Good-Bye Putin

The hostilities in Georgia seem to be dying down now. Russian forces are withdrawing – or at least they are supposed to withdraw, under the terms of the cease-fire they signed, but there is considerable doubt as to whether they are actually fulfilling that obligation.

In the meantime, the countries of the NATO alliance struggle to come to terms with the new ruthless military face Russia has shown in this crisis. Germany now stands central in that military alliance, in the same way it has stood central for some time now within the European Union, again because of its sheer weight of population and economic power (and, who knows, maybe also its reputation for military ability in the past), which makes German commentary on these recent developments particularly interesting.

A very good contribution comes from Jochen Bittner, who writes a weblog, called Planet in Progress, that is carried off the Die Zeit webserver. For his essay entitled Good bye [sic], Putin, he takes as his starting-point that old saw about NATO’s purpose (attributed to the Alliance’s first Secretary-General, the 1st Baron Ismay, that it is “to keep the Americans in, the Soviets out and the Germans down.” But things have changed since back in those days, especially since the break-up of the Soviet Eastern European empire in 1989 and the break-up of the Soviet Union itself two years after that. For one thing, there has been no further need to keep the Germans “down” – the EU has itself done quite a sufficient job of anchoring German interests within those of Europe generally – and indeed the impulse in recent years has rather been the opposite, i.e. to motivate greater German involvement and influence within NATO – in the interest of gaining the additional German troops and money such greater involvement would necessarily bring with it, you understand.

Russians Still Out?

So no more “Germans down.” That’s fine, but an even more remarkable turn-around in Baron Ismay’s aphoristic formulation involved “Russians out”: no more were they to be kept out, they were rather to be invited in! Yes, NATO policy towards Russia during the Yeltsin years (especially as espoused by the Americans, as Bittner point out) was actually one of the “Open Door.” This did not extend so far as actually offering NATO membership (although I can remember how that option was certainly discussed, as incredible as that may seem today), but did still mean considerable cooperation and co-involvement – as long as Russia started behaving itself in politically-acceptable ways, of course. At the bare minimum this meant peaceful conflict-resolution in accordance with the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 (together with various subsequent accords which reinforced the same point).

Now, with their actions in Georgia, the Russians have grossly violated that expected standard of behavior. And quite naturally the existing mechanisms of NATO-Russian cooperation were put on hold yesterday as a result at the Ministerial session of NATO’s North Atlantic Council, as the NATO collective statement made clear to Russia that “we cannot continue with business as usual.” Have things turned around so complely that it is time to return to the old days of having NATO focus on keeping “Russians out”?

To that Bittner says “yes,” but with good reason, namely the justification Moscow has used for its Georgia intervention: protecting Russian passport-holders outside of Russia’s own boundaries. This is revealed in an editorial the Russian ambassador to NATO, Dimitri Rogosin, wrote for the International Herald Tribune (Washington’s hypocrisy, in English), writing “As for the defense of our citizens outside the country, the use of force to defend one’s compatriots is traditionally regarded as a form of self-defense. Countries such as the United States, Britain, France and Israel have at numerous times resorted to the use of armed force to defend their citizens outside national borders,” going on to cite incidents such as the intervention of Belgian paratroopers in Zaire in 1965 and the US attack on Grenada in 1983.

Protecting One’s Own – Outside

But there is a problem here with Ambassador Rogosin’s reasoning, Bittner says: the intervetions he cites have involved the evacuation of a country’s citizens outside national borders, not the conquest of the territory in question. Yet it is that latter “right” that the Russians now claim – and, if you think about it, it’s quite a frightening “right” indeed, employable at their discretion to invade the Ukraine, the Baltics, and any number of the other states in Russia’s “near abroad” which in the past where subject to the authority of the USSR, and which Russia presumably would like to have back.

It’s this “right” that the world has seen before, namely in the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 to “protect” the ethnic Germans there, made possible by the capitulation of the Munich Agreement with Britain and France and which of course proved to be just the next step in the Nazi plan for the conquest of its neighbors in Central Europe. (This is an argument which we have seen before here when discussing the reactions to Georgia from the Czech press.) It’s simply ethno-imperialism, and it’s ramifications are just as frightening in 2008 as they turned out to be back then.

One country that has not been intimidated so far is Poland, and in fact it seems that the signing of the agreement with the US to set up the missile defense base there was speeded up in response to the Georgia crisis. That action is regarded approvingly by Nils Kreimeier of the Financial Times Deutschland, who writes in his commentary article A Shield at the Right Time about the curious contradiction lying behind the US-Polish arrangement. Ostensibly, that missile base (as well as the supporting radar installations in the Czech Republic) have nothing to do with Russia, since it’s ridiculous to think that it could have any effect on any nuclear attack Russia might want to launch against the US or any other enemy. But on the other hand, it’s quite apparent that they must indeed have something to do with Poland’s neighbor to the East, as the Poles have found itself on the receiving end of military and even nuclear threats from the Russian military of a sort that have not been brandished on this continent since the bad old days of the Cold War. More to the point, those basing agreements that the Polish and Czech governments have recently signed with the US mean valuable security reassurances for both countries in these times of increased uncertainty and threats. That can be seen in that aspect of the agreement with Poland that will have US anti-aircraft and anti-missile Patriot missiles, manned at first by US troops, stationed on Polish soil – a clear violation, by the way, of assurances made to the Russian government in connection with the admission of Eastern European states to NATO that there would never actually be US or Western European troops stationed in those countries. Nonetheless, that Poland and the Czech Republic have in this way contracted directly with Washington, rather than being satisfied that their NATO or EU memberships already protected them sufficiently, is also a very interesting aspect to this development.

Finally, Andreas Schwarzkopf in the Frankfurther Rundschau (Together Against Moscow) has a look at the galvanizing effect on NATO Alliance unity that the developments in Georgia has had. Going into yesterday’s North Atlantic Council meeting there had been worries expressed over the division in opinion among NATO members about how react, with the US together with Eastern European states wanting to take a hard line while the others, particularly France and Germany, seeking a softer diplomatic line. What finally emerged – in the form of the statement quoted in part above – he judges to be a decent-enough compromise, although there must be follow-up. In particular, an end must come to the disunity within European ranks that has greeted each attempt up to now by Vladimir Putin’s government to intimidate its neighbors, from the cyber-war unleashed against Estonia in the spring of last year to natural gas cut-offs to Lithuania and the Ukraine. In order to let Russia know without any doubt that violence or economic threats will no longer be tolerated behavior, the West itself must change, too. The Eastern European states must be put on a shorter leash, made to understand, as Schwarzkopf puts it, that “revenge is a poor counselor.” And the US must change its policies back to be willing to work with its allies in a multilateral framework.

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