Friday, August 15, 2008

The Minefield

Some Georgia articles today worth noting.

This time, it's definitely about oil.

Dreams of glory:

What should one make of the announcement from one of her chief admirals, Vladimir Vystosky, on the July 27 Navy Day holiday, that the Russian navy would add six carriers to its fleet--along with all of the necessary support ships that form a carrier battle group?

Above shabby realities:

Looking for an explanation that makes sense is to commit the error, as one Moscow colleague reminded me regularly, "of looking for logic inside Russian officialdom where none can possibly exist." The only explanation is more of the same irrationality that was the hallmark of the Soviet years. Announcing a robust presence with a high profile hides the basic structural defects of the Soviet military.

At the same time, the Russian government continues to shovel billions of dollars into the coffers of defense enterprises that are controlled by the inner circle of officials in the Kremlin. Which may be the ultimate explanation for an order to build carriers that cannot be built and which no one really needs. Just like arms sales to Venezuela, Algeria, and elsewhere, this aircraft carrier fantasy may end up being a wonderful mechanism for laundering money.

All in all not comforting in a nation that still has enough nuclear capacity to broil the world several times over.

Nor is this:

Perhaps the most telling illustration of what the Russians are doing in Georgia was something found found in the pocket of a Russian airman downed by the Georgian air defence: an obscene verse. The verse mocks the enemy - which is normal in wars. However, neither Georgians nor Ossetians are mentioned: the theme of this piece of doggerel was Russian troops humiliating Nato soldiers.

Whatever the humanitarian rhetoric, what Russia is really doing is a preventive strike against Nato, which happens to take place on Georgian territory. Moscow wants to teach Georgia a lesson for Tbilisi's open and defiant wish to become part of the west; it wants to send a message to the United States and Europe that it will not tolerate further encroachment on its zone of influence; and it wants to make clear to other countries in its neighbourhood (Ukraine first of all) that they are in Russia's backyard and should behave accordingly.

Which seems pretty clear to me: In Moscow, the spheres of influence still make music. Perhaps not in the exact ratios that Stalin and Churchill once agreed to. But Poland, as well as Ukraine, had best be thinking hard.

A senior Russian general warned Poland today that it was leaving itself open to retaliation - and possibly even a nuclear strike - by agreeing to host a US missile base.

General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, the Russian armed forces' deputy chief of staff, issued the extraordinary threat in an interview with Interfax, a Russian news agency.

“Poland, by deploying [the system] is exposing itself to a strike - 100 per cent,” he was quoted as saying, before explaining that Russian military doctrine sanctioned the use of nuclear weapons “against the allies of countries having nuclear weapons if they in some way help them."

Would it matter to that thinking that the Western European powers went to war in 1939 ostensibly because Poland was invaded and occupied, and then left it that way after the war was over?

Finally, remember the words of Solzhenitsyn in his last interview:

Q: Recently, relations between Russia and the West have got somewhat colder. What is the reason? What are the West's difficulties in understanding modern Russia?

Solzhenitsyn: The most interesting [reasons] are psychological, ie, the clash of illusory hopes against reality. This happened both in Russia and in West. When I returned to Russia in 1994, the Western world and its states were practically being worshipped. This was caused not so much by real knowledge or a conscious choice, but by disgust with the Bolshevik regime and its anti-Western propaganda.

This mood started changing with the cruel Nato bombings of Serbia. All layers of Russian society were deeply and indelibly shocked by those bombings. The situation then became worse when Nato started to spread its influence and draw the ex-Soviet republics into its structure. This was especially painful in the case of Ukraine, a country whose closeness to Russia is defined by millions of family ties among our peoples, relatives living on different sides of the national border. At one stroke, these families could be torn apart by a new dividing line, the border of a military bloc.

So, the perception of the West as mostly a "knight of democracy" has been replaced with the disappointed belief that pragmatism, often cynical and selfish, lies at the core of Western policies. For many Russians it was a grave disillusion, a crushing of ideals. At the same time, the West was enjoying its victory after the Cold War, and observing the 15-year-long anarchy under Gorbachev and Yeltsin. It was easy to get accustomed to the idea that Russia had become almost a third world country and would remain so. When Russia started to regain some of its strength, the West's reaction – perhaps subconscious, based on erstwhile fears – was panic.