Andrew Osborn








Cover Story: Russia resurgent

E!Sharp, 1st November 2008 09:54

          The Georgian conflict marked the start of a new phase in the Kremlin’s reassertion of its global influence, writes Andrew Osborn

The striking footage of Russian tanks rolling into Georgia, beamed across the world this summer, fuelled a debate that has waxed and waned since the end of the Cold War: whither Russia?

In Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, crowds watched their TV sets with dread, wondering if and when the tanks would stop. In other Western-leaning former Soviet republics and large swathes of eastern Europe, anxiety also took hold, sometimes fuelled by difficult memories of the Red Army’s massive presence there after the Second World War. On the other side of the Atlantic, US politicians rushed to condemn Russia’s “aggression”, injecting a fresh dynamic into a presidential race where foreign policy credentials translated into votes.

Best defence? Russia says its incursion into South Ossetia was a response to Georgian “genocide” of its citizens there. Photograph: Reuters

Western European countries weighed into the debate too, some more vocally than others, underlining the EU’s divided nature when it comes to dealing with the Kremlin. Bar a few exceptions, a single interpretation of what was unfolding prevailed: this, went the chorus, was a clear-cut case of expansionist neo-Soviet Russia bullying tiny Georgia.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s articulate appearances on international TV news networks in the early stages of the conflict buttressed that interpretation. His message: he had pre-emptively ordered his army into the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia to thwart an imminent Russian invasion. The US-educated president added that the Kremlin’s bellicose intentions stemmed from its hatred of the democratic society he was forging and from its opposition to such a staunch US ally joining the NATO military alliance.

As the conflict deepened, Saakashvili accused Russia and South Ossetian Kremlin loyalists of ethnic cleansing. He alleged a systematic campaign of murder, rape and pillage aimed at driving ethnic Georgians out of a region that Georgia had been seeking to return to its control since the early 1990s.

Georgian and neo-conservative US politicians reached back to some of the darkest episodes of twentieth century history to put Russia’s behaviour in context. The parallels were numerous; none of them flattering. Nazi Germany’s invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1939 were evoked, as were the Soviet Union’s invasions of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968. The Russian Bear, Soviet imperialist in tooth and claw, was back, they warned.

This though was a tale of two information wars and the view from Moscow was as different as Saakashvili’s emotional TV appearances were from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s icy asides. The Russian version of events had Georgia as the aggressor, a claim reinforced by the fact that whatever the whys, wherefores, and pre-conflict provocations and hostilities, the Georgian army launched its military campaign first.

Russian state TV told the nation that the Kremlin’s military operation was designed to protect tiny South Ossetia and civilians cowering in its capital, Tskhinvali, from Georgian aggression.

The Russian army’s push into undisputed Georgian territory far beyond South Ossetia was easily explained. This was so Saakashvili, who is frequently portrayed as mentally unhinged in Kremlin-controlled media, could never launch an attack on South Ossetia again. The army would degrade his ability to wage war for years to come, ransacking his US-funded military bases, sinking his nascent navy and confiscating his tanks.

The controversial fact that the Kremlin had handed out thousands of Russian passports to Ossetians in previous years meant that more than 90 percent of the statelet’s population was already officially Russian. Thrust into his first major international crisis, President Dmitri Medvedev told the world his country would protect Russian citizens wherever they found themselves (though it was Putin who was the first to comment on the crisis, confirming his continued pre-eminent role).

Kremlin spin doctors let the allegations fly, likening Saakashvili to an archetypal US puppet “sonofabitch”-style leader trying to expand Washington’s influence in a part of the world it had no business meddling in. He was, Russian officials said, “a political corpse”, who was so morally reprehensible that he had ceased to exist in Russia’s eyes.

Georgia’s shelling of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, was “genocide”, the Kremlin added. Locals told state TV harrowing stories of how Georgian soldiers had machine-gunned their homes, kidnapped young girls, and vandalised cultural monuments. Medvedev, who came to power styling himself as a liberal figure prepared to relax Putin’s hard line, hailed the conflict as an epoch-defining moment.

He even drew parallels with how 9/11 altered the world and America in 2001. “The world has changed,” he declared. “Humankind drew lessons from the September 11 tragedy. I would like the world to draw lessons also from these events.” The Russian message, analysts and people close to the Kremlin say, is a simple one: it wants the international community to take its views, and its newfound influence, into account. It wants to be respected, even feared, but not ignored.

