Yawns and Kneejerks in America
Russian peacekeepers at an anti-aircraft gun in the disputed region of South Ossetia
Yesterday, after Russia sent reinforcements to back up its peacekeepers under seige by the Georgian army in the tiny disputed territory of South Ossetia, Arizona Senator and Republican Presidential candidate John McCain denounced the move as "Russian aggression" against Georgia. Nevermind that it was the Georgian army which launched the offensive that ignited the present round of fighting, and thousands of refugees have been streaming out of South Ossetia into Russia in the last few days.
The reported death toll of over 1,400 is the worst the region has seen since 1992. In that year, the Soviet Union was formally dissolved, and South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both regions with strong ethnic ties to compatriots in Russia, were ceded to Georgia within their Soviet-drawn borders. After the U.S. and NATO countries recognized the independence of Kosovo in early 2008, the South Ossetians and Abkhazians decided that they could declare their independence from Georgia, which has sparked the recent violence.
UPDATE - August 10, 2008 Welcome, Instapundit and Little Green Footballs readers! Please click here to read Russia Blog contributor Patrick Armstrong's excellent post responding to LGF blogger Charles Johnson. Click on the extended post to read the author's response to some of the questions and comments written elsewhere about this post.
Georgian troops in a truck on their way to the front
Russia Versus Georgia: A Return to "Frozen" Conflict Likely
What remains to be seen now is whether or not the situation will return to the previously "frozen" status quo, to be decided by negotiation, or if both sides will push for a military solution. As with the case of Israeli interventions in Lebanon, Russia has little desire to occupy territory. A march on Tblisi remains extremely unlikely. Contrary to some Western commentators cherished myths, Russia is not out to restore the Soviet Union, and Estonia and Latvia do not have to fear that they are next in line for Russian military intervention. To call Russia "revanchist" and to imply that South Ossetia or Abkhazia is the modern equivalent of the Nazi march into the Sudetenland, a pretext for fascist expansion which must be nipped in the bud now to prevent World War III later, is sheer propaganda.
On the other side, Georgia's small army is not likely to be able to defeat the superior firepower and manpower Russia could call upon in a protracted conflict. Furthermore, unlike Georgia, Russia does not need to worry about the effect of war on the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline or losing its European Union membership bid over a war in the Caucasus. The economic losses for Georgia, however, in the form of remittances being cut off from Georgian migrant workers in Russia for months, could be severe. Hence, President Saakashvili's urgent appeals for Western aid, which is likely to be mostly symbolic. If Washington does decide to back the Georgians implicitly, there is likely to be more grumbling from Washington's European allies about how even a tiny, poor American ally gets to drag Washington around by the nose.
The Evolving U.S. Position
For now, America appears to be playing safe, supporting Georgia's territorial integrity, but also calling for a ceasefire at a time when Georgia has failed to dislodge Russian troops and separatists from South Ossetia. After Secretary of State Rice seemed to take a hard line against Russia yesterday, President Bush announced today that he supports a full ceasefire and the withdrawal of Georgian and Russian forces from South Ossetia, restoring the status quo of August 6. American diplomacy has predictably sought to keep Georgia in the fold as a U.S. ally while reining in its offensive, while also insisting that Russian troops quit South Ossetia. But American media coverage and commentary, to the extent that war in the Caucasus was mentioned at all on Friday instead of Democrat Senator John Edwards' extramarital affair, has often veered into sheer anti-Russian hysteria.
The Fog of War and the "Drive By Media"
CNN briefly portrayed Russia as the big red USSR while showing Americans where South Ossetia and Georgia are on the world map. Hugh Hewitt, one of the most popular conservative talk radio show hosts in America, cited a report on the air from Austin-based Strategic Forecasting Inc. asserting that Russia was using the Georgia campaign to intimidate all of the former Soviet republics. The report, Hewitt seemed to imply, suggested a master plan by the Kremlin to revive at least a rump Soviet Union through military might. Hugh Hewitt's guest, Larry Kudlow, a popular conservative commentator who hosts the highly watched "Kudlow and Company" TV show on CNBC, denounced "Czar Putin's power grab" and called Russian leaders "war criminals". A news announcer on the same national talk radio network erroneously reported that Russian forces had killed 1,400 people in the region, even though this was actually the number claimed by the South Ossetians as victims of Georgian shelling and bombs. Headlines on AOL news said, "Russia Invades Small Neighbor", which makes for a more dog bites man headline than, "Russia puts troops into small region invaded by former Soviet republic asserting sovereignty over disputed territory". The U.S. taxpayer funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website published a ridiculous article by Echo Moskvy radio's Yulia Latynina, calling South Ossetia a "terrorist state" and comparing the region to the former Palestine Liberation Organization or current Hezbollah statelets in southern Lebanon -- as if the South Ossetians were sending suicide bombers and rockets into Georgia.
