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Op-Ed: Russia on the Ropes


Author says it's not in country's interest to start a regional conflict.


Editor's note: Minyan Ernst is an active reader of the site, and was struck by Toddo's suggestions to keep Russian on the radar. He currently lives in the Netherlands.

My wife is a Russian woman whose father was a colonel in the Russian army. When we first met we had a lot of firm, but friendly arguments on Russian and Dutch politics, but we got to know each other much better and I came to understand the Russian soul a little bit.

Therefore I want to share some highlights, hoping to assure you that it's not in the interest of Russia to start a large conflict in the heart of Europe.

  • Russia is a large and very proud country, and wants to be treated with respect by the rest of the world.

  • Russia tries to overpower its opponents and partners more than it tries to listen to their arguments.

  • A Russian leader doesn't have to be extremely democratic ; he has to be a strong leader. Doubt and indecisiveness are considered weaknesses.

  • As the president and prime-minister are on every news broadcast every day, the opinion of the president is considered the opinion of the country.

  • In conflicts with countries like Ukraine and Georgia, the president needs to produce a lot of kettle music to make clear that he's strong and on top of things.

But, on behalf of Russia I can say:

  • Vladimir Putin and Dimitriy Medvedev are very intelligent people that know well they're walking on eggshells in their country. They must stand firm toward other countries, but they don't dare to drag their country into a full-size war, knowing they would lose public sympathy. Georgia could be bit off and chewed without any damage, but Ukraine or Europe are a different story.

  • Due to current economic circumstances, Putin and Medvedev's popularity has waned. Losing their job, their income and their savings is something many Russians know all too well. They'll blame their government if this happens again.

  • The freefall of the rubble -- and the financial trouble of the oligarchs -- has left the Russian economy in grave danger. And there are no more high oil prices or domestic growth to disguise this.

  • Risking further economic decline by starting a war would -- my guess -- lead to domestic unrest, which would spread from the countryside to Moscow and St-Petersburg. This isn't in the interest of Putin or Medvedev.

So you'll probably see the oil-and-gas game played like high-stakes Texas Holdem, but don't expect Russia to go all in.

This didn't happen in December 2008, nor did it happen in December 2006 (I was in Russia with my inlaws both times), and it won't happen in 2009.

The only dark horses during the last couple of years have been the US and NATO. The rocket shield in Czechia and the radar installations in Poland were ostensibly meant for Iran, yet were placed next to Russia. This was a provocation it couldn't allow. Think of the Cuban Missile Crisis for a similar provocation of the US.

The next provocation was the offer of NATO membership to the Ukraine and Georgia. This is foolish politics, both from a European and Russian point of view, and it shouldn't happen: It would threaten Russia in its own backyard.

If talks between the US and Russia are firm, but fair -- and if the US, Europe and NATO avoid the pitfalls of foolish politics -- I think business can be done with Russia. But If the west continues to treat the country like a third-rate superpower, it may be a different story.

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