8.18.2008

Russia & Europe: A History Lesson

by Jeff Siegel

Geography, wrote the British historian A.J.P. Taylor, is one of the keys to understanding why European countries behave the way they do. Poland, for example, has been a plaything of various European powers for much of its 1,000-year history because it is located between bigger and stronger countries. Germany, on the other hand, is one of those bigger and stronger countries, and German history is the story of its efforts to absorb the smaller countries around it.

And the Russians? Their history has been one of paranoia, autocracy and continued imperial expansion, whether ruled by czar or commissar. This attitude, Taylor wrote, is directly related to Russia’s position on the outskirts of Europe. It does not see Europe as a continent of individual countries, each with its own interests, but as possible opponents who will unite for almost no reason at all to gang up on it. Which, oddly enough, Europe has done repeatedly since Peter the Great unified Russia in the late 17th century.


Only when governments realize the role of geography, wrote Taylor, can they devise effective foreign policies. There’s no sense in guaranteeing Poland’s security, as Britain and France did in 1939, unless you’re willing to wage war to backstop that guarantee. Which, as Taylor points out in his classic The Origins of the Second World War, they weren’t.

Which brings us to the Russian invasion of Georgia. Apparently, the only people who were surprised by it were in the Bush Administration. The Russians weren’t surprised. The Georgians weren’t surprised (their mistake was assuming that U.S. troops would show up as soon as the Russians crossed the border).

This is not to justify the Russian invasion, because there is no justification for it. Rather, it’s to point out that the invasion is the greatest threat to world peace since the end of the Cold War, an incident that has the potential to turn into a full-scale European war. It probably won’t now, because the West can do little to help Georgia and so it won’t. But since the Russians will get away with it, they will turn their sights on other former Soviet republics: the Ukraine, Belarus, Lativa, and Estonia. This is a function of Talyor’s treatise on geography. Each country is adamantly anti-Russian, counts on the West for moral and military support, and won’t be able to do a damned thing when the Russian tanks arrive. Georgia may well be Czechoslovakia in 1938; will the Ukraine be Poland in 1939?

In fact, the Russian invasion makes Sept. 11 look like the terrorist side show that it always was — unless you wanted to overthrow Saddam and grab his oil. Sept. 11 was a horrific, terrible thing, but limited in its long-term consequences if handled properly. That it wasn’t handled properly (the word incompetent comes to mind) demonstrates how woefully unprepared the Bushies are to deal with this crisis. Their world view is that the U.S. is the most powerful and the most moral and the coolest country in the world, so everyone will do what we say. But one can’t practice foreign policy with frat boy philosophy like that, as Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate. And, as badly as the Bushies have handled those wars, their mistakes don’t mean the end of the world. That’s not the case with the Russians.

Talk about the 3 a.m. phone call: What happens in November if the Russians, responding to what they say are unprovoked attacks on ethnic Russians in the Ukraine, send in the armor? What should we do? What can we do? And, what’s worse, look who will be making the decisions.

(For more background on the Russian-Georgian conflict, please see: "Georgia: The 3 A.M. Call for Obama & McCain.")

(The photo shows Russia's Vladimir Putin — then Russia's president, and now Russia's prime minister — in a joint appearance with President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas in 2001. The official White House photo is by Paul Morse and is in the public domain.)










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1 comments:

Rick Rockwell said...

After Bush got himself appointed to the presidency, I remember discussing the foreign policy picture with various diplomats stationed in D.C. At the time, they were raving about Condoleezza Rice, and how her inclusion in the administration would mean a strong hand who knew the Russians. What a joke that turned out to be! Putin has certainly run circles around her and the rest of the incompetents.

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