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Putin’s play: Brilliantly conceived, but still a work in progress

Vladimir Putin has drafted an experimental three-act drama now in international tryout. 

Using dazzling Orwellian-speak – Russian “peacekeepers” protecting “Russian citizens” from “unprovoked Georgian aggression” – and excellent military choreography, Act I has satisfied the deepest psychological needs of the ethnic Russian audience. It has allowed the Russian military and general public to feel that Russia has avenged the past humiliations of the Cuban Missile Crisis, of being forced out of Afghanistan by tribesmen using American-supplied weapons, and of being unable to stop the West from bombing Orthodox Russia’s Orthodox Serbia “little brother” when the latter was committing genocide against a Muslim minority. Act I has also satisfied Russian public opinion’s need to show the world, especially the Georgians, who is King of the Caucasus Mountains. It has sent a message to all the former Soviet colonies that Moscow intends to control them in some significant degree. 

Act II contains the main plotline, which Putin foreshadowed within a day after Act I began by declaring that “Georgia has forfeited the right to control” Abkhazia and South Ossetia. At the end of Act I and beginning of Act II, Russian troops withdraw to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Probably rather soon (to avoid Russia having to veto a U.N resolution to replace Russian troops in those enclaves with international, truly neutral forces), the self-proclaimed leaders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will make increased calls to become part of Russia. Plebiscites will be arranged and the ordained results announced: Abkhazia and South Ossetia want to join Russia. Putin will, perhaps reluctantly, accept the results, using more dazzling language of peace, justice, democracy and ethnic self-determination.

Specific messages for specific audiences
Like Act I, Act II is intended to satisfy important audience needs. An as-yet-undetermined portion of the world will reassure itself that nothing more is involved than a commonplace ethnic dispute, nothing to get worried about, especially if the Russians do not occupy other parts of Georgia. The Russian military audience (and most of the Russian public) will find two great messages in Act II. First, the annexation of Abkhazia will greatly alleviate if not completely resolve the problem of what to do with the Black Sea Fleet. That fleet is currently based on Ukrainian territory, under a lease that Ukraine says it will not renew. Short of conquering or strong-arming its former colony – a much harder and riskier task than subduing small, remote Georgia – Russia has to move the fleet eastward. Seizing Abkhazia greatly expands Russia’s options and simultaneously expands the umbrella of Russian territorial protection for that fleet.

In addition to securing the Black Sea Fleet, Act II annexation will give Russia control over both ends of two militarily important mountain tunnels that enable it to pour troops and heavy weapons into the South Caucasus and on to the oilfields of the Middle East. The north ends of both tunnels are in Russia; the south end of one is in Abkhazia and the other in South Ossetia. A third tunnel connects Russia and undisputedly Georgian territory. A Georgia in physical control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia could easily close all three tunnels, without which Russian land forces remain locked on the north side of the mountains. By annexing the Abkhazian and Ossetian regions of Georgia, Russia not only secures openings through the mountain range but gives itself staging areas on the south side to form forces into effective combat units before they leave what will now become “Russian” territory to drive south. Note that Russia used both tunnels to send overwhelming force into Georgia. Because Russia controls the north ends, none of the three tunnels could be used to send forces into Russia proper; that is, Russia needs the tunnels to project land power south, not to protect itself from anyone trying to go north.
Satisfying the real needs of Abkhazians and South Ossetians
Act II’s annexation plot satisfies important needs of other audiences – Abkhazian and Ossetian rulers, as well as ordinary citizens of those provinces. (The rulers have so much at stake that they are supporting actors as well as audience.) During the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Communist Party rulers of those areas declared themselves ethnic nationalists rather than international communists; they seized control of the territories’ assets. None of these rulers has been democratically elected, even by their own ethnic groups. They remain in power through force of armed militias and absolute control of the media. In the conflicts of the early ’90s, many ordinary Abkhazians and Ossetians seized land and other property that tens of thousands of fleeing Georgians had been forced to abandon. They do not want to give it back or pay for what has been taken. Under the protection of Russian rule, they, like their leaders, will never have to. They love Act II as written.  

