2008/08/10

Are paranoia and Mongol-despotism part of the Russian character?

This article is worth reading on the conflict between Россия/Russia and საქართველო/Georgia. It's written by James Traub, someone as deep in the US foreign policy establishment as you can get.

On the one hand it provides good, even-handed background on the longrunning conflict between Russia and Georgia. On the other, it epitomizes the self-serving rationalizations that American leaders tell the public (and maybe even themselves) to justify their attempted takeover of the Russian empire while Russia lay prostrate from the free market blood-letting of the '90s.

Traub begins by condensing the complex history of Georgian nationalism into a couple paragraphs that miss the most important points: first, that until about a century ago there was no such thing as modern nationalism in Georgia (and even then it was a thoroughly elite affair); second, that the Советский Союз/Soviet Union itself played an enormous role in inventing nationalism in Georgia and all the other republics thru its nation-centered education, administration, and classification policies.

Traub then sets up Russia as an aggressive, paranoid bully:
The combination of Vladimir Putin’s reforms and the dizzying rise in the price of oil and gas have rapidly restored Russia to the status of world power. And Mr. Putin has harnessed that power in the service of aggressive nationalism. . . .
The “color revolutions” that swept across Ukraine, the Balkans and the Caucasus in the first years of the new century plainly unnerved Mr. Putin, who has denounced America’s policy of “democracy promotion” and stifled foreign organizations seeking to promote human rights in Russia. Georgia, with its open embrace of the West, thus represents a threat to the legitimacy of Russia’s authoritarian model. . . .
the fact that Russia views NATO’s eastward expansion as a threat to its security is a vivid sign of the deep-rooted cold war mentality of Mr. Putin and his circle.
First, Russia is not championing any kind of "authoritarian model" that Georgia's freedom and democracy imperils. Leaving aside Georgia's democratic credentials (Saakashvili violently put down large protests last year, and his "Western" economic policies have produced inequality and growing unrest), Russia could care less how it organizes its politics. The important issue for Russia - as it is for the USA and other imperialist powers - is whether Georgia acts in deference to it.

Now onto Путин/Putin's paranoia. If NATO is, as Traub claims, "no longer an anti-Soviet alliance", what is its purpose? Why does it keep expanding eastward, progressively absorbing more and more of the security zone Russia painstakingly erected after being invaded from the west twice in 25 years? NATO should have been shut down after the Soviet Union disintegrated, but its use as a seemingly multilateral framework for allowing the continued exercise of American power over Europe was too tempting. Russia was not the only target here - preventing any independent foreign policy orientation by the European Union was at least as important. But NATO's attack against Russian ally Serbia, its induction of ten former Soviet client states (including all of the strategically important Baltic states), and its flirtation with Georgia and Україна/Ukraine all demonstrate that Russian "paranoia" is solidly based in reality. If Russia started setting up military bases in Vancouver, Yucatán, and Santo Domingo, Traub might start to develop a similar level of paranoia.

Traub gives the game away when he writes, "For the West, the core issue is the survival of democratic, or at least independent, states along Russia’s frontier." None of this has anything to do with democracy, any more than the conflicts over Kosova or South Ossetia are related to the rights of minorities - except as a useful rhetorical device. As Traub admits, democracy is not the important thing, "independence" is. And he has in mind "independent" states like Georgia, i.e. those that accept hundreds of millions of dollars from the United States to equip and train their militaries and that send troops to Iraq in support of the American occupation.

Traub writes that the view of Russia as a congenitally aggressive behemoth intent on threatening its neighbors is now widely accepted:
People of all political persuasion now seem to get it about Russia. In “The Return of History and The End of Dreams,” Robert Kagan, the neoconservative foreign policy expert who is advising John McCain, writes of Mr. Putin and his coterie: “Their grand ambition is to undo the post-cold war settlement and to re-establish Russia as a dominant power in Eurasia.” Michael McFaul, a Russia expert at Stanford who is advising Barack Obama, also views Russia as a premodern, sphere-of-influence power. He attributes Russia’s hostility to further NATO expansion less to geostrategic calculations than to what he says is Mr. Putin’s cold war mentality.
Indeed, "all political persuasions" see Russia as the aggressor - from those who explicitly state their support for expanding American power to those who couch their support for expanding American power in soothing multilateral terms. And what on earth is a "premodern, sphere-of-influence power"? The sphere of influence, like the nation-state form around which it has been organized, is a preeminently modern invention. How long before we start hearing again the idea that Russian despotism is rooted in its culture, a product of its interaction with the Mongols 800 years ago?

Putin probably wishes he had the luxury of a Cold War mentality. During the Cold War, Russia maintained a stable of client states to protect itself, while the United States ranged across the rest of the globe, overthrowing unfriendly governments and equipping brutal militaries that agreed to accept its suzerainty. Now America has military allies and bases bordering Russia itself, and the economic collapse and deindustrialization that followed the end of the Soviet Union have left Russia with far fewer resources to defend itself. The real question is not why Russia perceives a threat from the USA, but how far the USA will go to defend those parts of the Russian empire it now controls.

1 comment:

thunderbird said...

It's important to remember that two of the nations you mention, Georgia and Ukraine, are both members of "GUAM" - an association of nations whom, in an apparent throwback to the mentality of Mao in the '70s, are attempting to use the USA to get Russia off their backs - along with Moldova and Azerbaijan. I can't help but feel curious as to what's going through the leaders of the other GUAM nations, especially Moldova - considering the Transnistria situation.