This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
The Russian response – disproportionate, excessive, vindictive, - to the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia was designed to do much more than simply chase Georgia out of South Ossetia, an action which, if left at that, would probably have been no more than a brief August diversion from the Olympics and the proverbial “silly season”. Instead, it went far further than that, invading Georgia itself, making a mockery of the (admittedly extremely incompetent grandstanding) diplomacy and truce brokered by the President of France, and holder of the EUʼs rotating Chair of the Council of Ministers, Nicolas Sarkozy. Indeed, it was ﬁnely calibrated to destroy Georgiaʼs military capacity, wreck its infrastructure, send an ominous message about the potential lack of safety of any oil and gas transportation networks which transversed Georgian territory, the sort of networks intended to by-pass those under Russian control and inﬂuence. Of course, it was also intended as a public humiliation for Georgiaʼs brash, rather reckless, photogenic President, Mikheil Saakashvili, a poster boy for western democratic values, who was seen as a western Trojan horse by the brooding Russians. Indeed, he is loathed by the Russian Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, more usually seen as cool and measured, who is said to “lose it” when Saakashviliʼs name comes up, a dislike that is cordially returned by Saakashvili, who detests Putin in turn, referring to the Russian Prime Minister as “Liliputin”, a remark which was unwisely repeated to Putin. “Thank you for Stalin,” Putin sardonically remarked to Saakashvili during an earlier conversation, which drew the terse response “Youʼre welcome to him,” from Saakashvili. Personal relationships matter in politcs, as in life, despite what some academic theorists tell us. Above all, the Russian response was designed to send a signal to the west to think again about expanding NATO eastwards, and to let Georgia know that while ideals of political philosophy might offer dreams of a western orientation, geography decrees that Georgia is still part of the Russian sphere of inﬂuence. This response signals strongly that Russia is back, and that it will assert its perceived right to express its position – forcibly if necessary – in areas it feels fall within its sphere of inﬂuence. There were several other reasons for the Russian response. The rather rash western recognition of Kosovo earlier in the year, over Russiaʼs vehement protests, had reinforced Russian resentment. Russia felt that it was ignored, and taken for granted, as it had been since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Government in Moscow warned that there would be consequences for the recognition of Kosovo. Despite the fact that the vast majority of Kosovars denied the right of the Serb Government in Belgrade the right to rule them, Kosovo was de jure still a part of Serbia, and the recognition took place over the strong objections of Serbia, a sovereign state with a functioning polity, which was and is a long standing traditional historic ally of Russiaʼs. Ominously, it also introduced the principle of the dismemberment of a sovereign nation state should a signiﬁcant section of the population of a disputed region deny
the authority of the sovereign state to rule them. Borders had indeed changed in Europe since 1945, but only with consent, (Germany in 1990, or the severance of the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1992), or, in the case where the nation state in question had imploded (as happened, among other things, in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s). However, the recognition of Kosovo changed the rules, in that a sovereign nation state could now have its borders changed against its will if a signiﬁcent section of a region disputed its authority, and looked elsewhere for validation or vindication. Thus, Russia was able to use this very argument when it recognised South Ossetia and Abkhazia. However, the most important reason of all, was Russian humiliation and mingled resentment and a desperate longing for respect, both of which grew out of the chaotic conditions of the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The old Soviet Union had lost an Empire, and an ideology, and its successor state, Russia, shorn of its penumbra of unwilling satellites, had not managed to ﬁnd a respectable role to replace what it had lost. Nor a role which gave it respect. The forms of democracy, market reform, and privatisation which prevailed during the period of the “Wild East” capitalism of the robber barons and oligarchs of the 1990s have tainted and contaminated the very idea of democracy, and market liberalisation in Russia. Economic conditions were so dismal that the state defaulted on its international debt in 1998, and the rouble was drastically devalued as a consequence. State salaries and pensions went unpaid, assassination was a daily hazard for the rich and powerful, (and for investigative journalists, bankers and parliamentarians as well,) and corruption became endemic as organisations, bureaucracies, institutes and universities all sought to make ends meet in a state the structures of