The Empire strikes back

ONE may take comfort from the fact that this is not 1968 when Russian tanks moved into Prague, occupied the capital and helped to overthrow the government of the day.

By M N Hebbar (View from Europe)

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Published: Sun 17 Aug 2008, 11:15 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

But despite the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a lone superpower, 2008 has not made a difference to the Russian resolve to keep a firm lid on its own backyard, resist Western pressure in its sphere of influence and repulse any moves impinging on its rightful role on the global stage.

Russia's attempt to retake South Ossetia and Abkhazia on grounds of its ethnic minorities has been evocative of the anger of a lion finally swatting a mouse that has teased it for years. It is also a reflection of a resurgent Russia, boosted by its newly energised oil and gas resources, and its relentless effort to regain its prestige and lost ground in international relations.

A brief look at history would be instructive. The wily Stalin - his father was of Ossetian descent - had drawn the borders of the Soviet republics in a manner ensuring that Georgia comprised the autonomous ethnic entities of South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Adzharia so that Moscow could keep Georgia under control. The disintegration of the Soviet republics in the 1990s created a political divide inasmuch as some states were relieved to be free from the yoke of Moscow and wanted to move to the West and its institutions.

Georgia and Ukraine were among those that wanted to break out of the old mould by moving closer to the West, openly seeking membership of Nato and, of course, of the European Union too. The subsequently changing map of Europe reflected an ever-expanding Nato that had moved threateningly close to Russia's borders. In a speech delivered by the then Russian president Vladimir Putin at an international security conference in Munich two years ago, he famously and angrily asked:

'We have a right to know who is the enemy this expansion is directed at'.

Putin's fury at this slow Western encirclement by a triumphant America was barely contained and he was waiting for an opportune moment to retaliate for the loss of several pawns on the chessboard of international politics - Kosovo, Iraq, Nato membership for the Baltic states, US renunciation of the ABM treaty, and US missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. As of now, the West stands checkmated by Moscow.

More infuriating was Western encouragement of 'freedom' for former Soviet satellite states and giving them a blank cheque to forces hostile to Russia. Nowhere was it more effective than in Ukraine and Georgia - 2 countries long part of the Russian empire. Moscow's attempt to check Western influence in Ukraine met with disastrous consequences. In Georgia, former president Edward Schewardnadze managed to skilfully keep the animosities in check but the current President Saakashvili cut a somewhat brash figure.

If Putin was waiting, Georgia provided him with the perfect opening to launch his plans to change the status quo. As a pragmatic if impulsive Georgian President Saakashvili, a US-educated lawyer, strained to free himself from the clutches of the old Soviet empire, his overweening desire to join Nato and add to his credentials - Georgia supplied the third largest contingent of troops for Iraq - led to his clumsy attempt to settle Georgia's instability by use of force against pro-Russia separatist rebels in South Ossetia..

The retaking of Ossetia and Abkhazia is a minor part of the Russian campaign. More significant is the attack on Georgia proper and the most inflammatory statement has come from the Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who said that the world "can forget about any talk of Georgia's territorial integrity", ie., Georgia getting back its two separatist provinces. The cease-fire deal brokered by President Sarkozy is dead in the water as Russia refuses to withdraw from Georgia. Georgia's territorial integrity is in question.

As German Chancellor Angela Merkel logs on in Moscow and uses her calming influence with the Russian president in the light of strong Germany-Russia relations, the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will lend support to Tbilisi in underlining the US position. Diplomacy will be given a chance.

The US stands with the democratically-elected government of Georgia, sending a humanitarian mission with relief supplies. The mission has come under deep suspicion by Russia as a cover for military hardware. The air is tense. The idea of a proxy war between Nato and Russia may not seem all that improbable and can be quite frightening in prospect.

The EU is a divided group, with countries such as Poland and former Soviet republics from the Baltic demanding an aggressive condemnation of Russia's military action with

Britain, Germany and Italy urging reconciliation with the Kremlin. Western outrage has been confused cacophony at best.

In perspective, retaking Ossetia is just one part of Russia's campaign to reassert its hegemony over the Caucasus, assuaging the humiliations of the past twenty years, and defying America's status as a superpower. Russia has also demonstrated gleefully the limits of US power and Moscow's historic destiny as a restored 21st century superpower. In any event, it is a dangerous precedent.

Could this be a great game for the oil of the Caucasus and Central Asia? If so, it is a safe bet that the West is already in the process of losing it. Georgian democracy matters, but so does its sovereignty. And the West would want its oil supplies. It has built a pipeline to bring oil from Azerbaijan and Central Europe across Georgia to Turkey, bypassing Russian interference.

Russia may think that it needs no approvals for its foreign adventures but its long-term prosperity would depend critically on membership of international bodies. Its threatened expulsion from the G-8 group of nations, banning entry into the WTO and the OECD, and refusing partnership with EU institutions are not likely to deter Russia from its determined goals in the short term.

Russia has sought to integrate into the diplomatic, political, economic and security structures of the 21st century. Its belligerence will hardly qualify for its integration in these institutions. But the West could be drawn into a new Cold War, or worse, if Russia's interests are constantly sidestepped. President Bush needs to remember that Russia has every right for its voice to be heard, something that the West has wilfully ignored hitherto.

The current tension in Georgia presents a grave threat to international security that now demands the utmost restraint on all sides. The lessons have to be learnt. And other Soviet republics would do well to remember their geography. A nervous Poland has already signed a preliminary agreement with the US towards stationing US missiles on its soil in return for US protection. The stakes are escalating. With Russia warning of a new arms race, could a new balance of power be in the offing?

The Kremlin's next moves will determine if the present conflict will ignite a Caucasian tinder box that even Moscow will be hard put to extinguish. The world is watching.

M N Hebbar is a Berlin-based commentator

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