Published 28 August 2008
Many Russians persist in viewing Putin as a superman. If truth be told he is a failure
Many people are afraid of Russia, and with good reason. Bloodthirsty Cossacks left scars across eastern Europe. So, too, did the Red Army. But British Russophobia has different roots, stretching back to the age of imperial competition. Now that we have waved goodbye to the colonies and Russia has grudgingly shed most of the Soviet imperium, there is no reason why we should fall back on some atavistic fear of the Kremlin when shaping policy. Caricaturing Russia as an angry, hungry bear does not help; nor does demonising Putin.
Instead, Russia's intervention in Georgia must make us focus on two questions. First, how strong is Russia and what are its intentions? Second, what are western aims in the Caucasus and eastern Europe? Once these matters are clarified, it will be possible to judge whether we are on a collision course with Moscow.
Georgia was plainly a Russian trap. A tank army was in position, and the Black Sea fleet mobilised, long before the fickle Mikhail Saakash vili started to bombard South Ossetia. Dig a hole in front of the Georgian leader and he can be relied upon to walk into it. So why did Russia crave military action? Because it believes that the mountainous borderlands of the Caucasus define Russian identity. Westernise or Nato-ise these countries and you trigger the Russian fear of encirclement. Also, the Black Sea has rich gas deposits, lucrative enough to turn Russia's southern borderlands into prosperous, independent-minded rivals. Georgia is also a transit land for an oil pipeline that poses an alternative to Russian networks. Destabilising Georgia and instal ling a Moscow-friendly government is therefore a Russian strategic aim.