Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The "new" Russia: resolving old grievances?

As the situation in Eastern Europe escalates and the US is offering humanitarian aid, some of my thoughts about what's going on.

Back in 1991, as the world's attention was diverted towards the first Gulf War, the then Soviet Union launched a surprise military invasion of Lithuania, the Baltic State then most stridently seeking independence. The world rightly condemned the move, but Moscow seemed unfazed, claiming it was a pre-emptive move to protect the rights of the Russian minority. Yet a month after the failed August coup later that year, Gorbachev allowed Lithuania along with Estonia and Latvia to secede -- and by the end of the year, the remaining twelve republics had decided to dissolve their union.

For the longest time, the Russian Federation -- the largest of the twelve -- raised hackles about both NATO and the EU expanding eastward to where the client states and, really the former vassal republics, held ground. No doubt they were worried about Poland and Lithuania in particular, as their joining both organizations effectively left the Kaliningrad Oblast -- formerly East Prussia -- completely surrounded and separated from the rest of the "motherland." But it was mostly words, until recently. So what changed?

It must truly be grating to most Russians that with the expansion of the Schengen area last year, it's actually more difficult to go from Russia to one of the Baltic States to visit relatives who live there (because of the tougher border controls at the perimeter), than it is to go from Russia to the Ukraine or Georgia to visit their cousins there. There are still substantial minority communities in the "outer countries," as some Russians call them, and they view attempts to diminish the rights of their brethren as an insult to their collective pride. For instance, Latvia is about ⅓ Russian and a new citizenship law requires its residents to speak Latvian even though many have lived in the country their entire lives from birth and didn't ever have a reason to speak the language, until now. So much for "For the Motherland, for Stalin." (Not that I ever cared for the Communists, of course.) Certainly, one should learn the majority language, but from a Russian perspective this is seen as a slap in the face.

Perhaps Russia could ultimately tolerate being surrounded by its enemies to the West, but a potential expansion of NATO to the south (including the Ukraine and Georgia, both of which also want to be in the EU) leaving them surrounded must have been too much to bear for the Big Black Bear, especially when both also have large Russian minorities. They can't easily access their own brothers in the three Baltic States (which minority, ironically, do have freedom of movement between those three countries, and the rest of Central and Western Europe as do all other EU citizens). Hence, the last week's events that have seen Russia and Georgia at war, so they don't lose any remaining connections.

This is much more than about a dispute over territories (South Ossetia and Abkahzia) or about a gas pipeline. It's about pride. Russia was going to push back. It was just a question of when. Doing it just before the Olympics certainly caught the world's attention which is exactly what Moscow wanted.

Should the Ukraine and Georgia be part of the organizations that have ensured stability, economic prosperity, and freedom in free Europe since 1949; which have extended that prosperity as the territories moved further east with the end of Communism? Something which both Obama and McCain are now demanding? In my opinion, yes. Absolutely. Are they going to join any time soon? No way. Certainly not as long as Russia continues to sink back into dictatorship. One democracy does not attack another. A democracy will certainly attack a dictatorship, or vice versa.

I shudder at the thought we may see another round of ethnic cleansing. Of course, not all Russians would want that, at all. But from many Russians' perspective (and it is a large number), Russia is wherever a Russian lives, even if she's outside Russia proper. So, even if Russia does become a democracy again (not for a long time, I'm afraid), this issue won't go away. Russia won't rest until they get some kind of Greater Russia with a contiguous population, just as much as Nazi Germany was able get more and more land in return for appeasement.

Welcome to the new reality. For the record I say, no appeasement. Avoid war at all costs, but absolutely no concessions, under any circumstances.

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Anonymous said...

If we were were not and had never gone to Iraq, we might be able to help Georgia. But all of our strength is in Iraq, where Obama said we should never have gone in the first place. Bush is giving hints that we might try to take on Russia. With what? We have a depletion, and Putin knows this. Putin is making his stand because he wants to make a move before Obama gets in there and takes us out of Iraq and then we would be able to deal with him. More mistakes by the Republicans putting our lives in danger.

Anonymous said...

Another ignorant blogger. WHO STARTED IT before the Olympics? Russia? really? On 7th Georgia started to shell and invaded Osetia, by doing so violating 1992 Dagomis treaty that it signed. According to this treaty Russia is a guarantor of the security of Osetia. Therefore in accordance with this treaty, signed by Georgia, Russia intervened.
You think Russia wanted to do this before the Olympics? Please check the facts - Georgia did.

I am sure you will not post this comments since the facts, real facts not what CNN feeds you contradict your very simple World view. I like US (and yours) grandstanding on the issue.

