On Point: Tsar Wars Versus Star Wars


by Austin Bay
August 26, 2008

As the Russo-Georgian War's August gunfire slips into a murky Septemberceasefire, the Pentagon reports that the Russians "are still not living up tothe terms of the ceasefire agreement."

So, what does Russia want?

The question intentionally echoes, "So what did Stalin want?" -- whichhistorian John Lewis Gaddis asked then answered in his award-winning book "TheCold War: A New History." Gaddis argued Joseph Stalin wanted "security forhimself, his regime, his country and his ideology, in precisely that order."

These goals would also resonate in an "Old History" of Russia -- call itTsar Wars, with Ivan the Terrible as the featured personality.

Personalizing Russia 2008 as Vladimir Putin strikes me as a stretch.Putin runs an oligarchy, not a totalitarian dictatorship, but Putin is clearlyat the nucleus of the oligarchy, with ex-KGB pals, friendly billionaires anduseful mafiya in close orbits. But dub the pals and billionaires "new royalty,"and Putin might be an emerging "pop Tsar" -- a savvy 21st century autocratleveraging Russian nationalist demands. Orchestrating a domestically popularmilitary ventures fits this frame.

Gaddis titled the first chapter of his new history "The Return of Fear."Ivan the Terrible and Stalin subscribed to Machiavelli's advice in "The Prince":It "is much safer to be feared than loved." The Russo-Georgia War does notrevive the Cold War. However, reviving fear is most certainly a Russian aim.

NATO and the European Union didn't quail when Russia insisted thatKosovo's unilateral independence was a "redline issue" for the Kremlin. GeorgiaPresident Mikheil Saakashvili certainly didn't fear Russian power when troublesbegan in early August -- violent troubles in South Ossetia that may have been aRussian trap.

The Kremlin says toppling Saakashvili is a goal. For now, Saakashviliremains in power, and he has secured a global reputation for pugnacity. Russiantroops, however, remain in Georgian ports -- thus pugnacity remains in peril.

Over time, fear can erode. In August 1968, 40 years ago, Russian tanksrolled into Czechoslovakia to crush Alexander Dubcek's "Prague Spring"democratic movement. The Soviet empire chained Eastern Europeans for another 21years -- a generation. A generation of frightened Georgians may serve Russia'sinterests.

Fear, however, can stiffen opposition. Ukraine, for example, has harshlycriticized Russia's invasion and publicly supported Georgia. Poland's decisionto deploy American ground-based interceptor (GBI) anti-ballistic missiles hasbeen in the works for years. The GBIs are designed to thwart a "shot from theayatollah direction" (e.g., Iran), not Russia. But after the Russian offensive,Poland also received Patriot PAC-3 missiles, which can counter shorter-rangeRussian missile systems. Tsar Wars met Star Wars, and at least in Poland and inthe near term, Star Wars won, despite a Russian threat to attack Poland withnuclear weapons.

As for politically discrediting the European Union and NATO, Moscow mayhave had some success. "Fractured" describes the EU's political response to theRussian offensive. Core EU countries -- meaning those in Western Europe who relyon Russian oil and gas -- are once again reluctant defenders of democracy.

Kremlin recognition on Aug. 26 of South Ossetia and Abkhazia asindependent states certainly damns nine years of EU and NATO diplomacy regardingKosovo. In a column two weeks ago, I suggested Moscow would "invoke itsinterpretation of The Kosovo Precedent," and Moscow has done it.

Russians argue that Kosovo's spring 2008 unilateral declaration ofindependence from Serbia gives separatism resulting from invasion to protect anethnic minority a political imprimatur. If protecting Kosovar Albanians elicitsa NATO attack, in South Ossetia and other regions on Russia's border, Russia's"version of Kosovo" holds sway.

That may not be everything Russia wants -- but at the moment it is adiplomatic point Russia has made with bullets.

To find out more about Austin Bay and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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