Monday, December 29, 2008

Getting Real about the Threat of Rusyn Separatism in Ukraine

On 1 December RT the Russian 24 news network gave backhand recognition to the seventeenth anniversary of the Ukrainian independence referendum by announcing the unilateral establishment of an autonomous Rusyn state in Transcarpathia, the western-most region of Ukraine. The story was not really that new.  On 25 October the "Second World Rusyn Congress" had announced its intentions to proclaim an autonomous government on 1 December if the Ukrainian state did not bow to their demands for the creation of an autonomous Republic in Transcarpathia.   Three weeks later on 22 December STRATFOR, the private intelligence firm, issued a report following up on the announcement suggesting that Rusyn (Ruthenian in the text) separatism provided a perfect wedge through which Russia could undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.  The well respected expert on Soviet nationalities, Paul Goble, has also chimed in noting that the main Druzhba gas pipeline, flows through Transcarpathia, although he also notes that Russian support of Rusyn separatists is not universally supported within the Russian foreign policy elite. (Hat tip Taras Kuzio) 

For anyone not familiar with the ins and outs of Europe's smaller ethnic groups, STRATFOR's report is alarming, especially coming on the heals of this summer's crisis in South Ossetia. Moreover, in a world where Putin has shown a strong desire to reassert control over other former Soviet republics,  it can seem entirely plausible that yet another ethnic group one has never heard of before will provide similar leverage in Ukraine to that offered by the Ossetians and the Abkhazians in Georgia.   Despite Russian attempts to make Rusyn separatism seem a serious threat to Ukraine, people would be well advised to be skeptical about the level of support for separatism among the Rusyns of Transcarpathia as well as Russia's ability to manipulate the situation, however strategically advantageous it might seem.  

The first problem with such analogies, is that unlike the Ossetians and Abkhazians, the Rusyns never had the advantage of being declared a distinct nationality in the Soviet Union and have their territory granted any nominal autonomous status.  In fact, from the moment of annexation at the end of World War II  Soviet policy towards the Rusyns of Transcarpathia was to classify them as Ukrainians. a decision that is generally understood to have been widely accepted by the Rusyns in the area.  Indeed, the American scholar Paul Magocsi, who is the main expert on and advocate for the Rusyns, maintained in his first major book that Rusyns had accepted Ukrainian identity.   Beyond that, unlike South Ossetia and Abkhazia, or even Eastern Ukraine Transcarpathia is not territorially contiguous with Russia so the prospect of sending in Russian troops into the region is highly unlikely, especially since doing so would involve violating Ukrainian airspace, or alternatively gaining assistance from Poland, Slovakia, Hungary or Romania, none of which have a particularly friendly attitude towards the Russian military.

That said, there are just enough inconsistencies within the situation in Transcarpathia to give the threat of Rusyn separatism some plausibility.  Glastnost and perestroika created conditions where interest in Rusyn distinctiveness in Transcarpathia has revived, something that coincided with Paul Magocsi's efforts to promote Rusyn pride among its immigrant population in America and Canada.  Yet, exactly what that means politically remains unclear because no one has been concerned enough to investigate it empirically which has left something of a half full glass for people to analyze according to their own preferences.  Even so estimates based on what little empirical data is available suggests that only about 10% of Transcarpathia's million inhabitants identify strongly as Rusyns.  So the Rusyn separatists that Russia has been calling attention have a long way to go to convince their compatriots to take their cause as something worthy of their support.  As it stands, the main body of the World Congress of Rusyns has condemned the separatists.

If anything Russian support for the Rusyn separatists comes off as a farcical replay of events prior to World War I when the circumstances of living under Hungarian assimilationist policies and tensions between immigrant communities from Transcarpathia and Greek Catholic priests from Galicia created a degree of sympathy for Russia -- Some communities in the United States even went so far as to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, a decision some sought to encourage with modest success back in the homeland.  Soon Russian nationalists, were seeking to make use of that opening.  Russian scholars began taking an interest in the region and just before World War I Russian agents did their best to promoting pro-Russian sentiment.  Their success, however, was marginal, and there is little to suggest that this time Russian nationalists will be any more successful this time.  Indeed, rather than setting the stage for the collapse of Ukraine at the hands of Russia as STRATFOR suggests, these events may finally put the issue of Rusyn loyalty to Ukraine to rest.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Why Did Georgia Attack South Ossetia? Redux

As always Thanksgiving and Advent have stressed my organizational skills, but I can now return to some issues that have been wanting to address.

