Posted by lex, on August 10, 2008
Russia has a very great weight of history. It is a story of encirclement and betrayal, hardship and endurance which comes down to Russian souls from deep antiquity and whose character did much more to shape the Soviet Union than did the communist philosophy which ostensibly underpinned that enterprise.
For those of us in the West who have either never truly studied history or else forgotten its relevance to modern times, it was tempting at first to write-off as something from another century the Russian reaction to Georgia’s ill-conceived adventure in its northern marches: The government attempted military force to reclaim de facto sovereignty to go along with its de jure primacy over the break-away provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Perhaps the Georgians thought that the successful advancement of democratic government and institutions had endeared them to the West. Perhaps they thought that the sponsorship of the United States for a Georgian application to join NATO they had earned them the meaningful backing of the hyperpower, and that they were therefore immunized to any Russian counter-stroke. Perhaps they calculated that Vladimir Putin was too evolved a politician to take his country for war out of mere “national pride” over what is essentially a mountain valley with no natural resources, an insignificant economy and a scant 70,000 disaffected citizens. None of that matters any more.
Whether goaded by Russian support to the South Ossetian separatists or whether they earnestly believed that Russia would not react over such a seeming trifling thing, the Georgians badly miscalculated what was actually at stake: Not only their claimed sovereignty but their very freedom. Having not merely dislodged the Georgian armed forces from South Ossetia, but launched air and artillery strikes into Georgia itself and blockaded Georgia’s Black Sea coast with his navy, Vladimir Putin is exercising naked, punitive power. He does so because he can, knowing that nothing can stop him. He does so safe in the knowledge that UN protests are not worth the paper they are printed on, sure in the certainty that Europe cares more for his natural gas and oil exports than their own proclaimed principles, content in the presumption that American military involvement in Arabia and central Asia renders any meaningful response impossible and any moral applications illegitimate.
His ground forces are now poised to enter Georgia itself knowing that no external force will dare to stop them, knowing that the Georgian armed forces are insufficiently equipped for the task of their own national defense, ready to pluck a thorn from his side and – for the first time in a generation of democratic advancement – ready extinguish a beacon of individual freedom by force, if it suits his fancy.
This was not so much a failure of Georgian strategy so much as it was a failure of worldwide imagination. Tanks do not roll overnight, and fleets do not move in a week’s time. Putin is not acting out of petulance but calculation, and the game he’s playing is as long as Russian history itself. The meaning of all this is clear:
History marches on again. Russia has returned.