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Georgia: We must unite to resist Russian aggression

Georgia: We must unite to resist Russian aggression 

By Denis MacShane

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 11/08/2008


At least when Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia exactly 40 years ago they did not shoot to kill. Nor did Russian planes bomb civilians or fly low over European cities to terrify inhabitants. And the Russian invasion of a nominally sovereign republic was covered by finding some local Czech communists who signed a Kremlin-drafted agreement in captivity.

  • All the latest news from the conflict in Georgia
  • Czechoslovakia was once described by a Conservative prime minister as “a faraway country of which we know nothing”. Many may feel similarly about Georgia. But the frontiers of today’s Europe now stretch to the Black Sea. Britain’s energy supplies depend on a narrow pipeline stretching from Azerbaijan, across Georgia, to Turkey.

    The failure of foreign policy in the 1990s led to a million or more people from Balkan states flooding into northern Europe as asylum seekers, many heading for our shores. As jihadist Islamism seeks new terrorism bases further east, Britain’s security now requires engagement in the troubled arc of instability from eastern Turkey to the states of the Caucasus and all the countries ending in “stan”.

    Into this stewpot, Vladimir Putin has dropped – literally – a bombshell. By ordering a full-scale military invasion of Georgia, he has revealed the true face of his autocratic rule. By flying in person to the scene as if he was field commander-in-chief, he is showing the world that Russia will revert to being a military power willing to bully and threaten its neighbours.

    Two months ago, I asked Russia’s EU ambassador who was in charge of Russia’s foreign and defence policy. After a moment’s hesitation, he replied: “The constitutional position is clear. It is the president of Russia.” One can only feel sorry for the hapless Dimitri Medvedev, the placeman installed as president by Putin, who stepped down to the theoretically inferior position of prime minister. Like Stalin, who never had a grander title than general secretary of the Communist party, we now see a Russian voshd – chief – totally in charge. Poor Medvedev promised Russian support at the G8 for strong UN language on Zimbabwe, only to be disowned on his return to Moscow. Again today, Putin shows who is running Russia.

    To be sure, the efforts of the democratically elected government in Tbilisi to establish its control over all of its territory was clumsy. South Ossetia has been promised full autonomy with respect for its Russian culture and languages – the same as, say, a Catalonia in Spain, or the French-speaking cantons of Switzerland. But this was not acceptable to the Kremlin, which has a group of corrupt cronies in place in South Ossetia.

    Nor will this crisis remain on Russia’s south-eastern flank. Putin does not fully accept the sovereignty of the Baltic states, with sizeable Russian minorities who arrived there after Stalin snuffed out the independence of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania in 1939. Russia has already launched a cyber-war that shut down Estonia’s government and economic life for 24 hours. Putin has also demanded a Russian corridor across Lithuanian territory to the ex-Soviet enclave of Königsberg, where Kant wrote his theory of perpetual peace.

    Now called Kaliningrad, the former Prussian city was host to an infamous meeting of Putin, Chirac and Schröder at which they mocked Tony Blair’s support for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. It was in Kaliningrad that Putin offered a job to Schröder as boss of the company building an oil pipeline in the Baltic to bypass the cheaper land route over Poland. Swedish diplomats worry that, once it is built, the Russians will exercise security oversight over the pipeline and turn the Baltic Sea into a zone of naval confrontation.

    Russia has never accepted the loss of the old Soviet empire. Like British Right-wingers who dream of the days when the Union flag fluttered over parts of the world where English was spoken, the Russians still feel the loss of status when the end of communism forced the Kremlin to disgorge the Baltic states, Ukraine and Georgia.

    Russia under Putin has energy wealth and thus the money to spend on arms and aggressive foreign policy. Moscow continues to bluster and threaten the Baltic states, has cut off energy supplies to countries it wants to lean on and, as Britain knows, has bullied the British Council, interfered in BP and Shell’s commercial operations, and even harassed the British ambassador when he went out to buy food for the embassy cat. And then there is the Litvinenko murder, where the response of Putin was to put the man Scotland Yard wanted to question into the Duma with the immunity of an MP.

    At the UN, Russia sabotages efforts to solve the Kosovo problem and lined up with Mugabe. In other international bodies, the Russians refuse to co-operate except on their own terms. The most bizarre example is the Council of Europe, which admitted Russia as a member even though Russia refuses to accept the authority of the European Court of Human Rights. In the Council of Europe, Conservative MPs sit in the same group as Putin’s stooges, and Tory MPs even tried to install a Kremlin placeman as president last year.

    In contrast to Conservatives cuddling up to the bear, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, has been commendably firm in the Commons on Russia, showing a steel hand behind his smile. But Britain alone cannot face down the new Russian aggression. This requires a united response from Europe. Unfortunately, too many Right-wing leaders in today’s EU, notably Angela Merkel in Berlin and Silvio Berlusconi in Rome, appear to want to give Putin the benefit of the doubt.

    This allows Moscow to divide and play. The idea of a common foreign policy and the means to implement it in the Lisbon Treaty are anathema to Eurosceptics; but a disunited EU will be easy meat for Russia and leave America without a partner of weight to face down Russian bullying.

    The dispute in Georgia will find some temporary brokered settlement. But the bloody assault unleashed by Putin adds new dangers and difficulties to Europe. Once again, Russia threatens peace, stability, the rule of law and the rights of sovereign democracies on its border.

    Denis MacShane is Labour MP for Rotherham and was minister for Europe under Tony Blair

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