When the Berlin wall came down many pundits proclaimed that the collapse of the Soviet Union represented the end of history. But the recent flare-up of violence between Russia and Georgia shows signs of a reemerging cold war mentality, and just how narrow-minded those predictions may have been.
On Aug. 8, decades of political strife culminated in violence after clashes with secessionist forces in two of its provinces prompted Georgia to launch a fierce offensive. Russia’s response was equally brutal as it deployed troops and executed bombing raids throughout Georgia. The UN estimates 158,000 people have been displaced, while the death toll remains uncertain.
The nations of NATO, the military alliance initially created to defend the West against the Soviet Union, cannot agree on how to respond.
The United States, Britain and many former Soviet satellites have taken a hard-line stance, slowing down co-operation on all fronts. Identifying Russia as the clear-cut aggressor, they are demanding a complete and immediate pullout. United States secretary of state Condoleezza Rice has gone so far as to compare the crisis to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
France and Germany have been cautious by encouraging dialogue and rejecting demands that Russian membership in NATO, the World Trade Organization and the G-8 be revoked. Nicolas Sarkozy negotiated a ceasefire last week that has seen Russian troops leave Georgia proper, but remain in the two separatist provinces.
Russia, on the other hand, sees its attack as a legitimate military response in support of South Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has said George W. Bush’s proclamation that “bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century” rings false, as he has compared the situation to American support of independence for Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians.
Russia’s heavy-handed response stems from its involvement in a 1991-92 war between Ossetia and Georgia. The war ended through a Russian brokered ceasefire that saw North Ossetia join Russia and South Ossetia remain a Georgian province. In 1992-93, South Ossetia and Abkhazia unilaterally declared their independence and have since been trying in vain to gain formal independence.
Ethnic Georgians represent a distinct minority in both separatist regions. In fact, more than half of South Ossetia’s 70,000 citizens have accepted an offer of citizenship in the Russian Federation to join their northern brethren.
Given the United States’ affinity for democracy, at first glance its hard-line stance in support of Georgia may seem surprising. Viewed within the context of a reemerging Russia and a declining America, it seems old Cold War notions are again coming to the forefront.
The Americans see the invasion as an attempt by the Kremlin to re-assert its sphere of influence in the region by force. The Bush administration fears the invasion is an attempt to redraw the post Cold War map in Russia’s favour before their neighbours are incorporated into Western regimes.
Russia’s seemingly disproportionate response stems from its anger over many former Warsaw Pact nations being admitted into NATO, as both Georgia and Ukraine have been placed on a timetable for integration. Since NATO refuses to admit nations with unresolved ethnic and territorial disputes into the alliance, Russia’s attack means the Georgian timetable must be extended.
Further compounding tensions is the fact that Poland and the Czech Republic have recently allowed the construction of American missile defence shields, leaving Russia feeling encircled by the American dominated military alliance.
Their actions in Georgia seem to indicate the days of Russian weakness are nearing a close, at a time when China is also growing in dominance. The global balance of power is shifting away from the United States, the world’s only superpower since the Soviet collapse. Its hard-line stance towards Russia can therefore be seen as an attempt to reaffirm American dominance.
Their response in Georgia is the most recent in a long line of attempts to curb Russian power and influence. The Bush administration has worked to cut Russia out of energy pipelines, expanded NATO up to Russia’s borders, supported independence in Kosovo, worked towards expanding its missile defense shields into Russia’s backyard and has encouraged former Soviet satellites like Georgia to contradict Russia’s strategic interests at every turn.
While this position may have worked in times of Russian frailty, its re-emergence has led the two nations to once again be at each other’s throats. While Georgia presents no strategic or vital interest to either nation, their responses echo the Cold War era when local disputes took on a global significance based on their ideological relevance to the two major poles of power.