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Analysis & Opinion
27.08.08 How Low Can It Go?
Comment by Georgy Bovt

To optimists, it might seem that the worst has already happened in Russia’s argument with the West over Georgia; that all the formidable words and all the ritual threats have already been uttered, and now both sides will in some form or other return to the pragmatic policy of “business and nothing personal.” This could be true for many reasons: because we sell too much oil and gas to them, and because Russia still presents a somewhat attractive market for many in the West. Largely, these arguments can be agreed with. After all, Russia and the West have argued about many things in the past; this relationship has survived more than one crisis, but in the end, the situation was always resolved: diplomats sat down at the negotiating table, the countries’ chief executives began exchanging various tokens of attention that would have gone utterly unnoticed in ordinary situations (for example, sent condolences on the occasion of some national catastrophe, or, on the contrary, gave emphatically warm congratulations on a national holiday). The atmosphere slowly normalized itself; if any sanctions were imposed (and the meaning of any sanction is seen only when this sanction is finally lifted, otherwise it is meaningless as it doesn’t accomplish anything), they were cancelled, etc.

On the other hand, the history of human society knows many examples of situations (and especially critical situations) that would all of a sudden start developing according to their own logic, destroying all of the original plans by the politicians that created them, whether these plans were benevolent or malevolent. On the eve of World War I, for example, many European intellectuals were convinced that war is no longer an instrument for resolving international arguments. They maintained this with the same certainty demonstrated today by the overwhelming majority of analysts and intellectuals, along with the most determined politicians, who insist that a military conflict between Russia and NATO is absolutely impossible. And especially not over Georgia.

Over Georgia, in August 2008, it really might be impossible. But who would dare forecast further development of the situation, when the relationship between Russia and the West seems to be irremediably ruined, and when the situation itself is starting to develop according to its own logic, leaving political leaders in an increasingly narrow corridor of possible actions/ counteractions.

The leading roles are now played by the people who, until know, settled for the “posts” of either stooges controlled by other people or outcasts of big-time politics: field generals, leaders of unrecognized separatist groups, presidential candidates not yet elected by anyone anywhere, self-appointed “peacemakers” from all kinds of international organizations, or simply physical political persons drawn to the zone of military conflict like bees are drawn to honey. These people are driven not as much by the intention to “enforce peace” as by the chance to gain good personal or “corporate political” publicity.

Russia has long been accused of a “lack of democracy” and of “authoritarianism” as part of the general discussion among many European and, even more so, American intellectuals. And suddenly, it turns out that public politics in a country such as Russia is actually influenced by many factors at once, narrowing down possible actions by, say, President Dmitry Medvedev, much more than adventurist steps taken by such an impulsive politician as Mikheil Saakashvili, who on an August night suddenly launched an artillery attack on Tskhinvali.

There are army generals who have always treated the “so-called Georgian statehood” with great disdain (I even know one very high-ranking law-enforcement official whose milieu did not hesitate to openly request that a Russian journalist of Georgian nationality be removed from his press pool because the boss cannot stand Georgians). And if the Supreme Commander in Chief, even in a fit of inexplicable pacifism, ordered to hastily withdraw from Russia’s positions in Georgia (“as per NATO’s demand”), these generals would have simply “not understood” the order, which would have meant the end of the former’s functions as the Commander in Chief.

There is also the Russian public opinion, nursed by the official propaganda in the last eight years in such a jingoist, and, what is much sadder, such an anti-western spirit, that it has practically lost all ability to accept any complex arguments that do not fit into the black-and-white framework of the universal anti-Russian conspiracy directed by the Americans. This public opinion, even personified by its most authoritative leaders, is already losing the ability to see any long-term consequences of the blitzkrieg in Georgia. Such consequences as, for example, the fact that during this military operation the Russian army was actually very effective, according to many military experts, but its mistakes, miscalculations and weaknesses, made evident during combat with an obviously weaker enemy, were noted by interested parties, and might backfire against Russia in a very different situation in the future. And, finally, there is the informational policy carried out by many Western mass media, which is perceived by Russia’s ruling class only as an intention to “drive Russians into a corner,” to “make Serbians out of Russians,” etc. That is, this informational policy is not seen as balanced and objective even by the most liberal and pro-Western Russian analysts and politicians.

Today the tension, which is turning into a standoff between Russia and the West, is building up too rapidly for the Russian ruling elite to be able to elaborate and propose the most adequate tactics and strategy of behavior just as quickly and efficiently. Moreover, nobody right now – not only in Russia, but also in the West – is capable of predicting or assessing all the consequences such a standoff will have in the political, economic and social spheres. Even though they utter the ritual “scandalous” phrases, which, as they believe, are the proper way to react to the situation, nobody today can really answer the question of “what’s next?” where that “point of no return” is, after which even the most insightful, informed and reasonable experts will have no choice but to throw their arms up in the air in a helpless gesture, exclaiming: “The world has gone completely mad!”
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