Two interesting – and thematically related – pieces look at past conflicts in relation the the Georgia / Russia spat over the last couple of days have prompted some thoughts along the old comparative history line (always an interesting intellectual exercise, as long as you don’t take it too seriously or literally).
First, over at Fistful, Douglas Muir looks at the Second Balkan War of 1912, and the impact Bulgaria’s failure to win had on that nation’s subsequent history (short version: bitter resentment, paramilitary reprisals, fighting on the losing side in both World Wars, more bitter resentment). Georgia’s failure to reassert her dominance over South Ossetia, Douglas posits, is decidedly comparible to Bulgaria’s failure to retake Macedonia and other “Bulgarian” territories in the Balkans. Or, as Douglas puts it,
“losses of national territory are hard for any nation to accept”.
“Cold War II may soon be with us – indeed will be with us – if we have still to learn the cost of humiliating the Russian Bear… Vladimir Putin has stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the worst geopolitical disaster of the 20th century: he means it.”
Russia was on the losing side in the Cold War – hell, Russia WAS the losing side in the Cold War. Russia is now weak, with a shaky economy that relies largely on the money of her erstwhile enemies. She has lost large chunks of her former territory, and has to see ethnic Russians and Russian speakers scattered throughout the lands of near neighbours where once those lands belonged to her. Meanwhile, her old enemies in NATO are pushing ever closer to her borders, sucking in former allies and making new treaties with countries that used to be Russia’s friends.
For any country, such post-defeat humiliation would be hard to bear, and breed ever more resentment of the victors – both among the politicians and the people. For a country like Russia, with a long macho culture, such humiliation is even more unbearable. But have we learned our lesson? For we have made this mistake before:
From Harold Nicholson‘s diary, written while he was a junior diplomat at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference (from the Wednesday, 28 May entry):
“The more I read the [German peace treaty], the sicker it makes me… If I were the Germans, I shouldn’t sign for a moment. You see it gives them no hope whatsoever, either now or in the future.”
As the old USSR fell apart during the 90s, the US-backed “shock therapy“, designed to push the country towards neoliberal capitalism and democracy, humiliated and alienated the Russian people just as did the reparations clauses of the Treaty of Versailles the Germans. Resentment grew, especially of the “oligarchs” – prompting first the 1993 constitutional crisis, where Yeltsin sent in the special forces against the Duma, then (arguably) the First Chechen War of 1994-6. The 1998 financial crisis (followed swiftly by the Second Chechen War) was, for many, the final proof that the Western way of doing things had failed. It was, with hindsight, to post-Soviet Russia what the Wall Street Crash was to Weimar Germany – the final catalyst to spark the reaction. With Putin’s 1999 rise, the reforms of the Yeltsin years began to be swept back. He determined not to tolerate Chechnya’s de facto independence any longer, to clamp down on the oligarchs, to reassert state control over companies left, right and centre. Russia had been humiliated and exploited enough.
And yet now, despite the failures of the 1990s, the West is demanding that Russia return to that self-same path of neoliberal reform. We’re still saying the same things that we were in ’89, in ’91, in ’93 and in ’98. And all the while, the influence of the West has been advancing – the expansion of NATO into the old Soviet / Warsaw Pact sphere in 1999 and in particular the 2004 expansion of the EU (and NATO) to include old USSR territories Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – bringing the borders of the EU to within 80 miles of Putin’s home town of St Petersburg. Just as Weimar Germany saw parts of its territory go over to its erstwhile enemies, so has Russia. Hence the desperation to hang on to Chechnya. Hence the sabre-rattling over the US missile defence shield. Hence the ongoing meddling in Ukraine and Georgia.
For the duration of the Soviet Union, Russians were raised to distrust the West, to regard it as decadent and full of corruption. Russia’s experience of rampant neoliberal reform during the 1990s merely confirmed this as the rich got richer and the poor stayed poor.
And still the West persists with pressurising Russia. With the best intentions, no doubt. But democratic reform cannot come about if the people themselves don’t want it. Free markets will only be enthusiastically adopted if the people experience the benefits, rather than just entrepreneurs who swiftly become insanely rich oligarchs through dodgy deals and exploitation.
By trying to impose our will on the defeated side, we will only foster ever greater resentment that the war was lost. Russia is unlikely to breed a Hitler; but the rise of extremist nationalism, the tentative nibbling at the edges of former territories, the economic resentment – all these we have seen before in other times, other places.
The First World War’s bad peace was the primary cause of the Second World War. Let’s try to avoid the Cold War’s bad peace sparking a sequel as well. If we don’t want Russia to get ever more resentful, ever more humiliated, threats and punishments are not going to do the job.