Friday, August 15, 2008

Return of the Russian Bear

[ Also guest-posted, slightly abridged, on Normblog.]

The war in Georgia--and, more specifically, Russia's invasion of Georgia--may well prove to be a major turning-point in the politics (and geopolitics) of the post-Soviet era.

One of the reasons I have put off writing about this crisis is that the news coming out of the region for the past week has been murky and complicated. And anyone discussing this conflict should begin by acknowledging that its historical background is morally as well as practically complex, with plenty of blame to go around on all sides. That's especially true with respect to the relationships between the Georgian government and the several ethnic-minority regions now dominated by separatist movements (and the Russian army). I am not willing to simply wave away the desires of non-Georgian ethnic groups for greater autonomy and their manifest anxieties about living under Georgian control, though we should also not blindly accept the one-sided picture of these conflicts presented by Russian and pro-Russian propaganda. There have been too many examples of arrogance, injustice, violence, oppression, political stupidity, and atrocities on all sides.

(Since too many people do seem to be swallowing one-sided Russian propaganda about these conflicts, it should be noted that these crimes included the almost complete ethnic cleansing of ethnic Georgians from the breakaway region of Abkhazia a decade and a half ago--over 200,000 of them, roughly half the population of pre-1991 Abkhazia--and ethnic cleansing of Georgian villagers seems to be continuing right now in South Ossetia, too.)

All this has unfolded against the larger background of the tangled and murderous ethnic conflicts of the Caucasus since the Soviet collapse in 1991--the most horrifying example, though far from the only one, being Russia's brutal and devastating wars in Chechnya, marked by the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians, massive atrocities both by Russian troops and by Chechen guerrillas (and terrorists), the repeated razing of cities like Grozny, etc.

Furthermore, the current explosion seems to have been touched off most immediately on August 7 by the decision of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to use military force to try to retake control of South Ossetia, including an attack on the regional capital of Tskhinvali. The background to this action remains a little obscure--violence in South Ossetia had already been heating up, and this included escalating attacks on Georgian troops and civilians in South Ossetia, so it's not implausible that Russia and its South Ossetian clients may have been trying to provoke some kind of showdown. But in retrospect it's clear that Saakashvili's move turned out to be a fairly disastrous miscalculation. If one is so inclined, one might even argue that it furnished a half-way plausible pretext for Russia to send large military reinforcements into South Ossetia for "peacekeeping" purposes.

=> At this point, however, we get to the heart of the matter. Putin did not respond by sending Russian troops just into South Ossetia. Russia invaded Georgia proper, crossing an international frontier that everyone recognizes as unambiguously valid. That transformed the character and implications of the war.

Putin clearly hopes to topple the current Georgian government, and at the very least to intimidate all the other neighboring countries previously under Russian (and/or Soviet) control. Furthermore, although Russia's figurehead President Dmitri Medvedev allegedly announced a cease-fire on Wednesday, Russian troops have continued to operate inside Georgia ... and it turns out that, on closer inspection, the "cease-fire" accord negotiated with the Russian government by France's President Sarkozy is actually a bit of a fake, since at Russian insistence a point was added allowing Russian forces to "implement additional security measures." (The Munich analogy has certainly been overworked during the past 70 years, but it's hard to avoid seeing some echoes of 1938 in this bogus "cease-fire" accord.)

Thomas de Waal is probably right to offer the plague-on-both-their-houses judgment that "The immediate trigger of this conflict [was] both Moscow's and Tbilisi's cynical disregard for the well-being of these people" in South Ossetia. But given the way that the war has developed since then, the Presidents of Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were also quite right to declare in a joint statement that Russia's attack on Georgia was the latest manifestation of an "imperialist and revisionist" policy aimed at restoring Russian hegemony over what the Russians call their "near abroad." That is the heart of the matter, and discussions about whether Saakashvili is really a good guy or a bad guy, a wise leader or a foolish one, sufficiently or insufficiently democratic (compared to which other leaders in the region?), are really just distractions or evasions.

By itself, none of this tells us what would be the best policies for the US and Europe to follow in response to this crisis and its fallout. The immediate response of many so-called "realists"--spread from left to right across the political spectrum--has been that we should simply let Russia go ahead and re-establish its hegemony over neighboring post-Soviet states, since doing anything else would be more costly and dangerous than it's worth. I disagree, but that's at least an arguable position.

