With the messy, unfortunate, and tragic war between Russia and Georgia now wrapping up under the hazy fog of ceasefire agreements (minus of course the ongoing pillaging and humiliation of the defeated and the exceptionally slow removal of Russian tanks), the U.S. and European media and catching their breath to engage in a second round vigorous war hysteria, overt Russia hating, and yellow journalism. My view is that this distorted coverage of the war, at both extremes, represents a dangerous distraction. We’re seeing frequent comparisons between this war and Hitler’s annexation of Sudetenland – an event so charged with history and unforeseen repercussions that its comparison is inaccurate if not crass. We’re seeing widespread calls from politicians and newspaper editorials to “stand up” to the newly “resurgent” enemy. We’re making a wide variety of assumptions about what this means in terms of Russia’s foreign policy ambitions with little more than suspicion as fear as evidence. The West appears to be trying its hardest to demonize Russia and reinvent the Cold War. What no one seems to realize is that this is exactly the hysterical reaction that the siloviki were hoping that the conflict would produce, and by engaging in these disproportionate histrionics, many of us are voluntarily playing an active role in deepening their influence over society and cementing authoritarianism in Russia. In other words, we are playing right into their hands.
Don’t get me wrong – I think that the invasion of Georgia is an event of tremendous geopolitical importance, a moment which we will look back upon as a critical and defining moment for the judgment of world leaders. There should be robust news coverage and discussion – and really it is an illustration of how pitifully inattentive the world has been to events unfolding in the new Russia and its periphery in recent years. It is correct and legitimate for the world to hold considerable sympathy for the position of Georgia’s fragile sovereignty, and I cringe every time the world “invasion” is used to describe Georgian military action in South Ossetia when this region is within its own sovereign territory (“de facto” independence is not the same as sovereignty, sorry, it just legally isn’t the same). It was also immediately clear that Russia’s response to the fighting was unequivocally bent upon destroying the country’s economy and removing its leadership – while the alleged motivation of “protecting” Russian citizens ended the moment that they bombed civilian apartment buildings in Gori, targeted the BTC pipeline, and destroyed widespread non-military targets. Pavel Felgenhauer has even published a very compelling report that Russia had been planning the invasion since Germany forced NATO to reject Georgia’s application for MAP status. Unspeakable tragedies have been committed, and innocent families have been obliterated.However, the predilection to portray Russia and her people as the quintessential and unitary “evil” out to conquer the world like Stalin reincarnate is preposterous – just as preposterous as the suggestion that Mikheil Saakashvili did nothing to seek and provoke this war (he did take the first steps – which is obviously not a sufficient justification).But this demonizing of Russia is part of a plan. There are those in Russia, the hawkish elements of the siloviki, who require this “enemy narrative” to hold onto their positions of absolute power, and are doing an excellent job of telling their citizens that the rest of the world hates them, and is resentful of their success and potential. So long as all problems have an outside source of blame, it becomes easier to deflect demands of accountability and make the citizenry tolerate the spiraling corruption in the name of national security. The trademark methodology of Putin’s capitalist authoritarianism is the extreme mobilization of nationalism – a surge of identity politics that requires “an other” to fight, an “enemy” to fear, and the constant definition of the national project not by any universal imperative, but rather as the foil to something else (why do you think that Hugo Chavez banters on endless of the upcoming U.S. invasion, when such an action has never even been discussed?). That’s why we hear reports that Russia’s bombs that failed to blow up could be found with incriptions “for you, USA,” because the siloviki have successfully convinced their people that his was a proxy war. When the editorials and candidates for office call Russia an enemy to freedom, what they are in fact achieving is the promotion of Igor Sechin’s interests.But war hysteria has a cost upon the West’s decision making as well. So long as we fail to understand the mercantilist nature of Russia’s foreign policy, we will be inhibited in the formulation of a successful policy response to contain the damage of Russian authoritarianism. It would be more productive to look at the operative mechanics of Russia’s conduct in recent years, and see that in many ways it comes down to the personal business interests of governing elites. If we look at the invasion of Georgia as an effort by Gazprom to defeat any possibility of competing transit routes to the EU from Central Asia, this can greatly inform upon the strategy to re-establish stability in the region. The Kremlin’s immensely wealthy businessmen have an enormous stake in the healthy functioning of the global financial order, and while eager to balance their pocketbooks against the fervent nationalism which they have instrumentalized to stay in power, the government’s antagonism toward the peaceful and prosperous relations among the nations of the world is vastly overstated by the hysteria.Let’s express our concern intelligently and fairly, and avoid the irrationalism that so often benefits the power of the autocrats.