 The first of them is the still murky origin of the Georgia's attack on South Georgia.  Reports that have come out since my original post on this subject have not yet fully disabused me of my original hypothesis that Georgia had acted as they did based on information leaked to them that suggested Russia would acquiesce.  Still, it does seem clear that the Georgians expected more concrete support from NATO than they got.  Moreover, the Pentagon's assessment of the Georgian military, which the New York Times reported on in its 18 December edition, casts doubt on its ability to assess and act deliberatively:
Georgia's armed forces, the report said are highly centralized, prone to impulsive rather than deliberative decision making, undermined by unclear lines of command and led by senior officials selected for personal relationships rather than professional qualifications. 
That does not come as a surprise, as I suggested originally a more deliberative command would have sought to avoid war at all costs.  Moreover it suggests a command that could easily fall into the trap of group think, whether that was assuming the rest of the world would come to Georgia's aid or the wishful thinking that Putin was secretly prepared to let Georgia reassert control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  

Saturday, November 22, 2008

90th Anniversary of The Making of Eastern Europe as We Know it

November is full of important anniversaries ending in symbolic 5s and 0s this year.  11 November marked 90 years since the end of World War I with the predictably dwindling handful of living veterans being photographed and honored in ways they were not until the war had been surpassed by a second World War II.  Meanwhile Ukrainians are marking the 75th anniversary of the famine hoping that it will get greater notice among non-Ukrainians than did the event itself.  Outside of East Central and Eastern Europe, the broader impact of the end of World War I has likewise been largely neglected, and yet the events of November 1918 are key to shaping that part of the world for the rest of the twentieth century because the marked the moment when nationality finally replaced the tradition of imperial power as the source of legitimacy for states in the region.  

National histories have presented that shift has been seen as beginning much earlier although the establishment of nation states was prevented by inertia and a European state system that saw the continued existence of Austria-Hungary as preferable to the chaos that would occur in its absence. Yet, even as a few more radical nationalist were more than ready for the change, most citizens of Austria-Hungary were not until efforts to reconcile competing interests of various nationalities collapsed during the last year of the war.  Unfortunately.  the winding up of the war did not really resolve the problems politicians in Austria-Hungary had been working on before 3 November 1918, as became clear the day before when Ruthenian (that was their official ethnonym in Austria-Hungary) troops in Galicia mutinied and seized control of Lemberg, (Lviv) which Ukrainian nationalists in Galicia planned would become the capital of the Western Ukrainian Republic.

The Ukrainian gambit was a risky one.  While Lemberg lay within Eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainians were the dominant nationality, they were a minority in the Galician capital, where Poles held a slight majority with Jews the second largest ethnic group.  What is more Polish nationalists had spent the previous 20 years building up the idea of Lemberg's Polishness in the minds of Poles in Galicia and other parts of historical Poland.   Meanwhile the unofficial, but de facto Polish diplomatic contacts with the Entente powers was far better developed than the Ukrainians, which paved the way for the French decision to allow General Haller's army to cross into Galicia and wrest Lemberg from the Ukrainian forces.  

Haller's army succeeded, although not before numerous Polish soldiers, many mere boy scouts had died.  Then on 22 some Poles started a pogrom against Jews, who had calculated that the best thing to do was to remain neutral.  Initial reports were of casualties in the thousands were made, but today the accepted number of 73 victims.   Within the broader scheme of things the numbers do not matter so much as the event, which made put paid to any real expectation that the concept of minority rights would play a serious role in limiting state power in what would become the Wilsonian world order. A fact that was further borne out by the punitive measures taken on Ukrainian civil servants and railway workers.   

