August has surely been a strange month for Russians of a certain age.
Less than 48 hours after former KGB operative, erstwhile president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin cried at the state funeral of former Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn -- a scene unthinkable 20 years ago -- he started bombing Georgia in Russia's first foreign incursion since the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan 20 years ago.
The war in Georgia, which last week became so prominent a campaign issue in the U.S. presidential race that you'd have thought it started in South Atlanta and not South Ossetia, has been a violent reminder of what Putin, through his puppet President Dmitry Medvedev, is capable of when he feels dissed, provoked and flush with oil.
In the United States, the messages from the campaign trail were that John McCain is channeling Tom Clancy and that Barack Obama is damned if he acts presidential and damned if he doesn't, which is why he was asking for ceasefires, mediators and international peacekeepers while remaining in Hawaii instead of flying back to Washington.
This is the first 3 a.m.-phone-call foreign policy crisis test of the campaign, and the intensity of the diplomatic dueling reflects the increasing pressure on both candidates from their parties to break out of the statistical dead heat in the polls.
If it weren't for the reigning conventional wisdom that Russia is a friend and ally of the United States, you could be forgiven for thinking it's displaying all the swaggering, impulse control-challenged aggression of a classic petro-rogue state like Libya before Gadhafi went straight, or Iraq before the troubles.
But the crisis is also the product of a larger U.S.-Russia bilateral problem that the Bush administration will be leaving behind for whoever moves into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in January.
Presidents have the resources to set, at most, a handful of predetermined foreign policy priorities based on a range of factors including, among others, national security (which, in America, can cover a wide range of issues), trade and military commitments.
Because the president can meaningfully focus on only so many fronts at once, diplomacy through the State Department and other channels takes on added value when priorities are suddenly realigned, as they were in Washington on Sept. 12, 2001.
What is happening in Georgia is, in some ways, the product of this administration's diversion from the previous one's post-Cold War engagement with Russia to the overwhelming foreign policy priorities in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror.
The relationship required particular fixing after NATO, over Russia's objections, rightly used air strikes in 1999 to stop Slobodan Milosevic's ethnic cleansing campaign in Kosovo, whose recent U.S.-backed accession to statehood only further infuriated Putin.
Not only has former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, a Democrat, questioned in the past few days whether President Bush underestimated Putin as a belligerent, McCain himself said Tuesday of Bush, "I don't know if the president quote, 'missed the boat,' but I do believe that the president probably had a higher opinion of Vladimir Putin than I do."
In a recent tour d'horizon of Bush foreign policy in Foreign Affairs magazine, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who lectured on Soviet issues at Stanford University, lumped Russia in with China under the heading Great Powers, Old and New (Putin must have loved that) and devoted 236 words to the troubled relationship with Russia before shifting to China and then spending nearly 3,000 words on the Middle East, and that was before she got into a section titled The Transformation of Iraq.
This may be one of those weeks when the outgoing president is cursing his contempt for diplomacy.
How did French President Nicolas Sarkozy know so little about his interlocutors that he got snowed into agreeing to a ceasefire Wednesday that gave Russian tanks permission to move deeper into Georgia by Thursday?
How did Washington get so heavily invested in former New York lawyer and current Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that the United States is seen as a party to a predictable escalation it didn't have the leverage to defuse?
Churchill wasn't kidding when he said, "Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Any place that complex requires the same level of attention as an ally that it did as an enemy. Maybe that's the moral of this classically enigmatic Russian August.
click here: Bush may have underestimated Putin