Editor’s Note: The “V&V Q&A” is an e-publication from the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. Each issue will present an interview with an intriguing thinker or opinion-maker that we hope will prove illuminating to readers everywhere. Our latest “V&V Q&A” is with Herb Meyer, who from 1981-87 served as special assistant to CIA director Bill Casey. Meyer was Casey’s right-hand man at the CIA in the 1980s, where he joined Casey and Ronald Reagan as a central player in the take-down of the Soviet Union. On February 5, Mr. Meyer will be our special guest in the next annual Ronald Reagan Lecture, hosted by the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. (To register, click here or call 724-450-1541.) In this “V&V Q&A,” Mr. Meyer spoke to Dr. Paul Kengor, director of the Center for Vision & Values, about the situation in the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where Russian tanks have invaded in the most severe crisis in that region since the end of the Cold War.
V&V: Herb Meyer, explain to us what’s going on right now in Georgia. Why on earth is the Russian army in there?
Herb Meyer: Russia has three objectives: First, to win back control of what it calls the “near abroad”—which are those independent countries that had been republics within the old Soviet Union. Russia’s second objective is to become the world’s leading supplier of energy—and leader of the world’s energy suppliers. Russia’s third objective is to frustrate whatever the United States wants to accomplish.
V&V: So, there’s a desire here to reassert control or hegemony over some remnant of the Soviet empire or a broader Russian commonwealth?
Meyer: Invading Georgia is part of Russia’s effort to win back control of the “near abroad.” Moscow prefers to do this covertly but when that fails—as we’re seeing now—Russia will use force. And if using force against Georgia will intimidate the others—Ukraine, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, and so on—that’s okay with Moscow.
V&V: How is Putin involved in this? Didn’t Putin step aside recently as president of Russia, with his two terms finished? What’s his current position in the government? Who’s running Russia? Does this confirm our earlier fears that Putin would never actually leave the top spot?
Meyer: Vladimir Putin runs Russia, period. His recent departure from the presidency to the “lesser” post of prime minister was just window-dressing. By the way, under the new Russian constitution it’s specifically the president rather than the prime minister who’s responsible for national security and foreign affairs; it didn’t take Putin very long to blow past that legalism.
Whether Putin plans to resume the presidency when President Medvedev’s term of office expires is anyone’s guess. The only other way Putin can resume the presidency is if that office somehow becomes vacant before Medvedev’s term expires. Personally, if I were Medvedev I’d get myself a food-taster.
V&V: Does it surprise you that the Putin response is that the United States and outside world should mind their own business? Isn’t that just like the old Soviet/communist defense? As a former CIA guy yourself, does Putin continue to strike you as a classic KGB type? And is this Georgia situation more evidence of that?
Meyer: During the Cold War decades, we learned a lot about the KGB. One of the things we learned is that senior KGB officials were all thugs—and they were utterly incapable of learning from experience. Putin was a senior KGB officer; he’s a thug and he’s learned nothing.
He’s busily—and stupidly—re-building the old Soviet Union as best he can. The key difference is that the new Russia is growing rich on sales of energy. So long as energy prices keep rising, Putin will continue on the course he’s set. But neither he nor Medvedev seem to have the slightest idea of how to build a modern, 21st century economy. They’re turning Russia into a Saudi Arabia with snow instead of sand. That doesn’t look to me like a good plan for the long run.
V&V: Speaking of thugs, how do you respond to those warning us that the leader of Georgia is a thug, and that we better be careful about denouncing Putin without knowing more about the Georgian president? Did Georgia invite this response?
Meyer: The president of Georgia isn’t a saint; he’s done some things that we wish he hadn’t done and that aren’t compatible with modern democracy. And in this current instance, he seems to have played his cards badly—he gave the Russians the opening they were looking for. That said, it’s Russia that invaded Georgia and not the other way around. And that’s the point to keep in mind.
V&V: How everyone reacts to this is critical, as is always the case in foreign-policy crises. The French are playing the role of mediators. How are the Europeans generally reacting, particularly given their dependence on foreign energy?
Meyer: Russia’s invasion of Georgia is really a wake-up call—more to the Europeans than to us—that Russia is perhaps more willing than they’d realized to push its weight around. It’ll be interesting to see if the Europeans have the nerve to do anything other than squawk about the invasion of Georgia. The only thing that would get Moscow’s attention would be if the Europeans make a decision to become less dependent on Russian oil and gas.
V&V: How would you advise President Bush to respond to this mess?
Meyer: It drives me crazy when the president—or any other political leader—says that something Russia does is “unacceptable.” If something is unacceptable, it means you’re going to do something about it. Alas, these days saying something is “unacceptable” means you’re going to accept it. That’s a sure sign of weakness, and we ought to stop doing this.
Nothing—absolutely nothing—would frustrate Russia more than a serious U.S. effort to become energy-independent. Everything that Russia plans to do depends utterly on its energy wealth and on its energy strangle-hold over its customers. If we can break that strangle-hold and force down Moscow’s energy income, we’ll have responded in the one way that will actually force Russia to have paid a price.
And becoming energy-independent is something we should do anyway, so it’s a win-win move.
V&V: How do you respond to those making Cold War parallels right now?
Meyer: There isn’t going to be a second Cold War. There’s a big difference between being a global threat and being merely a pain in the world’s rear-end. The Soviet Union was the former. Russia is the latter.
V&V: Herb Meyer, thanks for talking to us. You are on the road right now lecturing, and it wasn’t easy for you to block out the time to do this. Thanks for taking the time. We very much look forward to seeing you here at Grove City College on February 5 for our next Ronald Reagan Lecture.
Meyer: Thank you.