These events were not unique in the Habsburg successor states, most notably the Communist revolution in Hungary and its overthrow were far more dramatic.  Yet at the center of all these lay the highly problematic task of applying the principle of national sovereignty to peoples living in close proximity to each other who had been allowed to establish distinct national identities within Austria-Hungary.  

To be sure the events of 1918-1920 did not insure subsequent developments including the extermination of Jews and the ethnic cleansing of Poles and Ukrainians, who were deemed on the wrong side of post WWII Polish-Ukrainian border.  Nor are such wounds permanent.  Much to the chagrin of Moscow, Polish-Ukrainian relations since the end of the cold war, and there have been serious efforts to resolve remaining tensions regarding Lviv.  Most notably, the cemetery Poles built to honor the dead of the 1918-19 war has been restored, with a site that includes a memorial to Ukrainian dead as well.

Local Polish forces including a large number of scouts defended the city,  

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Putin's Dreams Go On Hold

Just a couple of months ago people were still talking about with great anxiety about Russia's resurgence on the back of high oil and gas prices and Putin's apparent aim to bring oil and gas under state control.  These fears were reasonable, and potential threats to the post-Soviet order, as exemplified by the war with Georgia and intimations of what the Russian leadership might try to do to Ukraine if they got the chance.  

It now looks like the war with Georgia will mark the high water mark for the resurgent Russia for the foreseeable future.  In the wake of that event, western investors began to lose their appetite for investing in the non-energy economy.  Then came the credit crunch, which has hit the heavily leveraged oligarchs hard, and led Russian stock markets to halt trading, and finally rapidly declining oil and gas prices.

The first signs of the longer-term consequences of Putin's strategy are becoming clear.  The Financial Times reported today that Gasprom has announced that it may not buy TNK-BP's stake in the Kovytka natural gas field in Irkutsk after all as a result of tightening credit and declining gas prices.  This ought to be good news for BP, and yet one has to wonder if TNK-BP will be particularly eager to renew investment in the Kovytka gas fields given that once prices begin to rise and Putin and Gasprom  again have cash at their disposal they will return to their original plan. 

 In short, the already badly underdeveloped Russian oil and gas fields, will likely remain underdeveloped for some time to come as long as credit is tight and western companies are unwilling to spend their money and use their technology.  As long as this obtains Putin's dreams of firmly reestablishing Russia as global power will remain elusive.  Meanwhile, it will interesting to see how Putin's problems will affect regular Russians' opinion of their fearless leader.   

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Bronislaw Geremek (1932-2008)

As I was checking Gazeta Wyborcza this week I noticed several remembrances of Bronislaw Geremek, and discovered I had entirely missed his death in a car accident in July.   I didn't know the man, but in a blog dedicated to history and East Central Europe, Geremek's life deserves comment because he is that rarity, an historian who became an influential politician, but even before coming to adulthood he became wrapped up in history, as a Jewish boy who was smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in 1942 along with his mother, and sheltered by Stefan Geremek who ultimately married Bronislaw's mother and became his adopted father.  As such, Bronislaw Geremek exemplified the fact that despite the near annihilation of Poland's large Jewish community during World War II it was not quite so ethnically homogenous as Polish nationalists imagined, even after the anti-semitic campaigns of 1968 when most of Poland's remaining Jews were forcibly asked to leave.  

Sometime in the 1980s when I began my love affair with Poland and Solidarity I learned about Geremek as a leading intellectual advisor/member of Solidarity and that he was an historian who had specialized in medieval France.  His focused on social economic history, which fit in with the post-WWII Marxist pre-requisites, but was not really new Poland as the annals school had already been influential in interwar Poland.   To be honest, I never read his stuff as my academic interests took me in a different direction, but while working as a teaching assistant for a leading medieval historian, I saw one of Geremek's books on her bookshelf and we talked briefly about it and she clearly respected his work.

