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The Monitor's View

Russia's cold-war mentality

By going to war with Georgia, Russia is drawing a new Iron Curtain.

August 11, 2008



A new Iron Curtain is being drawn around Russia. It's not so impregnable or wide as the Soviet one. But Moscow's willingness to war with NATO-aspirant Georgia sends this clear message to the expanding West: Thus far, and no farther. Given Russia's strength, the West has few options.

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Neither the US nor any other NATO country will fight Russia over Georgia's two tiny separatist enclaves – South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia invaded South Ossetia Aug. 8 after Georgian troops tried to reassert influence there. Meanwhile, Russia's sending reinforcements to Abkhazia. Both territories have been protected by Russian peacekeepers since the early 1990s, when they broke from Georgia in bloody rebellions.

The US is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who wants war with Russia over this?

Neither does the West have much diplomatic or economic leverage with oil- and gas-rich Russia, whose autocratic regime has broad support from a population satisfied with stability.

As Russia's swift and deadly military response in Georgia shows, the West has underestimated – indeed sometimes aggravated – Moscow's fears about growing Western influence eastward.

Over the last year, Europe and the US pushed ahead with Kosovo's independence from Russian ally Serbia. While this may have been the right thing to do, it happened over the Kremlin's vigorous objections. And the US has not relented on anti-missile installations in Poland and the Czech Republic.

But if others underestimated Russia's determination to control its "near abroad" – and perhaps no one miscalculated more than Georgia's pro-Western president, Mikheil Saakashvili – Russia grossly overestimates the threat of the West's eastward march.

NATO is not an anti-Russian military alliance. The EU has improved the economies, governments, and lawfulness of its new eastern members. This benefits Russia as an EU trading partner and neighbor.

When he was Russia's president, Vladimir Putin accused the West of reigniting the cold war, but it is actually Russia that's stuck in the cold-war mentality.

Bullying through energy blackmail and now tanks and bombers, it reaches for its imperialist past and believes it requires a buffer to protect itself from threatening democracies. It would love to get back, or more tightly control, parts of Ukraine and Moldova, the long-disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and parts of central Asia.

The West can best respond by starving this cold-war mentality – and weaning itself from Russian fossil fuels. If there is nothing for Moscow to fear in NATO and EU expansion, its members should not act as if there is. Russia deserves a strong rebuke, but at the same time, the West must be careful not to feed Russian nationalism.

The arguments to be made to Russia now must be ones of reason: Its support for separatists can come back to bite it (think Chechnya); and is violating another country's sovereignty something Russia would want for itself?

This must be part of a patient strategy that may, in the near term, result in Georgia having to give up its enclaves in exchange for peace. But for the West to abstain from the cold-war game appears to be the only way, over time, to win it.

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