by Austin Bay
August 26, 2008
As the Russo-Georgian War's August gunfire slips into a murky September
ceasefire, the Pentagon reports that the Russians "are still not living up to
the terms of the ceasefire agreement."
So, what does Russia want?
The question intentionally echoes, "So what did Stalin want?" -- which
historian John Lewis Gaddis asked then answered in his award-winning book "The
Cold War: A New History." Gaddis argued Joseph Stalin wanted "security for
himself, his regime, his country and his ideology, in precisely that order."
These goals would also resonate in an "Old History" of Russia -- call it
Tsar 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 clearly
at the nucleus of the oligarchy, with ex-KGB pals, friendly billionaires and
useful mafiya in close orbits. But dub the pals and billionaires "new royalty,"
and Putin might be an emerging "pop Tsar" -- a savvy 21st century autocrat
leveraging Russian nationalist demands. Orchestrating a domestically popular
military 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 not
revive the Cold War. However, reviving fear is most certainly a Russian aim.
NATO and the European Union didn't quail when Russia insisted that
Kosovo's unilateral independence was a "redline issue" for the Kremlin. Georgia
President Mikheil Saakashvili certainly didn't fear Russian power when troubles
began in early August -- violent troubles in South Ossetia that may have been a
The Kremlin says toppling Saakashvili is a goal. For now, Saakashvili
remains in power, and he has secured a global reputation for pugnacity. Russian
troops, however, remain in Georgian ports -- thus pugnacity remains in peril.
Over time, fear can erode. In August 1968, 40 years ago, Russian tanks
rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush Alexander Dubcek's "Prague Spring"
democratic movement. The Soviet empire chained Eastern Europeans for another 21
years -- a generation. A generation of frightened Georgians may serve Russia's
Fear, however, can stiffen opposition. Ukraine, for example, has harshly
criticized Russia's invasion and publicly supported Georgia. Poland's decision
to deploy American ground-based interceptor (GBI) anti-ballistic missiles has
been in the works for years. The GBIs are designed to thwart a "shot from the
ayatollah direction" (e.g., Iran), not Russia. But after the Russian offensive,
Poland also received Patriot PAC-3 missiles, which can counter shorter-range
Russian missile systems. Tsar Wars met Star Wars, and at least in Poland and in
the near term, Star Wars won, despite a Russian threat to attack Poland with
As for politically discrediting the European Union and NATO, Moscow may
have had some success. "Fractured" describes the EU's political response to the
Russian offensive. Core EU countries -- meaning those in Western Europe who rely
on Russian oil and gas -- are once again reluctant defenders of democracy.
Kremlin recognition on Aug. 26 of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as
independent states certainly damns nine years of EU and NATO diplomacy regarding
Kosovo. In a column two weeks ago, I suggested Moscow would "invoke its
interpretation of The Kosovo Precedent," and Moscow has done it.
Russians argue that Kosovo's spring 2008 unilateral declaration of
independence from Serbia gives separatism resulting from invasion to protect an
ethnic minority a political imprimatur. If protecting Kosovar Albanians elicits
a 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 a
diplomatic point Russia has made with bullets.