Why Do American Conservatives Uncritically Accept Media Coverage Of One But Not the Other?
All of this begs the question: why do so many Americans, conservatives especially, who normally proclaim their distrust the media, accept it so unquestioningly on the subject of Russia? After all, it isn't as if the same biases that lead many Americans to confess to pollsters that they have Obama fatigue from so many puff profiles of the superstar Democratic presidential candidate do not also affect coverage of foreign affairs in the U.S. In other words, a media tendency to focus on compelling personalities, like Vladimir Putin, rather than report on a complex country like Russia from the bottom up.
A Different View of Russia from Up Close
Not surprisingly, European papers in Germany and other places on the Continent, closer to Russia both geographically and economically, have been more willing to take a balanced view of the conflict than the Anglo-American media. The intellectually lazy, bipartisan Beltway party line that this war represents yet another case of "Russia bullying its neighbors" tends to prevail in U.S. commentary and analysis, rather than the idea that President Saakashvili may have grossly miscalculated by underestimating Russian resolve, or even thought that he had a green light from Washington to use force. It would not be the first time a U.S. ally, as in the case of Argentina's ill-advised invasion of the British Falkland Islands in 1982, caused a major headache for Washington.
Failure to Ask Hard Questions
Just because some countries are smaller than a neighboring big country with an imperial history doesn't always make them victims or "Davids" versus Goliath. The question never seems to be raised: what if Russia's neighbors are occasionally in the wrong? Were Ukraine and Belarus entitled to subsidized Russian gas at a quarter of the European price indefinitely? Is Georgia justified in forcing the issue of a separatist region with arms rather than negotiations? Should Poland host an American radar, supposedly designed to counter the Iranian missile threat, that can track anything in Russian airspace all the way to the Urals? Is Russia always doomed to be a nasty Bear roaming the woods looking for trouble?
Failure to Consider Double Standards
From Russia's perspective, how does it look to have NATO not only expanded into the Ukrainian heartland, but also to its southern border in Georgia? Would the U.S. be comfortable with a Chinese or Russian military advisors on the ground in Mexico and Venezuela? Or even just a radar base that could track every American aircraft all the way to the Canadian border? And why is it necessary to further humiliate a former adversary that remains a shadow of its former military might, but can cause significant trouble for America? Doesn't the U.S. have enough challenges in Iraq and Afghanistan right now, without making more enemies abroad?
The politically correct, bipartisan American rule seems to be that, no matter what Russia does, it must always be in the wrong. This naturally leads to such absurdities as saying Belarus is Moscow's puppet one week and a victim of "Kremlin energy imperialism" the next, simply because Minsk was no longer receiving dirt cheap oil and gas. If people are looking for more rational explanations of Russian behavior, than why not follow the money rather than presume that all Moscow wants to do is make trouble for the West for ideological reasons? This would include arms sales to Iran and Venezuela -- many Russian officials near the top personally profit from huge kickbacks for such deals, and to them, it's "just business", nothing personal -- even if America see it as a backstabbing, destabilizing move.
The "Ugly Russians" We're Stuck With
Clearly, Russia does not have vast reservoirs of economic vibrancy or pop culture exports to offset Russophobia and Cold War stereotypes. America, by contrast, can employ all of these tools, mostly in the hands of individual citizens, to counter anti-Americanism throughout the world. While Russia did not receive a stable economy or strong society from the Soviets, it did inherit a lot of messy, unresolved issues on its vast borders, and plenty of weapons for fighting. The brief Russo-Georgian war provides yet another glimpse of these "frozen" conflicts, and how much work remains to be done to resolve them. The best way to end mini-Cold Wars which occasionally turn hot is to give the peoples in question better things to do than fighting. Unlike in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, religion is not a major factor, as both sides are mostly Orthodox Christians, so economic development is the surest path to peace, rendering the borders less relevant in determining the fortunes of each region.
Time to Stop the Games, Before the Tables Are Turned
While politicians in the West can speak of "mediators", "honest brokers" and "the international community must act" all they like, Russia is going to continue to do what it thinks is in its national interest, in its own back yard, whether America and Europe like that or not. And if American leaders continue to play proxy games in the former Soviet Union, we may very well find Russian and Chinese oil men joining with Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez to cut the U.S. out of heavy oil deals in our own back yard, or Chinese troops training Venezuelan soldiers for "peacekeeping missions" in what the Monroe Doctrine had long presumed to be our own hemisphere. Worst of all, this pointless game of tit for tat could spill over into global financial markets, driving up oil prices for the West and China while spiking food inflation in Russia. That would present a lose-lose situation to everyone, spreading pain well beyond the Caucasus.
