A United Europe Is the Most Effective Way to Deal with Russia

New Statesman (1996), August 18, 2008 | Go to article overview

A United Europe Is the Most Effective Way to Deal with Russia


What, in relations with the west, is Russia's problem? It has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, membership of the G8, the world's second-largest nuclear arsenal, vast oil and gas reserves--hardly the makings of a global underdog, Yet it sees itself as a perpetual victim.

As viewed from the Kremlin, Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, is the stooge of an expansionist Nato, intent on occupying Russia's southern flank. The north Atlantic alliance, thanks to the accession of the Baltic states in 2004, already abuts her north-western border. Through Ukraine, Nato could extend its presence to the Black Sea.

So it is unsurprising that, when Georgia made a push for control of South Ossetia, Moscow seized the opportunity to try to knock a western pawn out of the geostrategic chess game. As Misha Glenny argues convincingly on page 14, the Georgians, prodded by Washington, walked into a trap.

For Nato countries to denounce Russia's use of force as "disproportionate" misses the point. The Kremlin calibrated its response not according to Georgia's military capability, but in proportion to its own feelings of diplomatic impotence. Russia has been voicing frustration over western ambitions in its backyard since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Military actions, it has reasonably concluded (especially by observing US foreign policy in recent years), speak louder than words.

Washington, meanwhile, argues that Russia's actions confirm that nations formerly captive to the Soviet Union will only be safe under the protective umbrella of Nato. Russia's right of influence in eastern Europe, goes this argument, is trumped by the values of democracy and the rule of law, acceptance of which is a condition of Nato membership.

Georgia, however, is neither a functional democracy nor a paragon of human rights: a major reason why the country's Nato condidacy has moved slowly.

But arguments based on democracy have no force in Russia, for two reasons. First, it is unrealistic to expect a country to embrace villain status. Vladimir Putin is no lover of political freedom, but that doesn't mean he accepts that his behaviour is unprincipled. …

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