For Russia’s political elite, the war was the moment Moscow converted its growing geopolitical soft power into US-style hard power. “It’s a signal to Washington about the post-Soviet space,” says Kremlin lawmaker and strategist Sergey Markov. “The US lays claim to world domination but the past few years have shown that Washington can’t control that much.”

He says the war should be interpreted as a message that Russia will no longer tolerate US interference in what Medvedev has called Russia’s “privileged” sphere of influence – the former Soviet space. Markov and others close to the Kremlin say that the war, the first time the army had fought outside Russia’s borders since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, was game-changing.

Until its tanks rolled into South Ossetia, Russia’s resurgence had been confined to assertive rhetoric, heavily politicised energy disputes, free-spending oligarchs, and showy but ultimately symbolic displays of military might. The war in Georgia added a readiness and ability to use military force to that list.

It was, say Kremlin hardliners, a potent wake-up call to the world that Russia was again an independent and active player in its own backyard.

It was also a key phase, the Kremlin believes, in the ongoing transition to a multi-polar world. Kremlin strategists believe that the post-Cold War period when the US was the world’s sole hyper-power has played out. In the multi-polar world they believe is emerging, Russia wants a seat at the top table. Not as the Soviet Union Mark Two – at least so it claims – but as one of several influential power centres.

In the new world order, Russia sees itself as an equal partner with countries and blocs such as the United States, China, India, the EU, and emerging regional groupings in South America and Africa. People close to the Kremlin say it is convinced that US hegemony – in all spheres of activity – is dead or dying. For Russia, the US origins of the current global financial crisis are further proof of that. Even as Russia’s stock markets languish, the Kremlin is actively pushing the idea of Moscow becoming a world financial centre to rival London, New York, and Frankfurt. “The West is living in its past,” says one Russian businessman. “Russia is part of the future.”

Above all though, the Kremlin wants to rebuild its once dominant influence in the post-Soviet space. “The Soviet Union wanted world leadership but Russia doesn’t lay claim to that,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the influential Russia in Global Affairs magazine. “But it does want a leading position in the post-Soviet region.”

Specifically, the Kremlin does not want Georgia or Ukraine to join NATO, viewing the prospect as a direct and serious threat to its regional dominance and to its own security. It is more relaxed about either joining the EU, however, perhaps because it knows that the 27-nation bloc is not about to expand anytime soon.

The war in Georgia has made granting NATO membership to either more problematic, though, largely because it has underlined the fact that both countries have serious disputes with Russia that would be imported into the alliance, teeing up new risks.

In Ukraine’s case, the potential flashpoint lies on the Crimean peninsula, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Russia’s navy has a lease to stay there until 2017 and many ethnic Russians live in Sevastopol, the port city where the fleet is anchored. However, Ukraine’s current crop of politicians wants the Russians out, angering the Kremlin, which hopes to extend the lease.

Tensions are further heightened because of the peninsula’s history. Formally part of Russia, it was “gifted” to Ukraine in the Soviet-era with a stroke of Nikita Khrushchev’s pen, an enduring bugbear for Russian nationalists. A decision to move towards granting NATO membership to either Ukraine or Georgia would therefore be to guarantee a fresh and potentially dangerous geopolitical crisis.

It is unclear, however, whether European nations have the stomach for fresh confrontation with such an important energy supplier to the continent anyway. If they do, the signs are that it won’t be this year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has already said she opposes giving Georgia and Ukraine a roadmap for membership at a crunch meeting in December, effectively vetoing the process, at least for now.

Countries such as Italy and France are likely to be reticent too, making consensus within Europe hard to achieve. Attempts to reverse Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and the other breakaway republic it recognised, Abkhazia, are also likely to be futile. Russia clearly wants to further cement its sway over the two regions by incorporating them into one of several regional post-Soviet bodies. There seems little the EU can do to stop it beyond protest.

Meanwhile, the debate about what really happened during a few hot days in August in a small corner of Georgia that few had previously heard of is set to continue. The blogosphere is filled with lengthy and highly politicised debates that try to address key questions.

Who really started the conflict? Were Russian tanks really rolling towards South Ossetia when Saakashvili took the decision to seize it by force, as he claims but has so far been unable to prove? What was the extent of US involvement? As is so often the case with such conflicts, the truth is considerably more nuanced than either side would care to admit.

What is clear is that there was enormous civilian suffering and colossal errors of judgment on both sides. As a result, in the post-Soviet space at least, Russia is again feared, and sometimes grudgingly respected.