Streetwise Professor

August 22, 2008

Who is Responsible?

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia — The Professor @ 8:33 am

Any appraisal of responsibility for events spiraling out of control in Georgia depends crucially on where one commences the narrative. In justifying its actions, the Russian government starts the story on 8 August–the day the Georgian Army bombarded South Ossetia. In the Russian telling, this was a bolt from the blue, with no antecedent and no justification.

Things are quite a bit less clearcut when one goes back a bit further in time. The Georgian action followed a series of Russian actions, stretching back years, that threatened Georgia’s national interest. Going just back to 2006, there is the Russian economic blockade of Georgia, official and unofficial intimidation of Georgians in Russia, consistent support for separatists, issuance of Russian passports to residents of Georgia, repeated violations of Georgian airspace by Russian aircraft, including one episode in which a Russian jet dropped a missile on Georgian territory, the shoot downs of several Georgian reconnaissance drones, and constant propaganda attacks against the Georgian government. And in the very days leading up to 8 August, Ossetian paramilitaries under Russian observation–and likely control–launched a variety of attacks against Georgians.

Moreover, the circumstances of the Russian attack make it very clear that this was not intended to be a response to Georgian actions on 8 August. The rapidity with which the 58th Army moved into Georgia, and the coordinated nature of the air attack, all make it clear that this was a premeditated action with objectives far beyond protecting Ossetians and defending the status quo. Moreover, the explicit statements that the Russian governments objective was to overthrow Saakashvilli and the extension of the assault far beyond South Ossetia demonstrate a political objective far beyond protecting the Ossetians from Georgian predation. Add to this Russia’s clearcut economic interest in denying the west access to Georgia as an energy corridor and it is plainly evident that the Georgian action was merely a pretext, and the Ossetians merely pawns in a larger Russian game. Putin’s personal animus against Saakashvilli only gilds the lilly.

In the rush to blame the US (don’t worry–we’re used to it by now), Russia and its defenders in the west assert that Saakashvilli was a loose cannon that America should have restrained. Assuming for the sake of argument that Saakashvilli is in fact erratic and impulsive, if Russia’s true objective was to secure the safety of the Abkhazians and South Ossetians and defuse tensions on its southern border, why did Russia engage in such a long series of provocative acts?

Another meme gaining currency in the efforts to fix blame on the US is that the expansion of NATO made the Russians do it. (This brings to mind the revisionist view that the US forced the Japanese into war by embargoing oil and other strategic materials, thereby limiting its ability to rape China.) For a typical example of this “reasoning,” turn to the tedious Thomas Friedman, reliable source of LCW.

Friedman notes that George Kennan, the intellectual father of containment, argued that Russia would lash out against NATO expansion. The inference we are supposed to draw, of course, is that this means that expansion was an unwise course. In my view, this inference does not follow even if one accepts the premise. The desirability of NATO expansion depends crucially on the answer to the questions: Why would Russia feel compelled to lash out at NATO expansion? What did Russia fear from this expansion?

One possibility can be rejected out of hand based on a realistic appraisal of NATO’s capabilities. Specifically, that a NATO bordering Russia would present an offensive military threat to the RF. As I have noted repeatedly, western European militaries have no offensive capability whatsoever. Nor do the eastern Europeans. Nor does the US have the capability–let alone the desire–to engage in an offensive war on the broad plains and vast expanses of European Russia.

In brief, Russia has no objective basis to fear military attack from an expanded NATO. This leaves other possible explanations for Russia’s virulent opposition to it.

One is psychological–in a word, paranoia. I am reading Wayne Allensworth’s The Russian Question, a fairly evenhanded (if somewhat dated) analysis of the various strains of nationalism in Russia. Allensworth makes it clear that paranoia and conspiracy theories are a part of the political and intellectual mainstream in Russia. There is a longstanding belief held by many Russians that their nation is the subject of a vast conspiracy to subjugate or destroy it. Indeed, the level of paranoia and the belief in conspiracy theories in Russia rivals what is found in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and shares some of the same roots. Namely, both are societies that believe that they are a chosen people favored by God, yet who have suffered calamity after calamity; both rationalize this seeming incongruity with the belief that the only possible explanation is a vast plot designed to prevent them from achieving their destiny.

