Ursine nightmare

And here we were all looking at the wrong locations.

Before Russia invaded Georgia – can we just call a spade, a spade? – last week or so, a glance at the “crisis map” of the world showed hot spots in several dozen or so locations. Africa had big red spots all over; aside from inter-tribal warfare and genocide, you had drought, famine and an AIDS epidemic that could explode way beyond the borders of the continent. The Middle East was its usual hornet’s nest self, with Iran a glowing hot coal that could turn nuclear any moment. North Korea remained an enigma that could jump up and give the world one hell of a “boo!” if its glorious leader decides to, whether out of strategic concern or simple ennui. And, as I wrote in an earlier post, there was that traditional heartland of conflicts, where one World War was birthed: the Balkans, especially when Kosovo split from Serbia.

So many places where the first shots could have rang out. In fact, in many of those areas, guns have fired in anger and malice, blood had flowed. But that thing you looked out for was the one conflict, that single moment of violent action, that would spark a conflagration. World War I, after all, was caused by a single gunshot.

We were all looking at the wrong locations.

I remember reading an article in the International Herald Tribune about how the Russian leadership had once again conducted a military parade on Red Square. I didn’t realize until that article that it hadn’t been done since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early ’90s.

There were warning signs all over, now that I think about it. Vladimir Putin has been nothing if methodical in the path he took to return Russia to a position where it could flex its muscles like in the old days. That incident with Britain, when Embassies and political foundations became the subject of Russian ire. And there was that other incident where Russia actually closed off the fuel pipes to several East European nations.

Another article in IHT that I read (apologies for the lack of links; I can’t remember the headers or dates for these articles) mentioned that Russia could act the way it did against Georgia because it was “flush with oil money.” So does this tie in with what was done to Gazprom? Was Vladimir Putin setting the stage for all of this, for God knows how long now?

Because this isn’t the Russia that was laid low by the collapse of the Soviet Union, its economy in shambles, its Armed Forces a shadow of its former, Soviet-era strength. I remember looking at those pictures of battlecruisers and attack submarines rusting in shipyards at the Kola Peninsula or at the Black Sea ports, warships that were once the nightmare of their Western rivals. I remember Mig-29 Fulcrums, the best fighter ever built, being sold for bargain-basement prices just so the usual clients of American-made warplanes would consider them instead (I mean, compared to even the F-16, what would you buy?).

When Russia came up as a topic for security concerns, the worry was more on loose nuclear weapons materiel; the worry was that, with no money to speak of, some… enterprising Russian military officers and politicians might find it more economically viable to sell the rotting carcasses of their nuclear missiles to… interested parties. And if you’re a Russian nuclear technology specialist, once the pride of the Soviet military-scientific establishment, what would you do if… interested parties offered to give you a good paycheck when your country hasn’t given you one in the last two months or so?

Loose fissile material. Rogue nuclear scientists. That was it. That was all that concerned those that had the power to intervene. Russian arms and armaments? Without the Red Army to use them, what had the West and the world have to fear?

And on a day that the Olympics would be heralded in, Russia decided to roll the tanks into a free state.

Even worse, the West seemed at a loss as to how to properly respond to it.

Nevermind if this was what Russia believes as its “Near Abroad,” that Georgia, practically Russia’s next door neighbor, was once at the center of the old USSR. This was a free state, with a democratically-elected leadership. In fact, Georgia was touted as one of the best examples of democracy in the old Soviet heartland, with an application pending in NATO.

In an article in IHT, the director of an independent research organization was quoted with a statement that, in my mind, illustrates in so few words what had happened: “For the first time since 1991, Russia has used military force against a sovereign state in the post-Soviet area. The world will not be the same. A new phenomenon is unfolding in front or our eyes: a re-emerging power that is willing to use force to guarantee it interests. The West does not know how to respond.”

This is chilling.

For years, we looked at China as the possible source of large-scale, Great Power level belligerence. The China of the mid- to late-90s had many reasons to rattle its longsword: old tensions with Vietnam and India and the Japanese; Kim Jong Il going crazier than usual (and therefore the Chinese had to back the NoKors again); the Spratlys, which would have involved the Americans, too.