Like other Polish intellectuals and scholars coming of age immediately after World War II, Geremek joined the Polish United Workers Party.  Despite his Jewish heritage, he does not appear to have been chased out of the Party during the anti-semitic campaign of early 1968, but resigned later that year following the Polish cooperation in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.  His path to becoming a political figure in his own right however occurred during the turbulent 1970s when intellectuals and workers began to find common ground. Geremek himself founded the Society of Scholarly lectures, which revived the tradition of the underground flying university of wartime Poland, from which he became an advisor to the Solidarity trade union in 1980, and eventually a participant in the 1989 roundtable talks that laid the groundwork for the transition from Communist rule.  In the new environment Geremek became an active leader of a series of economically liberal centrist parties along with another leading.  When the Law and Justice party tried to impose more rigorous disclosure of politicians' contacts with the Communist era secret police in 2007 , Geremek refused.  As such he will remain a hero of those of us who valued truth and human rights.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Misremembering Reagan's Willingness to Meet With Soviet Leaders

During last Friday's debate McCain invoked Reagan when arguing for the necessity of setting pre-conditions before meeting with Iran.  This led Brad Delong to point to an article in Pravda from 1982 in which Brezhnev declined an offer by Reagan to meet informally, which Matt Yglesias picked up on his blog. The discussion in the comments to the latter's post got me thinking about how the American right has allowed Reagan's aggressive rhetoric to overshadowed the reality of his diplomacy, and how this has led to the neo-con right's absolutist stand regarding negotiations with Iran and other states that have been longstanding security threats.

Brezhnev's refusal has been a boon for American right's view of Reagan because it meant that Reagan ended up not meeting with a Soviet leader until the Geneva summit with Gorbachev in November of 1985.  Yet, the reality is that far from shaping events through steadfastness Reagan was a hostage to the poor health and age of the CPSU politburo leadership.  Meanwhile, Gorbachev's association with glasnost and perestroika has been used as an ex-post facto justification for Reagan's readiness to meet with Gorbachev.   Yet contrary to how the neo-cons construe it, when Reagan initially invited Gorbachev to come to Washington in March 1985 and ultimately met with the Soviet leader in Geneva that November, Reagan was not rewarding Gorbachev.   While Gorbachev had already introduced the terms glasnost and perestroika as necessary for reform in speeches, there was little sign in his first year in office that apart from curbing alcohol consumption his reformist talk was more than window dressing.  Thus, were the neo-cons to apply the standard they do to talk with our current enemies to the Geneva summit, they would be bitterly disappointed.  If anything Reagan's willingness to meet Gorbachev, as well as the latter's readiness not to over react to Reagan's harsher anti-Soviet rhetoric intended for domestic consumption, seems to back up the view that even when the results are not certain diplomacy is worth the risk.  

(Blogger's note:  This entry had its origins in a comment made to the post at Matt Yglesias's blog linked to above.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Lessons from a Republic in Decline

As America's founding fathers were holed up in Philadelphia working on forging a more perfect union one of their greatest anxieties was the poor record of republics from enduring over time. In fact at that very time, what had been the largest republic in history, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, was in its death throes after coming into existence in 1569 just over two centuries earlier.

Most Americans know little about the Commonwealth and its collapse beyond the fact that it ceased to exist at the end of the 1700s -- if they know that.   That negligence can in large measure be explained by wise decisions the founding fathers made based on their observation of why earlier republics had failed.  Thus, they made a strong executive -- something the Commonwealth lacked, and created the checks and balances system.  In  addition they insured the basis for a strong military explicitly under civilian command, even if the army of the early American republic was miniscule.  Thanks to such forethought our republic has endured. Nonetheless as proud citizens of a republic it behooves us to pay attention to how republics go into decline, so that we avoid this fate.

I first started thinking about the relevance of the Commonwealth's decline during the 1990s when it struck me that the culture wars and increased partisanship seemed to reflect an alarming complacency about the resilience of the Republic based on the notion that we had the greatest military and were the only remaining superpower.  It reminded me all too much of the complacency that followed after the Commonwealth survived a series crises (including a civil war and foreign invasions) in the middle of the seventeenth century.  True, the situation in the Commonwealth was not quite the same.  It did not come through those wars unscathed -- it lost all its longstanding claim to territory east of the Dnipro River -- something that ought to have provoked some serious soul searching about the need for structural reforms to strengthen the executive.  Instead, the Commonwealth's nobles, who ran the Republic, retreated into Catholic orthodoxy and a cult of Polish noble exceptionalism, which included a blatant disregard for towns' and the enserfed peasants'  role in the importance of the Commonwealth's economy.  

