Monday, September 01, 2008

Georgia on the SWNIDish Mind

We opine the following about the crisis in the Republic of Georgia, much of which can be found elsewhere but which nevertheless resonates with the SWNIDish worldview.

First, Putin's Russia has clearly intended to destabilize Georgia for some time. Most obvious in this regard was freely distributing Russian passports to Georgian citizens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia well before the alleged Georgian military provocation. Can one imagine the United States in wholesale giving US passports to citizens of New Brunswick and not creating a stir? That their intentions are so have been reinforced by every move thereafter, including the atrocities committed by its soldiers in the invasion, the indiscriminate destruction of the Georgian infrastructure, the continued occupation, the insistence that President Saakashvili resign, and now the call for an embargo against Georgia.

Second, all this is clearly a revival of the way Russian nationalism has been expressed since Peter the Great: to make Russia a Great Nation by making it an imperial overlord. Georgia's future is as a dismembered vassal of Russia (something that NATO probably cannot prevent), and other former Republics of the Soviet Union can expect the same if no action is taken.

Third, what motivates this imperialism is not primarily the need to restore national pride after a period of decline. It is the need of the fascist kleptocracy that runs Russia to justify to Russians its stranglehold on the Russian nation. Fascists always justify their domestic extremism with adventurism abroad. Fascism always needs a crisis.

So the question is whether Russia's will be more like Germany's fascism or more like Italy's. We suspect the latter. Russia's economy depends entirely on the bubble in prices for raw materials, especially crude oil, that is probably already bursting. Its army demonstrated significant flaws in Georgian operations, suggesting that it could not sustain a campaign in a less isolated corner of the neighborhood. Russia's population is in a decline of historic proportions. Russia cannot be a superpower.

Still, the world's citizens don't need an imperialistic, fascist petrostate, no matter how hollow, making war against its neighbors. So . . .

Fourth, here's the SWNID program. Strengthening NATO is vital, if it's possible to get the feckless Western Europeans to join with the intrepid Poles and others to provide a firm, modulated response. We're not for Georgian membership in NATO right now, which is clearly impossible, nor even for Ukrainian membership, which would be unduly provocative. We are for strengthening logistical preparations to resist Russian intervention in NATO member states and their nearest neighbors, mostly as a warning.

But here's what we'd like to see that no one seems to be talking about: the thoughtful, deliberate infiltration of alternative voices to connect with the Russian people. Right now our back-channel sources tell us the ordinary Russians think that their army went to Georgia to save actual Russians from American genocide. The yet-again-ironically-named Pravda is filled with such propaganda these days (along with tabloid-style nonsense about Bigfoot creatures and asteroids set to crash into Planet Earth any day). But there's this thing called the wireless, and the television, and the internet, the older of which were once successfully exploited against even more ruthless totalitarians. Such organs can and should be employed to give Russians a different perspective.

There is another deep tradition in Russia besides Peter the Great's. It belongs to such luminaries as Tolstoy and Dostoyevski. Profoundly informed by the christocentric theology of Russian Orthodoxy (sadly the Orthodox Church in Russia seems now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Putin's fascist nationalism), it reckons with the fundamental flaws in human nature and with the call to a different life embodied in Jesus Christ. Many Russians will listen if they are told that evil people have, in the name of their own might, done evil to the weak. Their best traditions tell them how to listen.

So we call for a quiet, deliberate, thorough campaign to bring information to Russians, laced with appeals to the better angels of their nature. If Georgia and Ukraine could have internal, peaceful revolutions toward democratic liberty, so can Mother Russia, if the impulses are nurtured.


Pat said...

I believe if you read your history you'll see that Russian orthodoxy has been owned for a long time. The priests themselves have a long tradition of being de facto KGB informants. Ratting out their more politically minded parishioners.

I'm sure that's something of a sweeping generalization and that there were/are hundreds of brave and independently minded priests, but there's a reason that it was Baptists that are imprisoned in One Day in the life of Ivan Desovich.

Pat said...

"As the Soviet Union was imploding in 1990, democratic reformers around President Boris Yeltsin faced a "very serious and painful" decision, says Sergei Stankevich, at the time a senior Yeltsin adviser and head of a policy group responsible for religion. The issue, he says, was what to do with a priesthood compromised by links to the KGB.

"It was not just one or two people. The whole church was under control," he says. "We knew it for sure because we looked at the archives," which use code names to describe priests' involvement in numerous operations. These ranged from campaigns to muzzle dissident clergy to KGB-orchestrated efforts to counter criticism from foreign churchmen of Soviet religious repression.

One of those allowed to view the archives was Gleb Yakunin, a dissident Orthodox priest who spent five years in a Soviet prison, part of it in Perm-37, a labor camp near the one where Mr. Taratukhin and Mr. Kovalyov were held. Later elected to parliament, Mr. Yakunin says he had always suspected large-scale collaboration. But seeing documentary proof "left a shocking impression." The church was "practically a subsidiary, a sister company of the KGB," says Mr. Yakunin, who was given access to the archives while serving on a parliamentary investigative committee."

From your favorite the WSJ:

This is more complicated than I'm portraying it. Faithful priests were imprisoned and replaced by KGB controlled priests.

If memory serves this started under Stalin and is detailed a bit in the Gulag Archipelago...?

Pat said...

is there not still a pro-democracy/pro-america broadcast in existence? At least on shortwave?

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Pat, we assume you offer a supplement to our analysis, not a counterpoint to it. We suggest appeal to the traditions of Russian thought that have roots in the christocentric theological tradition of Russian Orthodoxy. We comment on the present state of the church with the clear understanding that it has been corrupt since Stalin. Indeed, the Romanovs had co-opted the state church long before that.

