Andreas Umland: Moscow’s Miscalculated Show of Strength

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Dr Andreas Umland is editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" ( ) and administrator of the web site "Russian Nationalism" (]

In Western comments, the Russian army’s invasion of Georgia is portrayed as a manifestation of revisionist expansionism. Kremlin-controlled mass media, in contrast, presents Russia’s intervention in the Southern Caucasus as a humanitarian action saving a national minority from “genocide” as well as the “lives and dignity” of Russian citizens abroad. After what the Russian army had done to Chechnya in the 1990s, Moscow’s noise on Georgia is hyperbolic and hypocritical.

The Russian leadership helped also to provoke the Georgian attack and had been seemingly waiting or even preparing for it. Yet, the Russian interpretation of the August 2008 events is valid, to a certain extent, too. Had Russia not intervened, the number of dead, wounded and fleeing Ossetians may have been higher. Tiblisi’s behavior towards Ossetians under Georgia’s first President Zviad Gamzakhurdia, in the early 1990s, did not bode well for Saakashvili’s methods to solve this separatist issue.

A third factor, however, was more - or even the most - relevant. With her demonstrative unilateralism in the Caucasus, Russia intended to signal to the United States that she is back. Her actions were meant as a response to and replication of American international behavior on the Balkans and Islamic world, after the end of the Cold War. Having regained economic and military power, Moscow, with her action, communicated to Washington: “In our ‘backyard’ (i.e. the former Soviet republics), we can do the same as you did in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan or Iraq. Perhaps, we are not on a pair with you in world politics. But, in our sphere of influence, we are again a Great Power, and will behave accordingly.”

People in the West may not only doubt whether the pre-history, circumstances and effects of the US’s and Russia’s recent military interventions and foreign policies are easily comparable. Many Westerners might be surprised that they themselves are addressees of Russia’s recent overreaction, in the Caucasus. Yet, this is exactly the case.

For several years now, Russia’s tightly controlled world news reporting and foreign affairs commenting have been dominated by shrill anti-Americanism. Whether on popular TV shows or in high-brow journals, Russia is presented as the negative other of the US – its major counterweight both politically and culturally, on the Euro-Asian continent. Russia appears as the last defender of an alternative “Eurasian” civilization marked by traditional beliefs, historical rootedness, high culture, and spiritual values. While anti-Americanism can be found in many countries, Russia symbolizes this common sentiment in its most consistent and significant form. Russian official discourse on current international affairs is fixated on open and hidden US influence abroad which is seen as standing behind almost everything that is happening in the world today. While there are many “good Europeans” sharing, at least partially, this view, there is also the “bad West” comprised of those countries that are, in fact, satellites of the “amerikantsy.”

It was this obsession with the US’s role in contemporary history that led Russia’s leaders not only to interpret Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia in conspirological terms, i.e. to understand Saakashvili’s behavior as inspired by Washington. The Russian leaders’ inferiority complex with regard to US power, apparently, also resulted in inattention to possible effects that their sharp response to Tiblisi’s inapt actions would have on countries good relations to which are seen as being of importance to Russia, by much of her elite. Russia’s resolute show of strength was primarily intended for the American spectator, and did have the effect on US political and intellectual leaders that Moscow had been anticipating or even hoping for.

Yet, in Europe and the former Soviet empire, it had considerable impact too. There, the repercussions took a form that has, probably, been less welcome to Russia’s elites. Not only was the reaction of the EU member states’ – whether West or East European – to Russia’s excessive use of force only marginally less biting than the US’s. And not only is Russia still waiting for, at least, rhetorical support from various South-East Asian countries that it regards as her partners. Depressingly, some of Russia’s politically and culturally closest allies in the post-Soviet sphere too reacted with suspicious ambivalence. Most remaining member countries of the Moscow-dominated Commonwealth of Independent States have kept silent until know, or, like Ukraine, do not come up with a unified position of its political elites. Interestingly, Kazakhstan – perhaps, Russia’s most important ally in Central Asia – did, so far, not speak up for the Russian position either. Even, Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenka had to be reminded of his obligations towards Moscow by the Russian Ambassador in Minsk, before he duly called the invasion of Georgia “wonderful.” Oddly, it was Nicaragua – a country of marginal relevance to Russia’s interests – that first followed Moscow in recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as states. Russia now runs the risk that the relative unimportance, in both regional and international terms, of the countries who follow Russia in supporting diplomatically the two separatist republics will have the effect of illustrating the dubiousness of the issue rather than actually strengthen Moscow’s position, on the international scene.

Like numerous times before, the Russian leadership appears as being a prisoner to its own propaganda. Moscow’s leaders, of course, know that most information on political matters spread by Russian media and officials is, at best, filtrated, and, at worst, falsified. Yet, they continue becoming hostages of the aggressive public discourse evolving out of this manipulated factual basis. The results remind of Russia’s inadequate reaction to the fall of Milosevic or the Orange Revolution, and her subsequent loss of influence in Serbia and Ukraine – nations historically close to the Russians. The conduct of Moscow’s leaders’ foreign policy falls victim to the archaic political order they have created in post-Soviet Russia, in the first place. What, so far, is saving the Russian leaders from manifest domestic embarrassment is that media reports on the obvious mishaps of Russian foreign policy are also manipulated. A plethora of marginal statements by non-Russians supporting Moscow’s behavior in the Caucasus is extensively documented on Russian TV while Europe’s stiff position and the former Soviet republics lack of support remains uncommented and under-reported, in Russian mass media. However, outside the Kremlin’s propagandistic bubble, Moscow looks increasingly isolated – a perception that, sooner or later, will also find its way into the Russian public.

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