Today thank goodness anxiety about the health of our Republic is a regular part of political discourse again, although sadly it has taken the excesses of the Bush-Cheney administration to bring that about.  But we are not out of the woods yet by any means.  Although I take great heart that neither a Clinton nor a Bush is on the ticket in this years presidential race, the selection of Ms. Palin as McCain's running mate has reminded me of another aspect of the Commonwealth's decline: the readiness of many nobles to put personal ambition above the national interest. 

Once again the analogy is far from exact.  At the heart of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth political difficulties lay two factors that have no clear parallels in our America.  The first is the constitutional requirement in the Commonwealth that the Sejm reach consensus for the decisions of that session to become legally binding, which gave birth to the so-called liberum veto, which allowed a single noble at the Sejm to block any decisions being reached even if they merely objected to one item.   The second was the curious combination of huge socio-economic differences and the rhetorical insistence on the equality of all nobles that made it possible for a magnate to lift up the status of impoverished nobles, who did not meet the official qualifications for full noble status, so that they could take part in a session of the Sejm by gifting them possession of a few villages in exchange for obstructing its proceedings by exercising the liberum veto.  

The Polish Enlightenment figure and ally of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, depicted just such an instance in one of his poems, parodying the impoverished noble's short-sightedness and his delight in suddenly being a player who could disrupt the Sejm because it was his constitutional privilege to be able to do so.  This poem recently came to mind as I thought about Sarah Palin's rapid political ascent.  To be sure, unlike the impoverished noble Niemcewicz described, Sarah Palin has become a political player through her own efforts.  Still, McCain's decision to invite her to join his ticket and her ready acceptance strike me as very much akin to the self-serving bargain between a magnate and a petty noble described above.  

It is painfully clear that despite McCain's chosen slogan "Country First" he picked Palin for short-term political advantages her feisty social conservatism would bring to his flagging campaign just as Polish Magnates used the liberum veto for their own self interest rather than that of the Cmmonwealth as a whole. Similarly, Palin's apparent immediate acceptance of the offer and confidence of her ability to fulfill the duties of the Vice-President reminds me of the petty noble Niemcewicz parodied.   Like him, there can be no denying that Palin meets the legal qualifications to be Vice-President.  Yet, it is also clear that she accepted the role as VP candidate because it appealed to her vanity as a rising star in the Republican party, rather than through a sober consideration of whether her present qualifications are a sufficient basis to take over that post, let alone the presidency, a fact now implicitly acknowledged by leading Conservative intellectuals.   

It is most probable that our Republic will survive should a McCain-Palin administration thanks in no small measure to our founding fathers' foresight, at least in name.  Perhaps conservatives are right that once seasoned Palin will be a competent leader.  Yet, our republic,  in its current constitutional form, is now over 200 years old.   As the case of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth illustrates proud as such an achievement may seem it is a dicey position for a Republic to be in.  Our success makes it easy to think republic will be here for eternity, and at the same time our connection to the times which forged the our republic is so tenuous that we no longer necessarily appreciate the priorities and anxieties that caused our founding fathers to think as they did.    


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Why Did Georgia Attack South Ossetia?

Two weeks ago,  in my first substantive entry, I suggested that the only way to understand why Georgia had risked going to war was if Russia had deceitfully led Georgia to believe that Russia was prepared to let Georgia regain control of South Ossetia.  

 Today the New York Times reports that Georgia is making a case of provocation almost entirely opposite to the scenario I speculated about.  The articles states that over the past week Georgia has been informing allies about intercepted Russian phone conversations that suggest Russian troops had actually moved into South Ossetian territory before Georgia went on the offensive.  The Russians, not surprisingly deny this.