There is arguably a strong psychological element in Russia’s antipathy to NATO, but there are other more rational–though hardly flattering–factors at work as well. In particular, even though NATO does not realistically threaten Russia with attack, its expansion does constrain Russia’s ability to exert control in countries once under its thrall. NATO stands in the way of Russia regaining derzhava–great power status. For some, the appeal of this is merely material. For others, it is something more–a Russian manifest destiny, a God given mission. Thus, psychological and cultural factors are at work here as well.

Indeed, the desire of eastern Europeans and some former parts of the USSR (and the Russian Empire) to join NATO indicates quite clearly what those that know (based on bitter experience) Russian tendencies best believe–that absent protection by a powerful alliance, Russia would gobble them up.

In my judgment, therefore, the reason for Russian fury at the incorporation of the Baltics, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Czech Republic in NATO, and the prospective incorporation of Georgia and Ukraine is that it threatens Russian dreams of restoring empire. Russia is a revanchist, irridentist, revisionist power. As such, anything that blocks its ambitions to reverse the results of the collapse of the USSR, and before it, the Russian Empire, is contrary to its national interests (and by national, I mean in the same sense of the word as “nationalist.”)

Viewed in this way, (a) Kennan’s prediction is quite reasonable, and (b) it does not necessarily follow from this prediction that the wise course would have been to refrain from NATO expansion. One needs to consider: What would have happened if NATO had not expanded? Peace and light, and the nations of the former White and Red empires holding hands and singing Kumbaya? As if. What we would have seen is a proliferation of Georgias, a plethora of flashpoints in the Baltics, the Balkans, and Poland. Routine efforts to intimidate, co-opt, undermine, destabilize, and coerce small nations so recently freed from the Soviet/Russian yoke. If NATO had not extended beyond the Elbe, Russia would not have been a pacific nation content to become a “normal country” (in the western conceit). It would have faced less resistance in pursuing its perceived national interest–a national interest which was and is inimical to the interests, peace, and freedom of formerly conquered peoples. The possibility for confrontation between Russia and the west would have been greater, not less.

In brief, Russia’s wrath at NATO is not the justifiable reaction of a state content to remain within the confines of its own borders, not threatening its neighbors. Instead, it is a window on its true nature. Those–like Thomas Friedman–who believe that if we’d only limited NATO to Germany and nations to the west that events like those we’ve observed in Georgia would have been avoided are deluding themselves. NATO expansion limited the scope for violent confrontation with Russia, and significantly, violence occurred precisely where NATO conspicuously refused to draw a line.

Georgia was a conflagration waiting to happen. An energy crossroads that threatened Russia’s stranglehold on suppliers to the east and south, and consumers to the west. A nation outside of NATO’s explicit security guarantee. (Anybody remember that Stalin and Kim Il-Sung interpreted Dean Acheson’s failure to include Korea in a list of countries America was committed to defend as an invitation to invade?) A nation deeply scarred by centuries of foreign oppression, and led by a volatile and impulsive president. It defies reason to believe that this powderkeg would not have exploded if NATO had minded its knitting on the far side of the Elbe. It would have blown sooner, and many others would have likely exploded as well. Saakashvilli and Putin determined the timing of the blast, but only that.

The logical consequence of this argument is exactly the opposite of what the Friedmans and Steinmeiers of the world argue. They counsel backing off, giving Russia space, confidence building, yadda yadda. Wrong. Maintaining the peace, and securing the autonomy of formerly captive nations requires a robust response–starting in Georgia. Yesterday. Putin will howl. The Russian military will threaten. But this we can live with. The alternative, the people of Eastern Europe and the Caucasus cannot live with–in peace, anyways.

And maybe, if Russia finally comes to recognize that its dreams of restored glory and empire are foreclosed, its energies will be sublimated into more constructive activities, such as addressing its myriad domestic troubles. But perhaps it is the very intractability of these problems that makes external adventures so alluring.

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1 Comment »

  1. That’s certainly one way of looking at Russia and its relationship with the West. Here’s another viewpoint for your readers and students.


    Comment by Timothy Post — August 22, 2008 @ 12:28 pm

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