear message: it is them or us. It was left to Dmitry Medvedev, the amiable new Russian president upon whom Western dreamers project their hopes, to equate Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili with Hitler.

Yet the real surprise of August 2008 was not what Putin did, but signs of new firmness in Europe. French president Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated a delicate and ambiguous cease-fire, which at least blocked the Russian offensive on the Georgian capital. Then the European Union refused to shut its eyes to Russia’s barely disguised annexation of Abkhazia and of South Ossetia. Europe did not give in to panic: its response was neither a return to the Cold War (“Yalta is over,” Sarkozy declared) nor to angelism (“The vacation from history is over,” Polish prime minister Donald Tusk followed up). Time will tell if the 27 European nations are capable of holding their course, forging an energetic common policy, and negotiating with their Russian oil suppliers as equals. After all, the Russians need to sell as much as the West needs to buy.

In the face of European hostility to its Georgian thrust, the Kremlin has not changed its objectives, but its tone has become more accommodating. Clearly, Russia is testing how far it can go, and it has learned that Georgia is not another Chechnya. As a substitute for lost power, a nuisance policy on all fronts, while it can make an initial impression, will not restore the prestige of a clay-footed colossus.

Despite the bragging that accompanies its oil-drunkenness, Russia knows that its future is not bright. The country remains anemic, plagued with alcoholism, mafias, corruption, unemployment, tuberculosis, AIDS, prostitution, and a dizzying demographic plunge. Russian life expectancy is at Third World levels. Seventy percent of its budget depends on the sale of energy and raw materials. So long as its means of drilling and storage are lacking, Russia will not be able to blackmail prosperous Europe over the long term, and it will take a decade or even several to construct the transportation capacity to redirect its energy supplies toward Asia.

In the aftermath of its Georgian expedition, Russia’s diplomatic isolation is striking. It has not succeeded in winning recognition for the self-proclaimed independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. China’s refusal to acquiesce demonstrates that there will be no bloc of authoritarian capitalist states following Putin’s lead in a new Cold War against the democracies. The only regimes going along with Russia are those temporarily protected by the rise of oil prices. Chávez’s Venezuela and Ahmadinejad’s Iran share a malevolent drive with Putin’s Russia: every political, diplomatic, social, or military crisis that might raise the price of crude represents an opportunity. But the power interests that drive the economies of China, Europe, and the United States favor a reduction of energy prices. Moscow’s taste for trouble is enclosing it in global solitude.

The European Union, if it maintains its newfound—and still uncertain—firmness, will be able to force its big neighbor to moderate its ardor for conquest. Public opinion must hold firm and not be intimidated by the apocalyptic evocations of which Kremlin propagandists are so fond. Reassuringly, Sarkozy has spared us a repetition of the pitiful spectacle of the French prime minister, Pierre Mauroy, proclaiming in 1981 that we must “not add to the misfortune of the Poles”—the victims of Brezhnev and Jaruzelski—“the misfortunes of the French, who would be deprived of the gas they need to cook their steak and fries.”

Whatever lies Putin and Medvedev choose to circulate, the confrontation of August 2008 was not between a bellicose (let alone “Nazi”) Georgia and its “fraternal” big neighbor; or between capitalist democracies and an autocratic Moscow-Beijing axis that is no less capitalist; or even between a European culture of freedom and another based on nationalist sovereignty. Instead, the crisis brought European public opinion face-to-face with itself. Will Europe choose to commit suicide by oil and cave to the Putin doctrine? Or will it hold firm and resist?

Photo by Thomas Kronsteiner/Getty Images


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