Sunday, 24 August 2008

Who is Bullying Whom

24th August 2008

The Malta Independent on Sunday

The western media would have us believe that the Russian invasion of Georgia following the South Ossetia ordeal is a reversion to the Cold War era, with Russia planning a gradual process of annexation back into the Soviet Union of former soviet republics that are now sovereign States

Russia has been served with several high level warnings that unless it reverts to the status quo ante, it will be considered as untrustworthy partner. The West has practically threatened to freeze all political co-operations like the Nato – Russian Council, to exclude Russia from future G8 meetings, or even block Russia’s aspirations to join the WTO.

Many could easily justify such a hard-line stance by citing Chamberlain’s misjudgement in appeasing Hitler through the 1938 “peace in our time” Munich agreement, which opened the way for the annexation of Czechoslovakia without a single shot being fired.

But comparisons are odious and there is nothing to suggest that Russia is in fact pursuing a policy of annexing any territories. If Russia argues that South Ossetians have a right to determine their own sovereignty it would open a can of worms, encouraging Asian and Caucasus regions like Chechnya to demand separation from Moscow.

The West’s handling of Russia following the disintegration of the Soviet Union was offensive, even if unintentional. Rather than treating a nuclear power with respect during its post trauma disorders, the West heaped on it additional servings of humiliation. When Russia was on its knees, the West continued to kick it. It is therefore little wonder if the Russians tend to go to the other extreme in an endeavour to re-assert their world status now that they have recovered. The pendulum never stops in the middle when released from the side.

The West has served Russia with a fait accompli over and over again. Here is the unilateral abrogation of the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty for you. Here is our decision to extend Nato right to your doorstep. Here is our decision to place missile defences in Poland and Czech Republic, and you have to take our word that we will only use them to defend ourselves from Iranian missiles even though this is still very much unproven technology. Here is the independence of Kosovo ready for you to accept.

How can the West be in favour of giving Kosovars full sovereignty, thus allowing the will of the people to prevail over territorial sovereign integrity, but argue that in South Ossetia territorial integrity should prevail over the will of the people? One of them must be wrong.

Rather than paint Putin as the Russian bear ready to swallow up minions around him, it is worth getting at least a glimpse of how the Georgian debacle is viewed by the Russian side. And I do not suggest listening to the official pronouncements of the Russian government, as these are obviously partial and self-serving. I propose the opinion of someone who is very much respected in the West, someone no less than Mikhail Gorbachev, former President of the Soviet Union. Here is an excerpt of his op-ed published in the New York Times of 19 August:

“The acute phase of the crisis provoked by the Georgian forces’ assault on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, is now behind us. But how can one erase from memory the horrifying scenes of the night-time rocket attack on a peaceful town, the razing of entire city blocks, the deaths of people taking cover in basements, the destruction of ancient monuments and ancestral graves?

“Russia did not want this crisis. The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili. He would not have dared to attack without outside support. Once he did, Russia could not afford inaction.

The news coverage has been far from fair and balanced, especially during the first days of the crisis. Tskhinvali was in smoking ruins and thousands of people were fleeing – before any Russian troops arrived. Yet Russia was already being accused of aggression; news reports were often an embarrassing recitation of the Georgian leader’s deceptive statements.

It is still not quite clear whether the West was aware of Mr Saakashvili’s plans to invade South Ossetia, and this is a serious matter. What is clear is that Western assistance in training Georgian troops and shipping large supplies of arms had been pushing the region toward war rather than peace.”

Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder expressed similar views. Here is an excerpt from his interview with Der Spiegel:

“The hostilities undoubtedly have their historic causes as well, and the conflict has had several historic precursors. But the moment that triggered the current armed hostilities was the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia. This should not be glossed over.

“There is a perception of Russia in the West that has very little to do with reality.

“I do not believe that Russia is pursuing a policy of annexation. And I also do not believe that there can be a return to the status quo ante in South Ossetia or Abkhazia. It’s out of the question. In my opinion, this has less to do with supposed Russian expansionist interests than with the wishes of the civilian population.”

There is always another view, which must be considered before rushing to conclusions. Rather than resort to escalating levels of mutual bullying, the West and Russia should realise than they have much to gain from continued co-operation. Russia has a shrinking population and a vast territory on its Asian side that is very sparsely populated. China’s rise and international assertion means that Russia needs to befriend Europe in order to avoid being squeezed by the USA on one side and China on the other. The US would do well to start taking into account Russia’s concerns for its own security before rushing to escalate the consequences of a regional turmoil, which Russia did not start,

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