Whether the Russian operation against Georgia was premeditated or not, the leadership has used it effectively to strengthen nationalistic support within the country, and to challenge the view domestically and internationally of expanding, unbridled US dominance.
The economic context: The view amongst many western analysts is that high oil and gas prices mask a continuing decline in the capacity of the Russian economy, caused by severe social and structural weaknesses. The global economic whirlwind of recent weeks, with falling prices and emerging recession, has exposed these weaknesses and led to drastic economic policy responses in Russia.
Already before the current financial crisis, the Russian political response to its weaknesses was to build a more cohesive domestic political support by a direct challenge to Western hegemony. Although their economic capacity to continue this policy will be weakened by recent events, the political motivation to do so will have strengthened. It appears the leadership is prepared to take the long-term risk of another collapse in the belief that the alternative, existing as a compliant third-rate power whose influence continues to decline, is unacceptable.
The diplomatic context must take account of the fact that Russia is a permanent member of the Security Council, has working relations with regimes hostile to the West, and is a major supplier of nuclear and military technology. While Russia was willing to support the latest UN Security Council holding resolution on Iran at the end of September, it is clearly now far less willing to contemplate further action, and more likely to hurry with their delivery of the latest generation S-300 air defence system, that could prove challenging for all but the most sophisticated air assault on Iran’s defences. Some within Moscow may even now be willing to risk a nuclear armed Iran if it weakened western hegemony. Without Russia alongside, international action that attempts to isolate the Iranian regime is even less likely to succeed (the possibilities before were low). If the West is serious about halting Iran’s race to acquire a nuclear weapon capability, it will need to make up with Russia, or find some other strategy that genuinely accommodates Iran’s desire for a nuclear fuel cycle independent of western or Russian veto.
Whilst Russia’s behaviour demands a clear response from the international community, targeting agreements that are clearly in our own interests is a grave error. Arms control, weakened by a sceptical Administration in Washington these last eight years, is all the more important if relationships are strained. Russia is already upgrading its nuclear arsenal to penetrate the yet-to-be-installed missile defense system in eastern Europe, and decisions look likely to be made to expand their tactical nuclear deployments in western Russia, unless new diplomatic initiatives are opened up.