August 19, 2008 – 12:00AM
The conflict in Georgia is only one of several potential crises in which Moscow plays a leading role.
WHEN the Soviet Union’s Congress of People’s Deputies voted in 1991 to consign itself to the dustbin of history by dissolving the union, the Cold War was, in effect, dead. The preceding decades of conflict between the West and the Eastern bloc had taken the world to the brink of nuclear conflagration. The United States had won. Communism had failed. The Soviet satellite states, which had been chained to Moscow, asserted their independence. For some, it was the first time since the end of World War I that they could breathe freely.
Moscow found its frontiers severely constricted. In the fall of the Soviet system, countries such as Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania turned to the West and became members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Russia in the immediate years of the disintegration was powerless to stop them, but in the past decade Moscow, through its explosion in economic wealth and power, has begun reasserting its authority. The latest flashpoint of Georgia, and the hitherto little-known (to many) regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, is a graphic and bloody example of Russia flexing its military muscle. It is, however, just one instance in recent years of Russia claiming what it sees as its rightful place in the world’s geopolitical structure.
There may not be an official Cold War being fought between the US and Moscow, but latest developments in Europe, the Middle East and on Russia’s borders point to a sudden drop in temperature between the two nations. Today in Brussels, the foreign ministers of NATO’s 26 members will meet to discuss Georgia. Despite Russia agreeing to a truce, it has yet to withdraw its 10,000 troops or the 150 tanks that rolled into the country a week ago. And despite warnings and threats by the US and the EU, Russia has been unapologetic about its actions. EU President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who brokered the ceasefire, said Russian delays “would have a serious consequences on relations” between the EU and Russia. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice publicly wondered if Russia could be trusted. From the Kremlin, the same sentiments are being felt towards the US.
This week Dr Rice is travelling to Warsaw to sign a missile defence shield deal that will plant US interceptor missiles, and servicemen and women, on Polish soil. The US argues that Poland is part of a strategy, which also incorporates a radar system in the Czech Republic, to thwart strikes from rogue states such as Iran. Russia sees it as provocative. Its NATO envoy, Dmitry Rogozin, accuses the US of deploying the system “against the strategic potential of Russia” – a claim dismissed by the US. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev says the shield has “the Russian Federation as its aim”. General Anatoly Nogovitsin, deputy head of the armed forces, warns that Poland is now a legitimate target.
With the heated words has come a chilling development: Russia, as retaliation, is considering arming its fleet in the Baltic Sea with nuclear weapons. Both the US and Russia, despite the reduction in nuclear arms brought about by the end of the Cold War, maintain thousands of nuclear warheads.
The tension is running a thousand kilometres from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and another flashpoint: Ukraine. Both Georgia and Ukraine are eager to join NATO, and the latter has indicated a favourable response to the US missile defence shield. After the success three years ago of the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine (despite Moscow machinations to thwart it), any moves to embrace the West are seen by Russia as completely unacceptable. Russia needs Sevastopol, in Ukraine, for the movement of its Black Sea fleet. However, Ukraine has placed restrictions on fleet movements into the base, which Russia rents.
The dilemma facing the West is how to turn words into actions that have a meaningful consequence. Clearly, a nation that can mobilise 10,000 troops, invade a far smaller country and not bat an eye at the death and devastation is not going to be scared off by threats to remove it from membership of the NATO-Russian Council or cancel EU-Russian co-operation.
History has seen and heard of many new world orders only for the ideal to die on the wheel of realpolitik. As the Soviet Union was crumbling in the early ’90s, US president George Bush snr was praising a new world order that would follow the Gulf War victory. The spot fires on the borders of Russia show that order is a malleable concept. The heightened tensions may not describe a new cold war, but left unchecked by cool heads, the potential for a military escalation is real and worrying.