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REQUIEM

Below are the two final essays to be posted on Allegiance and Duty Betrayed. The first one is written by a friend -- screen name 'Euro-American Scum' -- who, over the past four years, has been the most faithful essayist here. He has written about everything from his pilgrimage to Normandy in 2004 to take part in the 60th–year commemoration of the invasion, to his memories of his tour in Vietnam. His dedication to America’s founding principles ... and those who have sacrificed to preserve them over the past 200+ years ... is unequaled. Thank you, E-A-S. It has been a privilege to include your writing here, and it is a privilege to call you my friend.

The second essay is my own farewell. And with it I thank all of the many regular visitors, and those who may have only dropped in occasionally, for coming here. I hope you learned something. I hope a seed or two was planted. But, even if not, I thank you for stopping by ... 25 March, 2010

8/27/2008

Russia: Biting Off More Than We Can Chew
(and agreeing when to bite)

Tskhinvali.jpg
    The ruins of Tskhinvali after Russia and Georgia fought over this town. The West in general has quite a lot on its plate already before having to bail out President Saakashvili for his rather rash expedition here.
Since the conflict between Russia and Georgia started a few weeks ago, many commentators (both those I genuinely respect and some "others"!) have written or spoken of the potential for a "new cold war" and the need to challenge Russia in its current tendencies.

Before I start to question the overall prevailing wisdom on Russia, I should declare my interests:

1) I have just returned from a week in Moscow where the accounts given on Russian TV and on English speaking but Russian sponsored news outlets give an account of recent events that is almost unrecognisable from the general "BBC/CNN" version of events we have in the west.

2) My wife is Russian by nationality but has Ukrainian parents and a Russian uncle and many Russian friends. Her family and friends demonstrate the reality of what happens when a big country splits into smaller component parts. Real people get stuck on all sides the new borders and calling everyone one side of new border "Russian" and everyone the other side of the side of a new border "Ukrainian" is extremely arbitrary and belies the more complex reality millions of families who are scattered either side of a new border. The same would be true of the UK if it were to split tomorrow. After all, some of the most powerful people who rule over a majority English population are Scottish and Welsh and many English would remain in an independent Scotland. Many other families have both Scottish and English parts.

This introduction is necessary as I realise with that combination of family background I will certainly offend someone reasonably close to me !(in the unlikely event they read this).

Firstly to the recent events themselves. My understanding from reading a variety of different accounts is that Georgia fired the initial artillery rounds and rockets onto the South Ossettian capital, Tskhinvali. To balance that I should also note that South Ossetian separatists, to some extent sponsored by Russia had been provoking the Georgian authorities for a long time. It is also true that the fact that most of South Ossetia has Russian passports is a little more than a goodwill gesture from Russia to a people who identify more closely with Moscow than Tbilisi. Prime Minister Putin is widely known to loathe Georgian President Saakashvili and giving Russian passports to people within the borders of Georgia was probably an effective way of annoying Saakashvili.

That said, my personal conclusion is that Georgia's response to Russian backed provocation was disproportionate. What is shown less frequently on Western TV is that the South Ossetian capital was extremely heavily damaged by Georgian weaponry. Once that happened it was unrealistic to not expect Russian to retaliate.

The brief occupation of large parts of Georgia was about demonstrating power over a much smaller neighbour. At a basic level a large country dominating a small country is not very appealing. Russia also worked on "degrading" Georgia's military by sinking boats, blowing up army bases and carting away weaponry. Again this is not appealing but I would suggest a reality of war. If Russia had walked past an army base without damaging it, it would have been a first in the history of military occupation.

There were however extremely unsavoury and non-standard elements to the Russian backed forces. These were mainly South Ossetian militia who burned down some Georgian villages and allegedly killed some villagers. I say "allegedly" as although I have read accounts from witnesses as far as I know these have not been verified by western media.

The Caucasus themselves are an extremely troubled area. Chechnya is nearby and Russians have suffered at the hands of Chechen terrorists, their own in-house Islamic militants. Bordering South Ossetia, North Ossetia includes the town of Beslan where 300 Russian children died at the hands of terrorists and a bodged rescue mission in 2004. Therefore the Caucasus are not tranquil Surrey and the average Russian could be forgiven for having a jaded view of goings on there.

However I do acknowledge the reality that Russia is trying to extend its influence beyond its internationally recognised borders. In addition to the Georgian breakaway areas, this includes the Crimea (it was rather arbitrarily made part of SSR Ukraine in 1954 having previously been part of Russia), Transdniester in Moldova and potentially the areas with majority Russian populations in the Baltic states, notably Latvia.

