The Russian Bear Out of Hibernation

On June 12, 1987, President Reagan made the famous demand, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” in a speech to the people of West Berlin. It was also heard on the East side of the wall. This was the prelude to the greatest peacetime implosion of a multilithic regime this world has ever seen. Today, 21 years later, we still laud Reagan for his courage to even make this challenge, after all of his advisors counseled against it.

In December of 1991, after the erosion of the Soviet world from the edges, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. A painful period of the Russian version of democratization began. The newly wealthy grew out of the corrupt officials that had run the country. Still, there was some hope that the new Russian Republic would work through these growing pains and come out the other side as a democracy, governed by the rule of law. The old hard-line Communists were suppressed and it looked as if Boris Yeltsin might just be able to pull it off, if his health held up. At least that is the short version.

Now fast forward to 2000. With the succession of Vladimir Putin to the presidency of Russia, another KGB professional was again in power. For the past eight years Putin has been consolidating and confirming his power.

In the run-up to the 2003 parliamentary elections, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the wealthiest of the new Russian billionaires, financed opposition parties running against Putin’s United Russia Party. For this indiscretion, the government charged Khodorkovsky with fraud and tax evasion. The sentence was for eight years. Under the Russian legal system, he was eligible for release in 2008. Removing this source of financing, Putin’s ruling party easily won reelection. In early 2007 Khodorkovsky faced new charges of money laundering and embezzlement in preparation for the upcoming 2008 elections. Putin could not take a chance of losing his legislative mandate.

Putin and the ruling party have recently taken to flexing their collective muscles in the old ways. In August of last year, Putin announced the resumption of long-range bomber flights because of security concerns. This renewed assertiveness now can be viewed as the first overt step in a campaign to reestablish the regional power base that the Soviets had established after World War II.

In the past week, Georgia has sent troops into the break-away enclave of South Ossetia to discourage thoughts of independence. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, South Ossetia has claimed to be independent from Georgia. This urge for independence was further enhanced with the recent declaration of independence by Kosovo.

Russia has been claiming that they are just acting as peacekeepers. But Russia is goaded by NATO’s promise to admit Georgia. Last week, Russian forces rolled into the area in support of the separatists. Two days ago, 8 Aug, it was reported that Russian troops had moved into South Ossetia with 150 tanks plus assorted other vehicles. Today, it was reported that Russian and Georgian forces are engaged. There are also reports of the Russian Navy blockading Georgian ports.

With the aforementioned examples of Russian expansion of control, both internal and external, it could be argued that Russia under Vladimir Putin is attempting to rebuild, at least partially, the Soviet power bloc of the Cold War days. While the West has been watching developments related to Muslim Terrorism, Putin has been restoring the Russian military which had fallen into abject disrepair; this repair and modernization being paid for by proceeds gained from re-nationalized industries such as the petroleum industry.

This is a complicated world, made more so by the resurgence of Russia as a power with which to be reckoned. Only time will tell the lengths to which Putin will go to achieve the level of his desired power.

As always, I welcome your comments and discussions.

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