by Michael Hammerschlag
Kiev: The Russian invasion of Georgia initially caused a hyperbolic reaction around the world as the resurgent superpower flexed its military muscles overtly outside its country for the first time in a generation. Why Russia’s ferocious reaction to the Georgian invasion of S. Ossetia was a surprise to many is mystifying- it has been itching to assert it’s new power, infuriated over NATO overtures to Georgia and Ukraine, obsessed with the supposed humiliation of Russians in the FSU, paranoid over the useless US antimissile systems in Czechia and Poland, and livid over the recognition of Kosovo (birthplace of Slavic brother Serbia). “We punched the aggressor in the face, as all the military text books prescribe," complained Putin in a long interview.
Every bit of hysteria on the West’s part encouraged the Russians to drag their heels in withdrawal- slow firm pressure was always the best way to get Russia to do anything. And the Western media erasure of the initial Georgian invasion of S. Ossetia convinced Russia that it would never be treated fairly, so it didn't matter what it did. President Yushchenko, Orange forces, hard-liners, and alarmed Westerners have advocated a rushed entrance into NATO to allay the Russian threat to Ukraine. But that would provoke the exact crisis it was designed to prevent.
I spent all 2007 in Moscow, and it frankly was depressing seeing the revival of aggressive nationalism and blind Putin worship- nonsense anti-Western propaganda increased 3–fold in that time- even liberals now parrot Kremlin talking points word for word. Easily +90% supported their actions in Georgia/S. Ossetia, spurred on by constant evocation of the supposed threat against Russian speakers in the near abroad, to divert attention from the tens of billions being looted by the oligarchs in the Kremlin and the pitiful state of Putin’s one-party "democracy".
But the Russian view is that it is being encircled by the West- against express promises given on the breakup of SU that NATO wouldn’t expand to their borders. Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you, and invasions by the Mongols, Poles, Swedes, Lithuanians, French, British, and Nazis have given Russians a fine edge of paranoia. With the former satellites of Eastern Europe, NATO membership was justified, with the Baltics it was more marginal; but with Ukraine and especially Georgia it is a bridge too far- dangerous, provocative, and counterproductive. NATO was and still is a military alliance against Russia, but the horrendous reality of actually fighting it has virtually been forgotten. The Russians haven’t forgotten.
I’ve long been convinced that Ukraine joining NATO is Russia’s red line, which they will do almost anything to prevent. Imagine America's reaction if the Warsaw Pact had added Canada and Mexico; and placed missiles near their borders - we almost destroyed the world over missiles in Cuba (which already had, unbeknownst to anyone 162 nuclear warheads, audio-Robert Mcnamara). Imagine the horror if Georgia was already part of NATO, as hard-liners are immediately advocating. NATO probably wouldn’t have responded, leading to its marginalization or collapse. Medvedev has said he would have attacked it even if it were on a track to NATO. Would, should, or could the West really go to battle against Russia on its southern flank?
Nobody really wants Ukraine to join NATO, the vast majority of its people (61% against vs. 24% for) and most of the Rada; Europe, which has its own energy security to worry about and is as alarmed at the revival of Cold War passions as they are about Georgia; and NATO itself, for whom the huge Russian population and sympathies, unstable government, and presence of the Black Sea Fleet, would be deeply destabilizing. France + Germany have openly defected from the Bush expansionist effort, and Obama will have little impetus to continue it. Tymoshenko, despite her previous fierce anti-Russian stands, seems to realize the vast risks and limited benefits. It would cause violent internal divisions between the east and the west. Hoping MAP will force internal reforms is a terrible reason to join a foreign military alliance, a view expressed by some who hope to escape the virulent political stalemate between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.
Russia, above all, craves respect after the turmoil and poverty of the 90’s, which Putin has convinced them was engineered by the West. It doesn’t want to fight Ukraine- it thinks of it as its little brother and fond vacationland (despite their historical genocidal predations). They claim with some justification that they are one people and joining a hostile military alliance will cause huge dislocations as a real hard border separates the deeply intertwined nations, with millions of Ukrainians working in Russia. President Yushchenko has ginned up more bad feelings by siding completely with Georgia and issuing foolishly impotent orders against the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
If Ukraine continues treating Russia with cautious respect, it will inexorably drift away from Russia into the European sphere, and greater independence and autonomy.. where NATO won’t be necessary, or won’t cause much uproar (although it will still be dependent on Russia energy). If it does try to join, Russia really will foment rebellion in the Crimea or Donbas, or triple the Ukrainian price of oil or gas, as they are making clear with their latest callous shutoff. One path that costs nothing will lead to gradual improvement and independence, the other will cause immediate terrible conflicts, and NATO can’t be counted on to rescue Ukraine. Russia is still a nuclear superpower that can destroy the West, and any East/West conflict on its doorstep, in the historical heart of Rus, could go nuclear… something no Western leader would risk. No matter what pandering politicians* said, We are not all Georgians now… or Ukrainians for that matter.
Michael Hammerschlag (Hammernews.com) has spent 3 years in Russia, toured Europe + Africa for the last 8 months, and is now based in Kiev. His articles have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Honolulu Advertiser, Capital Times, Media Channel, Scoop; and Moscow News, Tribune, Guardian, and Times.
* McCain, after the Georgian/Russian invasions.