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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 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 Russian trap.

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 interests.

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 nuclear weapons.

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.

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