Thursday, August 28, 2008

Making Loud Noises....

Whatever you think of the Georgia conflict, who started it, the proportionality of the response, the excessive claims by both sides... we've now settled into a new status quo. Russia has recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and has made clear that it will militarily defend them from any effort by Georgia to reassert its authority over those territories. It wasn't difficult to see this coming - it was one of the things Russia warned the west about when it opposed the independence of Kosovo.

And now Russia has made its position clear. The Russian people support its actions, and it has no shortage of support within the territories themselves. The West is making angry noises, but Russia's not going to back down. Why not? It doesn't want to, it doesn't need to, it does not expect any serious consequence from its actions, and it fears looking weak-kneed if it backs down in the face of angry western chest-pounding. The Washington Post lectures,
Those in the West who persist in blaming Georgia or the Bush administration for the present crisis ought to carefully consider those words -- and remember the history in Europe of regimes that have made similar claims. This is the rhetoric of an isolated, authoritarian government drunk with the euphoria of a perceived victory and nursing the delusion of a restored empire. It is convinced that the West is too weak and divided to respond with more than words.
Perhaps the Post should take note, a "perceived" victory is one that doesn't exist in reality. Russia scored a bona fide military victory in Georgia. As far as the suggestion that Russia is wrong to believe that the West will not respond with anything more than words... why should it believe otherwise? More to the point, I think Russia is prepared for the possible imposition of some feeble economic sanctions, and doesn't much care. Who believes that the West is going to take action that might increase the price of oil and gas? (Strangely, I don't see any hands raised.)

The Post's ominous conclusion,
If nothing is done to restrain it, it will never release Georgia - and it will not stop there.
Ah, the glorious slippery slope. As it implied back when it opposed Kosovo's independence, its primary interest was in the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and so far there's no reason to believe that they have greater designs on Georgian territory. Nor does there appear to be any sign that Russia's about to invade any other nation. I realize that closing with ominous statements can seem compelling, but to transform the slippery slope from illogic the claim should be grounded in some sort of reality. What nation does the Post see as under imminent threat from Russia?

More to the point, what does the Post propose to do about it? Send in the Marines? Here's what their news department suggests is in the works:
"Sanctions are being considered and many other means as well," French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said in response to a question at a news conference.

"We are trying to elaborate a strong text that will show our determination not to accept (what is happening in Georgia)," he said. "Of course, there are also sanctions."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dismissed such talk, noting that Kouchner had also suggested recently that Russia might soon attack Moldova, Ukraine and the Crimea.

"But that is a sick imagination, and probably that applies to sanctions as well. I think it is a demonstration of complete confusion," Lavrov told reporters in Tajikistan.
So the west is "considering" sanctions and mulling over what sort of condemnatory text will be strong enough. They sure know how to hit Russia where it hurts.... What about U.S. and U.K. diplomats?
"There is a Russia narrative that 'we were weak in the '90s, but now we are back and we are not going to take it anymore.' But being angry and seeking revanchist victory is not the sign of a strong nation. It is the sign of a weak one," said Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

"Russia is going to have to come to terms with the reality it can either integrate with the world or it can be a self-isolated bully. But it can't be both. And that's a choice Russia has to have," Fried said.

* * *

"They are kind of giddy. They will need to sober up," said a senior U.S. official, insisting on anonymity because his remarks were diplomatically impolite. "When they sober up, they will see that it is not the U.S. that has done things to them; it's that they have done things to themselves."

Similarly, in a speech yesterday in Kiev, Ukraine, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said: "Today Russia is more isolated, less trusted and less respected than two weeks ago. It has made military gains in the short term. But over time, it will feel economic and political losses."
It actually seems like Russia, buoyed by high prices on oil and gas, is prepared to assert itself as a regional power, and fully expects to be able to act as such while continuing to engage and trade with the west. And when it comes to maintaining the flow of Russian gas into Europe, who do you think is going to blink first?

As you might expect, there's another way of looking at things. When I first read this editorial, my reaction was that it didn't really say anything that wasn't self-evident, and that the author was far too self-satisfied with the outcome. But I guess I was wrong.
For nearly two decades, while Russia sunk into "catastroika" and China built an economic powerhouse, the US has exercised unprecedented and unaccountable global power, arrogating to itself and its allies the right to invade and occupy other countries, untroubled by international law or institutions, sucking ever more states into the orbit of its voracious military alliance.

Now, pumped up with petrodollars, Russia has called a halt to this relentless expansion and demonstrated that the US writ doesn't run in every backyard. And although it has been a regional, not a global, challenge, this object lesson in the new limits of American power has already been absorbed from central Asia to Latin America.
But what of diplomatic isolation?
There has been much talk among western politicians in recent days about Russia isolating itself from the international community. But unless that simply means North America and Europe, nothing could be further from the truth. While the US and British media have swung into full cold-war mode over the Georgia crisis, the rest of the world has seen it in a very different light. As Kishore Mahbubani, Singapore's former UN ambassador, observed in the Financial Times a few days ago, "most of the world is bemused by western moralising on Georgia". While the western view is that the world "should support the underdog, Georgia, against Russia ... most support Russia against the bullying west. The gap between the western narrative and the rest of the world could not be clearer."
The conclusion is pie-in-the-sky, but consistent with the overall tone of the piece:
For the rest of us, a new assertiveness by Russia and other rising powers doesn't just offer some restraint on the unbridled exercise of global imperial power, it should also increase the pressure for a revival of a rules-based system of international relations. In the circumstances, that might come to seem quite appealing to whoever is elected US president.
Does he really believe that?

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