Friday, May 04, 2007

Echoes of Cold War in Russia-Estonia Spat

There is an interesting article at today (written by Patrick Buchannan of all people), dealing with the current tension between Russia and Estonia. In case you weren't aware, Estonia is becoming increasingly angry with Moscow, saying that the Russian government is not meeting international standards for protecting diplomats. As Buchannan explains,

All week, young toughs in Moscow have besieged the Estonian embassy to harass Ambassador Marina Kaljurand. Her bodyguards had to use a mace-like spray to drive back the thugs, who call Estonia a "fascist country." Estonian diplomats and their families are being pulled out of Moscow and sent home.

Relations between the countries are about to rupture, if the Kremlin does not reign in the bully-boys.

At issue is a decision by the Estonian government to relocate a Soviet-era statue, which to many Estonians is a symbol of Soviet oppression, but to many Russians is a symbol of their sacrifice in liberating Estonia from Nazi occupation. The tension continues to escalate, as Russia announced on Wednesday that it would halt deliveries of oil products to the small Baltic nation.

Although Americans tend not to concern themselves much with the affairs of Europe, in this situation, the U.S. could find itself directly involved, if the situation continues to deterioriate. As Buchannan further explains,

If President Putin decides the Estonians need a lesson, and sends troops to teach it, the United States, under NATO, would have to treat Russian intervention in Estonia as an attack upon the United States, and declare war on behalf of Estonia.

So we come face to face with the idiocy of having moved NATO onto Russia's front porch, and having given war guarantees to three little nations with historic animosities toward a nuclear power that has the ability to inflict 1,000 times the destruction upon us as Iran.

While many readers might disagree with Buchannan on other issues, on this particular matter, he has a good point.

Although the conventional view is that the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, in significant ways, the East-West competition that characterized the Cold War never really ended. Indeed, that East-West competition actually predated the Cold War, going back to the days of the Russian Empire.

This is why Russia has always seen it as a provocation for NATO to expand all the way to its doorstep, and indeed, the fact the U.S. insists on continuing to expand the NATO alliance can only be seen as an attempt to expand Western and U.S. power at the expense of Russian hegemony.

The neoconservatives in the Bush administration have taken a provocative stance towards Russia almost since day one. Indeed, one of the first foreign policy acts of the Bush administration was to expel dozens of Russian diplomats from Washington, accusing them of being spies. The act was widely seen as provocative in Russia, as well as in Europe.

The Bush administration also announced early on that it would revive a Reagan era project known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, aka, "Star Wars." (See Ivan Eland's article below for more information.) This was also seen by Russia as an act of outright provocation, since it would seem to violate numerous treaties, including the Outer Space Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Bush confirmed Russian fears a few months later, when he announced the official U.S. withdrawal from the ABM treaty.

"I have concluded the ABM treaty hinders our government's ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue-state missile attacks," Bush announced in December 2001.

Predictably, Putin responded coolly to the decision, but apparently was not surprised. "This step was not a surprise for us. However, we consider it a mistake," he said. Most significantly, the development of a missile shield would disrupt the doctrine of mutually assured destruction, which was the cornerstone of the U.S.-Russian balance of power for the entire Cold War.

Following 9/11, the U.S. began further encroaching on Russia's traditional sphere of influence, hatching secret bilateral agreements with autocratic Central Asian nations, and even sending troops into the murky and complicated geopolitical mess in the Caucasus. As I explained in an article written in 2002:

The Russian government of Vladimir Putin has criticized the Georgian government of Eduard Schevardnadze for giving safe haven to the Chechen rebels. Meanwhile, Schevardnadze’s Georgian government has blamed Putin’s Russia for aiding and abetting separatists from the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions of Georgia.

While rebels in Chechnya want to break away from Russia, rebels in Abkhazia and South Ossetia want to break away from Georgia. Complicating matters further, the Chechen civil war has been the scene of widespread human rights abuses on both sides, while the Georgian region of Abkhazia has had its own ugly scenes of ethnic cleansing.

Into this maelstrom of regional and ethnic warfare now steps George W. Bush and his “crusade” to “rid the world of evil.” The Bush administration wants U.S. troops to assist Georgian soldiers in hunting down and killing al-Qaeda fighters holed up in Georgia’s lawless Pankisi Gorge.

This perceived American overreaching led a group of retired Russian military generals to brand Putin a Western lackey and a traitor to Russian interests. "With your [Putin's] blessing, the United States has received military bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and, maybe, Kazakhstan," the generals declared in a published broadside. "In the long run, these bases are for dealing a strike on Russia, not bin Laden."

For years, Putin was somewhat restrained in his criticism of U.S. policy, but that restraint was abandoned in a speech at security conference this February. “The U.S. has overstepped its political limits in almost all spheres,” Putin told the meeting of policy makers with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in the audience. “We are witnessing an almost unrestrained hyper-use of force in international relations,” Putin said, adding that Russia doesn’t need lessons in democracy from “people who didn’t practice it themselves.”

Now, Putin and Russian diplomats are slamming the West again, for its perceived support for Estonia in its current row over the Soviet statue. As AFP reported yesterday,

Russia lashed out Thursday at the European Union and NATO for supporting Estonia in its row with Moscow over the relocation of a Soviet war monument.

Russia's representative to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Alexei Borodavkin, attacked what he called EU and NATO "indifference and connivance."

"What happened in Estonia ... cannot fail to affect relations between Russia and the European Union and the North Atlantic alliance," he was quoted as saying by Interfax news agency.

Whether the tension will continue to escalate is a matter of speculation, but what is clear is that the competitive East-West dynamic of the Cold War has by no means passed, and that indeed, the policies of the Bush administration -- beginning with its initial decision to expel some 50 Russian diplomats in March 2001 -- has probably done more to fuel the tension than any actions taken by the other two post-Cold War American administrations.

We can only hope that Buchannan is being paranoid when he forsees a possible armed conflict between Russia and Estonia, which according to NATO treaty obligations, could bring the U.S. into open war with Russia. As Buchannan points out, Russia is "a nuclear power that has the ability to inflict 1,000 times the destruction upon us as Iran."

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