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Is Russia Morphing Into Another USSR? - 'The Globe and Mail'

RFE/RL Executive Editor John O'Sullivan participates in an online chat to discuss his op-ed in 'The Globe and Mail' examining Russia's recent behavior.

[Below is the full text of an online chat with The Mail and Globe found here]
Globe and Mail Update
August 13, 2008 at 1:04 PM EDT
"It's not only the South Ossetians who are back in the USSR this morning," John O'Sullivan, executive editor, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, wrote Tuesday in his article Is Russia morphing into another USSR?
"Other Georgians; countries in Russia's 'near abroad' from the Caucasus to the Baltic; 'national minorities' such as the Chechens; the West; and even Russians themselves now have to deal with a country and political leadership that bear an eerie similarity to Soviet models. They are authoritarian, militaristic, greedy and not overly concerned about where their borders end."
Mr. O'Sullivan wonders where Vladmir Putin's redrawing of international boundaries will stop.
"Russian tanks crossed into Georgia proper .... Might he dismember the country still further and block the one pipeline that brings Central Asian energy to the West without going through Russian territory? And if so, will the West let him get away with it?
"Moscow apparently calculates that its brute seizure of another country's territory can be disguised as a 'peacekeeping' operation to prevent 'genocide' and 'ethnic cleansing' by the Georgians. A sophisticated press operation to popularize this mendacious "narrative" is being mounted internationally and at home."
A tough and thought-provoking commentary. We are pleased that Mr. O'Sullivan joined us in a discussion of his thesis. (This theme has been picked up by Globe and Mail correspondent Marcus Gee in his analysis Russia no longer content to swallow its bitterness.)
Mr. O'Sullivan is responsible for setting the editorial vision and direction for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty . He has served as a senior editor at the London Times and the Daily Telegraph, and as a special adviser to former prime minster Margaret Thatcher. He helped found the National Post. Mr. O'Sullivan has also been editor-in-chief of United Press International and editor of the magazines The National Interest and National Review. Most recently, Mr. O'Sullivan was a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. His recent book, "The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister," has been translated into Polish, Czech, Spanish and Portuguese. He is the founder of the bi-partisan, transatlantic "New Atlantic Initiative," launched at the Congress of Prague in 1996.
Estanislao Oziewicz, Foreign Editor: Mr. O'Sullivan, it is a pleasure to greet you from your office in Prague and to host this discussion. Your commentary has been a lightning road for debate, so let's not delay getting to the first question.
Peter Jones, from Canada: The West has done everything to isolate Mr. Putin, as he rides the tiger of Russian emergence from everlasting dictatorship. This has encouraged him to care not a fig for world opinion. Equally the West has encouraged Mr. Saakashvili to taunt Mr. Putin beyond endurance. The policy has led to war. If ever there were a place just to leave alone, it is surely the Caucasus. Do you not agree?
Mr. O'Sullivan: It is fanciful to suggest that the West has isolated Mr. Putin. For a long time the Bush administration courted him. Western Europe has cultivated very close economic ties to Mr. Putin's Russia. Most Westerners turned a blind eye to the increasing evidence that Mr. Putin was squeezing freedom and the media at home. His threatening speech last year to the German security conference at Wehrkunde was a wake-up call to the West — but one that only the central and East Europeans listened to. West Germany tried to block NATO from allowing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. We've seen the result of this appeasement in the last few days.
Alex, from St. Petersburg, Russia: Generally I agree that Russia should not protect anybody's interests or even maintain security for civilians with military force beyond its borders, even if those civilians are Russia's expatriates and hold its citizenship. Help for expatriates may be provided individually not with tanks. But in this particular situation with South Ossetia, it was Georgia who started 'Grad' missile shelling of a city. 'Grad' missiles cover fields. Their launchers cannot target precisely military objects, so the Georgian president wanted to kill civilians. Russia had to do something about this situation. The response could not be 'proportional.' It had to be overwhelming, otherwise the war would still go on and the death toll would continue to rise. Am I not right?
Mr. O'Sullivan: No, I don't think you are right. It is very likely that the Georgian Army's advance sometimes involved disproportionate force and led to civilian casualties. If that was wrong — and I agree it was — it could hardly justify even more disproportionate force from the Russian side. But the larger question is whether the Georgians were essentially tricked into their attack. Russian/South Ossetian forces had been sniping and mortaring Georgian villages more and more intensively in recent weeks. Most dispassionate observers think that this was intended to provoke Mr. Saakashvili into an imprudent response. The trap worked. Mr. Saakashvili responded — and an already prepared military and media operation swung efficiently into action. For a few days it worked — and convinced people. But as the truth becomes clearer, this looks more and more like old-fashioned imperial aggression.
Brian Dell, from Stockholm, Sweden: It appears that Eastern European states such as Poland, Ukraine and the Baltics support stronger actions against Russia than central Europeans. Why is that, when ethnically and perhaps culturally they appear to have more in common with Russia? Whatever Moscow's leverage over Western Europe, isn't it even greater over Eastern Europe?
Mr. O'Sullivan: You have really answered your own question, Brian. Central and Eastern European countries are more willing to resist Russian actions because they are nearer Russia, they remember that they were ruled imperially by the Soviet Union until 1989, and they fear that what is being done to Georgia today might be done to them tomorrow if it succeeds. Russian spokesmen have given them good reason for these fears. What are they supposed to make of former president Putin's remark that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geo-political tragedy of the 20th century. For them it was the collapse of a Gulag. And they fear that Mr. Putin means to restore what in Czarist days was called "the prison-house of nations."
