Dealing with Russia: What’s ahead for democracy and diplomacy?

Soldiers in a Russian convoy travel today on a main road to Zugdidi, Georgia.
REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Soldiers in a Russian convoy travel today on a main road to Zugdidi, Georgia.

As Russia denied that it had invaded another city in Georgia today, diplomats and analysts around the world tried to figure out what the flare-up in the Caucasus means: about renewed Russian power, about democracy in former Soviet Republics, and about the future of U.S. and Western relations with the new assertive Russia.

The New York Times put it this way: “The United States and its European allies faced tough choices over how to push back (against Russia). They seemed uncertain how to adjust to a new geopolitical game that threatened to undermine two decades of democratic gains in countries that once were part of the Soviet sphere.” The Times noted that President Bush, just back from the Olympics in China, said Russia’s actions were “unacceptable in the 21st century.”

 ” ‘Russia’s actions this week have raised serious questions about its intent in Georgia and the region,’ he said. ‘These actions have substantially damaged Russia’s standing in the world, and these actions jeopardize relations with the United States and Europe.’ “

But some critics said the president’s words were not enough. The Times quotes former U.N. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke as saying that sending a mid-level diplomat to Moscow while French President Nicolas Sarkozy traveled himself to mediate demonstrated a weak response. He said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should have been on a plane to Moscow.

“What administration in history would not have sent somebody to Moscow immediately? Why are we not in their face?” The Times quoted Holbrooke as saying.

‘Paying the price’
Rob Parsons, a former BBC correspondent who lived in Georgia for many years, provides this perspective in Scotland’s Sunday Herald: “There is clarity about one thing: the South Ossetian war has nothing to do with Russian support for the rights of ethnic minorities in Georgia. It has nothing to do either with keeping the peace or the issues of self-determination and territorial integrity. This is about hubris, anger and resentment. Georgia is paying the price for its pro-Western foreign policy and its insistence on the right to choose its own friends. …Why, for instance, has the American reaction been so muted? Why hasn’t George W Bush, who has done so much to promote Georgia’s cause, made a far stronger statement condemning Russian aggression? And what of the EU? Is it to be reduced again to paralysis and hand-wringing on the sidelines?”

“…As (Georgian President Mikheil) Saakashvili warned, this is no longer about the future of a tiny far-away country but about the nature of the world order in the 21st century. By its actions, Russia has stripped away its mask and revealed a bully still aching for the wars of the 20th century. If Moscow gets away with this, it will be encouraged to use its growing muscle and energy clout elsewhere. Eastern Europeans should be watching closely.”

On the streets of Georgia, the reaction also seemed to question the West. The Guardian reported: “Many people were also disillusioned by what they considered the feeble reaction of the west – particularly the United States, Georgia’s main international ally. Many complained that Georgia had sent 2,000 troops to fight in Iraq, but when Georgia came under attack, Washington could only offer words in return.

” ‘We’ve been hearing all these years that we’ve got strong and powerful friends across the ocean but it turned out these stories were just a bluff,’ said unemployed Valiko, 57.

” ‘We may be stupid, we may have made mistakes, but will the U.S. and Europe really let Russia get away with attacking another country?’ demanded 26-year-old student Vakhtang.”

Miscalculations and blunders
But the issues in the war are not nearly that clear cut, according to Charles King, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, writing in the Christian Science Monitor: “Russia must be condemned for its unsanctioned intervention. But the war began as an ill-considered move by Georgia to retake South Ossetia by force. Saakashvili’s larger goal was to lead his country into war as a form of calculated self-sacrifice, hoping that Russia’s predictable overreaction would convince the West of exactly the narrative that many commentators have now taken up. …

“For Georgia, this war has been a disastrous miscalculation. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are now completely lost. It is almost impossible to imagine a scenario under which these places – home to perhaps 200,000 people – would ever consent to coming back into a Georgian state they perceive as an aggressor. … Despite welcome efforts to end the fighting, the Russo-Georgian war has created yet another generation of young men in the Caucasus whose worldviews are defined by violence, revenge, and nationalist zeal.”

The war has even brought comment from former Soviet leader and reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, who tried to explain the Russian position: “Over the past few days, some Western nations have taken positions, particularly in the U.N. Security Council, that have been far from balanced. As a result, the Security Council was not able to act effectively from the very start of this conflict. By declaring the Caucasus, a region that is thousands of miles from the American continent, a sphere of its ‘national interest,’ the United States made a serious blunder. Of course, peace in the Caucasus is in everyone’s interest. But it is simply common sense to recognize that Russia is rooted there by common geography and centuries of history. Russia is not seeking territorial expansion, but it has legitimate interests in this region.”

