The grandiose opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games often serve as a useful venue for informal meetings between world leaders. The Beijing Olympics in August 2008 was no exception. Vladimir Putin (at the time prime minister of Russia, on a break between his periods of presidency, but no one had any illusions that he was still very much in charge of the Kremlin), had a brief meeting with then-Israeli president Shimon Peres.
Putin had one message for Peres: “Get your people out of Georgia.” Russian troops were about to invade the neighboring country, in what was to become the first round in Putin’s campaign to keep former Soviet vassals in line, and he was now telling Israel to remove the private Israeli defense contractors working with the pro-western Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili’s military. Peres sent the message on to prime minister Ehud Olmert and Israel swiftly complied.
The Russia-Georgia war was a geopolitical turning point. Putin, who had consolidated his control of Russia and ruthlessly ended the internal war in Chechnya, had begun projecting his power beyond Russia’s borders. President George W. Bush, at the end of his second term, exhausted from two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, was not about to offer Saakashvili much more than lip-service. A western ally was left to Putin’s tender mercies. A pattern that would repeat itself over the next decade had been established.
The west, led by the United States, had won the Cold War. The Soviet Union disintegrated and most of its former republics and satellites were embracing democracy and capitalism to various degrees. For countries like Israel which had aligned itself with the U.S., now the only global super-power, it was vindication. But the euphoria didn’t last.
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The post-Cold War leaders of the west had lost the inclination confront rivals. Sapped by the folly of the Iraq War, the U.S., under three presidents so far, has stood aside while Putin and other lesser regional powers such as Iran and Turkey exploited the vacuum left by an increasingly isolationist America. NATO, the most successful defense alliance in history, no longer had a clear purpose. Less than three decades after its victory in the Cold War, few regard the U.S. as sole, even pre-eminent, world-power: instead the talk is increasingly of a multipolar world.