Russia’s Monroe Doctrine

Cornered by NATO’s expansion, Moscow reasserts its imperial ambitions

Fred Weir

Georgian police officers escort a Russian army conscript who was driving an army truck seized near South Ossetia on Sept. 24.

By Pen­ta­gon stan­dards, Russia’s light­ning sum­mer con­flict with Geor­gia wasn’t much of a war.

Russia’s concern is that NATO is creating new dividing lines designed to isolate Russia from the European community. Russians are afraid they’ll wake up one morning and find themselves alone.

There was no forced régime change” and no shock and awe,” mere­ly a swift, armored thrust by Russia’s Vladikavkaz-based 58th army that dis­persed an ill-advised Geor­gian mil­i­tary assault on the Moscow-pro­tect­ed statelet of South Osse­tia. And though the Russ­ian air force took undis­put­ed con­trol of the skies and tar­get­ed some aspects of Georgia’s infra­struc­ture, there was no plan to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly destroy it. The whole thing end­ed with an inter­na­tion­al­ly bro­kered deal that secured the Russ­ian army’s with­draw­al to its pre-war posi­tions and the inser­tion of Euro­pean mon­i­tors to guar­an­tee the peace.

But the Russ­ian military’s first for­ay beyond its bor­ders since the Sovi­et Union col­lapsed in 1991 has trig­gered polit­i­cal shock waves beyond the region, and threat­ens to bring on a chill in East-West rela­tions to rival the worst days of the Cold War.

After almost two decades of retreat from the for­mer USSR’s geopo­lit­i­cal posi­tions, a resur­gent, oil-rich Rus­sia appears angry, resent­ful and unwill­ing to tol­er­ate fur­ther expan­sion of NATO into its his­toric region.

That mood pre­fig­ures trou­ble ahead. Two ex-Sovi­et coun­tries – Geor­gia and Ukraine – could join NATO’s Mem­ber­ship Action Pro­gram as ear­ly as Decem­ber. Though that’s unlike­ly with many Euro­pean states dubi­ous, the Bush admin­is­tra­tion sent Vice Pres­i­dent Dick Cheney to stiff­en spines in the two NATO aspi­rant coun­tries in ear­ly September.

Russia’s actions are an affront to civ­i­lized stan­dards and are com­plete­ly unac­cept­able,” Cheney told jour­nal­ists in Georgia’s cap­i­tal, Tbil­isi, with­out acknowl­edg­ing that it was actu­al­ly Geor­gia that opened hos­til­i­ties by attack­ing South Osse­tia, where 80 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion car­ry Russ­ian pass­ports and are pro­tect­ed by Russ­ian troops. Bru­tal­i­ty against a neigh­bor is sim­ply the lat­est in a suc­ces­sion of trou­ble­some and unhelp­ful actions by Rus­sia,” Cheney added.

The thin red line

The orig­i­nal Cold War began with a series of Com­mu­nist-backed coups in East­ern Euro­pean coun­tries that were occu­pied by the Red Army in World War II. 

In 1948, Sovi­et leader Joseph Stal­in launched a block­ade to starve the West­ern allies out of their enclave in West Berlin. An Amer­i­can air­lift broke the siege, fol­lowed by a series of dra­mat­ic mea­sures, includ­ing the re-instate­ment of the draft by Pres­i­dent Har­ry Tru­man. The next year, NATO was cre­at­ed to block fur­ther Sovi­et expansion.

Many Russ­ian experts say things are like that today – only in reverse. The col­or rev­o­lu­tions” in Geor­gia, Kyr­gyzs­tan and Ukraine brought ardent­ly pro-West­ern gov­ern­ments to pow­er in coun­tries that have close his­toric ties with Rus­sia. After a decade that has seen NATO absorb all the for­mer USSR’s East­ern Euro­pean allies and the Unit­ed States move to install strate­gic anti-mis­sile weapons in Poland and the Czech Repub­lic, Moscow has had enough. 