Yet, surprisingly, as China discovered its own prosperity… it actually mellowed. The Red Mandarins have decided, it seems, to use the newly-discovered soft power of its economic clout to reassert the dominance of the Middle Kingdom. It still has one of the biggest armies in the world, backed by an increasingly-sophisticated research and the industrial backbone that only the billions of Chinese Mainlanders can give. Yet, rather than face the West on the field of battle, it chose instead to… buy them off.

I am re-reading my Kissinger because what he wrote in Diplomacy appears to be on the mark concerning Russia. He pointed it out that Russia has this mentality, unchanged by whatever ideology Moscow has adopted, of it only being as safe and as strong as its last conquest. Safety is in expansion. Strength is measured in military victory. “Respect” is not earned but taken.

The Kremlin’s gate should have inscribed on it, for all entrants to see, “Oderim dem metuant.”

Perhaps there is a confluence of events. Putin must feel lucky: Russia is on an oil-rush high, while the United States, under his “friend” Dubya, is listless and in “play safe” mode as it approaches November, and the EU is still groping for answers after the Irish thumbed down its new charter. Russia’s previous flexings went either unnoticed, or dismissed utterly. Putin could always depend on the new world order of the Americans where any belligerent would be let off with kid gloves because of the West’s fear of “alienating” potential democracies.

Because that was what made Putin act so brazenly against Georgia: “the West does not know how to respond.”

He knew this. The West essentially told him, when you view the various reactions of it in the course of a decade or so, how it would react. And, since he was KGB before, Putin must have thought, like all good communists, “will they let me get away with this?” In Filipino, we have a term for such… audacity: “hanggang kaya, pilitin.” So long as you can get away with it, do it.

So Putin poked. Hard. When the Americans were caught between a Dubya and a dubious future with its elections more than three months away and Obama seemingly unable to put McCain away for good. The EU was hamstrung by a Charter in limbo, and a dearth of effective leadership; Angela Merkel’s coalition in Germany is teethering on a precipice, and Gordon Brown is… where is he again? And despite all the good things some pundits have said of him, Nicholas Sarkozy is… not Charles de Gaulle. When France, and maybe Europe, might need the backbone of a De Gaulle. And/or a Churchill.

Because the Russian Bear isn’t growling anymore. It just clawed one of the hangers-on to the Great Big Western Campfire, just to see if the guys in the middle would protect the ones wanting in.

Dubya yelled “hey!”, but only after the big bear had mauled little Georgia. And everyone’s scrambling to get the poor, little Caucasian country to the car so it can be saved.

That moment of hesitation was… priceless. But not for the West. They blinked. Reactions that would have been instinctual during the Cold War were forgotten even by a NATO that had one of its applicants hammered by its old foe. We can say that, sure, things should have been different after the Cold War; Russia wasn’t supposed to be the threat anymore, after all. It was a partner, and Dubya even had something like a feel-good moment with Putin when he looked into the other’s eyes. “I have taken a measure of his soul,” so the Great White Father said of the Russian Bear.

Maybe, as with all things, Dubya saw what he wanted to. Perhaps he didn’t see the hunger in those eyes, the need to restore a greatness done away at the hands of the Americans and their triumphant little democracy.

Woodrow Wilson is dead. He died on the voting machines of Florida in 2000, and was burnt on a pyre in New York in 9-11. His ghost was ravaged in 2004 with something called “Swift Boat”, and his memories done away with a year earlier on the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan. His ideals were ravaged, literally, in a place called Guantanamo Bay.

Wilson would not have batted an eye when Russia invaded Georgia. In fact, Wilson would not have needed to decide whether to respond to a belligerent Russia, because the world Wilson made, the one that was supposed to have dominated after the fall of the Wall, precluded such things as a Russia mauling a sovereign state just to prove its back to its old, powerful self.

The implications were dire if Putin had been allowed to roll his tanks into a sovereign state. But he did. He was able to. And even as he “pulls back”, the bastard has the gall to make demands that threaten credulity, even to claim that he is the aggrieved party, that he is doing this only to protect a minority. The same way you protected the Chechens, Vladimir?

This should not have happened.

We were all looking at the wrong locations. Because we lived in the world built on the ideals of Woodrow Wilson, with the country he shaped at its helm.

Yet, Woodrow Wilson is dead, killed as much by his sons and daughters than any interloper.

And Cardinal Richelieu, if not Otto von Bismarck, is alive and well.

Who would have thought I’d be alive in a world where Richelieu walks once more, and Wilson’s rotting carcass is thrown by the roadside?

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