I have no idea about who is telling the truth here, and it is fine with me if my own rampant speculation is eventually proven false, but I'm not yet ready to concede I was wrong either.  At this point I would like to know why Georgia found these troop movements so troubling.  From what these documents purport, however, I think  that even if entirely genuine they will not exculpate Georgia as much as Saaskashvili would like.  It still seems implausibly rash for Georgia to react to just the reported Russian troop movements into South Ossetia by attacking South Ossetia, unless there was something else that made retaking South Ossetia a real likelihood.  Admitting to rashness, however, will not win many converts to Georgia's speedy accession to NATO, so it will be some time evidence crops up that definitively proves Georgia's leaders acted rashly either out of fear or because they believed false intelligence.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Remembering the Polish Strikes that Ended Communism

The end of August saw the 28th anniversary of the accords setting up Solidarity and ending 1980 strikes at the shipyards in Gdansk, Gdynia, and Szczecin.  It also marked the 20th anniversary of the last wave of strikes before the leadership of the Polish United Workers Party moved to initiate roundtable talks with the Solidarity opposition.  The 1988 strikes have always been overshadowed by the events of 1980-81 and the end phase of Communist rule in early 1989.  Yet without those strikes the end of Communism in Eastern Europe might not have had a model for the orderly transfer of power from Communism to democratic opposition, which made the revolutions of 1989 so successful and peaceful.  

Nonetheless, incorporating the 1988 strikes into the official narrative of the transition from Communist rule to democracy in Poland has proven difficult.  According to Gazeta Wyborcza while over 2000 people are known to have participated in the 1988 strikes, only 41 people were recommended for presidential recognition for their efforts.  President Kaczynski, however, only ended up honoring 17 (of which only 3 were on the list of known 1988 strikers). It is unclear why the president was so stingy about recognizing he veterans of the 1988 strikes, although the 1988 strikers did not have the same kind of organizational backing as the 1980 strikers.  In fact the old Solidarity leadership was nearly as surprised by the strikes as the government, and had little direct influence on the 1988 strikers.

Having experienced the events of 1980-81, the 1988 strikers were radicalized, and ready to challenge authority in ways the Solidarity leadership of 1980-81 would not have done.  Realizing that the government began to reach out to the established solidarity leadership rather than risk dealing with more uncompromising 1988 strikers, and the solidarity leadership reciprocated.  That tactical decision has put the 1988 strikers in a state of limbo ever since.  Not only were they were unrepresented at the roundtable talks, they did not have a chance to develop as a cohesive group through the common experience of persecution.

Ironically, given the Kaczynski twins disenchantment with the roundtable compromises, one would think they would be eager to champion the radicalism of the 1988 strikers.  Yet, clearly they do not quite know what to do with a group that made their own decisions rather than deferring to the traditional Solidarity opposition. 

The Georgia Crisis and the Collapse of the Orange Coalition

If you don't follow Ukrainian politics, you may not be aware of the fact that the two heroes of the Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Iulia Tymoshenko have long been bitter rivals, so much so that they have difficulty being in the same room with each other.  As such, with presidential elections looming next year and both planning to run, it was only a matter of time before the current coalition fell victim to political maneuvering.  That finally happened this week when ministers from Yushchenko's Our Ukraine/National Self- Defense bloc walked out of a cabinet meeting.  Of course they were not unprovoked, when parliament began its new session Iulia Tymoshenko's Bloc joined with the Party of Regions headed by the Orange Revolution's nemesis Viktor Yanukovych and the Communists in voting to limit the president's powers.

Had that sequence of events not killed the coalition the two blocs would soon have contrived to find another way to formalize their divorce.  Yet coming when it did, the end of the coalition has been framed in terms relating to the crisis in Georgia and Ukraine's response to the crisis and anxieties about Russia's growing assertiveness.  Yushchenko, no doubt with an eye to Washington's response to the war in Georgia, adopted a belligerent stance urging Ukrainians to go to fight in Georgia as volunteers and threatening not to allow Russian navy ships that participated in the war to return to Sevastopol.  Tymoshenko did not, and Yushchenko is now accusing Tymoshenko of a engineering a rapprochement with President Medvedev.  