These are all likely areas of contention in the coming months and years for two reasons:

1) The majority population in these areas feel more Russian than part of the state they are currently in

2) It suits Russia to destabilise these states and extend its influence.

The two points are intertwined and while the Western media stresses 2), this would not be possible without 1).

So, back to "biting off more than we can chew". While it is laudable to talk of defending small states, it is as someone I don't often quote once said "time to get real".

The reality is Russia cannot be fought out of the areas it currently occupies in the internationally recognised borders of Georgia. While Russia sheds no tears about destabilising Georgia the other reality is there are many people in these areas who welcome Russia. The same would be true in Crimea, Transdniester and part of Latvia.

The same would most certainly not be true in Poland where Russia would be unwelcome by anybody. This brings us to a term much over-used in the Georgia conflict; "red lines". Russia was said to have crossed many red lines in Georgia. These red lines turned out to be rather meaningless as nothing happened when they were crossed, least of all to Russia.

So it is time for the West to agree some "real red lines", lines that Russia knows it cannot cross without provoking a united Western response and not a series of PR related trips by political leaders new (Sarkozy) and aspiring (Cameron).

The reason for this less than idealistic approach is "getting real". It is not "getting real" to demand Russia leaves South Ossetia today. The only real power that could cause that, the US, is more than busy in Iraq and Afghanistan. While we hardly dare to say it too loud, Iraq seems to be getting better but Afghanistan and potentially Pakistan is getting worse. Benazir Bhutto's widower said yesterday the world should acknowledge it is loosing the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This needs addressing and addressing urgently. Pakistan's frontier province faces large number of Al Qaeda foreign fighters including Arabs, Uzbeks and Chechens. Last week 10 French commandos were killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, a big loss for France and the casualties of all countries in Afghanistan continue to mount.

Last week in Sochi, Russian President Medvedev, isolated by Western criticism, met with Syrian President Assad in Sochi to discuss military cooperation. There are big dangers here of an isolated Russia making new "friends" with countries such as Iran and Syria. While this hardly puts Russia in good light, how much worse it will be for the West to face Islamic extremists, rogue states and a nuclear superpower in an unholy alliance.

This may seem far fetched and it is clear that would be a fragile alliance. However it seems an unnecessary risk from the west choosing to wage war on too many fronts.

My view is that Russia and the West have more in common than divides them. For one, Russia and the West both face Islamic extremism at home and abroad. Chechen militants would be equally happy to set off bombs in Moscow or at US bases in Afghanistan. On my visit to Russia last week, not once was I faced with negative sentiment. I think a visit to some Islamic countries would be rather different. There is no real appetite for a big conflict with the West in Russia. The West needs Russian oil and gas but Russia needs Western revenue in return.

Russians do feel there are some double standards however. Foremost amongst these double standards is Kosovo. Kosovo was historically integral to the Serbian state, an ally of Russia. Despite allocations of atrocities such as organ harvesting and former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton warning of the dangers of Kosovan independence (including Islamic extremism in Europe), the West chose to recognise the independence this year. To now object to the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia seems inconsistent to say the least.

The difficult lesson which many may not agree with is that the borders of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic do not always make the logical international borders of the Russian Federation. There are two ways of dealing with this:

1) Accept that some "adjustments" will be made in the coming years but only tolerate this in areas where majority Russian populations exist.

2) Strengthen Western military to such an extent that it can both fight the war on Terror and pose a meaningful threat to Russian expansion.

At all costs avoid hollow threats as these both antagonise Russia but do not help its near neighbours. This is the worst of all worlds and is what has happened in the last few weeks.

Finally, accepting that "we are where we are", the West needs to agree meaningful "red lines" over which Russia must not cross without receiving a meaningful military threat. One obvious red line is the Polish border.

Whatever the agreements and disagreements on this, a key point is the need to "get real". In the real world military force can still change realities and such force can come from all sides. The need for a strong military to defend our freedoms and those of our allies is vital. Anyone who feels in the least bit concerned by recent events should be supporting a stronger military than we currently have. While I caution against biting off more than we can chew, it would be useful to have some teeth in the first place. It would also be more than useful that the West agree at what point Russia can expect to be bitten rather than the meaningless barking of recent weeks. My own view is that in the current world order, with plenty of conflicts ongoing, a major exercise to "defend" areas of majority Russian population in Russia's near neighbours is unrealistic and unwise.

The sad reality maybe that just as the world needs it more, the US lead by President Obama will turn away from military reality and opt for "smiling diplomacy" and hollow words instead. I suspect Obama has a few supporters in the Russian army.....

