The Kremlin’s Slavemaster Mentality

Writing in the Moscow Times Jonathan Kulick, director of studies at the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies in Tbilisi, explains that mighty Russia is terrified of tiny Georgia having any real identity or freedom apart from Russia:

After a weekend of heavy fighting in South Ossetia, accusations have been flying as to who did what to whom and when. The exact details still remain opaque. Probity aside, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s wisdom in seeking to restore Georgian control over South Ossetia awaits judgment, but Russia surprised few in responding in force to the escalation of the conflict. It should be little consolation to the people of South Ossetia that this war is not about them. For all intents and purposes, Russia had already annexed South Ossetia — not out of brotherly love for a small Caucasus nation, but as an instrument to control Georgia. The invasion is not a rescue mission or a restoration of a chimerical South Ossetian sovereignty.

And it’s not really about Georgia, either. Russia doesn’t want any competition in its neighborhood, neither for control of resources, security arrangements nor ideology. If Georgia were to consolidate its democratic transformation and join NATO over Russia’s objections, Moscow would lose influence over its other neighbors and its own restive republics in the North Caucasus. Of course, domestic politics also play a role; the new Kremlin leadership with President Dmitry Medvedev at the helm needs to demonstrate its resolve.

Russia cannot tolerate a genuinely independent Georgia, and Saakashvili must act with that knowledge. As U.S. diplomat George Kennan wrote in 1944, the “jealous eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies; and the neighbors of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other.” Georgia has sought a third way, to little avail.

Western countries have expressed their solidarity with Georgia and opposition to Russia’s incursion, as have both U.S. presidential candidates. They are aggressively pursuing diplomatic measures to halt the fighting and are engaging with Russia at the highest levels. But they are not prepared to sacrifice all other interests for the sake of Georgia or for loftier principles of territorial integrity. There will certainly not be any NATO combat air patrols over Georgia.

The United States — Georgia’s most resolute ally — has diminished influence, and Washington does not seek additional military adventures. Russia’s cooperation is essential to efforts at reining in Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Many European Union members are heavily dependent on Russian gas supplies, which Russia has already used as an instrument of statecraft. And the Kremlin can use its influence in Central Asia to ease or complicate the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

To the extent that Russia has been acting as a responsible citizen, it could make life difficult for states that interfere with its actions in its self-defined sphere of influence. Direct military support for Georgia now would be regarded as interference. But Russia has already made clear that it will not tolerate Georgia’s admission to NATO.

By attacking Georgia, Russia both tests the resolve of the Western alliance and seeks to tarnish Tbilisi’s NATO aspirations, demonstrating that it is too unstable and vulnerable to make it worth NATO’s interests. By provoking Saakashvili, Moscow is telling the West, “Don’t support ambitious, reformist leaders in developing democracies, because look at the trouble they’ll drag you into.” Defeating Georgian ambitions and claims to territorial integrity would send a clear message to other aspirants to integration with Europe and the United States — Ukraine above all — that it’s not worth the bother.

Most fights over small, remote patches of land are simply that, and this is why they remain so obscure. But much larger forces are at play in South Ossetia. The Russian invasion is intensely personal and tragic to those suffering its destruction in South Ossetia and Georgia, but it may be the opening salvo of the new, 21st-century Cold War we’ve been hearing so much about.

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