I suppose it’s a salutary lesson. Earlier this week I suggested that given my ignorance of a subject, Jonathan Calder’s more informed view would be a good guide to my own reaction. Today I find myself in the unlikely position of agreeing with an article by leftist Guardianista Seumas Milne that is branded ‘disgraceful’ by Jonathan on the Liberal England blog. (Memo to self - don't form opinions by proxy, you'll find yourself disagreeing with everyone sometimes).
The issue is the Russo-Georgian conflict over South Ossetia. Last week I cited with approved the Guardian article by Mark Almond, which warned against a simplistic paradigm of Russia bad, Georgia good. Misha Glenny’s article in yesterday’s New Statesman showed a similar nuanced view.
Sadly, almost everywhere else (other than Seumas Milne’s article) it seems Russia is portrayed as the baddie. It appears that all three of Britain’s main political parties, plus both main American presidential contenders take this view. As I suggested above, I don’t like to think of myself as on the side of unreconstructed leftists, but this episode to me smacks of dangerous western hubris.
As anyone who has read Margaret Macmillan’s book on the 1919 Versailles settlement, Peacemakers, twentieth century Europe has seen any number of minority ethnic, religious or national groups trapped inside often arbitrarily drawn borders. These situations have given rise to tensions that we can only imagine, sitting as we are in a relatively homogenous state whose borders have been pretty well established down the centuries. South Ossetia is one such problem, over which Georgia and Russia need to find a modus vivendi.
Like Russia, Georgia has questionable democratic credentials, although both are clearly a long way from being like the former Soviet Union. Yet Georgia has made a point of cosying up to America, attempting to join NATO and in this instance was at least initially the aggressor. It is very well to accuse Russia of overreacting, but it is not that unusual for a country reacting to an act of aggression to want to make enough impact to deter future acts. This is not to condone everything that Russia has done, but merely to say that Georgia was playing a dangerous game and should have seen that it risked reaping a whirlwind.
It is worrying to see references to that bible of cold war hawks 20 years ago Jean-François Revel’s How Democracies Perish. For we are not in a cold war situation with Russia. The current regime there is not like the Soviet Union. But as liberals all too often fail to recognise, patriotic sentiment is a very powerful force in the world, and one which we can’t simply ignore. We may have seen the break up of the Soviet Union as a case of liberation from communist oppression, but for many Russians it will have also been a national humiliation.
After a decade or more in a kind of international disgrace Russia now appears on the rebound – more confident and successful than it has been since the 1980s. For most of the past 200 years Russia has either been a great power or a superpower, with the exception of the years immediately after the October 1917 Revolution and the period after the end of the Cold War. It was never likely to accept for long being surrounded on its borders by a potentially hostile military alliance.
The current conflict is a warning that the west has pushed Russia too far. International diplomacy always has and always will depend on pragmatism if peace is to be maintained. The harsh reality is that smaller countries take up an overtly hostile and provocative attitude to their larger and more powerful neighbours at their peril. That is what Georgia has done in this case, with the tacit, and triumphalist, support of the USA and NATO.
It is in the interests of a peaceful world to find a solution that saves face on both sides. Let us hope that somewhere within the USA or the European Union there exists enough understanding of statesmanship to understand this and not drive Russia into a siege mentality.