The return of the Russia the west loves to loathe

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“I am feared; therefore I am.” This is more than a restatement of Machiavelli’s celebrated advice that, for a ruler, it “is much safer to be feared than loved”. Vladimir Putin, the latest in the long line of autocratic Russian rulers, would agree with the Italian on that. But the war in Georgia is not just a re-assertion of Machiavelli’s principles of statecraft; it is a renewal of Russian national identity. It is yet again feared. In the eyes of its rulers, therefore, it exists.

What is most striking about Russia’s justifications is that they are demonstrably inconsistent with its own beliefs, except for the one that matters – the need to be feared. Nothing in the histories of the Russian or Soviet empires suggests that the principle of self-determination matters a jot. Nor has the Russian state ever cared much about the lives of its citizens. Post-Soviet Russia is no different, as the two Chechen wars, with their tens of thousands of dead, have demonstrated. Those, too, were Russian citizens. We can safely discount such hypocritical justifications for its actions. Indeed, I wonder how Russia sells its new-found attachment to the principle of self-determination to its Chinese ally.

No, Russia created a trap for the Georgians and their western backers into which both duly fell. So what were its true motives? Securing control over the pipelines bringing oil and gas westwards is one. Re-establishing its sphere of influence is another. But avenging heaped-up humiliations is surely paramount.

So who is responsible for all those humiliations? Apologists for Russia – both Russian and foreign – would argue that it is the west’s fault: the west seeks to extend Nato to Russia’s borders; the west fomented the “colour revolutions” in Russia’s “near abroad”; and the west both crushed Russia’s Serbian ally and recognised Kosovo’s independence.

These arguments do not come even close to the heart of the matter. That is located where feelings of national humiliation meet the vital interests of Russia’s rulers. For the truth is that it is not the west that has humiliated Putin’s Russia, but the neighbours which the west rightly supports.

It is humiliating that the peoples who enjoyed the most prolonged and intimate acquaintance with the blessings of Russian imperialism rushed into the arms of the west, in general, and of the US, in particular. It is more than humiliating. It is dangerous. If such countries as Ukraine and Georgia make a success of liberal democracy, the position of the Russian elite itself would be endangered, at least in the long run.

How, after all, can one justify treating one’s people like idiot children when their relatives next door are treated as grown-ups? How does one legitimise a state built on the old KGB principles of force and fraud? The opening up of Russian politics to free competition of ideas might follow. That would never do.

So the crushing of Georgia and, if possible, the removal of its president serves a vital interest not of Russia, but of its rulers. Whatever optimists might have hoped two decades ago, Russia has not made the transition to the fundamental western principle that the possession of stable, prosperous and democratic neighbours is beneficial. Russia still lives in a conceptual world of zero-sum relations, not only because it views international relations as based on a hierarchy of power, but because it has the same view of domestic politics. Imperialism and autocracy go together. To employ a useful Islamic terminology, the new Russia, alas, still lives in the “House of War”.

Unfortunately, this fact also serves the interests of those westerners who love to live in much the same way. Superannuated cold warriors and neo-conservatives are salivating over the notion of a new cold war with Russia. If I were much more cynical than I am, I would guess that someone advised Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, to attack the separatist enclaves for precisely this reason. I might even imagine that this was also seen as a way to put John McCain in the White House. But I must not imagine such things, must I?

Yet a new cold war would be an absurd overreaction. Russia is an important country, as an energy supplier and as a neighbour. But it poses no huge strategic threat to the west: it possesses no exportable ideology; and its economy is only about 7 per cent of those of the US and the European Union, together, even measured at purchasing power.

Russia is a significant regional power. It can be a large nuisance. But it is no more than that. Moreover, the Russian people may yet decide that the west is their rightful home. Are they closer to the Chinese? I doubt it.

So what is to be done?

First, admit that the west committed errors in its dealings with post-Soviet Russia, while denying that these justify Russian irredentism.

Second, offers of Nato membership to countries that border on Russia are provocative. So why not hold out the offer of full membership to a truly democratic Russia, at the same time?

Third, only make security guarantees that can be met.

Fourth, diversify energy resources.

Fifth, integrate Ukraine and Georgia into the European economy as quickly as possible and provide Georgia with necessary economic assistance now.

Sixth, ensure that the Russian elite pays a price now for Russia’s actions.

Seventh and most important, keep a sense of proportion. Almost exactly 40 years ago, the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. Yet Czechs and Slovaks are now both free. The west must trust in its values: in the long run, the desire for freedom will be stronger than fear.

martin.wolf@ft.com

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