The New (Old) Russian Imperialism

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Viktor Drachev / AFP / Getty

A column of Russian armored vehicles leaves South Ossetia.

One Soviet-era joke went like this: the worker Ivanov "borrows" a set of spare parts from the stroller factory to make a buggy for his kid. After hours of work he turns in frustration to his wife. "It's no go," he says. "I tried putting them together in every possible way, but I always end up with a machine gun."

For almost 20 years, Russia has been borrowing spare parts to build a democracy but somehow, the country's rulers have ended up with the same policy the Soviets and the Tsars used: force. On Tuesday, Russia formally recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia — Georgia's two breakaway provinces — as independent countries. Their independence, of course, was promoted and is now guaranteed by Russian might. In effect, Russia has acquired as protectorates two major provinces of another sovereign state, Georgia.

Until now, Putin's Russia has waged a kind of cold peace on the West by smartly using hydrocarbon pipelines rather than its armor or air force. But this month, Putin has reverted to his armor, however obsolete, to acquire the lands he wants and to show the West he can just get away with it. But can he? Even on the crest of the current emotional wave of patriotism —largely fomented by the Kremlin — some Moscow officials fret that Putin has gone too far. They fear the country doesn't have the resources to sustain another Cold War with the West. (Or a hot war. The equipment used in Georgia is considered outdated.) And they worry that Putin is imprudently choosing allies like Iran and Syria over major powers like the U.S. and the E.U.

Nevertheless, the nationalist march continues. This week, the Moscow daily Vremya Novostei ran a story on a new high school history book recommended by the Russian government. It praises Stalin as "the protector of the system" and "a consistent supporter of the transformation of the country into an industrial society, administered from a single center." The textbook also maintains that "the introduction of Soviet forces onto the territory of Poland in 1939 was for the liberation of the territories of Ukraine and Belarus," and that the absorption of the Baltic states and Bessarabia (now the independent country of Moldova) was appropriate because "earlier they were part of the Russian Empire."

So, what earlier parts of the Russian Empire might be reacquired next? Moldova's own breakaway province, Trans-Dniestria, has been controlled since 1993 by Russian peacekeepers in the same fashion they "kept peace" in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. There is Ukraine's Crimea, which is still the Russian Fleet's Black Sea base and is densely populated with ethnic Russians who, the Kremlin keeps hinting, might need the Motherland's protection.

The West should realize that this adventure could be just beginning. And that the Russians might press forward in spite of their hardware inadequacies. The Black Sea, for example, is not big enough for all the military power congregating in it now — the Russian forces occupying the Georgian port of Poti; the NATO "humanitarian" naval task force at the Georgian port of Batumi; and most formidably, the navy of Turkey (a NATO member), which is three times larger and stronger than what is left of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Any kind of confrontation there is likely to be messy, with no guarantee of any party coming out a winner.