Sunday, August 17, 2008

Czar Trek: The Next Generation

Russia's invasion of Georgia has unmasked some hard realities about the nature of the Putin regime in particular, and has revealed ominous cracks in the very foundations of the nation-state in general. The rumblings of Russian tanks through the Roki Tunnel, I fear, were only the end of the long overture to a very dismal and protracted opera yet to come.

Last Tuesday's free Stratfor briefing (amply worth reading in its entirety, if for no other reason than the very instructive maps it includes) dealt with the history and implications of the Georgia affair. First, the Russian predicament:

From the Ukrainian experience [i.e., the "Orange Revolution"], the Russians became convinced that the United States was engaged in a plan of strategic encirclement and strangulation of Russia. From the Kosovo experience [see again, here], they concluded that the United States and Europe were not prepared to consider Russian wishes even in fairly minor affairs. That was the breaking point. If Russian desires could not be accommodated even in a minor matter like this, then clearly Russia and the West were in conflict. For the Russians, as we said, the question was how to respond. Having declined to respond in Kosovo, the Russians decided to respond where they had all the cards: in South Ossetia.

Let's not sugar-coat it: Russia had and still has some very legitimate concerns about the decline of its economic and geostrategic mojo following the breakup of the USSR, and about the US' role in abetting (or at least failing to help ameliorate) that decline. The Clinton administration utterly failed to recognize the dangerous short-sightedness of tacitly assuming that our new friend, non-Communist Russia would just go quietly into that good night. Clinton hitched his star way too tightly to an erratic and increasingly authoritarian Yeltsin. He almost entirely reneged on Bush/Gorbachev-era promises for massive infusions of economic aid and favorable trade status which might have staved off some of the worst of the grinding humiliation and Muscovite Mafia mayhem which blighted Russia during the Naughty Nineties. These blunders, as well as myriad mystifying missteps in mutual disarmament (to which the "Atlanticists" in the Russian foreign policy establishment had initially been very hearteningly receptive) will no doubt feature prominently among the very many squandered historical opportunities of those times. The brittle and pugnacious nationalism which arose out of what any sensible Russians could scarcely help but see as a determined effort to drive a holly stake through their hearts was as initially avoidable as it ultimately became lamentably inevitable. After all, "Paranoia is just reality on a finer scale."

That said, Vladimir Putin is a very nasty bit of business and no mistake. In the ostensibly post-historical world which so many Transnational Progressives insist that we occupy, the sheer reptilian purity of the calculations which informed Putin's choice to pull the trigger on Georgia must feel like rolling off an Alaskan dock during a sound sleep (at least for the twelve or thirteen of them who don't see it as Bush's Fault). He did it because he judged that he could, using the molecule-thin pretext of Georgia's military response to the agitations of pro-Moscow separatists in South Ossetia (and the degree to which that response may have been an overreaction is a legitimate and important one...which has virtually nothing to do with the situation before us right now). Per Ralph Peters:

As a former intelligence officer, I'm awestruck by the genius with which Putin assessed the strategic environment on the eve of his carefully scripted invasion of Georgia.

With his old KGB skills showing (he must've been a formidable operative), Putin not only sized up President Bush humiliatingly well, but precisely anticipated Europe's nonreaction - while taking a perfect-fit measure of Georgia's mercurial president.

Putin not only knew what he was doing - he knew exactly what others would do.

...Which was mostly falling off the bleachers in Beijing and saying "Whaaa?!"

For most of us in the West, the idea that one supposedly civilized sovereign nation would simply roll into another, based only on unvarnished self-interest and a cool appraisal of the unlikelihood of any meaningful opposition is chillingly alien (and please, spare me the facile comparisons with Operation Iraqi Freedom; there are a multitude of fundamental differences which I steadfastly refuse to get into in this post).

But the very notion of national sovereignty which has stood mostly intact since the Peace of Westphalia has been undergoing substantial strain for some time now.While laudable in its intent and serving as the occasion for some very inspiring rhetoric, the recognition of Kosovo's independence from Serbia was an especially clear example of this, and may have done far more harm than good:

The lesson separatists took from Kosovo is that any ethnic group has a right to secede from a sovereign nation simply by being different from their countrymen. As [LA Times columnists] Meany and Mylonas note, that could apply to almost every nation in the world, including the US, Canada, Great Britain, Spain, France, Germany, and so on. That precedent undermines the concept of sovereignty as understood since at least the Peace of Westphalia, and leads the world into dangerous territory, especially in an age of terrorism.

Russia had relatively recently achieved substantial success in brutally putting down the (at best equally brutal) Chechen separatist movement within what it unequivocally held to be its own borders. While drawing much well-earned opprobium for the tactics it employed, the essential concept that the sovereignty of the Russian State gave it the writ to resist separatist sentiments of its ethnically distinct but nationally constituent cantonments was not widely questioned. However, the explicit recognition by many nations (including, notably, the US) of Kosovo's independence from Russian-backed Serbia directly challenged not only Russia's sense of security and integrity (which it surely did), but the very underpinnings of the model which holds that national borders can legitimately contain and subsume a variety of sub-groups while still remaining intact. Even as it may have come from the best of intentions, and even as the much-abused Kosovars may have deserved a measure of autonomy given the all-too recent depredations of the Serbs against them, the ready international endorsement of their independence provided a powerful precedent for the aspirations of fractious factions within nations spanning the globe. It diluted the glue which holds nations together, and the bits that fly off of that long-standing edifice of sovereignty are apt to do much damage in the years to come. When any Basque or Québécois or Tamil can legitimately ask why the Kosovars got to break free when they don't, then national governments worldwide suddenly have a great deal more to worry about.

