Sunday, August 17, 2008

Cossacks Ride Again

And the Bear South shall sweep
To thrust her claws far and deep
Into the mountains, the seas and the prairies
Grasping farmland and dairies
Sparing not honey or berry
Nor prince nor monastery
Alas, you will never find rest
For the Bear wheels East and then West
And now with our global warming
Fresh routes are still forming
To the North; now a lake
For the Bear to swim for her take

History has an odd and sometimes irreverent way of repeating itself. Most of us saw the fall of the USSR (Reagan’s “Evil Empire”) as a triumph of the god-fearing West over the evil, atheist and Communist state. The truth is more complex than that and has a long and Byzantine trail through history. Russia has always been a little paranoid about her neighbors, but rather than build a border fence like ours at Mexico, Russia has preferred to control her fate by forming buffer states under her influence. East Germany was both a buffer state and had a fence because the West resisted creation of further buffers. Part of that is a natural outcome of ever more distant buffers because what was once a buffer becomes integrated into the central control of Russia herself. This process has been going on for centuries. Indeed, the word “Ukraine” means border. Belarus is “White Russia.” Now Russia has had some rough patches in her history when greater buffers might have saved the day for the motherland. The Mongols swept through many of her border states. Napoleon made it to the outskirts of Moscow and Hitler nearly drove through to the heartland. Buffers prevailed.

History shows that Russia has been involved in the formation of many states as well as alliances that offered her space and time from all enemies, foreign and domestic. Much of the early history is tied closely to Byzantium and the Orthodox Church, if we look south, but Russia has not been fixed on Georgia and the Caucuses or Bulgaria and the Balkans. She has wrestled with Poland and the Baltic states and has tried to annex Finland (a noteworthy military failure although they outnumbered the Finns). She wants warm water ports and farmland and forests and “friendly” (read that subordinate) neighbors. We should not be strategically or even tactically surprised by her incursion into Georgia. Georgia has been in the Bear’s sandbox for centuries. Our presence in Western Europe for decades after the Second World War served to place Russia in the awkward position of challenging our intentions, especially with hundreds of thousands of our troops in Germany. Were we bluffing, or would the USA actually commit troops to fend off the Bear? But now we are preoccupied with a pointless preventive war in Iraq and dallying in a former Russian buffer state (Afghanistan). We can shake our fingers or employ nuclear weapons, but we have no credible force to encourage Russia, the Bear, to cease and desist. We have hollowed NATO by our departure and have not yet strengthened the smaller nations of Europe to carry their own sabers. As Americans, we need to make some weighty decisions. Our economy is in shambles; we have already outsourced much of our defense to low-bid and no-bid contracts; we have alienated our “Old Europe” allies and have put our “New Europe” allies in peril by encouraging them to resist militarily before they are ready and by failing to create credible alliances. We cannot fight our way out nor can we buy our way out. Our encouragement of Georgia is similar to the encouragement we provided the Kurds before Saddam crushed them or before the Hungarians and Czechs were over-run by Russian tanks. Even the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as well as Poland to the west expected our help to achieve freedom from the clutches of the Bear. We broadcast Radio Free Europe, the Voice of America and hinted that we would assist these European brethren. They may still love us, but the bitterness of unanswered brutal oppression lingers. Georgia is only the latest example and it will remind them all of our hesitation and our rhetoric of “looking into the eyes/soul of Putin” while they look at Russian boots. Russia has historically employed the flooding of neighbor states with ethnic Russians in order to generate stability and loyalty in her buffer states. Estonia is especially filled with Russians, but so were Ukraine and Belarus much before them. If the Russian justification of entering Ossetia or Abkhazia “to protect ethnic Russians” sounds like the German rationale for entering the Sudentenland, it is the same. The only difference is that the Russia placed Russians there to begin with to help guarantee a loyal buffer. Stalin, a Georgian by birth, frequently used boxcars to cross-balance ethnic Russians in the far-flung reaches of the USSR, but he was only keeping up with Russian history and using the technology of the time. He did not invent the practice.

The Cossacks, in the time of the Czars, were quick to ride out to punish any breakaway vassal state or any group that had the temerity to challenge Mother Russia. That practice was aided by an Orthodox Church that often exiled or excommunicated individual nobles who were feared by the central state. There was little difference between Church and State. Communism was merely another ideology that served as an overlay or a garnish to the fundamental Russian approach to protecting the state. As a child, I recall praying for the conversion of Russia, but I was unaware that we needed to pray for the healing from the paranoia that has gripped her for a millennium. Putin is doing what Russians and the current president want done. Do not expect that to be changed by investment in US Steel or Getty Oil. It is basic Russian and it has worked to their satisfaction.

All this sounds negative, and it is. It is far from hopeless, however. Let us list a few approaches we must consider to make things better:
Use more tools than the military option. We have seriously damaged our military in the past 7 years and cannot stretch it any further. We need real diplomacy through rebuilt alliances with old friends. Iraq has not only damaged our military, but has alienated our friends who we need to balance power region by region. We need official friends and need to encourage their participation in the process of ongoing international relations; not merely the military support of wars that we start without their consultation and agreement.

Rebuild the military to the numbers and quality we need to defend our homeland and to confront real threats to our national security. Iraq had no real capability to reach us in any significant way to pose a threat. I won’t even mention the fear mongering of weapons of mass destruction. Although we know and most of us knew that Iraq had none, even the slowest among us knew that the Iraqis had no delivery system capable of a real threat to us.

Immediately stop the practice of encouraging dissent and discontent in foreign countries as a specific policy. It has not worked in any of the countries enumerated above nor in Cuba nor Iran or any country you might pose. Worse, it engenders resentment in those countries that believe that we will support them in ways that we will not or cannot do.

Reconsider the security effects of global economics when we invest or permit investment in our corporations. It is easier to deny entry to a threat than to nationalize an industry to remove them from our critical industries. NAFTA and CAFTA have not brought prosperity to us or to our friends. Most corporations (foreign as well as domestic) pay absolutely no income taxes. Given the loss of control over our own resources including our human resources, should we be opening ourselves to unlimited investment by foreign companies and governments?

We cannot change the nature of the Bear, but we can build a better Bear trap and can learn how to use our moral leadership by earning it back by being true to ourselves as well as our word. The world forest is large and dark and sometimes scary, but if we join with other nations, we can protect one another from the paranoid Bear. The last thing we need to do is to confront the Bear with a slingshot and a prayer. Actually, that could be the last thing

George Giacoppe
20 August 2008

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