Read Historical Discussion of Putin's Imperial Ambitions from 2008Historians in the News
tags: imperialism, Russia, Georgia, Vladmir Putin
As we write, reports are coming in that after a bombardment by Russia's aircraft, its tanks are advancing on the Georgian town of Gori - the birthplace of Iosif Djugashvili, better known as Stalin. This throwback to the heyday of the Soviet Union is more than symbolic. Historical analogies are never perfect, but our sense of dÃ©jÃ vu was acute as we watched Moscow's Soviet-style move to reassert its domination of the USSR's former fief. Moscow perceives a threat to its strategic interests from a small regional actor. It prods its neighboring clients to commit such provocations that the adversary is drawn into military action that "legitimizes" a massive, direct intervention to "defend the victims of aggression." In our recent study Foxbats over Dimona: The Soviets' Nuclear Gamble in the Six-Day War, we demonstrated that this was the scenario employed by the USSR to instigate the 1967 conflict. Then, it was the unexpectedly devastating effect of Israel's preemptive strike that thwarted the planned Soviet intervention. Against Georgia this week, the ploy has so far worked much better. As in our Middle Eastern precedent, a major motive for Moscow's move was to prevent its encirclement by nuclear-armed Western pacts. When the United States announced its intent to deploy missile defenses in the new NATO members Poland and the Czech Republic, Russia declared this to be a measure that would be met with a military response. Its alarm grew when President George W. Bush visited Ukraine and Georgia, inviting them, too, into NATO. But at the pact's summit in Bucharest in April, when the European allies demurred, Russia saw its chance - and pounced. Georgia has assiduously courted US protection, if not a full NATO guarantee. It sent 2,000 soldiers to Iraq, who are being recalled to face the Russian invasion. Washington has provided Georgia with materiel and advisers, and so did Israel - at least until Russia pressed it to stop, reportedly in return for promises to withhold advanced weapons from Syria. The South Ossetia separatists are already claiming US intervention - saying there are black people among the Georgian casualties. But even if some American personnel went discreetly into action, that would not suffice to deter Russia from bringing Georgia to heel, if not physically occupying the country. And then the Western loss will not be limited to the independence of a small, remote, struggling democracy. Russia would achieve another strategic goal: regaining control of the vital flow of Caspian Sea oil to Western (and Israeli) consumers via pipelines that pass through Georgia to its own ports - now already blockaded by the Russian navy - and to Turkey's. But Moscow's apparent disregard for the hitherto internationally sacrosanct borders and sovereignty of the 15 former Soviet Socialist Republics may have even farther-reaching consequences. Russia itself enjoyed immunity for its suppression of Chechnya's independence bid, as the latter was only an autonomous component of the Russian Federation. By the same token, South Ossetia and Abkhazia (where Russian marines have landed to assist separatists in opening a second front) are integral parts of Georgia. In calling these often-arbitrary borders into question, Russia has opened a vast Pandora's box. Absent a resolute Western response, the next in line for Russian designs will be another would-be NATO candidate: Ukraine, which Moscow has already berated for backing Georgia. Ukraine's eastern mining and industrial regions are heavily populated by Russian-speakers; the Crimea, whence Ukraine seeks to eject the Russian Black Sea Fleet's main base, was part of Russia until the 1950s. After "coming to the rescue of Russian citizens" in South Ossetia (locals who were issued Russian passports, or actual settlers from across the border), Moscow may demand the repatriation of its people from Ukraine - along with their land. In respect to Israel, too, Russian leaders often proclaim a "special relationship" based on the "hundreds of thousands of Russian people" who reside here. This may still be far over the horizon - but you read it here first: Some day, a "representative delegation" of these "Russians" may invoke the Ossetian precedent to appeal for protection from Moscow. With a large part of the Russian fleet moved by then from Sevastopol, Crimea, to Tartus, Syria, such an intervention may be at least as feasible as in 1967.
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