Controlling the new Russia requires new thinking
Sunday August 17 2008
It is clear, in the short term at least, what must happen in South Ossetia. Russia must honour its ceasefire agreement with Georgia. Russian troops must withdraw to positions they held before the current conflict erupted. Both sides must allow peacekeepers into the region and return to negotiations on the final status for the enclave. Georgia's attack on the separatists would be reversed, Russia's ostensible war aim would be achieved.
Moscow's reluctance to follow such a course proves that its war aims were more ambitious: a fundamental change in the balance of power in Europe.
It is easy to see why the Kremlin should want such a shift. At the end of the Cold War, it lost control of a vast economic-political bloc. It ceded territory to neighbouring states and saw a rival military alliance advance on its borders. Few states are easily reconciled to such a drastic shrinkage of global status.
Although Britain knows the pain of losing an empire, the more common comparison is with Germany after the First World War - humiliated, plunged into an economic crisis, followed by the emergence of an authoritarian ruler pledging to restore national pride.
Given the parallels, it is hardly surprising that many of Moscow's former satellites are nervous. They see Russia's intervention in South Ossetia as a blatant land grab. In the Kremlin's claim to be protecting the local population, they hear echoes of Hitler's professed concern for the well-being of Sudeten Germans before marching into Czechoslovakia.
That interpretation is shared, in part, by Washington. The US has responded to the South Ossetian crisis with renewed determination to hem Russia in. Its method is to press ahead with plans to include Georgia and Ukraine in Nato and to deploy anti-ballistic-missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. When, in the past, Russia has complained about the 'son of Star Wars' system, the US has insisted it is meant to deter Iran. It now looks transparently like old-fashioned Cold War escalation.
One crucial difference between the current East-West confrontation and the Cold War is that, this time, the economic ties binding the two sides are stronger. Russia needs access to Western markets; the West - and Europe in particular - needs Russian oil and gas. That creates an opportunity for the European Union, the world's largest single market, to play a moderating role, steering the conversation away from military grandstanding and towards economic negotiation.
But there is another, more worrying factor distinguishing present hostilities from the Cold War enmity. Under Soviet rule, many Russians privately shared the West's view of their leaders as thugs. But the Russian intelligentsia that secretly admired democracy has been either crushed or co-opted by Vladimir Putin.
Unlike the tired dogma of Marxist-Leninism, Mr Putin's brand of militarist nationalism enjoys genuine popular support.
Such a country will not defer to Nato out of respect for its members' status as democracies. But it might be convinced of the wisdom of settling disputes through international institutions rather than military adventurism. Inevitably, that raises allegations of Western hypocrisy. In defence of its campaign in South Ossetia, Russia cites Western actions in Kosovo and Iraq. That is neat rhetoric from the Kremlin, but as justification for its assault on Georgia it is plainly cynical. Russia's claim to be 'keeping the peace' in South Ossetia is belied by its army's penetration into undisputed Georgian territory and by credible allegations that it is facilitating atrocities by anti-Georgian militias.
Such aggression must not be rewarded. But Cold War-style brinkmanship will not make Russia's neighbours safer. It will only reinforce the Kremlin's view that small states are pawns in a strategic game. The best guarantee of security and peace in Europe since the end of the Cold War has been economic integration, achieved through the EU. It is Brussels, not Washington, that stands the best chance of persuading Moscow to change its ways.