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Cutting to the chase on Western/Russian Relations

All the diplomatic chatter on the Georgian/Russian war from the West has been Kabuki. Georgia’s part of Russia’s sphere of influence, and Russia will do what it wants with it. This is part of the price of a couple of decades of policy towards Russia. There is no love in Russian political circles for the US, and very little for the EU. There is even less love for NATO. Nearly 20 years ago Gorbachev agreed with George Bush I not to use the Red army to crush dissent and rebellion in the Warsaw Pact states. Let there be no doubt that the Red army was perfectly capable of doing so. In exchange George I agreed that NATO would not expand to former Warsaw Pact countries.

NATO, the US and Europe broke their word. They expanded NATO further and further, into what Russia considers its buffer states, states which cannot be allowed to fall into the hands of potential enemies. Russian geopolitics has been obsessed with controlling those states for centuries (along with getting a warm water port). This is not a short term, minor issue. It is at the heart of what Russia believes it needs to be defensible—lots and lots of space.

Next, US and Western policy towards Russia in the 90’s was based around a shock therapy transition to a free market. The result of that was an actual decline in the Russian population. US neo-liberal economics applied to Russia killed millions of people. No exaggeration. It wasn’t the only cause, but when you’ve promised the sky (and the free-marketers did) and the result is hell on earth, well, people remember that.

Then Serbia, a long term Russian ally was forcibly broken apart by NATO, a rebellious province turned into effectively a mini-state.

The color revolutions flooded minor border states such as Georgia with money and operatives and put in pro-Western, anti-Russian governments, leading one of my friends to observe acidly that "the US shouldn’t buy countries it can’t afford".

And meanwhile the US tells patent lies about wanting to put in ABM systems to protect against a non-existent Iranian missile threat and builds bases in as many ex-Russian Republics as it can, in what appears to the Kremlin to be an attempt to encircle Russia.

One can imagine the reaction if Latin American countries had joined the Warsaw Pact. Or if Canada, even today, were to install Russian ABMs to protect against the threat of North Korean nukes. Washington would know the ABM system could only be meant to be used against them. And as for a Russian led military pact enrolling members in Latin America, you can only imagine the apoplexy.

Russia feels surrounded, ill used and disrespected by the West and by the US in particular. It feels betrayed by NATO expansion. It observes that the only threat NATO expansion could be guarding against is obviously it, and takes the expansion as a direct threat.

Americans and Europeans need to think real hard about NATO expansion and continued encirclement of Russia. Imagine how you’d feel, how you’d react if the situation was reversed.

Imagine, more importantly, what you’d do if Georgia had been accepted into NATO. Let’s say that the Russians invaded anyway (and yes, they might) what would you do if Georgia invoked the "one country is attacked, all countries are attacked" clause? Are you going to really go to war with Russia over Georgia? Really?

And are you sure Russia would back down? I don’t, personally, think Putin and Medvedev could survive a loss of such prestige.

Even in the current situation what’s the US or NATO going to do? The only thing I can think of it could do would be to airlift in troops. What would Russia’s response to that be? Well, one scenario is they’d attack everywhere the troops aren’t, enfold them in a pocket and put them under siege, without firing at them (except "accidentally") until they eventually wound up repatriating them. Worst case, well worst case is war, with the bulk of the US army deployed in all the wrong places to do anything about it.

Russia’s not Iraq. They’re not militarily as strong as the US, but they also aren’t deployed incorrectly. And they’re bloody minded and willing to take huge casualties.

I bet NATO breaks. And if NATO doesn’t, World War III.

Sure, Russia might back down. But she might not either.

Are you willing to risk it to stop Russia from having its own sphere of influence? To stop Russia from doing its own, slightly larger, Panama invasions?

The West has been pushing Russia into a corner for a long time. That’s not smart. Russia’s not the USSR, but it’s not a joke power either. A war with Russia would be a real war, so we need to consider very carefully in what situations we’d be willing to fight one with Russia. (Do recall Russia has plenty of nukes). If we aren’t really willing to go to war over something, we shouldn’t risk our credibility, or the chance of a war, by acting like we are.

And no, no one is willing to go to war for Georgia. That’s not fair to Georgia, and they may have thought otherwise since they sent 2,000 troops to Iraq and are due reciprocal help. But the geopolitics are simple, Georgia was part of Russia or the USSR for 2 centuries. If Russia wants to slap them around, that’s unfortunate, but there just isn’t much we can do about it.

And there won’t be for a long time. Because if you want to have leverage over Russia you have to have, not so much military leverage (they are not the types to be intimidated) but economic leverage. And as long as oil is riding high, they have it and we need it, well the economic leverage mostly runs the other way.

In the 90s the West’s could shove Russia around because they needed the West’s economic health. Not any more. Power comes in many forms, and when you don’t take care of the most fundamental base of power – your economy, you lose the ability to tell other countries what to do.

Russia didn’t like being a chump. And eventually they decided to start being taken seriously again.

"Oh, so the Chechens won a war against us. Let’s find a pretext to do this all over again, and let’s win the war even if it means depopulating their capital by 90%."

Russia’s quite willing to do whatever it takes to be taken seriously by everyone around them. So Georgia will take it on the chin. Even if oil wasn’t over $100/barrel we might not be able to convince them otherwise. But with the US economy trashed and Russia riding high, there isn’t any leverage at all. And Georgia will pay part of the price.

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Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh

Ian Welsh was the Managing Editor of FireDogLake and the Agonist. His work has also appeared at Huffington Post, Alternet, and Truthout, as well as the now defunct Blogging of the President (BOPNews). In Canada his work has appeared in and BlogsCanada. He is also a social media strategy consultant and currently lives in Toronto.

His homeblog is at