Aug 162008

Greg Sheridan isn’t a journalist I have a great deal of regard for.

I rarely read his op-eds due to the high-falutin’, pro-US stance he never fails to take on practically any issue, whether the US be directly involved or not. His piece in today’s Oz is no different with passages like;

One of the most foolish elements of this dispute is the way so many Western commentators, not least in Australia, have resorted to their Pavlovian response of blaming Bush for everything that goes wrong in the world. Putin invades Georgia, so who is to blame? Naturally, Bush and the US, who else? I wonder what these commentators will do when Bush is no longer President. The centrepiece of their whole psycho-political system will disappear.

He exhibited this pro-conservative, pro-Americana predilection – or as I regard it, obsession – on QandA during the week, only to be smartly put down on several occasions by Bob Carr. Sheridan is clearly blindsided by conservative US politics, the actions of the Bush administration over the past eight years in particular. Those unfortunate character flaws aside, I find that reading through his piece, I’m in agreement with the general crux of his view on the Georgian-Russian issue for the past week. That being the overt influence and activities of former Russian President, now Prime Minister, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

As I understand the issue, it was down to the brash and blatantly stupid actions of Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, in attempting to suppress separatist actions in break-away Georgian provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which opened a door for Russian intervention to a simmering dispute which is close to twenty years old. As a former Russian satellite state, Georgia’s openly expressed allegiance with the US, the invitation to, and acceptance of US military advisors and trainers of her military, and her overtly expressed desire to be included in the NATO alliance, must have rankled with Putin for a long time. Putin is a product of post-Stalinist Soviet Russia, a former senior officer of the once powerful KGB and long-time political player in Russian politics. He thinks like a soviet, acts like a soviet while pretending to be just a little capitalist. Just enough to quell uneasiness about his ethics among western nations.

Putin showed clearly during the past week just who and what he really is, supplanting the position of the man who replaced him earlier this year as President – Dimitri Medvedev – even, as Sheridan writes, publicly embarrassing Medvedev by acting as President when clearly he overstepped his position. Clearly, the South Ossetia-Abkhazia issue, if not a trap set by Putin waiting to be sprung by a politically inept opponent like Saakashvili, was one which Putin openly embraced as an opportunity too good to allow to pass. Despite being trained and supplied by the US, Georgia’s military was no match for a willing and ready Russian assault in response to Georgian intervention into the subversive provinces. Ossetian militia, armed by Russia and probably urged on to certain extents, appear to be the instigators of human rights outrages that have appeared in the media reports from the region. I don’t believe Russia, or Putin intended to invade, subdue and occupy or change the regime in Georgia from pro-US to pro-Russian. I do believe Putin intended, as he stated, to smash the Georgian military capability to act aggressively against the subversive provinces, which have openly mooted that they prefer Russian allegiances. I also believe that he fully intended to use the occasion to send a loud-and-clear message to the west in general, and the US in particular, that Russia is back, Russia is still a power not to be considered lightly, and that Russia will act as she sees fit, whenever she so desires, just as a Bush administered US has done over the past eight years.

Here we come to the focus of the last week’s activities in the Caucasus, as I see it. I don’t believe that Georgia’s motivations in wanting to join NATO have anything to do with Putin’s motivations in invading Georgia. Putin is not that shallow as to resort to the Stalinist isolationism which spawned the Iron Curtain of satellite puppet states on Soviet borders in the 1950’s and 1960’s. I believe Putin’s entire motivation revolves around sending the US a message. "Russia is back, I’m still here, and George W. Bush … you’re day is done". This Georgian issue is a direct challenge to the US. "If you intend to park your missile bases on our doorstep, if you openly encourage militaristic interventions on our borders, if you expand NATO to the detriment of Russia, then Russia will meet you head on."

I don’t think anyone, not even Sheridan, can claim that US anti-missile bases on European soil, aren’t a major sore point with Russia, and a major piece of angst between east and west currently. American military expansionism has been a hallmark of the Bush regime, often to the detriment of US standing in the global community. Iraq is a prime example and the ongoing rhetoric over Iran’s nuclear program another. Frankly, I’m hardly surprised at Putin’s reaction in Georgia, just as I’m not at all surprised at the ironic and hypocritical responses from the US. Pot, Kettle, Black, as far as I can tell. I don’t think Sheridan sees the Georgian issue for what it really is. He sees the US and European task as being one of encouraging Russia to withdraw from Georgia. Maybe so, but Putin will only withdraw when he’s ready to. Not because the western world thinks he ought to. He may not choose to do so at all, and what will the US or NATO do about it? Nothing at all. Putin knows this. He knows that NATO does not want, nor need to risk a confrontation.

Sheridan is correct in stating that Saakashvili has to accept the inevitable outcomes of his rashness, and let go of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Citizens there prefer Russian oversight anyway. As for ‘encouraging the liberal and humane instincts that still exist in the Russian polity’, while Vladimir Putin holds the reins of power, and he does, those instincts will only appear to exist as long as Putin sees benefit in exhibiting them. I firmly believe that if the US and Europe make a major point of persisting with missile bases in Europe and meddling in eastern European politics as has happened in Georgia, then situations like that of the past week on Russian borders will occur again. Does the world need another Cold War? I think not.

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