Fun and Games: The Repercussions of Bringing the Threat of War to Russia’s Borders

As Russian troops marched to celebrate the victory over Nazi Germany 8 May, NATO troops — 1,300 of them from 10 member countries and six “partners” — were beginning their month-long Cooperative Longbow/Lancer war “games” on Russia’s southern border. In deference to Moscow, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Moldova and Serbia decided not to participate in the NATO exercises, preferring to send their diplomats to Red Square in homage to the untold Russian sacrifice in pursuit of world peace. According to Russian MP Sergei Abeltsev, the NATO decision to hold the drills in Georgia during the WWII Victory Day celebrations was a “total revision of the history of the Great Patriotic War”.

The games were greeted by Georgian troops with a coup attempt against their beleaguered President Mikheil Saakashvili, though there is speculation that this was something dreamed up by the Georgian president himself (he has done stranger things, like declaring war on Russia). This latest bizarre twist, the argument goes, gives him ammunition in his battle with protesters — they have been demanding his resignation for over a month and vow to keep protesting till he’s gone. Lucky for Saak, riot police are still loyal to him and broke up an anti-NATO rally by thousands converging on parliament on the eve of the games.

According to Russian Ambassador to NATO Dmitri Rogozin, Saakashvili “has long been aiming to bring Georgia’s domestic conflict to the international level. It’s for this reason that he shot down our military — to draw us into the August war. It’s for this reason that he wanted American marines to come to Georgia, to draw Americans into that war. This man is dangerous for the world,” Rogozin said. In support of the US darling, Democratic Senator John Kerry and Republican Congressman David Dreier (note the bipartisan unity) are calling for a free trade agreement with Georgia.

NATO is busy as a bee these days. Apart from its centerpiece, Afghanistan, where deaths of both Afghans and occupiers are increasing daily, and practicing for God-knows-what in Georgia, it was recently flexing its naval muscle in neighboring Turkey, where delegates from 27 countries just wrapped up NATO’s annual Maritime Commanders Meeting (MARCOMET 2009). Its theme this year was “The Future Security Environment — Implications for Navies” and was focused on terrorism, piracy and conflicts deriving from energy and resources issues. No doubt it will be deploying forces on the Horn of Africa soon pursuing those pesky pirates.

Prague is also a hive of activity these days. It hosted a meeting of the Eastern Partnership (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine and Moldova) 7 May, followed by a summit dubbed “Southern Corridor — New Silk Road of European and Central Asian countries,” seeking a non-Russian route for gas imports from Central Asia. The summit participants included Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Egypt, Iraq and Turkey. The Czech EU official said that after years of wavering, Europe had no time to lose in securing alternatives to Russian gas.

If the intent in all this is to make Russia mad, it is working. On the first day of the Georgian military exercise, Russia expelled two NATO envoys. Rogozin stated that his country would not attend a NATO military meeting planned for this week. Russian lawmaker Sergei Abeltsev has floated the idea of a response to the NATO move that would entail Cuba and Venezuela taking part in “large-scale drills” in the Caribbean Sea on 2 July. Nicaragua intends to buy Russian aircraft and helicopters for its armed forces, and will be sure to join in.

The battleground between East and West these days thus includes not only Georgia, but the Czech Republic, Poland and the Baltics. Not only is US President Barack Obama continuing Bush’s policy of provoking Russia in Georgia, but he made no indication in his first 100 days that he would reverse the planned Star Wars missile bases in the Czech Republic and Poland. Fortunately grassroots Czech opposition to the proposed base resulted in the defeat of the conservative government and it looks like the Czech base will not go ahead. Strong opposition in Poland has so far not managed to make a similar political inroad.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the US of using the Iran issue as a pretext to set up its missile shield in Russia ’s backyard. “The way it is designed has nothing to do with Iran’s nuclear program. It is aimed at Russian strategic forces, deployed in the European part of the Russian Federation,” Lavrov told Euronews. “We are being very frank about this with our American colleagues and hope that our arguments are heard. Iran’s nuclear program is a separate issue. We approach it according to a key principal — preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction.”

As if the Czech government’s anti-Russian conferences and the war games aren’t enough, the Czech air force are now “protecting” the airspace of the three Baltic NATO members, the first time that the Czech military’s tactical air force has been deployed in a foreign operation since the end of WWII. The Czech aircraft will be ready to take action in case of a military threat to the Baltic countries and to provide them with help.

But what “threat” is there in the Baltics, other than one invented by trigger-happy NATO planners playing yet more war “games” with Russia?

This scheming has not gone unnoticed by Moscow. “We are not afraid of anything, including the prospect of a new Cold War, but we don’t want one,” Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said recently. In The Grand Chessboard (1997), Zbigniew Brzezinski predicted that the only countries Russia could convince to join a defense pact might be Belarus and Tajikistan. But the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) founded in 2002 in reaction to NATO expansion eastward now includes not only Belarus and Tajikistan, but Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia.

