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The Bear is back from hibernation

By Paul Dibb - posted Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Russia’s attack on Georgia shows that it is back as a force to be reckoned with.

It reflects Moscow's view that the US and NATO are not to be taken seriously when it comes to what it calls its "near abroad" blizhnoe zarubezhe'e. The message being sent to Ukraine and the Baltic countries is brutally clear: Russia is returning to great power status and that is being demonstrated to them by its military operations in Georgia.

This is the first time Russia has used military force against another state since the USSR pulled out of Afghanistan. In the intervening two decades, the Soviet Union ceased to exist and Russia experienced a massive collapse of its economic and military power and a dramatic reduction in its importance in world affairs.


Worse still, despite promises to the contrary by the US, NATO has expanded its presence to the very borders of Russia and occupied parts of the former Soviet strategic space in the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe.

Now, the US wants Ukraine and Georgia to become members of the alliance. This has angered Moscow enormously.

Russia rejects American criticism of its invasion of Georgia and responds that "the invaders and occupiers of Iraq" lack the moral authority to offer such criticism. It points to the evidence that Georgian aggression against South Ossetia was responsible for Russia's military response.

The great puzzle here is how President Mikheil Saakashvili could make such a gross miscalculation given the closeness of his relations with the US and the presence of American military advisers in Georgia. Even Mikhail Gorbachev believes that such a reckless decision could only be made by the Georgian leadership "with the perceived support and encouragement of a much more powerful force".

Even if that is not true, America's reputation has been seriously damaged. It was understandable for the leaders of Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to meet in Tbilisi last week, stating that the time of Russian dominance is over and calling on the EU and NATO "to oppose Russia's imperialist policy to Georgia". But do they actually believe NATO is going to go to war with Russia, given Europe's heavy dependence on Russia for energy supplies and the fact that America is over-extended militarily in Iraq and Afghanistan?

None of this is to defend Russia's disproportionate and brutal attack on Georgia. Nor is it to condone Moscow's bullying of its former East European captive nations. But it is to recognise that America's dismissal of Russia as a third-rate power after the collapse of the USSR was a great mistake. The unseemly haste in deploying NATO military forces within striking range of Russia has played to Moscow's worst historical paranoias.


And while Condoleezza Rice dismisses as "ludicrous" Moscow's fears about US plans to place ballistic missile defence forces in Poland and the Czech Republic, Vladimir Putin suggests that Moscow will retaliate by targeting its nuclear missiles on Europe, or base them in the Kaliningrad enclave (which adjoins Poland), should the US system be deployed. From Moscow's perspective, another EU error was to encourage Kosovo's independence from Serbia, a fellow Slav country.

Putin warned about the repercussions of this and he cites South Ossetia and Abkhazia as having the same rights. Last week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov very clearly stated: "One can forget about any talk about Georgia's territorial integrity because, I believe, it is impossible to persuade South Ossetia and Abkhazia to agree with the logic that they can be forced back into the Georgian state." Russia's President, Dmitri Medvedev, now claims: "Historically Russia has been, and will continue to be, a guarantor of security for peoples of the Caucasus." This is plainly a declaration that the Caucasus is part of Russia's strategic space.

So, what does all this mean for Russia's future geopolitical stance?

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First published in The Australian on August 18, 2008.

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About the Author

Professor Paul Dibb, former deputy secretary of defence and director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, is head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

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