The main hope from recent events is more people will be awoken to the reality of the world and the need for adequate armed forces to defend that which we value. If we don't we should not be surprised when someone with such forces takes what we value for themselves. Focusing on adequate defence requirements and concluding the war on terror is probably a great priority than starting an adventure in Caucasus.

Russia can be made to see reason but it will need clear agreement on where the "red lines" are first and a certainty that force is available to defend the red lines in future.

by Luis
(contributing Team Member of Allegiance and Duty Betrayed)

19 comments:

cw-patriot said...

Luis,

I remember the Beslan tragedy well, but always felt that we were not getting the entire story. Even having learned just part of it, I remember lying awake at night grieving for those poor children, and wondering what more they endured than we were aware of.

It is difficult to argue with any of your observations, even though most of the rest of us have a much more narrow perspective regarding what is occurring in Georgia. Your writing on this subject is amazingly well-considered, and equally well expressed.

You succeed in looking at the crisis from many different angles, which makes for an (all too rare) unbiased accounting.

Thank you, as always, for sharing your insightful commentary. Your writing always plants a seed and causes me to consider aspects of an issue that I hadn't before considered.

~ joanie

marcus aurelius said...

A very even-handed analysis.

I especially like your concentration on the "red lines" concept. There's no sense drawing a line in the sand if you're not going to respond when it's crossed. History is full of such nonsense.

Good work!

daveburkett said...

Whatever the agreements and disagreements on this, a key point is the need to "get real". In the real world military force can still change realities and such force can come from all sides. The need for a strong military to defend our freedoms and those of our allies is vital. Anyone who feels in the least bit concerned by recent events should be supporting a stronger military than we currently have. While I caution against biting off more than we can chew, it would be useful to have some teeth in the first place. It would also be more than useful that the West agree at what point Russia can expect to be bitten rather than the meaningless barking of recent weeks.

Very wise and well said.

calbrindisi said...

Your article states that the Russians have been issuing Russian passports in South Ossetia just to stir the pot, and that Putin wanted to anger Saakashvili.

Then you go on to say that it was unrealistic to not expect Russian to retaliate to Georgia's attack on South Ossetia.

So Russia stirred the pot, fomented unrest, and when Georgia responded, a border nation immediately has the right to invade a sovereign one?

I think not.

Georgia's response might have been disproportionate, but Russia hasn't got a leg to stand on. They are seeking to regain the old empire and this is just the first step in that process.

Anonymous said...

Bravo for a common sense, rational, no blinders on approach to this crisis!

smithy said...

EU Considers Sanctions on Russia

The simple fact is there’s very little the rest of the world can do about what Russia is doing in Georgia. We have to wait until they take a bigger step. The wait might be extended but it'll happen.

no_way_a_liberal said...

Real people get stuck on all sides the new borders and calling everyone one side of new border "Russian" and everyone the other side of the side of a new border "Ukrainian" is extremely arbitrary and belies the more complex reality millions of families who are scattered either side of a new border. The same would be true of the UK if it were to split tomorrow.

The Soviet Union was an arbitrary conglomeration of many ethnic entities.  There were "Ukrainians" before there were new "Russians". The new "Russians" are less than 100 years in existence. The Scots, Irish, and Welsh were Scottish, Irish and Welsh before there was a UK. However, the UK has existed for hundreds of years and the "blending" and "co-mingling" of ethnicity has almost eliminated those distinct separated groups.

It is also true that the fact that most of South Ossetia has Russian passports is a little more than a goodwill gesture from Russia to a people who identify more closely with Moscow than Tbilisi.

Would it better to say that the Russians were encouraging dissention rather than being magnanimous?

The difficult lesson which many may not agree with is that the borders of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic do not always make the logical international borders of the Russian Federation.

The lessons of re-defining borders in Europe and the Middle East after World War I  should not have been lost in history.  But they have.

My view is that Russia and the West have more in common than divides them. For one, Russia and the West both face Islamic extremism at home and abroad.

Then why would Russia support Iran and Syria,  the leading exporters of Islamic extremism?

The West needs Russian oil and gas ...

And they know it!

I suspect Obama has a few supporters in the Russian army.....

I say more than a few with many supporters throughout the Muslim world.

Other than that, a well stated and concise summary of the "situation".

BarbaraNicholas said...

"The sad reality maybe that just as the world needs it more, the US lead by President Obama will turn away from military reality and opt for "smiling diplomacy" and hollow words instead. I suspect Obama has a few supporters in the Russian army....."

in that respect Obama will be something like a reincarnation of Neville Chamberlain. Appeasement will not do.

You write a convincing argument, covering all sides well.

Proudpodunknative said...

Russia can be made to see reason but it will need clear agreement on where the "red lines" are first and a certainty that force is available to defend the red lines in future.

