Georgia Splits the Kremlin

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The Georgia crisis revealed a new strategic force in the Kremlin that opposes both Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. We still cannot name its players, but we are aware of its interests and impact on events in the same way that astronomers discern a new but invisible planet by recording its impact on known and visible objects in space.

One after another, loyal Kremlin pundits have appeared on television and radio to denounce "provokers," whom they dare not name, for "planning the incursion of Russian troops all the way to Tbilisi and the establishment there of a pro-Russian government."

The line in the sand that U.S. President George W. Bush drew on the night of Aug. 11, warning against Russian air strikes on Tbilisi's airport and shortly thereafter sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to visit Tbilisi, provoked a split in the Kremlin. The split divides those who are and are not concerned about the fate of Russian elites' vast personal holdings in the West.

I call these camps Russia's global and national kleptocrats. Both sides firmly agree that there is nothing that the "weakened and cowardly West" can do to restrain Russia, a nuclear and petroleum superpower, beyond financial retribution against those Russian rulers with vast assets abroad.

But the national kleptocrats seem to believe that they can live without overseas assets, or without educating their children and maintaining residences in the West. Instead, they are content to own properties in elite areas around Moscow and in Sochi.

Both Putin and Medvedev (and their television propagandists) currently reflect the views and goals of the global kleptocrats. Neither leader wants to capture Tbilisi. Putin, of course, would have been glad to see Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, his sworn enemy, put in a cage. But other, more down-to-earth considerations are more important to him.

That said, Putin is keeping his options open to join the national plutocrats, in case their position dramatically strengthens. If he crosses over to their side, he could even become their leader and triumphantly return to the throne that he formally abandoned only recently.

While no one yet knows the national plutocrats' names, I believe that they are new, influential players in or associated with the Kremlin, and that they have now become bold enough to challenge both Putin and Medvedev. Russia's military chiefs, for whom it is psychologically difficult to be ordered by politicians to abruptly end a large-scale and successful military operation, are their natural allies.

I cannot predict who will win this growing confrontation. But even if the global kleptocrats sustain their more "moderate" position on Georgia, theirs could be a Pyrrhic victory. Every day and every hour, by means of their own propaganda, these globally minded kleptocrats, are setting the path to power for the nationalists.

In order to justify their authoritarian rule and camouflage from the Russian public their massive theft of the country's resources, the global kleptocrats have already convinced ordinary Russians that they are surrounded by ruthless enemies who are trying to dismember and destroy Russia. Now it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to explain why their wives and children are buying palaces in the capitals of countries that are supposedly Russia's sworn enemies.

By contrast, the national kleptocrats' position is more consistent. They are not constrained by huge assets in the hated West. It would not be difficult for them to convince ordinary Russians, who have already been primed by today's xenophobic propaganda, that Tbilisi, Sevastopol, Astana, and Tallinn belong to Russia and should be taken by force.

Putin once said that "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century was the fall of the Soviet Union." The national kleptocrats may soon start calling for its reversal, and they are in an increasingly strong position to do so.

Andrei Piontkovsky is an independent political expert and a researcher at the Russian Academy of Sciences. © Project Syndicate