It, along with the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC), the Russia-Belarus Union State and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are natural developments by countries concerned about what the US and NATO are really up to. Russian General Leonid Ivashov, vice-president of the Academy of Geopolitical Science, says there is a need “to neutralize the spread of NATO’s influence not only to Central Asia but also to East and Southeast Asia,” adding that this “won’t be of an aggressive or offensive nature; it will be a deterrent.”

Relations with the SCO are developing, and just a few months ago, it was reported that the CSTO will have its own Joint Rapid Reaction Force which could be used to protect its members from military aggression, defend critical infrastructure and fight terrorism and organized crime. Russia and Kazakhstan are the key movers in the CSTO and managed to obtain a 25 per cent growth in this year’s budget.

There are problems. First, the standoff between Armenia and Azerbaijan, with the latter inching towards NATO membership in reaction to Russian support for the former. And then there’s Uzbekistan. President Islam Karimov was initially very pro-US and anti-Russian, but after being spurned by the West over the brutal suppression of demonstrations in 2005, he quickly made up with Russia and even joined the CSTO in 2006. However, human rights have never interfered with US strategic thinking in the past, and there are signs that Karimov is flirting with the West once again. He has also signed a military cooperation agreement with Azerbaijan, and is withdrawing from EurAsEC, adding to the confusion.

What Moscow would really like is for Ukraine to join the CSTO. And why not? If such pacts are truly defensive, then this makes perfect sense. What conceivable role does NATO play so far from the Atlantic, except as a forward base for the US ? Ukraine in the CSTO would give it clout where it counts — with its big and vital neighbor. Ukraine in NATO can only be a serious cause of tension with Russia. As Egyptians say, “Your neighbor is closer than your mother.”

While things look grim these days from Moscow, the EU/NATO machinations are far from yielding results. Euro “partners” Armenia and Azerbaijan are in a state of war; Belarus and Moldova leaders have no illusions about Euro intentions and did not attend the EP fest in Prague, despite the 600 million euros being thrown around. And signs of reaction to NATO’s nosiness are setting in. In a poll by the US government funded International Republican Institute (IRI) only 63 percent of Georgian respondents back NATO accession, down from the 87 percent the IRI recorded last September. Keep in mind the bias of an organization like the IRI and imagine likely statistics if such a poll were carried out by a real NGO like, say, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament or StopNATO. What is telling in the IRI poll is the massive shift away from NATO membership in the past six months.

And then there’s Ukraine. The district council of its second largest city, Kharkov, has just called for a ban on all NATO-related organizations and activities pending a nationwide referendum on Kiev’s membership in the alliance. A statement circulated by the council last week denounced any violations of Ukraine’s bloc-free status. The protest by the deputies followed the opening in April this year of a Euro-Atlantic cooperation (read: NATO) centre at Economics and Law University in Kharkov.

Obama has yet to make any of the hard choices he faces. He caved in to the bankers, and his health plan is being vetted by the health insurance industry to prevent the single-payer system, by far the cheapest and most comprehensive. He appears to be letting the Bush torturers off the hook and continuing their wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he can’t finesse Russia so easily. Russia will not cooperate on Afghanistan or arms treaties if he continues the foolish and dangerous meddling in Eastern Europe under the pretense of supporting “democracy and freedom.” The current games can only be interpreted by Moscow as a replay — hopefully farcical — of the Nazis in Georgia in WWII, which will strengthen their resolve to keep the enemy at bay.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism and Postmodern Imperialism. His most recent book is Islamic Resistance to Imperialism. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on May 13th, 2009 at 12:12pm #

    Humpty Dumpty sat on the Berlin Wall. And the wall came tumbling down (20 years ago!). If you click on Sergei Abeltsev’s Duma webpage (via Wikipedia), you’ll see that he looks just like Humpty Dumpty! A member of the ridiculous Zhirinovsky’s far right party, Wikipedia informs us that: “He is also known for physically assaulting other members of the Russian Duma on numerous occasions”. That sounds like a very authoritative source!

    The logic of the Georgia exercises is that Obama came to Europe to ask for combat troops for Afghanistan. He didn’t get them, nor did he get any progress on Georgian and Ukrainian membership of NATO, but Europe didn’t want to send him away empty-handed, so they threw him a crumb in the form of the NATO exercises in Georgia. The Russians understand all of this, so they just made the usual ritualistic protests. The European members of NATO understand that, so they don’t get excited about it and everybody lives happily ever after. That’s the way Europe works!

