Cross us and we will crush you, warns Medvedev

Kevin O[ Flynn in Moscow
August 19, 2008

President Medvedev of Russia yesterday promised a “shattering blow” against any foreign power that moved against Russian citizens.

The threat will compound the fears of former Soviet states, which are concerned that they could be next after Russia’s attack on Georgia.

“If someone thinks they can kill our citizens, kill soldiers and officers fulfilling the role of peacekeepers, we will never allow this,” Mr Medvedev told a group of Second World War veterans in Kursk. “Anyone who tries to do this will receive a shattering blow.”

He continued: “Russia has the capabilities – economic, political and military. Nobody has any illusions left about that.”

Russia’s incursion into Georgia, and its reluctance to leave, has alarmed former Soviet states such as Ukraine and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The war was designed in part to send a message to the former Soviet states that “you can’t solve your problems by running to give the West a hug”, Liliya Shevtsova, an analyst at the Carnegie Centre in Moscow, said.

At the start of the war, Mr Medvedev said it was his constitutional right to defend the “lives and dignity” of Russian citizens.

Georgia’s allies now fear that Russia will begin to throw its weight around in defence of the millions of ethnic Russians who live outside the motherland.

The break-up of the Soviet Union left a huge Russian diaspora outside the country. There are more than 8 million ethnic Russians in Ukraine, 4.5 million in Kazakhstan and 1.2 million in the Baltic states.

Russia justified its attack on Georgia by insisting that it was acting to protect the 90 per cent of South Ossetians who have Russian passports.

How many of the passports are genuine is another question, as the region has long been infamous for smuggling and counterfeit passports and dollars.

Yevgeniya Latynina, a columnist, wrote last week that when the South Ossetian leader, Eduard Kokoity, received his passport, he opened it to find that it contained the picture of Abraham Lincoln from a $5 note instead of his own photograph.

Russia’s relations with Ukraine and the Baltic States have worsened in recent years after Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania joined Nato and the EU, and Ukraine tried to follow them.

One man was killed in demonstrations staged by Russians in Tallinn last year after Estonian authorities moved a Second World War monument that had been erected in the city by the Soviet regime. Moscow has complained that ethnic Russians are discriminated against in the Baltic states – an accusation that the EU has supported in some cases.

Ukraine and the Baltic States were quick to support Georgia, but Belarus, normally an ardent supporter of its only ally in Europe, meekly called for a ceasefire. There are more than one million ethnic Russians in Belarus.

The leaders of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia condemned the actions of Russian forces and travelled to Georgia last week to show solidarity with Tbilisi. Estonia’s Postimees newspaper even published a map explaining the weapons Russia might use against the country.

Ukraine told Moscow that it could not use its Crimea-based Black Sea Fleet in armed conflicts without permission, after warships were deployed near Georgia. On Sunday Ukraine offered to create a joint missile defence network with the West amid fears that its port city of Sevastopol, home of the fleet, could become the next flashpoint between Russia and its former satellite states.

Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s reformist President, who visited Tbilisi last week to support President Saakashvili of Georgia, said that the use of Russian ships for a war violated Ukraine’s neutrality and risked drawing it into conflict.

Ms Shevtsova, however, dismissed the idea that Russia might attack other countries.

“It is not possible,” she said, arguing that Mr Medvedev’s rhetoric was for internal consumption. “It would be suicide for Russia; it is just a show.”