Understanding the Russian Bear: Past Invasions from the West Shape Russia's Actions in Georgia
McReynolds, David, National Catholic Reporter
There are two aspects of Russia's recent intervention in Georgia that can't be debated. First, the initial military actions came from Georgia, led by the excitable President Mikheil Saakashvili who launched an attack on the breakaway province of South Ossetia. Second, the Russian intervention was much more than a "response" to Mr. Saakashvili's provocation. It was a successful effort to bring at least part of Georgia back into the Russian orbit.
The history of this area seems to escape the Bush administration. For Americans, the year 1812 almost certainly doesn't ring many bells, except perhaps for Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture," written to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon's Grande Armee at the Battle of Borodino. I suspect some Americans don't realize that 1812 also marked the U.S. war with Great Britain, in which U.S. troops invaded Canada and burned Toronto and the British in turn burned our White House. This was a brief war, long in our past. The fact that the United States has undefended borders with both Canada and Mexico is proof that some treaties do last, and the military mind sometimes loses out to common sense.
But 1812 is burned in the Russian memory. Napoleon's army was defeated by the Russian winter, reduced to a tenth of its size as it straggled, starving and freezing, back to France. Before this happened, most of European Russia had been devastated and Moscow burned to the ground.
In the Russian mind the devastation of that war was relived in 1914 when German forces moved into Russia. After a series of battles, the czar found his armies in a state of collapse, the troops lacking food, ammunition and in some cases even guns. It was the total collapse of the Russian armies that led directly to the Russian Revolution of 1917.
But neither Napoleon nor the Kaiser did the damage of Hitler's armies in World War II. Neither of the earlier invasions sought to murder the whole population, but the Nazi forces had targeted the Slavs for extermination. The Holocaust involved far more than the Jews--it involved millions of Poles and Ukrainians. This was a new kind of war, for both the Allies (think of the bombing of German and Japanese cities) and for the Nazis, civilians were a major target.
Before the Nazi advance was finally ended, Germany controlled virtually all of European Russia, from the besieged city of Leningrad in the north, through Moscow in the center (I remember that when I first visited Moscow in 1971, as our bus moved from the airport into the city, we could see the anti-tank barriers still in place on the outskirts of the city), to Stalingrad in the south. One can rename Leningrad (once more St. Petersburg) and Stalingrad (now Volgograd), but the Russians cannot forget that history.
In the Second World War the Russians lost between 20 million and 27 million people. They lost every rail station, every bridge, every dam, almost all their housing. Russia has no natural barriers--no vast river, no mountain range--to protect it from invasions coming from the West. Having suffered three major invasions in little more than a century, Russia will make efforts to build a "zone of security" along its western borders, no matter who is in control in Moscow.
After the end of World War II, the Soviets imposed a harsh rule over the countries that had been liberated by the Red Army. The poor souls of Eastern Europe had been liberated from one tyranny to find themselves under another. What the West forgets is that Eastern Europe-became part of the Soviet sphere because of the war itself. The United States held Western Europe much more benevolently, but until well into the early 1960s Western Europe tended to follow the U.S. political line without much question.
There were lost opportunities in the Cold War. The Soviet Union did not occupy Finland and accepted Austria as a neutral state. There is good reason to believe it would have accepted a neutralized Germany as well, but the United States was determined to make West Germany part of the militarized West.
If we look back at the Cold War, those of us in the West tend to see NATO as a shield against Soviet aggression, but things were more complicated. NATO was formed in 1949. In 1954, the Soviet Union suggested that it join NATO, which would, of course, effectively have neutralized any military threat to the USSR. The United States turned this down and in 1955 incorporated West Germany into NATO. The Warsaw Pact was formed immediately after this in the same year, clearly as a response to what the Soviet Union saw as a re-militarized Germany.
Given the brutality of the Soviet control of Eastern Europe, it is easy for us to forget that Soviet foreign policy was an extension of historic Russian policy. Before Stalin, there was the czar. And before the horrors of World War II were the memories of 1812 and 1914. Russia will always seek friendly states on its western border. When the Soviet Union collapsed, President Mikhail Gorbachev said that he had assurances from the West that NATO would not be pushed farther east. Unhappily, the United States, rather than using the collapse of the Soviet Union as the basis for militarily neutralizing Europe by dissolving NATO as the Warsaw Pact crumbled, proceeded to push its way east.
