Bear with a sore head

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 August, 2008, 12:00am

To some minds, the bear is back. Russia's belligerence over Georgia is the first time it has flexed its military muscle since its powerful predecessor, the Soviet Union, began unravelling two decades ago. The message would seem to be clear: refreshed from its hibernation, Moscow has returned to the world stage as a force to reckon with. There is even talk of a new cold war.

Those chill winds would seem to have started blowing when Russia sent troops into the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and with the recognition this week of their independence. This was surely a declaration of its intent to protect what it sees as its strategic space. For those in the west alarmed by Russian nationalism and its building of alliances with western-unfriendly countries, the natural next step would appear to be to bring back the 'good old days' by reassembling the Soviet Union.

Such arguments are flawed. The cold war was grounded in ideology and Russia is not being driven by a desire to challenge for dominance of the world order. The nation is not as militarised, unified or as globally powerful as was the Soviet Union. Nor can comparison be drawn between Russia and the foremost Soviet challenger, the United States. Russia's economy is one-tenth of America's, US military spending is 700 per cent greater and, due to rapid ageing, there are 800,000 fewer Russians each year.

That is not to say that Russia is faring poorly. High oil and gas prices have created strong foundations for its development. A construction boom is under way. The chaos that Russia was mired in from the Soviet collapse to the late 1990s under befuddled president Boris Yeltsin is well and truly behind it.

What is pushing Russia is not a hunger for power, but its being treated shabbily by the west. Its views have been disregarded on Nato expansion to include former Soviet states on its doorstep and the setting up of a US missile bass in one-time Soviet satellite Poland. The last straw came in February when, with western assistance, the Serbian territory of Kosovo declared independence.

Russia is rightly baffled by these developments. Georgia and Ukraine are not ready to join Nato. US insistence that its missile defences are to fight terrorism and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran has been unconvincing. Most damaging of all is the manner in which the west has broken all rules of national sovereignty by invading Afghanistan and Iraq and, most recently, aiding and abetting Kosovan statehood.

In Bosnia, warring ethnic groups were forced to live together in a single state. Ethnic separatism could not, at any cost, be rewarded because of the message it would send to other such groups elsewhere. Yet the principle was ignored with Kosovo, with Serbia's rights being overridden and militant separatism backed to the hilt. Little wonder that Russia has responded to western hypocrisy by sending soldiers and tanks into Georgia and sowing some independence of its own among Moscow-friendly populations. It has dangerously upped the ante in a game about ignoring international rules that the west foolishly started.

Colleague Fred Weir, a Canadian who has lived in Moscow for the past 22 years as a correspondent for foreign media, crystallised my views. He is impressed by Russia's dynamic growth, which is based on more than oil and gas wealth. The country, he says, has decisive leadership and self-confidence. Yet, to Moscow, the west treated it like the basket case it was under Yeltsin, ignoring it and shunting it aside in the name of expansion. Russia's leaders should be given an equal place at the international table and allowed a piece of the action. They are entitled to respect.

The slippery slope that the world has gone down and which Russia is furthering in Georgia does not have at its end another cold war. There is a more frightening parallel. Germany was similarly isolated after its defeat in the first world war, and its concerns about the economic expansion of the powers that defeated it went unheard. Quickly and quietly, it muscled its way into the global system. We must avoid the same mistake.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor