Sunday, September 21, 2008

Russia -- we need to listen.

By Carol Gee

Section 1 -- What should we hear?

Russia and the United States are exchanging growls. How dangerous is it between the two powers? Will the Russian bear really bite? Today's post explores that question.

First we learn that Russia will cut all military ties with NATO. To quote a bit of insight from Survival Acres -- One step closer to war* (9/18/08):

The truth is, Russia is in a great position for all of Europe, who will come to heavily depend upon Russian oil to keep from freezing to death. But the US keeps acting like it can dictate whatever it wants to whoever it wants, despite it’s own gross violations of human rights and national sovereignty.

"Visiting Georgia, Dick Cheney assails Russia" -- The U.S. growler-in-chief, Vice President Dick Cheney made a trip to Georgia on Thursday, the LA Times reported. The U.S is set to provide $1 billion in nonmilitary aid, but has not yet committed to rebuilding Georgia's army. To quote:

Cheney's visit to Tbilisi was the highlight of a quick swing through the Western-friendly nations of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine, all former Soviet republics. The trip apparently was designed to shore up the morale of national leaders rattled by Russia's rout of U.S.-trained Georgian forces. . . In Washington, the White House said the conflict had strengthened U.S. determination to bring Georgia and Ukraine into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Cheney's visit, said Georgian political expert Alexander Rondeli, demonstrated "the United States' full support of Georgia and its president.

"The vice president marked the big importance of the energy corridor that runs on the Georgian territory," he said, "and the corridor remains in the sphere of interests of America and Western countries."

"Defense Secretary Robert Gates urges middle ground with Russia," was the LA Times headline this morning. We can be grateful that cooler heads are prevailing over mere growling. Gates did not directly address the issue extending membership in NATO to Georgia, but did talk about lessons learned after World War I. And he said the West should not enter alliances lightly, but also emphasized that the U.S. would live up to its NATO obligation. Listen to this:

As NATO ministers disagree on Georgia, Gates says the next U.S. administration needs a balanced approach to contain Russian aggression without resorting to military force.

. . . By seeking a middle ground in relations with Russia, Gates appeared to be sounding a warning to politicians such as Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, who have pushed for the United States to isolate Russia after its military confrontation with Georgia, and back the small former Soviet republic at all costs.

. . . McCain has pushed hard for the United States to support Georgia and other "struggling democracies" in their conflicts with Russia, and has turned to the much-used 1938 analogy. In an op-ed article that ran a week after the Russian invasion of Georgia, McCain wrote that "the world has learned at great cost the price of allowing aggression against free nations to go unchecked."

[Gates concluded] . . . "For much of the past century, Western psychology, rhetoric and policymaking on matters of war and peace has been framed by, and often lurched between, these two poles: between excessive pressures to take military action and excessive restraint, between a too eager embrace of the use of military force and an extreme aversion to it," Gates said.

We must listen to this old friend -- "Mikhail Gorbachev harshly criticizes Condoleezza Rice for her political rudeness," from Pravda, 9/19/08. To quote:

The ex-president of the USSR, Mikhail Gorbachev, stated that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice should “use more caution in her call for the West to stand up against Russia, which she said has become "increasingly authoritarian at home and aggressive abroad."

"I believe that the secretary of state should be more careful and should show greater calm and responsibility for her judgment in calling for the West to unite against Russia," Gorbachev said through an interpreter at a press conference held before the Liberty Medal ceremony at the National Constitution Center, the AP reports. . .

Gorbachev received the Liberty Medal, which comes with a $100,000 prize, from former President George H.W. Bush, who was commander in chief at the time of the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991. . . The Liberty Medal was established in 1988 to honor individuals and organizations whose actions represent the founding principles of the United States.

"Russia says trade with U.S. must not depend on politics," is the statement from an authoritative voice of Russia, RIA Novosti -- 9/20/08. A Russian deputy said that, "ties with the U.S. have been "among Russia's major priorities irrespective of the political weather." To quote further:

Political squabbles between Russia and the United States should not affect their trade, Russia's deputy foreign minister said on Saturday.

Speaking at a roundtable meeting with American businessmen on the sidelines of an investment forum in the Black Sea resort Sochi, Andrei Denisov said: "We hope the pragmatism and common sense of the current and future U.S. administrations will prevail, and we will continue cooperation in all areas."

