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Russia: the bear wakes up

rusiamedput.jpgA giant like Russia cannot be threatened with retaliation by its Western neighbors, above all because the energy that makes the European countries run comes in a large part from Gazprom, the most important oil company in the world. The author says that by merely understanding Moscow’s historic need to have a safety line, a stable relationship between the Russian bear and its Western neighbors can be achieved.

(From Monterrey) MOSCOW’S RECOGNITION OF the independence of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia is a challenge from Russia to the international community, and in particular to the United States, aside from being revenge for the recognition of Kosovo, a separatist region of its principal ally in the Balkans: Serbia.

However, this action by the Kremlin’s leaders, although dangerous, is a response to a struggle for power and security by the world’s largest country: to avoid being fenced in,which began with the dismemberment of the Soviet Union and in particular with the Summit in Bucharest this past May, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) “What in another time had been the second world power had turned into an enormous Third World country” decided to extend its membership to include several countries from the former communist bloc, although not Georgia and the Ukraine.

The inclusion of these last two would have meant that NATO would have reached the Russian border, a situation that the Kremlin is not willing to tolerate.

During Yeltsin’s government, Russia saw its economy and global position fall dramatically. What in another time had been the second world power had turned into an enormous Third World country.

Upon assuming power, Putin made his objectives clear: to reposition Russia as a central player in global politics and in particular to avoid NATO reaching its borders.

THE RESURGENCE OF A GREAT POWER

In military terms, the new “Putin again took up the Russian position of considering the Middle East a strategic region, renewing relationships with its former allies”Russian government once again took up its traditional sale of arms, which in the last decade had fallen from 38 percent of the global market to a mere 3 percent, giving the country an 18 percent share of the global sale of arms. However, these arms were fundamentally sold to enemies of the United States, such as Iran and North Korea. Moreover, Russia and China, the two emerging powers, created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with four other Central-Asian countries in order to form a military alliance that could counterbalance NATO. What’s more, Iran was invited as an observer, in a sign of defiance to American policy.

On a political level, Putin again took up the Russian position of considering the Middle East a strategic region, renewing relationships with its former allies:

“Russia’s new prestige, together with a sustained growth of more than eight percent during the decade, has brought with it great support for Putin” Iran, Syria and the Palestinian government. When Hamas won the elections in January 2006, its primer minister elect was officially invited to Moscow, despite Western criticism of the fundamental nature of the regime.

This policy of Putin during his eight years in office allowed Moscow’s position in the global scene to be redefined, but internally the new government closed the small democratic holes that were still in existence, in order to return to the authoritarian system of the Soviet model. Despite the absence of democracy, Russia’s new prestige, together with a sustained growth of more than eight percent during the decade, has brought with it great support for Putin, from both the people and the Russian political bureaucracy.

NATO’S FENCE

The recognition of the independence of Abkhazia under the leadership of Serguei Bagapch, in power for more than two decades, and Eduard Kokoity’s South Ossetia, is part of Moscow’s warning to NATO. “Russia has a very far reaching ability to respond in its so-called near abroad”

On one hand, the placement of an anti-missile defense shield in Poland and a powerful radar in Prague was seen by the Kremlin as a threat to its security, due to the fact that the argument that the American decision to deploy missiles in northern Europe was aimed at Iran is not sustainable. There are much closer countries, like Turkey, for a defensive system against any nuclear attack.

“Russia’s decision is creating a tense situation that some observers have likened to the Cold War” NATO’s enlargement this past May, which left the door open to the future integration of the Ukraine and Georgia, created a fence around the Russian bear, always afraid to see itself surrounded in its European military theater by Western forces. However, Russia has a very far reaching ability to respond in its so-called near abroad. In Georgia, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia are linked to their great neighbor to the north, and in the Ukraine, the eastern part of the country is Orthodox, and continues to see Moscow as its fatherland, while the western region is Uniat, and tied to the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore the Western world, in addition to maintaining a close relationship with the self-proclaimed Russian Republic of Crimea. In Moldavia, the Russian republic of the Dniester is waiting for recognition by the Kremlin.

As such, Russia’s ability to destabilize the region is far reaching, as it demonstrated in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

ANOTHER COLD WAR?

However, Russia’s decision is creating a tense situation that some observers have likened to the Cold War. “Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is akin to opening Pandora’s box on its own soil” Even the Russian president himself has declared that if were necessary to return to it, the country would be willing to accept the risk, even though Medvedev’s radical declaration was later clarified by his primer minister, the man with the real power: Putin. The anti-missile defense shield installed in Poland with the presence of American troops was the first detonator of this crisis; Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, one of the men in charge of the Russian army, specified that Poland became a target in the very moment it accepted the missiles, an action that could not go unpunished.

However, Moscow’s action did not receive the support that Medvedev was hoping for. Expect for Belarus, which supported the decision to recognize the two Caucasian regions as independent, “The Islamic republics of Chechnya, Daghestan and Ingusetia, today more controlled, have not lost their separatist hope” and South Ossetia and Venezuela’s invitations to Russia to install military facilities, the great majority of Moscow’s allies prefer to refrain from taking a position that could backfire.

In China, both Tibet and the Muslim Uyghur region have been looking to secede for years. In Central Asia, all of the states of the former Soviet Union are facing separatist problems. Russia’s recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia is akin to opening Pandora’s box on its own soil.

Even the bear’s challenge could backfire against Moscow in the not-so-distant future. South Ossetia could demand its neighbor, North Ossetia, while the Islamic republics of Chechnya, Daghestan and Ingusetia, today more controlled, have not lost their separatist hope.

A HARD-TO-THREATEN GIANT

The awakening of the Russian giant can only difficultly be controlled by possible sanctions by the European Union. A giant like Russia cannot be threatened with retaliation by its Western neighbors, above all because the energy that makes the European countries run comes in a large part from Gazprom, the most important oil company in the world. Any retaliation will backfire.

By merely understanding Moscow’s historic need to have a safety line, a stable relationship between the Russian bear and its Western neighbors can be achieved.