“Georgia – again?” Well, yes. What else would there be? The Republican National Convention? Coming up (we think). Sarah Palin? Not today, but definitely stay tuned on that one, it could turn spectacular. Hurricane Gustav? The European viewpoint there is probably not too interesting, even if we might be somewhat honored by the choice of that quintessentially (Central) European given name for bestowal on the storm. My best sense of the EU’s official position on Gustav – gathered from that extensive trawling through the various national presses that I do for you on a continual basis – is that it’s taken to be a bad thing, definitely.
Actually, developments on the Georgia story do keep on coming, especially if you take the unpleasantness there of last month (not at all unreasonably) as a proxy for the new Eurasian balance-of-power that conflict suddenly revealed to the world. Today is when the EU heads of government are due in Paris to meet on a European response (if any) to Russia’s recent behavior. Looking ahead last Friday, the Berlin correspondent for Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza, Bartosz T. Wielinski, put forth a mostly pessimistic outlook on what could be accomplished (What the Union can do to Russia on Monday).
First to Wielinski’s title (although keep in mind that journalists are generally not responsible for their published pieces’ titles: an editor usually adds that). It struck me at first rather strangely: “do to Russia”? Maybe a bit aggressive, even childish? But no, keep in mind that Poland actually has had the recent pleasure of being threatened militarily by the Russians (I’m referring to remarks from high-ranking military leaders about targeting Polish territory after the US-Polish agreement to establish the anti-missile base there was signed last month), and so would earnestly like to “do to” back to them, and that along with the Baltic states and Great Britain, who collectively will be submitting a proposal to cut off a wide range of EU-Russian cooperation. But that is likely to go exactly nowhere among the rest of the assembled EU leaders, Wielinski reports, mainly because of the great reluctance to do anything shown by that old supposed “motor” of the European Union, the Franco-German alliance (Germany as the Union’s most populous and richest member, France as another big power and also the current holder of the EU presidency and therefore chair of this meeting). He quotes the snide riposte of one anonymous German diplomat – “Will the Poles stop buying Russian gas?” – and then the Russian daily Kommersant about how the Kremlin is threatening to review its system of economic preferences with certain EU states as well as its policy of cooperating to pressure Iran, if the Europeans get too uppity at their Paris meeting. Oh, and there’s also the embargo that can be re-imposed on the sale of foodstuffs out of Poland, for good measure.
“Getting Away” – to Paris!
If all that is not enough to discourage anyone hoping for a principled European stand against aggression to issue from this European summit, there is the additional consideration – brought up recently by The Economist’s “Certain ideas of Europe” blog – that many of those assembling today in Paris will be in a grumpy mood from having their cherished summer vacations cut short by this EU business. Yes – on 1 September! For as the Economist’s anonymous writer notes, the EU response machinery and most other government functions pretty much shut down for the summer break. Hey, isn’t today the 69th anniversary of the German attack into Poland that started the Second World War in Europe? Maybe Hitler was consciously exploiting that (in)famous and age-old European yearning for some summertime getting-away-from-it-all! So that Vladimir Putin in the first week of August was just following in this hallowed tradition of aggression.
Ah, but I know my audience out there is sharp, and I can already hear you all objecting “But wait, MAO! It was Mikheil Saakashvili, president of Georgia, who on 7 August ordered Georgian armed forces into South Ossetia and so precipitated the latest chapter in Russian-Georgian tension actually involving, for a while, intense armed combat.” You’re right about that – but who then in turn was behind Saakashvili? Vladimir Putin himself has posed some interesting questions on that score, as reported in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (Putin suspects McCain conspiracy; no by-line). In an interview he gave to CNN, Putin let slip mention of his “suspicion that someone in the United States brought about this conflict with the express goal of worsening the situation and providing an advantage to one of the candidates in the struggle for the office of US president.” He didn’t name any specific names, but as the article points out, he didn’t have to: the dynamic points entirely to McCain. (Note that I am just passing this along, i.e. I offer no endorsement of this purported conspiracy. However, one name that I see omitted entirely in this article by both Putin and the Süddeutsche Zeitung itself – to my great surprise – is Randy Scheuneman, a leading foreign policy advisor to the McCain campaign who was also a well-paid lobbyist for the Georgian government until rather late in the game.) And here’s another thing that came up in that interview (did the US press cover this at all?): Putin brought up an allegation that Russian forces had detected American personnel – presumably military personnel, there to train the Georgian army – present in the combat zone during the fighting last month. “If this is confirmed,” he said, “that is very bad – it is very dangerous” and added that any such American personnel could only have been there “by direct order of their leadership.” (For the record, the US State Department called Putin’s accusations in the interview “crazy.”)