Relations between the two former Cold War foes strained over the Georgia conflict last month. Washington said it might scrap a civil nuclear deal with Russia as punishment for its invasion of Georgia and recognition of breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

"Hydrocarbons - the formula of war" is an analytical piece by military commentator Ilya Kramnik from RIA Novosti -- 9/19/08. Hear his closing words; they are some from which we can learn a great deal. "Energy is not only a great divider, it is also a gap bridger." To quote what led to his conclusion:

Hydrocarbon prices, new nuclear and hydro-power plants, oil blackmail - energy is now one of the central issues discussed in the world. Even the defense sector is not immune: many analysts tend to view most 20th century wars as wars for energy. . . . Control over energy production was not the ultimate goal for Germany, Italy or Japan - the aggressor countries in World War II - but it was one of the overriding objectives.

. . . The situation did not change much after the war. Oil-bearing regions have become the scene of rivalry between leading nations of the world which rushed to seek allies with the holders of the black stuff. The attractiveness of oil among other energy resources is easy to explain: it is a very calorie-rich fuel (a small amount yields a large volume of energy), its production, transportation and storage are simpler than that of other resources, and it is these advantages that have ultimately led oil and petroleum products to become the main resource of our machine-based civilization. Soon natural gas joined oil to become a near ideal source of energy for thermal power plants.

. . . Within the next few years, the Arctic is likely to become another area of conflict in the drive for energy. Global warming, which is opening up long-term access to the Arctic shelf, combined with large proven hydrocarbon resources, is bound to make the leading world powers challenge neighbors' rights to some parts of the shelf.

. . . Awareness of these factors lends to one's understanding as to why the European countries worry over fuel supplies from Russia. The hydrocarbons from the North Sea, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere are running out and cannot meet the needs of the European economy. Such interdependence of the sides works well in bringing them closer together and softening their stance over disputes - regardless of the fine words in which politicians and diplomats couch the description of the process.

It is easy to bluster -- It is harder to listen in an authentic and engaged way. Communications between nations are carried on between actual people, or with written words. It is the communicator's responsibility to be understood. It is the listener's responsibility to try to hear and act in good faith.

Section 2 -- Bonus read

"Insight: Who runs Russia?" is an article by Bridget Kendall in the 9/15/08 BBC News. The first key question is - who is really in charge? The first key message is that neither is willing to compromise with the West. The second message was that any move to extend NATO to Russia's borders by seeking to incorporate Georgia or Ukraine - is Russia's red line that still stands. The third message was that Russia would like to think a major East-West confrontation can still be avoided. To quote rather extensively from this fascinating in-depth piece:

The standard answer is President Medvedev as Commander in Chief. He, and only he, ordered Russian troops across the border to hit back when Georgia attacked on South Ossetia. But presidential power is now the tip of an iceberg. What murky currents swirl beneath the surface is less clear. . . . what about Russia's ex-president, now his prime minister, who was also at the conference?

"However much authority I have, whoever I may be talking to, none of the troops or tanks would have moved an inch until President Medvedev's order," was Vladimir Putin's attempt to deny his own importance when we asked about his role, thereby indicating that his clout and involvement were considerable.

. . . All to signal, perhaps, that their status is equal - a dual leadership exercising power in tandem. . . The aim, it seemed, was to send a signal to the West that Dmitry Medvedev is indeed more flexible and reformist than Putin himself - and was forced to act tough because the crisis left him no option.

. . . So what, then, at this juncture does Russia want from the West? The first message is that the Russian government is in no mood to compromise. . . That conviction was echoed from top to bottom in our discussions with government officials, mainstream academics and journalists, all of them insisting Russia had no choice but to respond militarily and take South Ossetia and Abkhazia under its wing. Any suspicion that Russia cunningly laid a trap that Georgia rashly walked into was dismissed as an outrageous lie.

. . . Curiously both Mr Putin and President Medvedev were carefully respectful when it came to President Bush.

"He's a good politician, I think I have a better opinion of George than most Americans," said Mr Putin, at the same time complaining that he had twice tried to get the US president to intervene.

Instead it was Vice-President Cheney and the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, with their Soviet expertise, who were targeted as villains, suspected of fuelling anti-Russian sentiment in the US administration and egging Georgia on.

. . . So the hints of a threat, but not exactly - and that is interesting. [other causes] . . . They denied that the loss of nearly 50% of Russia's stock market value from its all time high in May had much to do with the Georgia crisis. A far more likely cause, they argued - with some justification, given what is happening on Wall Street - was the impact of global financial instability.

[Conclusion] But behind all the moral outrage, I felt there was also a nervousness, a worry that if Russia's bluff is called and further tensions with the West ensue, it might force a stand-off from which neither side could back down.

"There is a chill in the air and a loss of trust," said Dmitry Medvedev, "but I don't think this is a corner turn that will lead to a long confrontation. This is not what we want. And it's not what you want either."

Hat Tip Key: Regular contributor of links to leads: "betmo*".

(Cross-posted at South by Southwest.)

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