Even if the Russians wanted to have an empire again, they would not wish to run it directly. They will of course have influence on their neighbors, just as the United States does in the Western hemisphere. The brutality of the Russian response is a function not just of their own regained self-confidence thanks to oil and gas money, or of their propensity for dominance, but also of misguided Western -- particularly American -- policies. If the United States cannot control a two-bit client such as Saakashvili (who turned out to be no better than the person he replaced, Eduard Shevardnadze) and keep him from taking this utterly destructive step, then what good is American policy? Would any self-respecting power tolerate the kind of 'in your face' attitude the Russians were expected to digest? When the United States supported Kosovo's independence and recognized the government in Prishtina, did it not think what would follow next or listen to what Putin had to say?
I support the independence of Kosovo. I find the Russian assault against Georgia illegal and disproportionate and I think the Kremlin's regime is brutal. But then again, would anyone take seriously Paris, whose complicity in the Rwandan genocide was recently reiterated, or Washington, which invaded a country (illegally and illegitimately by the judgment of most of the world) and made torture legal, when they accuse Russia of anything? So for every country that wants to contain Russia you may find one or two that see it as a counterweight to the United States and a good response to Western conceit. What I am getting at is the question of legitimacy. The West has lost the upper hand on this because of double standards and increasingly misplaced arrogance, not to mention the lack of a coherent strategy supported wholeheartedly on both sides of the Atlantic.
With this move we have probably returned to reality with regard to international relations. Russia is back and it will want to be recognized as an important power whose word must be considered when it comes to developments in its immediate vicinity and possibly even in lands beyond. It is not a foregone conclusion that the Russians will behave irresponsibly either. Dependence on their oil and gas and their lock on central Asian states' resources are real. Whether one likes it or not, one has to deal with the cards that are distributed. It may also be useful to look back and reassess American or Western policies vis a vis Russia.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, in an interview with Nathan Gardels of the Huffington Post, says that Russia must be shown that it will suffer financial penalties and ostracization. I doubt that this will be possible nor do I think the Russians will lose much sleep over it, especially given the energy markets. He goes on to say, "If a Russia, which misjudges its power and its capacities, embarks now on a blatantly nationalistic and imperialistic course, we will all suffer." It is hard to disagree. But substitute the U.S. for Russia (yes I know, one is a democracy and the other is a brutal dictatorship) and much of the world would agree as well.
The real issue is not how to contain Russia and look for a cold war redux, but how to engineer or design an American or western policy that understands the realities of the world, the constraints of the times and that manages to be constructive in building the new world order. For good measure, it should also be a policy that tries to gain Russia to its side.
Arguably the American moment in the Caucasus is gone. It is time to go back to the drawing board; to come up with a new policy that will speak to the Russians' better natures and bring them closer to Western policies, even if they are unlikely to become model democrats in the immediate future.
By the way, I am sure that in Tehran everyone has an irrepressible smile on their face, too.
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