What I find more objectionable are hypocritical efforts to obscure this cynical (but hypothetically realistic and unsentimental) conclusion in clouds of pseudo-sophisticated and pseudo-moralizing rhetoric and sloganeering. The fact that this has been the knee-jerk reaction of too many alleged "progressives" has been depressing, though unfortunately not entirely surprising. Many of the same people who (correctly) condemn great-power bullying and aggression against small countries when the US does it, and who fulminate against "disproportionate" military responses when Israel supposedly undertakes them, jump to make excuses for both when Russia is the one doing it. (An especially disgusting example is Seumas Milne's piece on this subject in the London Guardian, but it would be easy to multiply further examples.)

=> The first step toward a serious consideration of this crisis has to be a willingness to face the central realities of the situation--including the fact that the Russian invasion of Georgia is one especially violent and spectacular incident in the long-term effort by Putin's Russia ("Weimar Russia," as Brad DeLong has aptly termed it) to re-establish its unchallenged hegemony over the former Russian/Soviet empire as part of rebuilding its great-power status. That's what this is ultimately about, and it is not a good thing.

=> Adam LeBor alerts us to a "brilliant dissection" of this crisis and its implications by Gerard Baker in the London Times (below). As Adam correctly observes, Baker's overview gets the big picture right, and in the process Baker cogently demolishes many of the sophistries that have pervaded too much discussion of this crisis (including ridiculously invalid and disingenuous pseudo-analogies with Kosovo and Iraq). Among other things ...
We need to be morally clear about what is going on in Georgia. Perhaps Mr Saakashvili was a little reckless in seeking to stamp out the separatist guerrillas. But to suggest that he somehow got what he deserved is tantamount to saying that a woman who dresses in a miniskirt and high heels and gets drunk in a bar one night is asking to be raped.

If shifting moral blame won't relieve us of our responsibilities then surely defeatism will. Whoever is right or wrong, the critics say, we can't do anything about it. In the past week, the familiar parade of clichés has been rolled out to explain why it is all hopeless. The Russian bear, pumped up by all that oil wealth, is reasserting power in its own backyard. The US and Europe, their energy sapped by endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can only stand by and watch.

There's something odd about listening to European governments speak about the futility of diplomacy. They are the ones who usually insist that military force alone can achieve little and who say that diplomacy must be given a chance. But now they seem to say that, since we can't stop Russia militarily, there is nothing else we can do.

But we can make life very uncomfortable for Mr Putin. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Its recent (relative) prosperity depends on its continuing integration into the global economy. It sets great store by the recognition that it gains from a seat at the high table with the great powers in the G8. [....]

Punitive measures will hurt us too, of course: Russia could cause trouble over Iran and holds an alarmingly large quantity of US official debt. It could play havoc with the West's energy supplies.

The Europeans don't much like the idea of any of this. So this week they demonstrated the same sort of resolve that they showed in the Balkans in the early 1990s, when they stood by as genocide unfolded on their own continent. [....]
is that last bit fair? Unfair? A little of both, I think. But read the whole piece and make up your own minds.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub
=========================
The Times (London)
August 15, 2008
Georgia: Europe wins a gold medal for defeatism
Sarkozy's ‘peace in our time' deal is a reminder of what could happen if the EU wins more clout

Gerard Baker

To some, China's muscular domination of the Olympic medal table is a powerful allegory of the shifting balance of global power. A far better and more literal testimony to the collapse of the West may be seen in the distinctly weak-kneed response to Russian aggression in Georgia by what is still amusingly called the transatlantic alliance.

Once again, the Europeans, and their friends in the pusillanimous wing of the US Left, have demonstrated that, when it come to those postmodern Olympian sports of synchronized self-loathing, team hand-wringing and lightweight posturing, they know how to sweep gold, silver and bronze.

There's a routine now whenever some unspeakable act of aggression is visited upon us or our allies by murderous fanatics or authoritarian regimes. While the enemy takes a victory lap, we compete in a shameful medley relay of apologetics, defeatism and surrender.

The initial reaction is almost always self-blame and an expression of sympathetic explanation for the aggressor's actions. In the Russian case this week, the conventional wisdom is that Moscow was provoked by the hot-headed President Saakashvili of Georgia. It was really all his fault, we are told.