Shannon White, from Canada: Mr. O'Sullivan, you state that Russia 'invaded and bombed the sovereign state of Georgia,' but why do you neglect the fact that Russia has had soldiers in South Ossetia for years, that South Ossetia has been effectively independent practically since Georgia became independent, and that it was Georgia that invaded South Ossetia, shelling and occupying its capital? In other words, why do you imply that Russia was the aggressor, when it is obvious that Georgia was the aggressor? I think it is obvious that Western reaction was muted precisely because it was Georgia that initiated the incident. Your comment, please.
Mr. O'Sullivan: I have partially answered your question, Shannon, in my earlier reply to question No. 2. Namely, that Georgia was essentially "trapped" into its military incursion into South Ossetia. That is the opinion of most dispassationate observers who have no affection for Mr. Saakashvili. Indeed, they condemn Mr. Saakashvili for falling into the trap — a perfectly fair criticism but one that cannot be made unless you accept that someone else laid the trap. As you know South Ossetia is legally part of Georgia. Russia has been playing a neo-imperial game of dividing and destabilizing its more independent former territories for almost two decades. This is merely the climax of that game.
John Chuckman, from Canada: Georgia's relationship with United States and NATO is precisely parallel to Mexico's trying to join the Warsaw Pact in 1979. Even you must know that Mexico City would have been overrun by American tanks within a week had Mexico pursued this. Russia has not overrun Georgia. It has limited its actions to a (former) area of the country where it has many citizens and interests, an area that already has sought its independence from the foolish governments we've seen in Georgia. Your column contributes nothing to understanding and promotes only bad relations with Russia. Over to you.
Mr. O'Sullivan: I think that your ingenious question is refuted by the history of Mexico over the last 100 hundred years. It's lessons go in exactly the opposite direction to your argument. Until the inter-war years Mexico was regarded by Americans as a quasi colony into which U.S. troops went on more than one occasion. Since then it has been a strikingly independent country, opposing the United States on foreign policy across the board, supporting Cuba, and generally taking left positions in world politics. Since the 1960s it has been encouraging its citizens to cross the border illegally (it actually published documents giving them technical advice on how to do so). An since the 1980s it increasingly intervenes in American domestic politics, notably on immigration to oppose some laws and support others. In other words Mexico seeks to influence the United States far more than the other way round. In contrast Russia rounded up and deported Georgians a few years ago to mark its displeasure at Georgian policy. Its troops have been assisting separatists inside Georgian territory. It has tried an economic embargo of Georgia. In short, it does not regard Georgia as an independent or sovereign country and it intervenes in its internal affairs at will. It did almost all of these things long before there was any idea of Georgia joining NATO — indeed, that idea arose in response to Russian bullying. The tone of your question would be far more appropriate if Georgian troops were rampaging around Russia. They aren't.
Shanaz Joan Parsan, from Edgewater, New Jersey: Mr O'Sullivan, thank you for taking my question. Is this really about pipelines, a return to the old autocratic USSR policies of power, ethnic cleansing or all of the above? Now that there is a ceasefire and the EU has agreed to monitor it, what is likely to happen over the next few weeks, months? In other words, how will this all play out?
Mr. O'Sullivan: It's very difficult indeed, Shanaz, to predict what will happen over the next few days, let alone weeks or months. Earlier this afternoon it appeared that the military side of the crisis was over, but since then Russian forces have continued to destroy Georgian equipment and to reinforce some of their positions in Georgia. In response, U.S. President George W. Bush has made a strong speech supporting Georgian independence and urging the Russians to keep their word. He also pledged humanitarian aid to Georgia to be delivered by U.S. planes and ships. There are obvious possibilities of increased tension there. So the acute phase of the crisis, which looked over, may have some way to run before the diplomats take over.
If I had to guess, I would say that the Europeans — even the Germans — will be increasingly pushed by Russian behavior into both greater European unity and towards a closer relationship with the United States by Russia. That, in turn, would limit Russia's options in the Caucasus. It may well be that, as this crisis evolves, it begins to hurt the Russians more than the Georgians. They evidently fear the same thing.
Mr. Oziewicz, Foreign Editor: Mr. O'Sullivan, thank you for responding to these questions with so much aplomb. I hope participating was as stimulating for you as it has been for me. Before I close the discussion, do you have any final thoughts?
Mr. O'Sullivan: Many thanks. I enjoyed the discussion. Let me finish with two quite different thoughts. First, I would urge my critics to look closely at Russia's behaviour in the last year towards Georgia. It has constantly manufactured excuses to intervene and to worsen relations between Georgia and its two separatist enclaves. Far from being peacekeepers, Russian leaders have been warmongers. And the longer that this crisis continues, the more clear that is likely to become.
Second, I want to suggest that this crisis is not going as either the Russians wish or as almost all the wise observers thought a few days ago. It then looked a decisive victory for Russia and ruthless force. Forty years ago, the Czech crisis ended with this result — and Alexander Dubcek etc. all went off to prison. But a surprising thing has happened in the last two days. Today the victim, Georgia, is still standing. Five European presidents today visited there today. Mr. Saakashvili addresses large patriotic crowds. Georgia is taking legal action against Russia at the Hague. The United States is sending in humanitarian help. It's not over. Not that the United Nations or the EU or the supranational bodies intervened — quite the contrary. They assumed Russia had won and quietly hoped that the Georgians would lie down quietly. But it's not over. Exactly why will have to be the subject of my next article.
Many thanks for this.