We recall the WSJ article, having read it eagerly when it first appeared, as superb, and we recommend it to gentle readers as a place to understand the miserable condition of Russia's traditional church.

In any case, do not confuse our point. The idea is not to infiltrate the righteous organization of the Russian Orthodox Church. The idea is to appeal to the ideals that are expressed in Russia's greatest literature and still held dear by Russians today.

Pat said...

Oh sorry, yeah, not counter-pointing at all, just throwing that out there. I agree with your overall point.

caress said...

There's actually a number of pro-democracy publications and resources available to Russians, printed both in Russia and outside.. some on the internet and some in print (though Russians don't really read newspapers these days, they primarily get their news from TV, where there is little opposition voice... and actually on the note of newspapers, Pravda that's available to Westerners on the internet is a different Pravda that's available to Russians in print.. they're separately owned/operated, and in any case, very few Russians read either one).

This is not to argue the point that Russians have been struggling to find a new national identity since the fall of the Soviet Union.. this has certainly been a problem and has found some fairly unsavory outlets.

That said, I don't believe strenghtening NATO is a good option, in the sense that it returns us to Cold War rhetoric and behavior that Russia is all too willing to participate in (as a show of strength). Having just returned from Russia and having talked to policy officials there, there is no question that Russia feels very defensive during any discussion of NATO. So if we want a new Cold War (of which rhetoric is the primary weapon), any NATO activity seems like the surest way to that. I see no reason to escalate the situation, though. I'm not sure that it would have any good result, or that it is in our national interests.

And on the topic of fostering a revolution like those in Georgia and Ukraine, the Russian government is way too paranoid to ever let that happen. Any time there is any sort of public rally that the government doesn't like, they seem to find a way to link it to "orange forces", and prosecute offenders under new legislation against extremism. And there's been a crackdown on western-funded NGOs (many had their tax-exempt status taken away this summer) because the government fears any western influence.

But as far as the Russian public goes, they're pretty happy these days, comparatively speaking. Many are satisfied with the government, and especially satisfied with the level of economic stability they've been given. Perhaps its fair to say they've been lulled into oblivion... but this is not an uncommon thing, as Americans are often lulled into oblivion when the economy is good.

I think the biggest problem is that Russia cannot be understood using Western lenses, and it resents being herded into a Western paradigm (through all sorts of democracy promotion programs)... so now it's acting like a rebellious teenager (albeit one with a lot of resources). Ramping up NATO would be like trying to spank a 17.9 year old. Perhaps it would be better to try some more creative parenting instead.

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

Caress, we appreciate your informed opinion. We do think, however, that there is a lot of common ground between the "West" and Russia, expressed nowhere better than in the great Russian literature of the 19th and 20th centuries. We think that it is both right and sensible to encourage Russians to think beyond the paradigms of current prosperity and national identity and toward the ideals to which their greatest thinkers have appealed. Was it Pasternak who described Russia as a nation of poets?

We have marginal agreement that a new Cold War is not in the United States' interest. We perhaps tend to think that protecting the fragile liberties of Russia's neighbors is nevertheless the right thing to do. Any second Cold War, really more a "Cool Confrontation," will be short, we think, and not necessarily nasty and brutish, given the fragility of the Russian economy, the hollowness of its military, and the plasticity of its public opinion.

On the Russian economy, today's WSJ has an article suggesting that the commodity boom that has fueled Russian resurgence is over and that international investors, whose money and expertise is desperately needed by Putin & Co., are reacting more decisively and effectively than are governments.

Also, we'll add another nuance of clarification. We don't mean to suggest that the US and NATO foment revolution politically but that they provide a competing source of information that appeals to the nobler aspects of Russian national character.

caress said...

It will remain to be seen whether Russia can continue it's upward mobility, that's for sure, so I will reserve judgement on their future strength. But the thought of a cool confrontation, even, seems counterproductive. If we go that route, it will be a deliberately devised path, and I'm not sure why we would do that.

Now..this (following) question isn't meant to be impertinent whatsoever... but having just learned that a McCain advisor has been a long time lobbyist for Georgia's government, I'm interested to know how you think McCain (if elected) would continue the relationship with Georgia. Do you think he'd push for NATO membership... I mean.. he's basically said we're all Georgians, right? I agree that Ukrainian and Georgian membership would be extremely provocative. Is it possible that McCain's tendencies on this matter would get us into trouble? I'm not looking for an "at least he'd be better than Obama" sort of answer.. since I'm aware of the party line.. but seriously.. isn't it possible that McCain will be a little too hawkish for comfort?

Jon A. Alfred E. Michael J. Wile E. SWNID said...

We take McCain seriously when he says he knows the horrors of war and won't risk war precipitously, and we are bewildered by people who think that a person who has been through what he has would do otherwise. Warriors like McCain have been pretty good at peace (cf. Eisenhower). He's not a scary guy or a stupid guy. He's been places.

But we think that there's a lot at stake in protecting the liberties of newly freed people in the Baltic countries, the Caucasus, and the like. To quote Goldwater, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice." To quote Thatcher, "Now is not the time to go wobbly." To quote TR (and McCain is trying to revive TR's GOP), "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

Appeasing bullies has never worked. They can be stared down, however. That's what McCain's record and character look like to us (the staring-down part, not the bully part).

So, yes, we think McCain will do about what Bush is doing right now, which is to stand with Georgia rather than sacrifice its people to Russian gangsters. NATO membership will require Western European cooperation, which is unlikely even with conservatives set to run the table in Germany, France and Britain. But we think the US can play its support for membership into a stronger security arrangement for Georgia and other former republics, frustrating the imperial ambitions of the Russian kleptocracy until the internal contradictions of its economic and political dysfunction lead it to reform or collapse.