which had all but collapsed. This was the world that Vladimir Putin became the initially unwilling ruler of, when he was appointed to succeed Boris Yeltsin in December 1999. It the world that he sought to assert control over and indeed, bring a measure of stability to; initially, this meant strengthening security within the state, extending control within the sphere of politics, and securing the borders of the country. Later, when conditions improved, and the Governmentʼs foreign debt paid off in 2005 - his Government increased state control over the energy resources of the state, and eventually, felt assertive enough to offer increasingly irascible opinions on international affairs, especially international affairs as they pertained to the positions of the former “Near Abroad”, those states which used to be either under Moscowʼs rule, or, at the very least, under Moscowʼs inﬂuence. For, as the old Imperium had ceased to exist, the Imperiumʼs old enemy, NATO, had moved ever further eastwards, or so it must have seemed to jaundiced Russian eyes. First to join were the old Warsaw Pact countries – the old “Near Abroad”, Poland, the Czech Republic, those central and eastern European countries which had endured Soviet occupation since 1945. They, in turn, were followed, by the Baltic States, former unwilling states of the Soviet Union itself. Then, with the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003 and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine 2004, both
countries announced their intention to seek refuge under the umbrella of NATO when opportunity presented itself. The “colour” revolutions, happening as they did, and the way in which they did, in what used to be states of the old Soviet Union, changed the direction and the expression of Russian foreign policy. They viewed themselves as democratic independent states with the sovereign right to seek their own futures. Russia viewed them as western stooges, trojan horses, and the West as duplicitous in that it sought to surround Russia with a reborn military alliance, NATO, originally designed to constrain Russia, all the while protesting that it sought merely partnership, especially over matters such as Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea. Historic fears of encirclement fused with modern resentments, and ancient Caucasian enmities (stoked by all parties) to create the series of traps that the Georgian adventure actually was. Of course, the Russian Government provoked Georgia through the actions of its proxies in South Ossetia, and set a trap, but the Georgian Government of President Saakashvili was not obliged to respond to provocation with an exceptionally foolhardy invasion. Saakashvili tried, ineptly, to set his own traps. US military trainers for a small, if enthusiastic army, do not equate to US military aid. However, he did win one round of the conﬂict, namely, that of public relations. Dishevelled, handsome, photogenic, ﬂuent in a number of languages, and invariably available, Saakashvili gave a series of interviews to a fairly undemanding western media. The contrast with the Russians was striking as they denied access to the war zone, and their duuimvirate, President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, were not available for the ﬁrst fortnight to speak to the media. In the short term, the Russians have won. They have announced their return to the world stage on their terms, shown their capacity to ﬁght a short sharp war (again, the contrast with the US is telling), asserted their claim to interfere – by force if necessary – in areas demed to be of national interest, demonstrated the impotence of the rhetoric of the US, the inability of NATO to protect a state that wishes to become a client, the disarray and lack of unity in the EU, and the economic strength of Russia (built largely on energy resources and control of the distribution networks). They have also concluded that wahtever sanctions the west can impose are not likely to have much effect. Putin has argued that WTO membership would not have beneﬁtted Russia anyway; while the G8 would look silly without the worldʼs largest country, where the country with the worldʼs largest gas reserves and second largest oil reserves, was expelled. Yet, public perception was a battle the Russians lost. There have been other consequences, not all of them positive. Further salt was rubbed in when countries with which they might have reasonably considered to have been friendly sought to distance themselves from offering support (China, India and the various “istans” of central Asia.) The stock market in Moscow took an almighty tumble, losing billions and the rouble fell in value. Russia is isolated and distrusted and disliked, a position very familiar from its tortured history, and reassuring to those who seek the certainty of Cold War style ideological dug-outs. Yet, this is not the new Cold War. Rather,
the place to look for guidance is the late nineteenth century, when several powerful empires and countries sought to express their authority in parts of the globe deemed vital to their national interests. They called it a sphere of inﬂuence.
Eithne MacDermott, as published in La mirada al Este
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.