Refugees streaming out of South Ossetia to Russia. If the image looks familiar, it's because the Russian media is taking a page from Western media coverage of the Balkan wars in the 1990s. Russia does not want to look like Serbia did then.
UPDATE: August 10, 2008
From the Beltway to Tblisi: Does One Hand Know What the Other Is Doing?
By Charles Ganske
Editors note: In response to other bloggers (Instapundit and Little Green Footballs are, respectively, among the top ten and top fifty most trafficked blogs on the web) I decided to explain why I wrote the above, and to add a few other comments on the situation in the Caucasus.
Betraying Confidence: An Inexcusable Response from Washington
As I meant to imply by referring to the case of the Argentine junta attack on the Falklands, America is not to blame for the Georgian President Saakashvili's foolish actions, and the Kremlin should recognize this. However, the public disclosure of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's alleged comment to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about Russia seeking regime change in Georgia, even if Lavrov actually said it, is a disgrace. United Nations Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad was completely out of line in making it public at the UN. If attorney client privilege is important to individuals in a judicial system, how much more important is privileged and frank diplomacy between nations? How can we expect to reach peaceful settlements with other great powers if their foreign ministers' comments said in candid confidence hit the front page of The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal the next day?
It's not that Congressional Democrats can claim to be on top of Russia issues any more than Republicans these days -- but when is the amateur hour in Washington finally going to end? The U.S. Congress, dominated by the Democratic Party led by the American mainstream media's favorite, Senator Barack Obama, has single digit approval ratings and has mostly lost interest in Russia in an election year, while the lame duck Republican President George W. Bush polls in the upper twenties. Could the fact that every foreign policy matter becomes a partisan issue in Washington have something to do with this?
Pipeline Politics: Why the U.S. Has Become Involved in Georgia
The U.S. obviously has interests in the Caucuses, particularly since the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BKC) pipeline goes from Azerbaijan through Georgia east-west, then south through Turkey to the Mediterranean Sea. Georgia has also sent 2,000 troops to Iraq, and thus has collected some chits in Washington. Until recently, the Georgian government also employed a paid lobbyist who later became one of Senator John McCain's top foreign policy advisors. This however, is not to be mentioned in polite company among conservatives. The question remains: since when did being a conservative require turning off one's brain when it comes to the subject of Russia and deferring to talking heads and aging donors who cannot let go of the Cold War? And what does it do to America's already tattered image in Russia to see Georgian soldiers fighting Russian soldiers, while wearing uniforms identical to those of the U.S. Marines that were training them just two weeks ago?
What Should the U.S. Do Now?
America should do everything it can diplomatically to bring the conflict to a speedy conclusion. If Eisenhower was willing to cut off our closest allies, the British and French, over their invasion of the Suez Canal Zone at the height of the Cold War, then I think America should be able to tell Georgia that we are pulling out all American personnel and contractors. Russia and Georgia should immediately declare a genuine ceasefire, and not the kind of ceasefire Saakashvili claimed on Georgian television Thursday August 7, shortly before his army began lobbing rockets at South Ossetian towns. Of course, Russia responded immediately, as both sides had been preparing for war in the last several weeks. This is a war that Russian commentators predicted after the U.S. recognized the independence of Kosovo. Today, Tblisi can forget about ever getting South Ossetia or Abkhazia back, except, perhaps one day, through extended negotiations.
To Quote a Fellow Texan - We Have No Dog in This Fight
To quote President Bush 41's advisor James Baker, "we have no dog in this fight". Politicians who would cavalierly commit American blood and treasure to the Caucases while we are already engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing the incredibly professional but overstretched American military no favors. I don't think any serious person who has closely followed U.S. foreign policy in the past few years would not have some serious questions about the limits of American power, or whether we should even get involved in some parts of the world where vital interests are not at stake. President Reagan intuitively understood when to reach out Gorbachev to end the Cold War, as well as when to get out of the civil war then raging in Lebanon.