Making a statement
Peter Weisensel, a Macalester College history professor who specializes in Russian history, told MinnPost that Russia’s invasion of Georgia represents “a kind of a marker of its return to great power status. … The Russians are making a statement with quick invasion with motorized troops and air force showing the world that they’re back. … It means we ought to be more careful with the Russians. …We can’t take for granted that their economy or their country is falling apart.

“I think that the West has gotten the message from Russia that ‘you have to pay attention to us … we’re rich again and powerful again because of natural gas and oil. … We want to be taken more seriously by you guys.’ “

Nick Hayes, professor of history and chairman of critical thinking at St. John’s University in Collegeville, said that the West’s “options are severely limited. The Russians executed from a military, diplomatic and public relations standpoint a very effective, however regrettable, operation. They have undermined the Georgian state and sent the message to Georgia that they wanted. But the main audience is the West and NATO. … Moscow never believed NATO had a reason to advance eastward. They stomached it for Eastern Europe but refused to accept it for Ukraine or Georgia. These were the key.

“The second message is being sent to Ukraine, an area where there are more Russian sympathizers. They clearly don’t want Ukraine part of NATO. This is (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin’s answer to NATO’s discussion of expanding.”

Hayes said that Russia, “right or wrong, has felt humiliated and helpless for 15 to 18 years” since the fall of the Soviet Union. “But the Russian public overwhelmingly supports Putin on this action.”

Doug Stone is director of College Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul and a former reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and assistant news director at WCCO-TV. The views in this article are not those of Macalester College.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Jon Larson on 08/14/2008 - 02:51 pm.

    Good gawd, this is lame.

    1) The Cold War is over–using Cold War metaphors for something like this is just silly.

    2) The USA has absolutely NO ability to criticize ANYONE because of Iraq and about a hundred other things.

    3) Calling Putin an autocrat forgets that fact that he is by FAR the most popular politician on planet earth. After the performance of the Russian Army in Georgia, I would not be surprised if his approval rating is now in the low 90s. It had been in the 70s for several years now.

    4) If there has ever been a need to demonstrate that Harvard is the most over-rated school in the history of humanity, the fact that Mikheil Saakashvili, the “genius” who dreamt up this confrontation, went there should do it. (sheesh) And so did W.

    5) Talk about punishing or causing economic damage to Russia is beyond delusional. Russia is a RICH country with leadership that is FAR better equipped to understand how the world works than say, Richard freaking Holbrooke (what a maroon.)

    No the REAL story is that we know virtually nothing about Russia because this nation spent billions on expensive lies during the Cold War. We are messing around in matters we do not understand for reasons we cannot articulate. But EVEN IF we were the good guys in this matter, we cannot do anything about it because we have squandered our wealth on absurd and criminal ventures like the occupation of Iraq. And even IF we could afford to act imperial, we are trapped by the fact that our society runs on oil and we must import 70% of it.

    So Richard Holbrooke can stop blustering like he was an important person from an important country–please!

  2. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 08/16/2008 - 08:58 am.

    Thoughts on face saving and handwashing:

    Is there a “Wipe Your Feet” on the front steps of the White House? Certainly they’ll need one in Crawford when Conde comes back to tell George all about her trip abroad.

    We are not just innocent bystanders here in the Caucasus Crisis.US and Israel trained Georgia’s military. Sold and continue to sell Georgia weaponry etc. And didn’t Conde a wee bit earlier, encourage inadvertantly or otherwise, Saakashvilli with her go-for-it-we will-back-you speech? Whose oily fingerprints embrace the back of Saakashvilli? Does the world look into the eyes of Conde Rice and see April Glaspie?

    World philosopher Martin Buber once said, “As in a mirror face to face, so is the heart of man to man.”
    Self-examination is a good thing at times…stepping back and viewing the face in the mirror; one we may not dare, care to recognize?

    Here at the brink of what could be a cold, nuclear winter in the making, we watch as Bush/Cheney, our two-headed presidency, are loading up the borders in Poland with nuclear missiles and rockets. You could say we are essentially closing our missile shield around Russia; like another embrace? Nuclear this time?

    We can cry “wipe your feet!”, all the way to the Oval office..but who’s going to clean the rugs?

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