    As for Saakashvili, the Georgian opposition have very cleverly exploited the situation and made a laughing stock of him. Instead of bolstering him, the exercises have once again discredited him. The idea that he might himself have stirred things up is therefore improbable. He must be aware that anything that causes trouble with Russia will damage him with NATO.

    Moreover, there is no conflict between membership of NATO and the CSTO. All the countries Mr Walberg lists are already members of NATO’s Partnership for Peace, as are Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Uzbekistan and, for that matter Switzerland! As for the European Partnership, its purpose is probably to head off the US and prevent it setting up a counter-power to the EU (fifth generation war!). I’m sure the Russians know that too and are probably very glad it’s happening. Thus, the intent of the exercises was not to make Russia “mad” nor have they had that effect!

    The Canadian diplomats were, expelled in classic tit-for-tat retaliation for the expulsion of two Russian diplomats accredited to NATO. No link whatsoever to Georgia. Clever, though, to expel Canadians. Doesn’t annoy the European members of NATO and doesn’t annoy the US!

    Does anybody realise just how useless the Czech air force is? All those ex-Warsaw Pact military forces (Georgia!) are a joke.

    No, Mr Walberg, you’re not going to be able to hype up a dispute that isn’t there!

  2. Mulga Mumblebrain said on May 13th, 2009 at 5:16pm #

    The incessant machinations of the Yankee Reich serve a number of purposes. First, of course, is the pursuit of a global empire, the aim of much of the US elite since 1776, certainly the vast bulk in the last 100 years. This is driven by quasi-religious delusions of God-ordained superiority, ‘Manifest Destiny’ and all that. There must be certain tensions as a result between the US elites and their increasingly demanding and controlling ‘dear allies’ the Israelis. After all, who really is most ‘Chosen’?The US global empire has always been a matter of pillage, of looting the rest of the world to enrich the US. In recent decades the pretence that this loot ought to be shared about has disappeared, and the average Yankee has received nothing but the privilege of falling ever further into debt, and seeing his well-paying manufacturing jobs outsourced to China, to be replaced by hamburger flipping. Naturally there is a remote danger that the years of brainwashing that the average American is subjected to from infancy, in the verities of American exceptionalism, might one day fail to impress a rabble facing yet another generation of going nowhere, so militaristic jingoism and xenophobia are always kept at the ready. And who better than the evil Russian bear, and the even more insidious Chinese, who seem to have completely forgotten their role as the ‘sick man of Asia’. One of Gorbachev’s greatest errors was his belief, at least as he expressed it, that the Soviet would befuddle the US by ‘taking away its enemy’. The US has proceeded as if nothing has changed, as if the Soviet still existed. After all that is the best way to ensure the subservience of Eurasia, that and making examples of the Serbs, the Iraqis, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Congolese, Lebanese and Somalis, to ‘encourage the others’. It also keeps the billions flowing to the military-industrial complex, the last bastion of US ‘comparative advantage’, in the arts of increasingly cowardly, remotely-controlled, mass murder of women and children.
    Obama has now comprehensively revealed himself to be Bush ‘with a good tan’, as Berlusconi might have said. Naturally on the numbskull soft ‘Left’, and in the smugly self-satisfied ‘Centre’, both inside the US and without, the bien-pensants refuse to face reality. Their denialism reminds me of the reaction to Blair within the UK. After his landslide removal of the detested Tory regime, as, month after month, year after year, he revealed himself not only as a true Thatcherite but an hidden, now revealed, ‘God-botherer’ as well, the Left refused to face the grim reality. Similarly here in Australia we have Kevin Rudd, a clone, with hair, of John Howard, but adding a touch of purse-lipped sanctimony and unctuous religiosity that we had been spared under Howard. The capitalist pseudo-democratic system does not allow real reformers to exist, it does not countenance ‘change’ or ‘hope’ beyond the corridors of economic power. The whole process is a complete sham, as anyone with but meagre intellect could ascertain within a few months of observing the political process in action. But so great is the relentless brainwashing, so intense the media bias in misrepresenting life in the interests of the hereditary and tribal elites, that the average mug punter holds close every delirious implausibility, to the bitter end. I think the apotheosis of Obamaism, the real, definitive dropping of the veil, will not be his protection of torturers, continuance of rendition, or even NATO’s increasing aggressiveness and the rising slaughter in Afghanistan. It may not even be the coming sell-out over climate change, where the imbecile dead-end of ’emissions trading’ seems destined to fail in the Congress. I think his gravest betrayal, the one for which he was groomed, then allowed to win the Presidency as the Republicans ran dead, will be the sell-out of the poor, ie the blacks and Hispanics and lower class Whites, during the economic collapse. While trillions are transferred to the banksters who financed Obama’s meteoric rise, the ‘losers’ will pay the bill for generations. Having a black man preside over the class war will have them chuckling in the private clubs.