Clinton/Bush - Abandoning the Reagan/Bush Legacy of Respect for Russia
Bush 41 similarly showed great restraint both before and after the Soviet Union collapsed, even though he was jeered by conservatives for making his 1991 "chicken Kiev" speech warning about the consequences of the volatile Soviet empire breaking up overnight. Those same conservatives today still claim that Putin lamented the collapse of the USSR in one of his 2005 speeches, rather than pointing out the "catastrophe" for millions of Soviet citizens impoverished and kicked out of their homes, as a result of ethnic conflict and the looting of previously state-owned industries. In spite of leaving his successor with a mess in Somalia, Bush 41 smartly enlisted Moscow's support for the First Persian Gulf War and kept the U.S. out of several bloody wars in the post-Soviet space.
President Clinton, however, spurred on by his hawkish Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, sent the 82nd Airborne to exercises in Central Asia without the participation of Russian troops --sending a signal to Russia that America ready and able to intervene in Moscow's back yard. Clinton also ordered the bombing of Yugoslavia, a divided country that unlike Iraq, did not have a history of sponsoring terrorism or attacking countries outside its previous post-WWII borders. The Bosnian Serbs committed horrific war crimes, but many Serbs opposed Milosevic's thuggish regime and wanted to topple him without NATO bombing their country. Clinton's commander on the ground, General Wesley Clark, had his order for NATO forces to seize the Pristina airport before the Russians arrived countermanded by the senior British Commander, Gen. Mike Jackson, who famously said "I'm not going to start World War III for you."
There is no question that ten years later, the Kosovo precedent is coming back to bite the U.S. and its NATO allies. Russian TV is showing atrocity videos of pitiful South Ossetian refugees and shelled towns that are eerily similar to images of Kosovar Albanians and Bosnian Muslims from the 1990s.
One Hand Out Asking for Moscow's Money
...and Another Slapping Moscow in the Face
Is it unreasonable to ask why the Bush Administration is asking Russia to invest more its sovereign wealth funds in America while continuing to provoke Moscow in its own backyard? I'm personally glad that the Poles are a part of NATO, as the Western powers had defense treaties with Poland and Czechoslovakia dating back to the rebirth of those nations following the First World War. But is putting a missile defense system in Poland, versus other regions which are also U.S.-friendly and much closer to Iran (i.e. Kurdistan or Bulgaria), really worth antagonizing Russia (not to mention the $500 million in military equipment loans Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, a nice fellow I met once when he was at the American Enterprise Institute, is shrewdly insisting on)?
As one commenter on Pajamas Media blogger Richard Fernandez' website The Belmont Club has pointed out, Russia has had some kind of military presence in Ossetia (North and South) since 1802, the year after Thomas Jefferson became America's third president and one year before the great State of Ohio joined these United States. The shared history between Russia and Ukraine, by contrast, goes back to the baptism of Kievan Rus ruler Vladimir into Orthodox Christianity in the 9th century. Bringing Poland and the Czech Republic into NATO is one thing, while bringing Ukraine, a country with millions of people (especially in the historically strategic Crimea region) who still consider themselves to be Russian is another.
Why the Real Russia Project?
The gap between the horrible political relationship between the U.S. and Russia and our surging economic ties has become a chasm. This is why in 2005, a group of American businessmen in Washington State decided to support the Real Russia Project. Readers will search Russia Blog in vain for any mention of Discovery Institute's other programs or controversial topics. They are separate, and the people bringing them up are simply pointing to something irrelevant, and failing to debate the facts.
Some folks have been declaring a party line that modern Russia is the New Evil Empire for so long they are shocked when questioned at all. Even if Russia today is moving in a more authoritarian direction (and the unprecedented personal and economic freedoms Russians now enjoy suggest otherwise), is the present American foreign policy counteracting or accelerating this trend? Is America actually speaking out about the real human rights abuses that millions experience in Russia - petty corruption by police and officials, and the abuse of conscripts in the Russian army, or would it rather focus on more "celebrity" issues, like the fate of the jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky? Does the view that Russians are brainwashed by their Kremlin-controlled media stand up to scrutiny when thousands of websurfing Russians can talk back to The New York Times online? These are the kind of politically incorrect questions someone needs to be asking, and that is why the Real Russia Project exists.
A Note to Commenters on Russia Blog
Please understand that anytime someone puts their name out there on the web as a real person with a real name, anonymous trolls, weirdos, and cranks can start saying whatever they want about a person. Plenty of garbage can come up whenever someone is "Googled", and this is one of the hazards of our Internet age. If a real person with a real name wants to have a debate face to face or point/counterpoint with someone that they disagree with, then let them do so. Otherwise, getting into flame comment wars is for people who have nothing better to do with their time. And trying to argue with people who anonymously defame you on Google is the 21st century equivalent of wrestling with a greasy pig - you might "win", but you still come out smelling like a pig!