Who’s Winning?

Now that the military aspect of the South Ossetian conflict has cooled down, the hostilities have passed over into the diplomatic realm. Russia arguably made the first move by leaving peacekeeping forces deeper into Georgian territory than before the conflict. In response, the U.S. and EU loudly protested, claiming that Russia was violating point number five of the six-point ceasefire. Point five calls on Russian forces to withdraw to the lines prior to the start of hostilities, BUT allows for Russian peacekeepers to “implement additional security measures” for six months until an “international mechanism” is devised. It is not clear whether the implementation of additional security measures refers to actions Russia may take in their pre-conflict positions or not. In response, President Medvedev dropped the bombshell of officially recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, an act that virtually nobody foresaw. Analysts generally expected Medvedev to hold onto recognition as a bargaining chip in future negotiations with the US/EU. Medvedev immediately did several interviews with major news outlets to explain his decision. The US/EU of course denounced the recognition, and requested that Medvedev reconsider. They also began to consider their admittedly pathetic options for ‘punishing’ Russia. The best the Bush Administration could come up with was possibly suspending a recently-signed US-Russian nuclear cooperation agreement. The EU ironically sounded more tough, threatening to impose sanctions on Russia. Meanwhile, more and more NATO warships are showing up in the Black Sea, much to the consternation of Russian commanders. NATO claims that the ships are arriving to participate in an exercise planned before the conflict.

Also, two significant events involving Russia’s leaders today. First, President Medvedev’s meeting with the Shaghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) proved to be worthwhile – the SCO’s statement on the conflict appears to take Russia’s position, citing its “active role … in assisting peace and cooperation in the region.” Adding to the hilarity of all this diplomatic posturing, the Western press rushed to report that Russia suffered a ‘diplomatic setback’ as a result of the meeting. The statement was even quoted selectively. For example, the AFP reported that the statement “supported the principle of ‘territorial integrity’ of states.” In contrast, The Independent claimed that the statement’s support of territorial integrity amounted to a denouncement of Russia’s recognition of the breakaway republics. Of course, this interpretation begs the question of why Russia would sign a statement denouncing an act it took just two days prior. In reality, the SCO’s statement was clearly an attempt to take an independent position on the conflict, reflecting the varied interests of its members. Nonetheless, Medvedev’s ability to obtain a relatively supportive statement within 24 hours is nothing but a successs. The takeaway is that Russia has allies that recognize the nuances of the situation and are not in a race to condemn Russia. If the SCO had issued no statement, that would have been a failure. The second significant event today involves not Medvedev, but the Puppetmaster himself, PM Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin! Today, Putin provided some raw meat both to his constituents at home and to Western reporters – a conspiracy theory. Putin claimed that U.S. citizens were in the area of conflict during the hostilities and that they were there “following direct orders from their leaders.” Ok – so far, not so crazy. The U.S. might have had some sort of government personnel – maybe even just aid workers – in the conlflict zone. In fact, even smart Western analysts have noted that the U.S. must have known that Georgia was going to invade South Ossetia, seeing as how we have 130 military advisers there who work in close cooperation with the Georgian government (not to mention our satellites). But Putin, mindful of his audience, took it one step further, going full crazy: “He said he suspected that ‘someone in the US specially created this conflict’ to ‘create an advantage’ for a US presidential candidate.” Even more significant is that Putin said this in an interview with CNN – this was not an off-the-cuff remark in response to a reporter’s question. The contrast between Medvedev’s media blitz a few days ago, and Putin’s interview today is deliberate. It could be good cop/bad cop; to contrast serious/responsible Medvedev with crazy Putin; or to show that Medvedev is the statesman and Putin is the pol. In any case, it seems as though this is part of a purposeful strategy. Here is the video of Putin’s interview (the interview in full, though in Russian, can be found here):

And here is Medvedev’s interview with CNN from two days earlier:

Lastly, you can look to other data to see the existence of a strategy on the Russian side. If you look at the number of news references to Putin over the last 30 days, he peaks out on August 12, then abruptly falls back to almost-pre-conflict levels. Medvedev, however, spikes after August 12th, rising above Putin and staying that way. This demonstrates that the Russians are timing the media appearances of the two leaders, knowing that Putin will usually trump Medvedev in the Western media.

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