Challenging Russia: Why the West needs to be more intelligent in its approach

Putin’s world view and methods of operating need to be challenged by those of us who believe in the power of democracy, the rule of law and freedom of the individual. But Georgia is not the place to ground that challenge.

Make no mistake, Putin is heading back to the Kremlin
William Joce
On 30 September 2011 09:34

It is difficult to see the Russian campaign in Georgia in the summer of 2008 as anything but impulsive, savage and yet ultimately successful. They have secured the de-facto independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian Army remains dominant and fiercely pro-Kremlin regimes rule in both regions.

There are powerful reasons for condemning Russia’s actions but blind support for Georgia, especially on the right, reached the stage where it led politicians and commentators to adopt ideological and counter-productive positions, a trait usually reserved for the left.

In practical terms, the fantastically ill-judged and brutal attempts by Mikhail Saakashvili to unite Georgia by force mean that he has sacrificed his right to unqualified support.

As Putin prepares to resume his interrupted Presidency, continuing ideological posturing has the potential to prevent him being challenged effectively.

Putin is well known for his dislike of the West. This stems both from his renowned past as a KGB agent and witnessing what he sees as stark examples of western hypocrisy.

The Western stance regarding Georgia is a key point in the construction of this narrative. People’s right to self-determination is supported in, for example, Libya, but not in South Ossetia. Similarly, the territorial integrity of Georgia is sacrosanct, but not that of Serbia.

Also playing a part in this revisionism is the seemingly unquestioning support for Mr Saakashvili. That Putin is an authoritarian throw-back to the worst days of the USSR does not mean that by opposing him Saakashvili is necessarily a hero.

In fact, much of his popularity appears to rest on little else but his ability to speak fluent English and constant willingness to appear in front of the nearest television camera.

Legitimate criticism of Russia’s conduct in the Georgian war and its aftermath, including a piece on this website, accuses the Kremlin of neo-imperialism. This accusation carries some weight as it appears to fit with Russian behaviour in other parts of their near-abroad, including the cyber attack on Estonia for daring to suggest it was occupied by the Soviet Union and the infamous energy-politics that took place when Ukraine flirted with pro-western government.

However, the Russian actions in Georgia actually form part of a parallel but equally worrying foreign policy trope: ethnic nationalism.

Russian neo-imperialist actions in their ‘near-abroad’ take place under a cloak of deniability or detached commercial interest. The Georgian actions in South Ossetia in 2008 allowed Russia to combine ethnic nationalism with claims of promoting democracy and self-determination. Only then, with a clear chance of victory, did Russia launch a military operation.

All the signs point to Putin attempting to take a leadership role within the BRIC countries as they continue their rise set against the ongoing economic crises in the west.

If the West were to adopt a hard-line on pressuring Russia over the breakaway regions it would give Putin an advantage by strengthening his narrative of "western hypocrisy" at the beginning of his new, presumably twelve year term.

Putin’s world view and methods of operating need to be challenged by those of us who believe in the power of democracy, the rule of law and freedom of the individual.

But Georgia is not the place to ground that challenge and it would be a serious mistake to do so there.

William Joce works for a Conservative MP in Westminster and has lived for extended periods in Russia, having previously worked for the Politico-Military division of the OSCE in the former USSR

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