So, now that that genie is out of its bottle (withdrawing support for Kosovo, should Serbia make a play for re-annexation, would be the very worst sort of self-defeating realpolitik), what now?

One thing is quite clear: the example of Kosovo has provided the perfect pretext for cynical power vampires like Vlad I to impose their will and their might, and a potent narrative with which to slather a credulous international media with its own syrupy slurry of multicultural Kool Aid. For years, Russia had patiently seated the chisel within existing fracture lines in the South Ossetia region of Georgia, only waiting for the appointed moment for its precise hammer-strike. Emboldened by its undoubted success, no sane person would believe that Russia will content itself with having made its point and not strive to consolidate further its hegemonic aspirations for the region. Per Strategy Page:

The war in Georgia comes on the heels of threats (of violence) made to Ukraine. Before that, Russia cut off energy supplies to Ukraine to show who was really in charge. Russia makes more threats to the Baltic States and East European countries over membership in NATO and the construction of a U.S. anti-missile system. The bear is back in a fighting mood, and the world wonders how far this reassertion of empire will go.

If anything has been made clear from recent events, it is that the answer to that question is: "as far as it can." Russia has plainly thrown out the (already frayed and wormy) playbook of cautious diplomatic and economic action with due consideration for international opinion. It's declared that it will do whatever it chooses and realistically concludes that it will not be prevented from doing.

So, we need to do a lot of preventing.

First off, we must resist the impulse to lend our support to the secessionist aspirations of relatively homogeneous sub-groups within the borders of sovereign states. This may seem a bit cold-blooded at first glance, and may even cost us short-and mid-term advantages against rival states. Over the long haul, however, it will act to preserve the integrity of the nation-state itself, and so shore up the boundaries which constitute the very cell walls of the global political organism, and which act to check the opportunistic infections of expansionist regimes which will capitalize on any wobbliness of resolve to defend territorial borders against them.

Second, we must not allow Russia to go unpunished. By subduing Georgia, Moscow has both sent a warning and a delivered a probing thrust. The former is aimed squarely at the Eastern European and Baltic states which might dare to act at variance with the Kremlin's wishes. The latter is analogous to sending a platoon into an uncertain battlespace in order to draw fire and so determine the scope and configuration of resistance which the main unit is likely to face. That one was aimed at NATO, Western Europe, and the US.

That's our cue, folks.

That national treasure, John Bolton, wrote in an editorial for the Telegraph, that Russia has resumed its familiar Cold War strategy of striving to exert control within the states which lie within the "gap" between its own borders and the edges of NATO. As the history of the Cold War so clearly demonstrates, it will keep pushing until and unless something pushes back (I'll quote at length here, but it is well worth your time to read the whole thing):

By its actions in Georgia, Russia has made clear that its long-range objective is to fill that “gap” if we do not. That, as Western leaders like to say, is “unacceptable”. Accordingly, we should have a foreign-minister-level meeting of Nato to reverse the spring capitulation at Bucharest, and to decide that Georgia and Ukraine will be Nato’s next members. By drawing the line clearly, we are not provoking Russia, but doing just the opposite: letting them know that aggressive behaviour will result in costs that they will not want to bear, thus stabilising a critical seam between Russia and the West. In effect, we have already done this successfully with Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

Second, the United States needs some straight talk with our friends in Europe, which ideally should have taken place long before the assault on Georgia. To be sure, American inaction gave French President Sarkozy and the EU the chance to seize the diplomatic initiative. However, Russia did not invade Georgia with diplomats or roubles, but with tanks. This is a security threat, and the proper forum for discussing security threats on the border of a Nato member – yes, Europe, this means Turkey – is Nato.

Saying this may cause angst in Europe’s capitals, but now is the time to find out if Nato can withstand a potential renewed confrontation with Moscow, or whether Europe will cause Nato to wilt. Far better to discover this sooner rather than later, when the stakes may be considerably higher. If there were ever a moment since the fall of the Berlin Wall when Europe should be worried, this is it. If Europeans are not willing to engage through Nato, that tells us everything we need to know about the true state of health of what is, after all, supposedly a “North Atlantic” alliance.

Finally, the most important step will take place right here in the United States. With a Presidential election on November 4, Americans have an opportunity to take our own national pulse, given the widely differing reactions to Russia’s blitzkrieg from Senator McCain and (at least initially) Senator Obama. First reactions, before the campaigns’ pollsters and consultants get involved, are always the best indicators of a candidate’s real views. McCain at once grasped the larger, geostrategic significance of Russia’s attack, and the need for a strong response, whereas Obama at first sounded as timorous and tentative as the Bush Administration. Ironically, Obama later moved closer to McCain’s more robust approach, followed only belatedly by Bush.

In any event, let us have a full general election debate over the implications of Russia’s march through Georgia. Even before this incident, McCain had suggested expelling Russia from the G8; others have proposed blocking Russia’s application to join the World Trade Organisation or imposing economic sanctions as long as Russian troops remain in Georgia. Obama has assiduously avoided specifics in foreign policy – other than withdrawing speedily from Iraq – but that luxury should no longer be available to him. We need to know if Obama’s reprise of George McGovern’s 1972 campaign theme, “Come home, America”, is really what our voters want, or if we remain willing to persevere in difficult circumstances, as McCain has consistently advocated. Querulous Europe should hope, for its own sake, that America makes the latter choice.

Vladimir Putin has shown us that he is willing "to boldly go" wherever he thinks we will let him. Flush with energy revenue and with the carefully cultivated grievances of the Russian people (which are all the more powerful for not being entirely off the mark), he could go very far indeed.

And he would very definitely pick his pointy, blood-stained teeth with a rookie like Obama.

No comments: