[I am back from my holidays. And though I am much refreshed, I am both gloomy and furious. The piece that follows is just an opening salvo]
Like any bully, Russia can be faced down. Let’s do it sooner rather than later
By Edward Lucas 28th August 2008
David Miliband is hardly the kind of man to set the hard nuts of the old KGB trembling.
The ruthless ex-spooks and spivs who run Russia believe that nothing can now stop their restoration of the old Soviet empire.
And the tragic, even terrifying truth is that they could well be right. Indeed, we are close to losing the new cold war before our politicians even admit that it has started.
By staging their brutal and audacious attack on Georgia at a time when most Western leaders were either on holiday or at the Olympic Games, Russia caught us napping.
And even when we did belatedly respond, we said nothing to bother them.
The message from the Kremlin comes cold and clear: if Russia is expelled from Western clubs, no matter.
With a massive U.S.$600billion in the bank, and politics firmly stitched up at home, Russia is ready to roll – and roll westwards.
In short, post-Soviet politics is now a triumph of mind over matter – they don’t mind and we don’t matter.
The past weeks have seen a stunning series of defeats for Britain and its allies. It is not just that Georgia, the only country in the vital Caucasus region that believes in our values, has been dismembered and humiliated. The map of Europe has been redrawn, and in darker colours.
Putinism – a mixture of Soviet nostalgia and nationalism – is now wildly popular in Russia. Hopes that the heady mix of liberty and justice that once toppled the Iron Curtain would take widespread root in the former Soviet empire have been dashed.
Worse, at any moment, on any pretext, Russia’s so-called peace-keepers (cynics call them piece-keepers) can seize or destroy the vital oil and gas pipelines crossing Georgia.
These are our only escape from the Kremlin’s stranglehold on energy supplies from the east.
Had it met a really tough response from the West, the Kremlin might possibly have pulled back in Georgia. Now it is pressing ahead. The next target is Ukraine, by far the biggest and most important of the ex-Soviet republics.
Ukraine is a free country with a lively media where nobody lives in fear of the midnight knock on the door, forcible incarceration in psychiatric hospitals or the arbitrary confiscation of property. Such things are the hallmarks of the ex-KGB regime in Russia.
But that does not mean Ukraine can defend itself. It is divided on ethnic lines, with a heavily Russified east that sees plenty to admire in Russia’s resurgence, and finds the Western orientation of the country’s quarrelsome and incompetent leadership mystifying and unappealing.
The most explosive mix is in Crimea, the balmy Black Sea peninsula, where Britain fought its last full-scale war with Russia.
Stalin deported Crimea’s indigenous population of Tatars in 1944. They were replaced with settlers, who proudly hold Russian passports and detest their nominal Ukrainian rulers.
As it did in South Ossetia, Russia can all too easily say that it needs to intervene to protect their interests.
One of Russia’s biggest naval bases, Sevastopol, is in Crimea. Ukraine wants Russia to pull out as agreed when the lease expires in 2017.
Russia shows no sign of wanting to leave a naval citadel that holds a place in Russian hearts, similar to that of Plymouth or Portsmouth in ours.
It is precisely this nationalist sentiment that the Kremlin has found so easy to manipulate. Russians feel they were badly treated by the West in the 1990s.
The billions we squandered in vain attempts to prop up the ramshackle Russian economy have long been forgotten. So, too, have our attempts to befriend them.
Russians complain bitterly that Nato expanded eastwards. But thank goodness it did. Georgia’s fate is a warning of what happens to those countries that failed to get in.
It is in the Baltic that this geopolitical drama will reach its crux. Unlike Georgia and Ukraine, the Baltic states are unquestioned successes. The story of their recovery after a ruinous 50-year foreign occupation is inspirational.
Twenty years ago, I watched these three small, proud countries leap to freedom as the Soviet Union collapsed. Now I fear dreadfully that their independence will prove shortlived.
I fear for Estonia and Latvia, which have tens of thousands of Russian passport holders – a legacy of the cynical migration policies pursued by the Soviet Union.
Russia has been complaining for years about the language and citizenship policies of these two states, which it regards, preposterously, as racist.
In truth, the restrictions are mild – especially given that these countries have just emerged from decades of forced Russification.
Soviet shadow: The Georgian flag flies at half mast in downtown Gori, behind a statue of Soviet Union dictator Joseph Stalin
Public business must be conducted in the local language: those wanting to become citizens must learn it, and pass a simple history exam.
But the Russian propaganda machine is all too capable of whipping up an artificial scandal.
Lithuania, meanwhile, has only a small Russian minority but is vulnerable for a different reason: voters are exhausted and disillusioned with what they see as a corrupt and incompetent government.
The great danger is that they turn to populist pro-Russian politicians in elections in October.
But our politicians are no better. Blinkered, browbeaten, bribed or brainwashed – they seem, pitifully, ill-fitted to the challenge now facing them.
The callow and ignorant administration of George Bush has ripped up nuclear arms agreements with Russia, the world’s second-largest nuclear power, without providing any alternative.
It failed to hold back the impetuous, adventurist Georgian leadership. But it is ridiculous to blame America. Europe’s security is our business.
Let us not forget our own guilty men: Tony Blair snuggling up to Vladimir Putin for nights at the opera in St Petersburg, safely distant from the howls echoing from the torture chambers of Chechnya.
Nor our pinstriped fifth column: businessmen whose salivating pursuit of profits blinded them to the looming menace of Russia’s authoritarian crony capitalism.
And let us also blame the European leaders in Germany, Italy, France and elsewhere, crass and craven by turns, who have divided the continent and endangered our security.
But we can still fight back. We should scrutinise the way in which Kremlin cronies use our banks to launder the billions they have stolen from the long-suffering people of Russia.
We can tighten our visa rules so that Ukrainians find a warmer welcome, and Russians a colder one.
We should remember that when we act together, we are far richer and more powerful than ill-governed Russia.
Europe’s population is three times bigger, its economy ten times larger than that of its new foe.
We can protect what is left of Georgia by spending money to rebuild what the Russian forces and their freebooters have looted and destroyed.
And, most vitally, we can send Nato warships and soldiers to emphasise our support for the Baltic states, our loyal little allies now shivering on the front line.
Because for all the swinish swagger of the ex-KGB men as they toast their destruction of a country one-thirtieth their size, they have no appetite for a real confrontation.
Like any bully, Russia can be faced down. So let us do it sooner rather than later.