Both Geor­gia and Ukraine have infu­ri­at­ed Rus­sia by seek­ing a fast-track to NATO mem­ber­ship, with the back­ing of the Bush admin­is­tra­tion. Though their appli­ca­tions were post­poned at the alliance’s Bucharest Sum­mit in April, the issue is slat­ed to re-emerge at a review ses­sion in December.

There is a red line, where Rus­sia can­not accept fur­ther pres­sure on its bor­ders in its tra­di­tion­al geopo­lit­i­cal are­na,” says Natalya Narochnit­skaya, for­mer deputy chair of the State Duma’s for­eign rela­tions com­mis­sion and now an exec­u­tive of the Moscow-based Insti­tute for Democ­ra­cy and Coop­er­a­tion. Ukraine becom­ing part of a hos­tile mil­i­tary bloc, and see­ing NATO bases sprout in Russia’s his­toric heart­land, is sim­ply not some­thing we can ever accept.”

Many Russ­ian experts insist that Moscow doesn’t object to Ukraine’s inde­pen­dence, but would pre­fer to see it pledge neu­tral­i­ty and become a buffer between East and West, akin to Fin­land dur­ing the Cold War. Moscow objects to Ukraine join­ing NATO, a mil­i­tary alliance, but not to Ukraine’s eco­nom­ic or polit­i­cal coop­er­a­tion with the West.

Russia’s con­cern is that NATO is cre­at­ing new divid­ing lines in Europe, which are designed to iso­late and reject Rus­sia from the Euro­pean com­mu­ni­ty of states,” says Tatiana Parkhali­na, direc­tor of the inde­pen­dent Cen­ter for Euro­pean Secu­ri­ty Stud­ies in Moscow. Rus­sians are afraid they’ll wake up one morn­ing, and find them­selves cor­nered and alone.”

East­ern promises

In the wake of the Geor­gian war, Rus­sia has moved to shore up its small local secu­ri­ty alliance, the sev­en-mem­ber Col­lec­tive Secu­ri­ty Treaty Orga­ni­za­tion, com­prised of Arme­nia, Belarus, Kaza­khstan, Kyr­gyzs­tan, Rus­sia, Tajik­istan and Uzbek­istan. It is also eye­ing greater mil­i­tary coop­er­a­tion with the Shang­hai Coop­er­a­tion Orga­ni­za­tion, an assem­bly of for­mer Sovi­et Cen­tral Asian states, plus Chi­na, and includes India and Iran as observers.

The dan­ger is that Rus­sia will trans­fer its alle­giances east­ward and become an adjunct of Chi­na,” says Dmitri Trenin, a for­eign pol­i­cy expert at the Carnegie Cen­ter in Moscow. No one wants this, but events are tak­ing on a harsh log­ic of their own.”

In state­ments in August and Sep­tem­ber, Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Dmitri Medvedev spelled out a Russ­ian ver­sion of the Mon­roe Doc­trine, warn­ing that Moscow will inter­vene to pro­tect its cit­i­zens and busi­ness inter­ests, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the near abroad,” mean­ing the for­mer Sovi­et Union. 

The events in South Osse­tia showed that Rus­sia will not allow any­one to infringe upon the lives and dig­ni­ty of its cit­i­zens, that Rus­sia is a state to be, from now on, reck­oned with,” Medvedev told a gath­er­ing of region­al lead­ers in September.

In moves that appear cal­cu­lat­ed to revive old sen­si­tiv­i­ties in Wash­ing­ton, the Krem­lin has put out feel­ers to for­mer Sovi­et allies, such as Cuba and Syr­ia, and new clients like Venezuela. In July, a Russ­ian del­e­ga­tion led by Deputy Prime Min­is­ter Igor Sechin vis­it­ed Havana to explore rebuid­ing Sovi­et-era eco­nom­ic and secu­ri­ty ties. 

A month lat­er, Medvedev dis­cussed sophis­ti­cat­ed arms sales and the pos­si­bil­i­ty of the Russ­ian Navy using for­mer Sovi­et port facil­i­ties at Tar­tus, on the Mediter­ranean, when Syr­i­an Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad came call­ing at the Kremlin. 