A new mindset in both Western Europe and the U.S. will be required in order to establish such "red lines."

With Obama in the White House, the old mindset will continue to appease. That is the only reason I am forced to vote for McCain.

"Red lines" are of utmost importance these days-- with the likes of Russia, and even more so with the likes of radical Islam in all its forms.

SidBreem said...

Peace through strength, a la Ronald Reagan, is the only answer.

Great column.

M Espinola said...

Putin and his hand picked cronies have been supporting and arming the absolutely most vile, rouge totalitarian dictatorships, either communist or radical Islamic, coupled with vetoing any U.N. Security Council UN votes countering those anti-Western rouge states. (It's tantamount to having North Korea or the Nazis on the Security Council with veto power--madness!) Each and every one of those Russian supported régimes are rabidly anti-American, anti-Israeli and anti-freedom.

Georgia is a prime example of another move southward for the Russian empire and crushing any nation in the way. It so happens Georgia's president & government is pro-Western and grasped the Russian threat, which has become a very grim reality. Russia under the totalitarian Putin mafia is the enemy of the free world -- and must be treated as a direct threat now, while there is still time.

Luis said...

Thank you Joanie for posting my article here.

I am still struggling with this issue and I think this struggle is a reflection of the complexities of my own situation.

I am proud to be British, see all Americans as allies yet have a Russian wife who was born in Ukraine. My wife's family is ethnically Ukrainian but different parts call themselves Russian or Ukrainian. My wife calls herself Russian while her younger brother calls himself Ukrainian. The situation in the former Soviet Union really can be that complex and messy.

I learned today that Stalin is the ultimate irony in all this. The brutal dictator was born in Georgia to an Ossetian Father and a Georgian Mother while going on to rule the whole Soviet Union with dreadful consequences.

These are some of the reasons why I find this a difficult conflict to take sides in.

Putin and Medvedev are clearly playing games but the games are supported by millions of Russians inside Russia and millions more living beyond the borders of the Russian Federation in countries such as Ukraine.

That is why my focus is not on the rights and wrongs of the history of the Caucuses and the post Soviet settlement. This is a bit beyond me at present.

My focus is on the increased need for military strength in America, Britain and NATO. Then when we have strength we can agree on the red lines and Mr. Putin will think twice about provoking or being provoked any further than he has already gone.

Luis said...

marcus aurelius - thank you !

Luis said...

daveburkett - thank you too !

Luis said...

calbrindisi - I still think the Georgian response to the provocation was either disproportionate, unwise in the absence of military strength or both.

Russia for its part is playing the cards it has to its own benefit and is less than concerned about international opinion now the process has started.

Thanks for your comments.

Luis said...

no_way_a_liberal - thank you for your detailed comments.

Your point about Ukrainians existing before Russians is an interesting one but one I feel unqualified to answer properly. My limited Russian history tells me that Kiev is generally seen as the first Russian city.

As I wrote earlier the distinction between Russian and Ukrainian can sometimes be as arbitary as brother and sister. That said there is a Ukrainian language that is gaining ascendancy in Western Ukraine.

Any Russian involvement with Iran and Syria is a dangerous game for Russia but one it seems willing to consider. I think this amounts to "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". Such alliances rarely last as Afghanistan reminds us.

Luis said...

BarbaraNicholas - thank you

Proudpodunknative - thank you and very much agreed

SidBreem - absolutely- peace through strength (i.e. US/NATO strength) is exactly the point I was trying to make irrespective of the ins and outs of the Georgia conflict. World peace seems to depend on a strong America. With a weak America every rogue state will start playing up.

M Espinola - thank you. This comes back to the need for strength.

This is however not such a new area of conflict. Russian southern expansion was a 19th Century theme and the British rather famously had a less than successful time fighting the Russians in the Crimea in the 1850s. The Charge of the Light Brigade was a disaster for Britain but the conflict did lead to Florence Nightingale emerging as a nursing heroine. Memorials to the British soldiers who died in the Crimea can still be seen in London and in many churches.

Thank you all for taking the time to comment on this.

no_way_a_liberal said...

Luis,

Thanks for the feedback.

Kiev has been under Russian influence since the 15th century (Kiev History). Maybe that is long enough to consider Ukraine a Russian "territory". However, Ukraine experienced a brief period of independence in this century when, in 1918, shortly after the Russian Empire collapsed, the Ukrainian Central Rada (Council) formally issued a proclamation for Ukraine's independence.

Barry up the road said...

I agree with Marcus Aurelius about the "Red Lines" concept. But, has it not always been so? If we do not stand up and say, with conviction, "this far and no farther" we can only expect further agression.

Very insightful Luis.

Thank You.