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