Russia: A New Cold War?

UPDATE: A Watcher’s Council winner for 8/29/08! Thank you, council members, for the honor. – SK

I am a strong supporter of Russia. It’s hard not to be if you study its history, read its literature and treasure its poetry. Russia is not the Soviet Union. The Soviet era was just one of many calamities that befell Russia during it’s 1000 year history, and no one suffered worse under the Soviet regime than the Russian people themselves. Russians have been cursed with bad government throughout its long and storied history. Has the Russian people ever had a government that served their interests and made their lives just a bit better? I can’t think of one.

I am an American first and foremost, but I don’t see power and prestige as zero-sum games where one nation’s rise originates from another’s decline. Both America and Russia can coexist as great nations in the same way that Japan, Germany and China can. I don’t believe that hegemony or American domination of the world is in America’s best interest. It forces us into the role of “global policeman” and that leads to lazy Europeans who have forgotten how to defend themselves, and Americans dying for causes that are not their own.

Russia is a unique, somewhat enigmatic nation that has often been misunderstood by the West, so I’m always a little wary when it’s in the news. And it’s in the news a lot these days over its invasion of Georgia.

Which raises the question: Is Russia’s invasion a one-time event or is this a return to the Cold War? Rhetoric on both sides is extremely heated right now and it’s hard to discern, but before we succomb to the rhetoric and dust off our John Le Carre novels it’s worth taking a cold, hard dispassionate look at recent events.

According to Michael Totten, the MSM is wrong about Georgia starting the war with Russia. Evidently Georgian villages were being shelled by Ossetian separatists while at the same time the Russian APCs were rolling towards Georgia. It’s clear that things have been messy in the region, and made messier still by Russian meddling.

But how much of the crisis is Russian meddling and how much of it is the desire of Abkhasians and Ossetians for independence? Totten’s piece suggests that the desire is much stronger in Abkhasia than it is in Ossetia, so I suppose it isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that Russia’s hand in the mess is stronger in Ossetia than in Abkhasia.

The problem for the US and the EU is the precedent we set in the Balkans. If Ossetia and Abkhazia wish to leave become independent from Georgia, then why can’t they do what the Kosovars did in Serbia with NATO help? In February I wrote about my opposition to the US and EU rush to recognize an independent Kosovo. At the time I didn’t like the decision because I felt that there was nothing to be gained by it, yet much that would be lost – including  the alienation of Serbia, a nation with a nascent democracy that is struggling to come to terms with its own past.

I also find the fragmentation of states philosophically repugnant, seeing secession as legitimizing the atomization of the electorate. So Kosova quits Serbia. What about the serbs regions of Kosovo? Can they quit Kosovo? And the Albanian enclaves within that predominantly Serbian statelet? Can they quit too? Or the streets within those neighborhoods having Serbian majority… On and on it continues until you have balkanization down to individual farms and apartments.

Is this what we demand when we call for Democracy?

Because we supported Kosovo’s break from Serbia, we now lack the moral ground to demand that Ossetia and Abkhazia remain part of Georgia. After all, what exactly is the difference between Kosovo and Georgia’s breakaway regions? The people living in these areas are mixed but not as they were prior to the early 1990s when the idea of secession took hold.

Georgia deserves EU and US support but both governments screwed up. More pressure should have been placed on Russia to knock off the meddling in Ossetia and Abkhazia so that the true intent of the population could have been deciphered. Do these people really want independence or not? And if they do why? Perhaps a federal system would have sufficed as it has in other multi-ethnic states.

However the US and EU followed a schizoid policy whereby they turned a blind-eye to Russian meddling on one hand (Russian peacekeepers in Ossetia? What next? Iranian peacekeepers in Basra?) while at the same time dangling the NATO and EU membership carrots to Georgia. The former action encouraged Russian nationalists, while the latter whipped them up into a frenzy. Could the US and EU have somehow handled matter any worse? I can’t think of how.

Now the Rhetoric is hot and heavy so it’s difficult to determine whether this episode is a one-off or the shape of things to come in a new Cold War. Russia’s true intent will be determined by its future actions. Will it withdraw from Georgia proper to the Ossetia and Abkhazia or does it intend on overthrowing Georgia and rebuilding the Soviet empire?

If it sticks to supporting the breakaway regions then the invasion can be seen as Russia’s attempt at protecting the Russians in these regions  – whether this is in fact true or not. In this event the intervention would not likely be repeated – except in other states where Russians dominate and the West and the former Soviet states like Ukraine would dodge a bullet. There’s also a chance that invoking the rights of separatists to justify the invasion could bite Russia in the butt. Russia is a huge state brimming with hundreds of ethnic groups; it’s only a matter of time before another Chechnya flares.

However if it does attempt to overrun – or overthrow Georgia – then it does signal a return to the Soviet era of Cold War. And while we may not want a war with Russia – cold or otherwise – we may have no choice but to reciprocate. I personally do not wish for another Cold War with Russia; I believe it would be a catastrophe for both Russians and Americans. However if the Russian government decides to war with us, we must protect ourselves and act accordingly.

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  1. Chad:

    Did you check out Michael Totten’s latest post from Georgia? Very enlightening, as it shows this entire mess was 100% Russian caused and planned.
    My thinking is, if Russia says that because Ossetia should have the right to secede, then so should Chechnya and every other part of Russia that wants to leave.

  2. Scott Kirwin:

    Good point about Chechnya. If the Russians want to use the example of Kosovo to justify their attack on Georgia, then Chechnya would seem to undermine it. In fact Russia has plenty of restive, non-Russian dominated regions that are itching to secede, so my guess is that they won’t be singing the Kosovo tune for much longer.

  3. Rob:

    Russia just approved Ossetia and Abkhazia’s bid for indipendence.

    So maybe it wasn’t such a good idea for NATO to support Georgia’s mass murder of 2100 Ossetian civilians and 8 Russian peacekeepers.

    Looks like war crime doesn’t pay after all.

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    This background piece by Kenneth Anderson is about the best I’ve read. He distinguishes between our idea of democracy and “participatory ethnic democracy” as it is practiced in Georgia. He also reminds us of the thuggery that all sides exhibited in the early 1990s… not so long ago.

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