Putin's war chest

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 August, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 07 August, 2009, 12:00am

Russians would prefer to drop August from their calendar. Virtually every year since the cold war ended two decades ago, tragedy has struck during the month. From conflicts with breakaway regions and neighbouring countries to economic crises and accidents, the incidents highlight the nation is still far removed from the great power the Kremlin portrays it to be. This year is no exception: the economy is in tatters, driven down by collapsed oil and gas prices.

Governments faced with such challenges generally maintain a low profile while they try to find solutions. Russia's leaders prefer to show their muscle. On the first anniversary of Russia coming to blows with Georgia over the latter's breakaway region of South Ossetia, the Kremlin has put troops on alert. Two nuclear-powered submarines were on Wednesday patrolling international waters just off the US east coast. To make triply sure that attention was fully deflected from the country's troubles, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin again removed his shirt for the media.

Something is afoot in Russia whenever Mr Putin shows off his manliness. He first stripped to the waist for cameras as president while on a fishing trip in Siberia in August 2007 - just as the nation started reasserting itself on the international stage after 15 years of moving towards the West. On August 16, two days after the photographs were released, he ordered a resumption of regular long-range flights by missile-carrying strategic bombers. He did not name the enemy, but as the planes were soon flying over the northern Atlantic Ocean, it was clear that the foe was the US.

Mr Putin switched jobs with Dmitry Medvedev in May last year, but has remained the more prominent. His acts of bravado have become increasingly more daring, ranging from flying in a fighter jet to shooting a Siberian tiger in the wild to last Saturday descending 1,400 metres in a mini-submarine in Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake. The acts have kept him firmly in the public eye and boosted his popularity to ever-greater heights. Each muscle-flexing incident accompanies a national or international one involving Russia.

He took to the skies in a bomber and test-fired missiles four years ago this month as tensions rose over US plans to build radar bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. Washington said the bases were to detect threats from the Middle East and Iran, but scepticism in Moscow remained high. The partnership against terrorism that had been pledged following the attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, had seemed to be the final nails in the coffin of the cold war. By April 2007, such hopes had evaporated, with Mr Putin warning that the West was trying to encircle Russia, break its economy and meddle in its politics.

The tiger fell to Mr Putin's tranquiliser gun last August 30 in the midst of European and US criticism of Russia's actions over South Ossetia. Georgia had attacked the region 13 days earlier, prompting a Russian counter-strike. Russian troops pushed further into Georgia, forcing 127,000 people to flee, before pulling back. As the photos of Mr Putin and the unconscious tiger circulated, Mr Medvedev warned the West to stay out of Russia's affairs.

Skirmishes between Georgia and South Ossetia have not died down. The International Crisis Group and diplomats have warned there is a risk of a new war. US President Barack Obama has made the issue one of his foreign policy priorities. Vice-President Joe Biden met the Georgian leadership during a visit last month.

The cold war ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and has not returned. In its place, though, is a global rebalancing of power. Russia, China, Brazil and other top developing nations are leading the reshaping of the landscape. They are being helped by the financial crisis having hit Western nations hardest and the US and its allies being bogged down in Afghanistan.

Flexing muscle, either for the cameras or militarily, only achieves mistrust. The world faces a host of substantial challenges; nations must work together to overcome them. Creating enemies will lead only to conflict. Mr Putin should keep his shirt on and turn his attention to improving the lives of Russians.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post