Strutting Russia will pay a heavy price

Rarely have Russians had such cause to celebrate their hero. One minute Vladimir Putin was in Beijing mixing with Russian athletes on the opening day of the Olympics. Moments later he reappeared in the Caucasus, sleeves rolled up and directing a victorious counter-attack against his arch-rival Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian President.

Fleeing refugees and wounded civilians were comforted. Generals saluted smartly as they were sent off to battle. No one was left in any doubt that Mr. Putin, rather than the absent President Medvedev, was still firmly in charge of the country.

In the space of only five days the Russian Prime Minister succeeded not only in smashing the Georgian Army but also teaching all those in the "near abroad", as Russia refers to its neighbors in the former Soviet empire, a painful lesson about challenging Moscow in its own backyard.
The decisive action was in sharp contrast to the response in the West. The war in Georgia exposed deep divisions in the transatlantic alliance and revealed the impotence of the Bush Administration in protecting its closest friend in the region.
Respect is something Mr. Putin and many of his countrymen believe they lost when the Soviet Union broke apart 17 years ago. They may now feel that over the past few days some of that loss has been restored.
For Russians sunning themselves on the Mediterranean or enjoying the long summer evenings at their dachas in the countryside, this is the plausible narrative faithfully repeated by the state-controlled media.
Unfortunately, the conclusions they draw are completely wrong. Russia may have smashed its tiny neighbor but victory will come at a heavy price. The war will reduce rather than increase Russia's stature abroad, where the Kremlin faces growing isolation.
Since the emergence of the modern Russian state during the Yeltsin years in the 1990s, the country has been regarded as chaotic and corrupt but broadly peaceful and certainly no serious threat. Back in 2003 Condoleezza Rice, the Russophile US Secretary of State, famously advised President Bush to "forgive" Russia for its stand against the Iraq war, while France was punished and Germany ignored.
To judge by the language of both US presidential candidates responding to the Georgian war, forgiveness is no longer an option. Democrat or Republican will take a much harder line towards Russia over its aggressive foreign posture, its increasingly autocratic Government and the inescapable conclusion that Mr. Putin is determined to remain in power indefinitely.
The Europeans may seem divided, but behind the bland statements calling on both sides to stop the recent fighting something significant has happened. Six European leaders, five of them from the former Soviet bloc, chose to stand side by side with Mr. Saakashvili on Tuesday as he struggled to remain in power. The events in the Caucasus will only serve to harden opinion against Russia at NATO and in the EU.
The mini-war in Georgia may have surprised some Europeans, but it was expected weeks ago by British Intelligence. Thanks to the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, the ex-KGB officer who was poisoned in London by suspected Russian agents nearly two years ago, Britain has completely reassessed its relationship with Moscow. MI5, which reports that Russian agents in Britain are now back at Cold War levels, regards Russia as the third most serious threat to British security after terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Attempts to rehabilitate relations have faltered and the recent treatment of BP by its partners and the Russian authorities has only reinforced the view that Russia cannot be trusted.
Flush with billions from the sale of oil and gas, the Kremlin may calculate that it does not need allies in the West and would rather be respected and feared than befriended.
That too would be a serious mistake. For all its big-power bluster, Russia is weak and vulnerable. Russian tanks and aircraft may have smashed the fledgeling Georgian Army with ease, but most of the weaponry was Cold War-era and many of the troops conscripts. Anyone who has seen the Russian Army operating in the Caucasus knows that the military will need a generation to modernize. Meanwhile America, and its main NATO allies, are decades ahead in military technology and combat experience.
Russia is also facing a severe demographic crisis. Its population is shrinking by 700,000 people a year. The UN estimates the population will fall below 100 million by 2050, down from around 146 million today.
As for the economy, it is booming thanks to natural resources that account for 70 percent of the country's wealth. But the oil price is in a state of flux. Russia has failed to diversify. Should energy prices fall sharply, the economy could collapse, as it did a decade ago. Mr. Putin once described the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. Trying to resurrect it could be the greatest folly of the 21st. © The Times, London