My recent posts here about Russia and the war in the Caucasus have drawn an unprecedented amount of commentary from our readers, inciting vigorous (and sometimes vitriolic) argument about the nature of Russian foreign policy and Russia’s role in the world’s conflicts. Two mutually antagonistic camps — the Russophiles and the Russophobes — have chosen sides and taken up cudgels against one another.
When any topic strikes such a resonant emotional chord in so many people, there are presumably deeper issues at work. Russia (or the idea of Russia) is simply standing in for a set of unresolved internal political conflicts in the West. We project our ideas onto Russia in the form of stylized caricatures which may bear only a passing resemblance to reality. In our projections, the great nation of Russia wears either an angel’s or a devil’s face, depending on the predilection of the projector.
As in so many cases of projection, the truth is presumably quite different. Russia is neither totally evil nor totally good. It is neither the savior nor the nemesis of the West. It is simply a huge and badly damaged nation which is attempting to reconstruct itself. When Russians act in their own interests, they may be mistaken, or they may be correct, but expecting them to act on our interests, and not their own, is foolish and misguided.
Understanding Russia’s actions — avoiding both the extremes of idolization and demonization — is imperative. Russia is a flawed colossus that can be dangerous to both Europe and the United States, but it is not inherently evil, and the current state of affairs is not permanent.
Above all, it’s important to realize that a huge amount of questionable information about Russia has become entrenched in the world’s media. Seventy-five years of Soviet disinformation has blinded us to the fact that just as much disinformation can come from other sources. Parties with an interest in damaging Russia have floated numerous bogus stories, and the media, all too eager to believe anything bad about Russia, have swallowed them hook, line, and sinker. It was true during the Bosnian conflict, during the war against Serbia, and also during the war in Georgia.
I posted two news articles here recently that reflect badly on Russia, but there are other articles that reflect badly on Russia’s enemies. Georgia is not a brave and noble little democracy fighting against the evil Russian bear. The story is more complicated than that, and much of the material about the war in the Caucasus is of questionable provenance.
I know too little about these issues to venture more of an opinion than that. However, no less an authority than The Guardian — a venerable organ of the establishment Left if ever there was one — has woken up to the fact that it and the rest of the Western media have been lied to about Georgia, and not just by Russia:
The truth about South Ossetia
After the west heaped blame on Russia for the conflict, it ignores new evidence of Georgia’s crimes of aggression
So now they tell us. Two months after the brief but bloody war in the Caucasus which was overwhelmingly blamed on Russia by western politicians and media at the time, a serious investigation by the BBC has uncovered a very different story.
Not only does the report by Tim Whewell — aired this week on Newsnight and on Radio 4’s File on Four — find strong evidence confirming western-backed Georgia as the aggressor on the night of August 7. It also assembles powerful testimony of wide-ranging war crimes carried out by the Georgian army in its attack on the contested region of South Ossetia.
They include the targeting of apartment block basements — where civilians were taking refuge — with tank shells and Grad rockets, the indiscriminate bombardment of residential districts and the deliberate killing of civilians, including those fleeing the South Ossetian capital of Tskinvali.
The carefully balanced report — which also details evidence of ethnic cleansing by South Ossetian paramilitaries — cuts the ground from beneath later Georgian claims that its attack on South Ossetia followed the start of a Russian invasion the previous night.
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At the time, the Georgian government said its assault on Tskinvali was intended to “restore constitutional order” in an area it has never ruled, as well as to counter South Ossetian paramilitary provocations. Georgian intelligence subsequently claimed to have found the tape of an intercepted phone call backing up its Russian invasion story — but even Georgia’s allies balk at a claim transparently intended to bolster its shaky international legal position.
Naturally the man who ordered the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia, president Mikheil Saakashvili, denies the war crimes accusations. But what of his Anglo-American sponsors, who insisted at the time that “Russian aggression must not go unanswered”?
British foreign secretary David Miliband now accepts Georgia was “reckless” and says he treats the war crimes allegations “extremely seriously”. US assistant secretary of state, Daniel Fried, meanwhile concedes Georgia’s attack on Tskhinvali was “wrong on several levels”, but feels that discussion of its war crimes is “not terribly useful”.
At the start of the August conflict, western media reporting was relatively even-handed, but rapidly switched into full-blown cold war revival mode as Russia turned the tables on the US’s Georgian client regime and Nato expansion in the region. Clear initial evidence of who started the war and Georgian troops’ killing spree in Tskhinvali was buried or even denied in a highly effective PR operation from Tbilisi.
Within a week, the former Foreign Office special adviser David Clark was for example accusing me on Comment is free of making an “important error of fact” by stating that “several hundreds civilians” had been killed by Georgian forces in Tskhinvali.
I based that on several reports, including in the Observer. Clark insisted there was “no independent support for this claim”. But, as reported by the BBC this week, Human Rights Watch now regards the figure of 300-400 civilian dead in Tskhinvali as a “useful starting point”.
Meanwhile, with the exception of a small item in the Independent, Whewell’s significant new evidence about what actually took place in a conflict likely to have far-reaching strategic consequences has been simply ignored by the rest of the mainstream media.
So the Western media have been snookered again — surprise! — by canny operators with an axe to grind.
It’s long past time to withdraw our projections. Russia is neither a noble knight on a shining white steed, nor an evil ogre bent on devouring us. The truth, as I said before, is more complicated than that.
Despite Russia’s manifestly illiberal political system (or perhaps because of it), Russians express popular support for the regime at a level that is beyond the wildest dreams of any Western leader. The reason for this is not hard to fathom: Russian leaders look after Russia. They are not in thrall to any trans-national ideologies. They don’t bend over backwards catering to their country’s enemies. They do what they think will serve the interests of their nation, and their people reward them accordingly.
Whatever you or I may think of their methods is irrelevant. Our policy towards Russia should be pragmatic, based on the cold reality of the circumstances of any given situation:
- Where it is dangerous to us, thwart it.
- Where it is useful to us, ally with it.
- Where it is neither, leave it alone.
Prudence and common sense seem to have departed our foreign policy. Why are so few of us willing to stand up and assert what is in our own best interests?
It’s not necessary to give up your idealism to be a pragmatist — after all, how can you act according to your ideals when your nation is on the verge of destruction? Idealism can only function in a space cleared and tamed by ruthless pragmatists, those rough men whom the idealists will later despise.
Russia’s leaders are acting in what they perceive as their nation’s best interests — which is more than I can say for most of the leaders of the West.