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.
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.
The criticisms highlight a difference in vision within the Russian ruling elite. They come from modernizers who see Russia, like it or not, as part of the international community, and want Russia to move beyond the current corrupt state capitalism and stifling bureaucracy.
These people fear that Russia has already become embroiled in a new cold war that will distract from economic development and lead to a rollback of personal liberties. "We need to clearly realize that the main aim of the game that has been imposed on us, consciously or unconsciously, is to wreck Russia's modernization," Karaganov wrote in a bleak follow-up piece to the recognition.
Those making these arguments are sophisticated members of the political establishment. They apparently have no problem with a Kremlin policy that limits the sovereignty of Russia's neighbors. Independence does not, in other words, mean freedom to choose your own alliances if you share a frontier with Russia.
These voices expect the real crisis to come when attention shifts to Ukraine. They have not commented on the discrepancy between Putin's determination to protect Russian citizens, no matter where they live, now and the way he oversaw a campaign at the beginning of the decade that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Russian citizens in Chechnya. And they agree with Putin's argument, advanced in recent interviews, that a dark Western conspiracy was behind the Georgia conflict.
What they implicitly reproach Putin for, however, is the fact that he was taken in by the supposed plot; this, they feel will have profound consequences for the country's development.
An even bigger problem, perhaps, is that Putin is looking backward.
He can best be characterized by the term "sovok," one of those many-layered pieces of word play in which Russians delight. In this case, it can be summarized as someone who embodies the dark and circumscribed world view of the Soviet man in the street, suspicious of the outside world, resentful, who holds a grudge and remembers a slight. Putin speaks passionately about the "tragedy" of the Soviet Union's collapse, a personally scarring time when he found himself unemployed.
He trusts very few people. Aides say he makes policy on key issues – Georgia, Ukraine, NATO – himself, along with a small circle, and tends to improvise. He shows little interest in the Russian stock market, which has taken a battering since the outbreak of the Georgia crisis, while most of the mega-rich, many of them close associates, have attained their fortune by obeying one rule: Do exactly what Putin says.
In the past, everybody obeyed this rule, and many in the ruling elite were genuinely convinced that he was the right leader for these times. Now, doubts are creeping in, and people are bracing themselves for tense years. The strong man has started to show his weaknesses.