Sadly, the whole affair has once again demonstrated why Yushchenko has become one of the least popular figures in Ukraine, because it revealed how poor his strategic thinking is.  There was no way he could effectively enforce his threat to keep Russian ships out of Sevastapol, making Ukraine look weak --hardly what is necessary in the changing political climate Ukraine operates.  Tymoshenko and all Ukrainians must all live with the consequences, which in and of themeselves are not likely to prove pivotal in shaping Russian-Ukrainian relations in the long run.  Still, it is worth remembering that had Yushchenko recognized Ukraine's limited ability to affect the outcome in Georgia as Tymoshenko did Ukraine would not have looked weak unnecessarily.  All this does not bode well for the once popular president's reelection prospects next year.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Why Did Georgia Attempt to Reassert Control over South Ossetia When it Did?

Georgia and the Caucuses are a bit out of my expertise, though less so than many of the people talking about what America should do.  But since the moment Georgia tried to reassert control over South Ossetia I've been wondering why the decision was taken to launch the operation when it did.  Yes, I know there had been provocations on the border in recent months, and much has been made of the strong support hawks in the White House have shown Georgia, but this does not strike me as sufficient.  A country of Georgia's size does not take on like Russia lightly, unless its leaders are mad, which Saakashvili for all his faults does not seem to be, or the Georgian leadership had reason to believe Russia was not going to react.  Given that Russia has been ascendent on the world stage in the past few years the latter seems improbable, but what if Georgia was suckered into making its move by false security information.  That would not have been difficult to do given that there are doubtless plenty of "friendly" contacts between Russian and Georgia security agencies, through which duplicitous information that Russia was ready to let Georgia regain control of South Ossetia could be passed.

This is pure speculation, but even if I'm wrong about Saakashvili basing his decision on bad intelligence, supporters of a more aggressive push for expanding NATO further east now had better remember that the so-called Siloviki (those involved in the former Soviet security and military services) have not all broken ties with Moscow.  That means incorporating countries like Ukraine and Georgia in NATO could be the biggest boon for Russian intelligence services since Aldrich Aimes and the Walkers.  Is that really what former Cold War hawks want?  Nice as it is to be seen supporting democracy in Georgia and Ukraine, let's think intelligently about the costs.  After all one of the great successes of America's cold war policies in Europe, as opposed to elsewhere, was the cold-hearted awareness of what America could and could not do to support people opposed to Soviet domination.

For those interested in learning more about the conflict in Georgia and its broader implications, I recommend checking the archives at Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo for the period Auguest 10, 2008 -- August 16, 2008

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Irony of the US-Polish Missile Defense Agreement

For years the Bush administration rigorously maintained that the plan for a U.S. defense shield base in Poland should not concern Russia, because the base was not intended to threaten Russian missiles, but was to counteract a possible missile launch by Iran.  Poles were sufficiently divided on the US plan that negotiations dragged on and on, despite the fact that Poles are generally deeply pro-American.  Polish opponents of the plan pointed to two key points: first,  the desire not to antagonize Russia unduly; and second, the fact that Poles bear no grudge against Iran.   Then came the crisis in the Caucuses, two weeks ago and within days the Polish premier Donald Trusk finalized the missile defense agreement with the U.S. much to the delight of the Bush administration.  That agreement only reinforced the view that the missile defense system is in fact seen as a way to challenge Russia, and the rhetoric about Iran merely a fig-leaf, not that such a gap between rhetoric and behavior is anything new for the Bush administration.

First Thoughts

Welcome!  The title of this blog comes from Neville Chamberlain's description of the Sudentenland and Czechoslovakia as a far away land of which we know little, and it is my hope that visitors will leave knowing a bit more than they do about Central and Eastern Europe and the issues that affect those countries and those regions.  I am particularly knowledgeable about Poland and Ukraine, as well as the complex relations countries in the region have with the two dominant powers in the region -- Germany in the west and Russia in the east.