Act II will satisfy the desires of a select group of Russians, although that factor hopefully is just a small bonus and not the main goal of Act II. Reports indicate that wealthy Russians with close connections to the Kremlin, along with top Russian military brass, have large property holdings in Abkhazia. With its subtropical climate and long coastline, Abkhazia was to the Soviet Union what Florida and Hawaii are to America: prime vacation destinations. Stalin and his cohorts all had dachas there. Once Russia annexes Abkhazia, the path opens for Russians to make huge fortunes in resort property development. 

Script’s probable conclusion
Act III of Putin’s current script probably ends like this:   

• Russia controls the entire northeast quadrant of the Black Sea, with the Black Sea Fleet having open water maneuvering room.

• Russia sits astride both ends of two mountain passes into the Lower Caucasus plains that lead to the Middle East, projecting military might into the oilfields.

• Russians at first, then later Europeans, flock to the wonderful, expensive resorts that Russians build along the beautiful Russian Abkhazian coastline.

• Putin basks in the glow of overwhelming public approval as ethnic Russians take great satisfaction in believing that he has restored Russia to what they perceive to be its destiny as a great imperial power, rightfully controlling all territories, nations and groups the Empire has ever conquered. He will take his place with Peter the Great, Joseph Stalin and Ivan the Terrible, the three leaders that Russians have consistently said that they admire most, each of whom ruled as a despot but expanded Russian territory at the expense of smaller surrounding nations.

• After no more than two to three years of low-grade, largely meaningless sanctions, Russia will once again be “an important strategic partner” and openly welcome in the world community. Perhaps the playwright himself will come to the United States and drop by to visit the man who thought he could divine “the soul” of a former KGB operative, and who by then will be retired to a Texas ranch.

Revisions to come? That depends …
Will Putin’s experimental play end as I think he currently envisions? Act II is barely under way. Whether he will have to revise or rewrite the Annexation scene will depend upon how the world audience finally responds to Act I and to the unfolding of Act II. It is, after all, an experimental play; it can be altered or amended anytime before final performance for whatever reason the author willingly or begrudgingly accepts.

Perhaps Act II and therefore Act III will not go as scripted, but Act I has been brilliant. We must applaud its conception, wording and execution. It would deserve a standing ovation, if only so many had not been killed, injured and displaced during its performance.

Robert Bayer was the senior rule of law adviser for USAID in Tbilisi, Georgia, 2003-04; country director for the American Bar Association’s Russian Federation rule of law program in Moscow, 2004-06; and country director for the U.S. government’s main rule of law program in Ukraine, 1995-99. He has a JD degree from the University of Illinois and an LLM from Columbia University. Fluent in Russian, he has studied and taught Soviet law, and has traveled widely in Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Bayer, who now lives in Hopkins, can be reached at Bayerrobert [at] comcast [dot] net.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 08/22/2008 - 04:17 pm.

    How about an Act IV?

    In Act IV, an aging but determined Putin oversees a country that has now propelled itself to at (or near) the top of oil exporting countries. The west’s inability to reduce its oil consumption plays right into Putin’s hands.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/23/2008 - 07:37 am.

    This article would, I am sure, greatly please the Bush administration and the members of the Project for a New American Century (PNAP) who seek our control of that neighborhood (lots of oil there). Russia is an obstacle for sure and only perhaps a competitor.

    In 2005, French writer Pascale Riche wrote of the formation of a European offshoot to PNAP called The Committee for a Strong Europe. Its honorary presidents were to be former Spanish prime minister Jose Maria Aznar and US senator John McCain. (McCain has never formally signed on as a PNAP member, but obviously would not have been given this “honor” unless he fully agreed with its goals — among them regime change by whatever means necessary in all those “evil” countries.)

    Mr. Riche said, “The idea for this network had already been played with during the preparation for the war in Iraq, when European personalities had made it known that they approved Bush’s foreign policies, but needed help to promote them. That was notably the case of Aznar’s think tank (FASS, Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies), which preaches a radical Atlanticism.”

    The Committee created a web site in 2005 which is now gone. The site did not name any members and just talked about “democracy building” and other seemingly worthy goals. The Riche article is at

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