‘It’s not a question of whether he [Putin] will attack, but where.’ So writes Mikheil Saakashvili on the website of Foreign Policy magazine this Friday. According to the tie-chewing former president of Georgia,
In Crimea, eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, or anywhere else Putin considers Russia’s backyard, territorial gain has never been an end in itself. Putin’s goal today is the same as when he invaded my country in 2008: to tighten his grip on the levers of power in Russia. Whenever Putin’s domestic popularity dips, he either escalates an ongoing conflict or launches a new offensive.
Saaskashvili doesn’t mention his own responsibility for the 2008 Russo-Georgian War or the fact that Putin wasn’t even president of the Russian Federation at the time. He also doesn’t mention that Russia’s other recent military ‘adventures’ didn’t just come out of the blue. The Georgian war came after years of civil conflict in South Ossetia; the war in Donbass after a violent revolution/coup in Kiev; the Russian military campaign in Syria after four years of civil war in that country. In no instance, did Russian troops just appear out of nowhere in a country which was otherwise completely stable. But that is what Saakashvili would have us believe Putin is now planning.
For Putin’s poll numbers are falling. It’s true that they’re still at a level which would cause just about any Western leader to jump up and down with joy, but they’re down from what they were a couple of years ago. And, if you follow Saaskashvili’s thesis, that means that the Russian president will looking for something to divert his people from their domestic travails. And what better than a short, victorious war? For as Saakashvili says, ‘Putin is both predictable and logical: Invading a weaker neighbor delivers a cheaper and faster ratings boost than, say, improving Russia’s dystopian health care system.’
Again, let’s put aside the unfortunate fact that Putin has responded to his recent decline in popularity by announcing reductions in defence spending and a renewed focus on domestic policies, such as health care and infrastructure. Let’s assume our ex-Georgian friend is right. There’s still a problem. Who could Putin invade next? Attacking a NATO member would be too dangerous, says Saakashvili. Putin won’t do that. Therefore, he concludes, ‘Russia’s most likely target in the near future is either Finland or Sweden.’ He continues:
I do not expect Russian tanks to roll into Helsinki or Stockholm unopposed. But it would be relatively simple for Moscow to execute a land grab in a remote Arctic enclave or on a small island, like Sweden’s Gotland, considering the strategic capabilities Russia has built up on its northern flank. After all, who would go to war over a frozen Baltic island or piece of Finland’s tundra. NATO wouldn’t, but Putin would.
So one day, we’ll wake up and discover that Russian troops will have occupied part of Finland or Sweden, with no warning, and despite the fact that Russia has no quarrel with either country and claim on any of their territory. Really? Does anybody believe that? This is nuts.
I realize that picking on Saakashvili is perhaps not fair. It’s been clear for a while that his grasp of reality is a little shaky. But my gripe isn’t really with him. Foreign Policy is normally regarded as a respectable journal. It’s the sort of thing you find on the bookshelves in airports. People read this guff. The editors ought to feel some sense of responsibility for what they publish, and not print absolute hokum which inflames international tensions on the basis of pure fantasy. But it seems like they don’t any more.
Maybe I’m just a typical grumpy old man, imagining that things were so much superior ‘when I were young.’ Perhaps my memory is faulty and journalistic standards weren’t actually any better back then. But when it comes to things Russians, they’re pretty poor right now. No self-respecting journal should be publishing inflammatory nonsense like this. Foreign Policy’s editors should be ashamed of themselves.