October 9, 2011

ANYONE WHO was wondering whether Vladi­mir Putin is softening as he prepares to retake the Russian presidency would do well to review the Kremlin boss’s performance at a business forum in Moscow Thursday. Asked whether Russia was likely to join the World Trade Organization in the next several months — as both his trade minister and the Obama administration predicted after talks in Washington last Monday — Mr. Putin responded by claiming that Western governments seek to “hide behind the Georgian issue” in order to block Moscow’s accession. This cynical and patently false charge is worth deconstructing for what it reveals about Russia’s likely course during the next phase of Putinism, which, if the strongman has his way, will last a dozen years.

Georgia, a former Soviet republic in the Caucasus, whose sovereignty, liberal democracy and alliance with the United States are regarded as intolerable by the Kremlin, is a WTO member and thus must consent before Russia is admitted to the organization. The problem is that in addition to banning most Georgian imports, Russia has occupied two of its provinces since a 2008 invasion; Moscow has tried — with a spectacular lack of success — to have the enclaves of Abkhazia and South Ossetia recognized as independent states.

Accepting that it cannot use the WTO accession process to reverse this reality but not wishing to ratify its loss of the provinces, Georgia has proposed that Russia accept international customs monitors along their borders. We’re told the government can accept proposals by Swiss mediators under which the monitoring would be conducted in part electronically. Russia, however, has rejected any monitoring of its exports to the two provinces and says it won’t sign any deal that would be part of its WTO accession.

The cynicism of Mr. Putin’s statement lies in the fact that — as he well knows — the Obama administration has made Russia’s WTO membership a prime objective, with the president devoting himself to it personally. Mr. Putin, on the other hand, is ambivalent; as he said Thursday, “we see pluses and minuses to possibly joining the WTO.” That means he can use the issue for his own purposes. Having accused Washington of employing Georgia to block progress, Mr. Putin added: “If they really want us to be part of the WTO, they can make things happen overnight.” In other words, he expects Mr. Obama to strong-arm the Georgian government, forcing it to agree to Russia’s terms.

Administration officials tell us this will not happen. Among other factors, the White House needs help from Georgia’s many friends in Congress to pass legislation in connection with Russia’s WTO membership. But Mr. Putin could win either way: If Georgia is not steamrolled, it can be blamed for Russia’s failure to join a trade regime that might interfere with the Kremlin’s corruption networks. Welcome back, Mr. Putin: You haven’t changed a bit.