Electric in the Crimea
In the meantime, tension continues to simmer within those countries at Russia’s periphery who have new cause to worry after the Red Army’s incursion into Georgia, supposedly as protection to Russian passport-holders under threat within South Ossetia. We’ve already dealt with this theme with a treatment of Moldova, but that was largely for laughs, in keeping with this weblog’s official attitude of politically-incorrect irreverence. (I mean: Moldova – who dey? To be sure, the threat from Russia to Moldova certainly does seem to be bona fide and serious; I know it’s serious to the Moldovans.) But these days the big game is clearly the Ukraine, where the tension is ratcheted up even more by the basing in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet – itself recently directly involved, by the way, in the Georgian conflict. The French newspaper Libération has an enlightening recent article about that situation by Mathilde Goanec entitled Sevastopol, Russian position and with the lede “Conflict. In the Crimea the Georgian crisis sharpens tensions between Russian-speakers and Ukrainians.”
One problem is that, by agreement, the Russians can be assured of having Sevastopol available for their Fleet only until 2017, and the Ukrainian authorities seem distinctly unenthusiastic about any prolongation of that arrangement. Its presence there annoys the rabid local Ukrainian nationalists, who turn out to protest in front of Fleet headquarters at the port, located on a square featuring a still-intact statue of Vladimir Lenin, his arm outstretched and pointing out at the sea. Yet the prospect of the Fleet’s having to leave equally ticks off the many Russian nationalists around (who like to wear t-shirts proclaiming “The Ukraine is not dead yet . . . but it’s just a question of time”), perhaps understandably annoyed at the prospect of the Fleet’s 225-year presence there coming to an end. And according to Goanec’s article, in Sevastopol the latter (i.e. the Russian nationalists) considerably outnumber the former. You would think that the Cossacks, those famous mounted warriors from the steppes, would be on Ukraine’s side in this stand-off, but she locates one paramilitary group (the “Kourin Cossacks”) that sets as its mission “to guarantee peace in the Crimea” – until Russia finally does the right thing and moves in to take the country back. The Georgia crisis has had the effect of forcing moderates to take sides, to declare themselves either pro-Russian or pro-Ukraine, with the result that, as Goanec writes, “in the city, the ambiance is electric.”
Sochi Olympics in Doubt
Moving clockwise along the Black Sea, we come, once again, to Sochi, the resort very close to the Georgian (actually, the Abkhazian) border that is supposed to be the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. But now that is in doubt, as we see once again in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (“Put the Olympics in Sochi in question”). Here we actually come full clockwise circle back to our first discussion of today’s EU summit in Paris, for the gist of this Sochi article is that taking those Winter Olympics away from Moscow is about the only measure to punish the Russians that is available now. As Uwe Halbach, Russian and Caucasian expert at Berlin’s Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (Foundation for Science and Politics) points out, we can’t threaten Russia financially as we once could: “This is not the Russia of the 90s anymore.” And a trade embargo would do little more than drive Russia back into defiant isolation. Well, the consensus is that that is precisely what is in prospect coming out of today’s summit, i.e. no financial or trade sanctions. I suppose a move against the 2014 Olympics is possible, although probably unlikely at least in the short term, because such a measure has not been extensively discussed publicly yet.
UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan cites an article in The Guardian discussing the Crimea’s potential role in heightening Russian-Ukrainian tensions – but Mathilde Goanec, Libération and we of the EuroSavant community were already on top of all that weeks ago!