By Martin Woollacott (THE GUARDIAN, 08/10/08):
It is amazing how swiftly a new crisis can knock into perspective one which dominated discussion only a short time before. Just a few weeks ago we were debating whether the west was heading for a new cold war with Russia, or a new Crimean war over Ukraine, or a new Great Game in central Asia. Then the markets began their decline, and Georgia and its possible consequences were swept aside.
But the profound sense of insecurity now felt on both sides of the old east-west divide should allow us to see Russia’s Georgian intervention in a new light. It is not just that the financial crisis has hit Russia with particular force. While Russians were inspecting the new Georgian exhibit in Moscow’s Museum of the Armed Forces, shares on the Moscow stock exchange were dropping like stones. Five days in October, it seemed, might turn out to be more important for everybody, including Russians, than five days in August, which is also the title of the exhibition. Russia’s oil and raw material advantages suddenly look much less solid if the world economy is entering a period of low growth. And without high earnings from those commodities, the plans for military and industrial modernisation look that much more difficult to achieve.
As the first European monitors entered the security zone around South Ossetia this week, Russian leaders and officials have been transmitting messages to their western counterparts. President Dmitry Medvedev said in St Petersburg that there was no question of a new cold war, while the Russian and American ambassadors in Washington and Moscow coauthored an article on Russo-American partnership. Former US secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have added their plea for moderation. The silver lining of the financial crisis for Russo-western relations may conceivably be that more reasonable attitudes will in time emerge, based in part on the simple recognition that we are all in the same boat.
While American foreign policy was undergoing its own hardening of the arteries under President Bush, Russian foreign policy was entering a period characterised by an impulse to undermine other country’s projects and by a determination to reassert Russian power. Scholars such as Arne Westad, who have written on the sophistication, the common sense and the moral sensibility that marked Soviet and immediate post-Soviet foreign policy at its occasional best, have noted a loss of these qualities. What can be called a “chessboard” view of the world began to prevail. The Russian government and its circle of advisers do not properly understand how the United States and the European Union work, and have excluded those Russians who do.
Every move by other countries is seen as motivated purely by self-interest, or construed as an attempt to diminish or disadvantage Russia. In the process Russia’s own real interests in, for example, persuading Iran to forgo nuclear weapons were forgotten, and Russia’s own weaknesses overlooked. As the evidence comes in on Georgia, those weaknesses are evident. The military operation, though successful, was also shambolic. The Russian commander got lost and field communications collapsed within hours of its start.
In spite of the money being spent on arms, this is not the profile of a truly modernising military. The internal political context, at which Putin hinted when he seemed to imply that a failure to act over Georgia would have had consequences in the Russian part of the Caucasus, suggests another kind of weakness. Chechens spearheaded the Russian attack in Georgia, but Russia’s control of Chechnya is both fragile and indirect, and its grip on the other republics is far from solid.
The Georgian operation may well have been intended, in part, to impress Moscow’s readiness to act if need be. Finally, in their hankering after a world in which they are coequal with the United States, the Russians seem to have assumed they had the potential to be the leader of a bloc of nations opposed to US policies, but the aftermath of Georgia shows the reverse to be the case.
Western policy has not been designed to avoid exacerbating Russian neuroses. We have brought out the worst in them. The point that people like Kissinger and Shultz are making is important. If we want a more coherent and realistic Russia, we had better start being more coherent and realistic ourselves.