Let Not History Repeat Itself

Why we must denounce Russia’s Georgian Incursion

Sometimes—as with Nazi Germany—we try so hard to prevent a conflict that we have to eventually fight a greater, emboldened enemy.

On the eighth day of the eighth month of 2008, the Games of the 29th Olympiad opened in Beijing. Despite being foreshadowed by the Sino-Tibetan Crisis, the 2008 Games are not boycotted by any nation. It would have been an occasion for the entire world to rejoice the Olympic brotherhood, if not for a despicable act of aggression that occurred a few hours earlier in the Caucasus Mountains.

Russian forces invaded the separatist region of South Ossetia in Georgia. In the next few days, the Russians also entered Abkhazia, another Georgian break-away province, as the international community sits and watches. By this time, it is of no use to argue over whose faults caused this international crisis. Regrettably, Georgia has its own share of blame for ignoring the Ossetian and Abkhazian grievances, but it is clear who is David and who is Goliath in this unmatched conflict.
In the UN Security Council, the sitting nations found their hands tied by the impending Russian veto reminiscent of the Cold War days. Not only that, the Cold War-style exchange of acerbic words also descended into the Council Chambers in New York; however, it is a much more dangerous rhetoric from another page of history that eerily reflects the situation.

What Russian Prime Minister (and the Kremlin’s own eminence grise) Mr. Putin wants is the rehabilitation of the former Soviet glory at the expense of its neighbors. The concept almost sounds like something that Adolf Hitler would have proclaimed in one of his fiery and misguided speeches. Hitler deemed the German defeat in the First World War was unjustified while lamenting over the failures of the Kaiserriech and the Weimer Republic; Mr. Putin views the Soviet defeat that the end of the Cold War and the Yeltsin administration that followed as a humiliation of an equal nature.

South Ossetia and Abkhazia will be nothing but the Russian version of Anschluss which Hitler enforced on Austria. After Austria, the Nazi leader’s next target was Czechoslovakia; the Russian Bear’s next move could as well be towards Georgia itself, or towards any of former Soviet states like Ukraine, Moldova or Estonia which it is currently harassing.

As the hapless nations of Central Europe once looked West at Britain and France, everyone in Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus currently is counting on America and her NATO Allies. Perhaps it is the hollow promises of a NATO membership that emboldened Georgia and that forced Russia’s hand. The Western World will be repeating an egregious mistake of history if it let Russia get away with this destruction of everything we have worked so hard to accomplish since the fall of Berlin Wall. A note of caution for well-intentioned mediator President Sarkozy of France: it is not time for appeasement a la Neville Chamberlain or for economic sanctions which Russia government couldn’t care less.

No matter how much words and negotiations are more powerful than actions, sometimes it is necessary to take out our arms when our cherished values are threatened. To defend her long-espoused values of liberty and democracy, the West has little choice but to take out her slingshots once again. Sometimes, the war is the sole effective weapon to teach Goliaths a lesson or two. Russium et Moscua delenda est.

One Response to “Let Not History Repeat Itself”
  1. Bill Rowan says:

    So Shine, Russian and Moscow must be destroyed? Is that really the policy you are proposing? I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that what you want is really just vigorous military action against Russian forces within Georgia to both protect the Georgians from further aggression and send a message to Russia that such attacks on our allies will not be tolerated. At the very least perhaps we should send a carrier group from the Mediterranean into the Black Sea and promise to shoot down any Russian bombers over Georgia? I’m sorry Shine, but far from calling Russia’s bluff, any military action would only escalate the fighting and prove too costly for NATO, which cannot afford war with Russia.

    The roots of this conflict go far beyond the events of last week. And even further back than the election of Saakashvili in 2003. What we saw this week is but the latest and most explicit declaration from the Russians that it still considers the former Soviet republics as part of its sphere of influence and that it will not tolerate any more movement towards the western camp. The Russians still see the world in the same eyes as their Soviet predecessors (indeed for men like Putin, with the same eyes they have been using since before the fall of the Soviet Union) and their foreign policy is just a continuation of the geopolitical games of the cold war. Top on the list of Russian fears is fear of encirclement, stroked by the continued advance of Western influence right up to its borders (and headlined by encroaching NATO and EU membership). Fears over “encirclement” should seem familiar as they were first raised not by the Russians in 2008 but by the Germans in 1914. Rather than let the Triple Entente expand and solidify around them, the Germans decided to take decisive action while they could still be considered to have the advantage. Russia has hitherto been too weak to make more that just a fuss when the EU began accepting former Easter Bloc countries (starting with the admission of 10 of them in 2004 including the former Soviet Baltic states), but newly emboldened, they have now sent a clear message that they will not tolerate further encroachment. Though it has not been so violently publicized as Russian stance of Georgia was last week, the Russians will be equally, if not more vigorous in preventing Ukrainian admission to the EU, especially given the much greater historical and cultural links between Russian and Ukraine. Russia’s response to the election of Victor Yushenko in 2004 should have been a warning of this. The events of last week only confirm that when it comes to protecting what it sees as its vital interest in maintaining influence over its neighbors Russia is not bluffing.

    And why should the West not intervene more forcefully? Three reasons immediately come to mind.