What's more, the argument goes, the US and Europe had already laid the moral framework for Russia's invasion by our own acts of aggression in the past decade. Vladimir Putin was simply following the example of illegal intervention by the US and its allies in Kosovo and Iraq.

It ought not to be necessary to point out the differences between Saddam Hussein's Iraq and Mr Saakashvili's Georgia, but for those blinded by moral relativism, here goes - Georgia did not invade its neighbours or use chemical weapons on their people. Georgia did not torture and murder hundreds of thousands of its own citizens. Georgia did not defy international demands for a decade and ignore 18 UN Security Council resolutions to come clean about its weapons programmes.

And unlike Iraq under Saddam, Georgia is led by a democratically elected president who has pushed this once dank backwater of the Soviet Union, birthplace of Stalin and Beria, towards liberal democracy and international engagement.

The Kosovo analogy has a more resonant ring of plausibility to it and has been heavily exploited by the Russians in defence of their actions. But it too is specious. It is true that South Ossetia and Abkhazia, like Kosovo within Serbia, are ethnic-minority-majority regions within a state that they dislike. But that's where the parallel ends.

Unlike Serbia, Georgia has not been conducting a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against the people of these provinces. In the 1990s Serbia had firmly established its aggressive intentions towards its minorities with ugly genocidal wars against Croatia and Bosnia. And in any case the two Georgian enclaves have been patrolled by Russian “peacekeepers” for the past 15 years.

We need to be morally clear about what is going on in Georgia. Perhaps Mr Saakashvili was a little reckless in seeking to stamp out the separatist guerrillas. But to suggest that he somehow got what he deserved is tantamount to saying that a woman who dresses in a miniskirt and high heels and gets drunk in a bar one night is asking to be raped.

If shifting moral blame won't relieve us of our responsibilities then surely defeatism will. Whoever is right or wrong, the critics say, we can't do anything about it. In the past week, the familiar parade of clichés has been rolled out to explain why it is all hopeless. The Russian bear, pumped up by all that oil wealth, is reasserting power in its own backyard. The US and Europe, their energy sapped by endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, can only stand by and watch.

There's something odd about listening to European governments speak about the futility of diplomacy. They are the ones who usually insist that military force alone can achieve little and who say that diplomacy must be given a chance. But now they seem to say that, since we can't stop Russia militarily, there is nothing else we can do.

But we can make life very uncomfortable for Mr Putin. Russia is not the Soviet Union. Its recent (relative) prosperity depends on its continuing integration into the global economy. It sets great store by the recognition that it gains from a seat at the high table with the great powers in the G8. It wants to elevate that status farther by joining the World Trade Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Punitive measures will hurt us too, of course: Russia could cause trouble over Iran and holds an alarmingly large quantity of US official debt. It could play havoc with the West's energy supplies.

The Europeans don't much like the idea of any of this. So this week they demonstrated the same sort of resolve that they showed in the Balkans in the early 1990s, when they stood by as genocide unfolded on their own continent.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the French President, in his capacity as head pro tempore of the EU, came back from a trip to Moscow and Tbilisi, waving a piece of paper and acclaiming peace in our time.

But the one-sided ceasefire that he negotiated was more or less dictated to him by Mr Putin. It not only left the Russian military in place in the disputed enclaves. It allowed them free rein to continue operations inside the rest of Georgia.

That disastrous piece of European diplomacy finally seems to have stirred the US into tougher action. Goaded by John McCain, who has been brilliantly resolute in his measure of Russian intentions over the past few years, the Bush Administration at last dropped its credulous embrace of Mr Putin and upped the ante with direct military assistance to Georgia and threats of tougher diplomatic action.

But we should never forget what Mr Sarkozy and his EU officials got up to this week. There can be no clearer indication of the perils that threaten the West if the EU gets its way and wins more clout in the world.

This, remember, is the same EU that wants to take over foreign and security policy from member states, an institution that is always eager to pump itself up at the expense of democratic institutions in those member states, but which crumbles into puny submission when faced with authoritarian bullying overseas.

It was a great Frenchman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who founded the modern Olympic movement on the famous principle that “the important thing is not winning but taking part”.

The EU today seems to have adapted that slogan to fit its own desired global role - the important thing is taking part and not winning.

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