Mean­while, Moscow news­pa­pers have report­ed sim­i­lar dis­cus­sions with Viet­nam about using the for­mer Sovi­et naval base at Cam Ranh Bay. The Russ­ian For­eign Min­istry expressed deep sat­is­fac­tion” recent­ly when anoth­er old Sovi­et friend, Nicaraguan Pres­i­dent Daniel Orte­ga, became the first for­eign leader to extend diplo­mat­ic recog­ni­tion to South Osse­tia and the oth­er break­away Geor­gian ter­ri­to­ry, Abkhazia.

In Sep­tem­ber, two Cold War-era Tu-160 strate­gic bombers were sent to Venezuela. They were expect­ed to be fol­lowed by a Russ­ian naval task force in Novem­ber, includ­ing the giant nuclear-pow­ered guid­ed mis­sile cruis­er Peter the Great, which will hold war games with Venezue­lan ships in the Caribbean. Few experts believe that Moscow is real­ly try­ing to revive the for­mer Sovi­et alliance sys­tem, but many say that events are devel­op­ing a dan­ger­ous momen­tum of their own.

Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy is over­bur­dened with too many engage­ments just now, and its resources have proven not to be unlim­it­ed,” says Narochnit­skaya. It is time for Wash­ing­ton to stop and re-think the whole idea of push­ing NATO into the for­mer Sovi­et sphere, before things start to get real­ly out of hand.”

Many Rus­sians argue that the roots of today’s grow­ing East-West rift lie in the West’s fail­ure to work with Rus­sia to re-imag­ine glob­al secu­ri­ty archi­tec­ture fol­low­ing the USSR’s col­lapse, anal­o­gous to the way the vic­to­ri­ous pow­ers after WWII respond­ed to a sim­i­lar geopo­lit­i­cal water­shed by devel­op­ing the Unit­ed Nations and a whole new set of world institutions. 

Con­fi­dantes of for­mer Sovi­et Pres­i­dent Mikhail Gor­bachev allege that U.S. lead­ers reneged on pledges to build a new world order” after Sovi­et troops with­drew from East­ern Europe and the mil­i­tary alliance, the War­saw pact, was disbanded.

Gor­bachev made deep con­ces­sions to the West to break out … of the arms race, but lat­er, when Rus­sia was going through a painful eco­nom­ic tran­si­tion and we need­ed sup­port, the West turned away,” says Andrei Grachev, a Krem­lin advis­er and Gorbachev’s pres­i­den­tial spokesman at the time. Despite promis­es that had been giv­en to us, the West decid­ed to use [Russia’s weak­ness and eco­nom­ic tur­moil] to expand NATO to the East. The anti-West­ern moods in Russ­ian soci­ety today can be explained by the fact that the West treat­ed Rus­sia as a van­quished ene­my,” rather than a poten­tial part­ner, he says.

Though it’s nat­ur­al to think in terms of the last war when trou­ble looms, some Russ­ian experts say the Cold War is the wrong anal­o­gy to use as Moscow and Wash­ing­ton head into deep­er confrontation.

Rus­sia today is a cap­i­tal­ist coun­try and part of the world econ­o­my,” says Boris Kagar­l­it­sky, direc­tor of the Insti­tute of Glob­al­iza­tion and Social Move­ments in Moscow. Indeed, that’s what’s caus­ing all the trou­ble. The desire to glob­al­ize is a tremen­dous stim­u­lus to con­flict; it’s a myth that cap­i­tal­ist coun­tries don’t go to war over ter­ri­to­ry, mar­kets and resources. They’re using Cold War rhetoric, on both sides, to sell these new rival­ries in a famil­iar pack­age. But this is a new, and more dan­ger­ous world.” 

Fred Weir is a Moscow cor­re­spon­dent for In These Times and reg­u­lar con­trib­u­tor to the Chris­t­ian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor, the Lon­don Inde­pen­dent, Cana­di­an Press and the South Chi­na Morn­ing Post. He is the co-author of Rev­o­lu­tion from Above: The Demise of the Sovi­et System.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH