Misha’s Domino Theory

An interesting column from Melik Kaylan at Forbes, who spends some time following Mikheil Saakashvili during last week’s UNGA, and gets into a debate with Owen Matthews about Russia’s ambitions and the legitimacy of their current grievances. The fundamental question of the debate: does a NATO presence in the Ukraine or Georgia really actually pose a security threat to Russia, or only a defense against expansionism?

We had the McCain-Obama debate on. At the bohemian Greenwich Village brownstone of our friend Ann Marlowe, the leading literary salonista of our time, Misha ate and watched and greeted a stream of well-wishers. Upstairs, Owen and I debated the Russia/Georgia matter. He had just penned a quasi-sympathetic large profile of Misha in Newsweek. I had just published a story in The Wall Street Journal, the first to detail the destruction of Georgian cultural sites during the recent invasion. I have said before in this space that Owen, like many others, believes Misha made a mistake in the recent conflict by drawing his six-gun first–I believe the Russkies drew first, but Misha moved quicker. Owen and I ranged back and forth over the topic. So I suggested to him that we have it out in public, here, in my column. Let him speak for himself.

Owen: The debate we should be having is whether Misha is right in asserting that Russia wants to reconquer its empire. He claims that if the West does not stand up to Russian aggression in Georgia, the Kremlin will continue its revanche and take bites out of Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Moldova.I believe that Misha’s domino theory is fundamentally flawed. Occupying Abkhazia and Ossetia was, in my opinion, more to do with sending a signal to NATO to stop its encroachment on what Moscow believes to be its backyard. Moscow’s ambitions are not so much aggressively imperial as aimed at reversing Russia’s post-imperial decline. Whatever Putin’s well-publicized regrets over the end of the Soviet Union, I don’t see any serious mood in Moscow toward attempting to recreate the old Union. What is lost is lost–Moscow doesn’t want to lose more.Me: It’s egregious enough that Russia employs its old imperial strategy of irredentism to destabilize Georgia. But I agree with Owen that there’s a broader message. Where is the effect felt? Not just in the West but in the former colonies, where they receive the message that the West cannot offer them protection. In short, Moscow says fall into our orbit or simply fall.As for what Moscow loses, it’s not Moscow’s to lose. Why on earth do we tolerate this notion that Moscow has some droit de seigneur over countries in its periphery, or even over entire ethnic lands within its borders that never chose to be part of Moscow’s internal empire? Why shouldn’t we strive to dismantle the Kremlin’s ukase over 11 unwilling time zones?Owen: Put it this way: There are two distinct strands to Moscow’s thinking here. One is the obnoxious, neo-imperial assertiveness which clearly has no place in the civilized world. There’s a lot of psychological baggage behind that mood, and Putin is a particular proponent of it.But there’s also another, more legitimate line of thinking, which I believe deserves to be taken into account by anyone hoping to forge a productive relationship with Russia and discourage the neo-imperialists of Putin’s stripe, and that is that Russia has a legitimate objection to the militarization of its own borderlands by NATO. That’s really a bridge too far for even reasonable, pro-Western Russians–indeed, Boris Yeltsin always claimed that Bill Clinton had assured him that NATO would not expand to the Baltics, Ukraine and the Caucasus.Misha argues that an independent country like Georgia can ally with anyone it chooses to. But joining a military alliance with the U.S. is, objectively, a threat to Russia’s security. I don’t think it’s so unreasonable of Russia to object to U.S. troops stationed on its borders.Me: Yes, the Clinton assurance. How astonishing to consign away this or that country to Moscow’s orbit. But let’s move on–NATO only poses a threat to an expansionist force. We should stop agonizing over what Moscow wants or feels about its periphery.Why, in the first place, do these countries ask for NATO membership if not precisely to stave off the threat they feel from Moscow? The defense of potential victims only threatens the psychology of a bully. Until Russia shows a different face, the “near-abroad” has a right to ask for NATO membership. A productive relationship? What would that be if not the freeing of subject lands?