Georgia was the point where Russia had drawn the line. (It is interesting to note that Stalin came from Georgia, and it is in Gori, at the center of Georgia, that The New York Times reported "the marble statue of the world's most renowned Georgian--Josef Stalin--stands gleamingly, almost supernaturally unharmed.") The United States is making an extremely dangerous mistake flit thinks it can incorporate Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. Russia is willing to live with neutral states on its border--Finland being the outstanding example --but it is unlikely to live with Western military bases on its border.
If we enter a new Cold War as it seems we may, it will be primarily the fault of the United States in its misplaced hopes of extending the military alliance to the very borders of Russia.
This error in U.S. thinking extends to the effort to place an "anti-missile defense" in Poland, arguing that it is a shield against Iran and North Korea. (A silly contention, as Iran doesn't have bad relations with either Poland or Russia, and North Korea doesn't have any long-range missiles.) In truth, the anti-missile defense shield is meant to be a shield against Russia. The catch with these "missile shields" is twofold. First, they don't actually work well, when they work at all. Most experts agree that if either side actually launches nuclear missiles, there are a number of devices that can overwhelm such missile shields. The one thing such missile shields do very well is provide enormous military contracts. The second catch is that to the degree they might work, they only work if you plan to attack first. According to the horrendous theories from the days of Mutual Assured Destruction, if one side can launch a first strike, then--just maybe--a missile shield could protect from the few missiles the other side would have left.
So as we look at the Georgian situation, where a number of lives were lost, and Russian actions certainly were excessive, we see two things that were at work. One, as noted, is the profound, almost the obsessive, need Russia has for neutral or friendly states on its western border. The other, well documented by various military analysts in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere, was the division in the White House between those who had some grasp of Russian concerns and those who didn't understand them at all.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had tried behind the scenes to persuade Mr. Saakashvlli to avoid a military strike at Russian forces. Her position was also that of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But in the internal divisions of the white House, Vice President Cheney had encouraged Mr. Saakashvili.
The tragedy is that the people of Georgia have suffered from the miscalculations of their leader and some of their supporters in Washington. Sanity demands that we see in the events in Georgia a chance to avoid a new Cold War. Russia is not the weak nation it was when the USSR collapsed. Under the leadership of Vladimir Putin, it has regained a sense of pride, and, more important, it has essential energy supplies on which Western Europe is dependent.
The United States has lost Round 1 in this nasty encounter. Let's hope wiser heads make sure there is no Round 2.
[David McReynolds, at one time chair of War Resisters International and for nearly four decades on staff at the War Resisters League, is an observer and writer on domestic and foreign events. He is retired and lives on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, N.Y.:]
Ambivalent Georgian-Russian relations
* Population: 4.6 million
* President: Mikhail Saakashvili (since 2004); orientation: pro-western
* Population below poverty line: 54%
* Ethnic groups:
Forcibly incorporated into the USSR until , Soviet Union dissolves in 1991; independent since 1992
Separatist war of Abkhazia and South Ossetia ends with the regions winning de facto independence (supported by Russia); Russian peacekeeping forces present since
Pro-western president Mikhail Saakashvili elected; NATO membership talks begin
Feb.: Georgia calls for replacing Russian peacekeeping force in South Ossetia
Sept.: Georgia detains Russian military officers on spying charges; in response Russia withdraws its ambassador and evacuates Russian personnel
Source: Reuters, AP, Institute for War and Peace Reporting Graphic: Elsebeth Nielsen, Morten Lyhne…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Understanding the Russian Bear: Past Invasions from the West Shape Russia's Actions in Georgia. Contributors: McReynolds, David - Author. Magazine title: National Catholic Reporter. Volume: 44. Issue: 27 Publication date: September 5, 2008. Page number: 15+. © 2009 National Catholic Reporter. COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale Group.
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