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Cracks in Putin's kingdom

Serious voices in Russia are doubting his judgment on Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

By Paul Quinn-Judge / September 3, 2008

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan

A few days after the Kremlin recognized the independence of contested territories South Ossetia and Abkhazia last week, an upscale Moscow daily newspaper called Kommersant added a biting video clip to its site. Vladimir Soloviev, whose reporting from Georgia was among the best in any country's media, offered a crisp analysis of the war and its aftermath.

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The moment Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recognized the two breakaway regions, he said, Georgia's defeat in war became a political victory. "It really is time for [Georgian President] Mikheil Saakashvili to dial Dmitry Medvedev and say 'Thank you, colleague.' "

The clip captured a growing mood within the Russian establishment. The euphoria that followed the destruction of Georgian's $2 billion Army and the humiliation of President Saakashvili has dissolved. And for the first time since Vladimir Putin – and his muscled, uncompromising, and vindictive world view – came to power in 1999, serious voices are expressing doubts about his judgment.

They clearly feel that Russia has not emerged onto the world stage quite so authoritatively as Mr. Putin may have thought; the country has instead stumbled into a dangerous and debilitating trap.

A number of prominent Russian foreign policy analysts saw the recognition of the disputed territories coming and warned urgently against it. They include a highly experienced diplomat and former government minister, Alexei Adamishin. "Russia has every moral right to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia," he wrote in an opinion piece beforehand. But the consequences will be "catastrophic."

A couple of weeks earlier, Sergei Karaganov, of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, Russia's equivalent of the Council on Foreign Relations, urged the Kremlin to think carefully before recognizing the two secessionist states. Equally grim analyses have followed the announcement, and there are indirect signs of concern in the business community.