    The first and most important is the necessity of preventing war. If we were to attack Russian troops in Georgia, Russia would likely take it as a declaration of war on the part of the United States, just like they took the (rather stupid) movement of Georgian troops into South Ossetia as the pretext for invasion of Georgia. Would Russia really be stupid enough to start a war with NATO? Yes, frankly, because even though they know they could not afford it, they know that potential war would be even worse for us and that we would have to back down first. The main reason is mainly military. It is no secret that America’s mighty military has not one or even two hands tied behind its back right now but two legs bound together as well, meaning that even if we wanted to, we could not redeploy for a war in the Cacusus or in Europe. The pathetic airlifting of 2000 Georgian troops from Iraq is about as much as we can do and it has not made a difference. It is no help that Europe’s defense establishment remains hopelessly lethargic. Without the promise of vigorous defense from American forces there is no telling what damage Russia could do in Eastern Europe (I can only imagine what they would do to Ukraine) before an eventual ceasefire was brokered by a beleaguered NATO and frantic EU. In any war we would most certainly be on the defensive and have far more to loose.

    The second reason is petrochemical and the reason for such boldness from Russia in the first place. The Russians saw an opportunity to send a message to Georgia now before any NATO commitments are made (following a Georgian ascension into NATO not even an emboldened Russia would dare invade) and while America remains tied down in Iraq, but more broadly they see that the time is ripe for the growth of Russian influence because of economic factors. From the Russian perspective, liberal American and its European allies are currently heading into economic decline while Russia is enjoying staggering economic growth and overflowing state coffers. The time could not be better for Russia to throw its weight around a little bit (the Russian bullying of BP is just more evidence of this perception). Additionally, Russia has got Europe in a strangle hold made of gas pipelines (perhaps another reason for defending its interest in Georgia so vigorously: proposed and existing pipelines across Georgian territory promise to break the strategically useful Russian monopoly on European gas supplies). In the event of western military response to Russian aggression in Georgia, short of declaring war on the EU the Russians could simply turn off the gas, generating a panic among European leaders to end the conflict and appease Russia before winter sets in in a few months. This argument also plays into the concerns about starting a war. Though stopping supplies would harm Russia was well, the fact remains that Europe needs Russian gas more than Russia, inflation already running at some absurd rate, needs European money.

    The third reason is that America can’t afford to loose Russian cooperation in other, completely unrelated matters. Without Russian support, the US cannot apply more pressure on Iran through UN sanctions. Complain as you may about the structure of the UN, the fact remains that Russia controls a veto in the security council and has no guilt in using it to punish America and its allies, even if it has no strategic interest in vetoing the resolution. The Russians don’t want to see a nuclear armed Iran either (more entrants into the nuclear club mean less influence for all current members) which is why we have seen as much cooperation as we have, but just as with the threat of war and the threat of the oil weapon, the West has more at stake in preventing a nuclear armed Iran. Russia knows that we will stop at nothing to protect Israel and need its help to do so.

    So why should we not attack Russian forces in Georgia? Because Russia has not one but three trump cards it would not be afraid to play. The Russians are not bluffing. On the contrary they are serious about protecting what they see as their essential interest in their near abroad, emboldened by economic realities, and possessing of three very real trump cards that are currently lying on the table for the world to see.

    So in the face of this reality, what is the right strategy to play? Unfortunately for now it means letting Georgia get roughed up a bit. Saakashvili timing was inspired by what he thought was Georgia’s certain protection from the west but he couldn’t have gotten the timing more wrong. It was stupid to provoke Russia and he and Georgia will unfortunately pay the price for the time being. If the Russian’s stick to their word (unlikely I know, but Russia goal is to send a message, not to conquer Georgia) then in a few weeks we should be where we started before the Russian invasion, the uneasy status quo of Russian troops occupying two independent minded Georgian provinces. Though this is unacceptable in the long run, the Georgians will have to accept it for the time being while they wait for the winds to turn against Russia. Once things are back to normal it will only be a matter of time before the cards are dealt into the hands of NATO and we can be more aggressive in expanding NATO and EU influence. That means that the current strategy is to wait and let Russia blow its horn for time being, difficult as that is.

    Why can I be so sure that the tides will turn against Russia. First off, the basis for Russia’s recent boldness, its apparent economic advantage, is mostly an illusion that in time will come crashing down. The west’s economic problems are in part cyclic and in part the result of an unfortunate profligacy back when times were good (why do we always fall into the same trap?) but they aren’t structural. Growth will return and with it western confidence. Russia’s economic problems on the other hand are structural and the salve of oil wealth only temporary and illusory. Without political liberalization investors will stay away and without economic liberalization Russia can’t build a diversified and stable economy. Even if oil prices remain high (as they are likely to for the foreseeable future, despite the American public’s belief that this is just a bubble or that a drop of new supply in ocean of demand will bring prices down significantly) neglect and underinvestment in Russia’s oil fields mean that production is actually declining when it should be ramping up while state intervention in the oil industry means that oil production is wildly inefficient in Russia. Thus not even Russia’s oil strength can last very long. Future western taxes on carbon emissions would also go a long way in ending Russia’s oil boom.

    Though it is agonizingly slow and painful to watch in the short term, our only real strategy towards Russia is to promote and hope for reform from within Russia. Though many credit Ronald Regan’s belligerency as ending the cold war and continue to see belligerency as the answer to the current crisis, in reality it was glasnost and perestroika following the painful recognition of the USSR’s economic problems, that meant the end of the Soviet Union. Instead of threatening Russia with nonexistent tanks and troops we should be brandishing a weapon that should be far more frightening to Russia’s future prospects, an energy policy that promotes alternative energy and energy independence.

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