Anonymous said...

CCCP is BACK! Although I think the socalled "humanitarian" aid the US is sending is in the form of guided weapons systems tank bombs from Tomcats high in the sky. I've been there during the Bosnia conflict sitting in the Adriatic watching tomohawk missles bombard mountain ranges up close three weeks before that hit the news, so I know first hand that this is exactly what is happening. Thank yo uBush for destroying the world before you leave office.
The only reason Russia did this is because of you stupid move with the missle defense shield in the Czeck Republic back in 07, you big dummy!

Anonymous said...

Here was your big chance to shine through Condie... and....


I didn't expect anything less from the Bush Administration.

Anonymous said...

That is an interesting post. The one thing that should have been remembered from WW1 compared to WW2 is not punish the country that has been concured or succeeded. By suppressing the Russian minority is giving Russia fuel for their cause. The Russian minority should have been taken into the fold not set apart. This way a truly unique national identity could be made.
However, Russia should have not have taken the response they took. That is why America is saying that Iraq should embrace the Sunni, Shi'a and Kurds to unit and not pull apart. This is the reason of an untied nation. Remember Chechnya tried to succeed and you suppressed that movement. If your attitude is correct you should have let them succeed them.
Russia is not coherent. They want to return to the tyranny days. They should be dismissed from the G-8 and international trade agreements. In addition, we need to support Georgia the support they need. Europe should be the forefront of this effort. Russia has once again shown itself as the bully. It is great that Europe has shown great strides to leave the fissile fuel and self substring national energy policy.
Russia has a road to take. It can be an antique that no one really wants to invest in to be a world leader or it can go back to the Stalin era of we are in control of Europe.
Russia should embrace the world understanding of helping each other. It should be a world power, one who would embrace the world policies to help eradicate hunger, violence, and things that differentiate use on this planet.

Anonymous said...

It makes me sad and angry that people base their opinions on the one-sided reports of CNN and the like... Why does everybody keep forgetting the Georgia started this mess???

Anonymous said...

If you want to know the objective facts, and not the fiction stories you see on TV, read - they are an international news agency that does not present one side or another.

Anonymous said...

Cmon! They did it just before the Olympics to get the worlds attention? How about they timed it for just the the focus will be divided, at least.

Anonymous said...

Oh look! Another American indulging in the national pastime. The annual hunt for a new Enemy No. 1.
Who was it last year? Ahmendinajad? Saddam? Castro? Chavez? The North Korean dude?

What a surprise!

Anonymous said...

It is kinda funny that Stalin is mentioned so many times in relation to Georgia. The funny thing is that Stalin is Georgian, just like Saakashvili. Who else would have a sick state of mind to start a war on the day of the Olympics?

BlastFurnace said...

Woland, I thought about the Stalin-Georgia connection after I posted. It is kind of ironic that someone even worse than Hilter in many respects wasn't a Russian. (Then again, Hitler wasn't German either, but Austrian.)

To the anonymous posters -- let me sum up thus:

I get my news from a variety of sources, including Reuters, the BBC, Deutsche Welle and other sources you would call "impartial."

In my opinion, it's Russia that is the aggressor and not Georgia because Georgia was only trying to take back what international law recognizes as rightfully theirs -- South Ossetia. If there had been a treaty to swap territories we'd have a different discussion right now. Being a "guarantor" isn't enough because Russia were only supposed to act as peacekeepers, not as the occupiers they have become.

As for the media diversion argument, Russia got what it wants. It's not the stories out of the Olympics that top the newscasts around the world each night, it's the situation in Europe. People often tune out after the top story and / or don't read the Page One story below the fold even if it's more important.

Two last points: I'm Canadian, not American. And the world should have paid attention to this area long ago, not have been distracted by Iraq. It may not have gotten out of hand had Bush not squandered his moral authority over Iraq and instead had been the line drawer.

Sidebar: I doubt Russia would be so stupid as to cross the border into Turkey but if it does, then it becomes NATO's problem and then there's real trouble.

Anonymous said...

BlastFurnace, these territories were independent since 92 war. That is much longer than Kosovo. They elected their own government and has been running it like an independent country for 16 years.

Geogians decided to solve the problem by force, they killed and wounded a lot of peace keepers during the first dates and bombarded the city full of civilians. I do not see how Russia couldn't get involved and once involved they had to eliminate hostile forces beyond the Ossetia region. So it does look like Russia is an aggressor, but Georgia is a real initiator and I believe Sakaashvilli should be held responsible for lives lost during initial bombardment.

I do hope it ends soon, and i think there should be talks about putting international peace keepers to separate the sides. There is too much hate to not have mediator.