There are important lessons to be learned from the tragic Georgian imbroglio. The first should already have been engraved in our minds from our self-inflicted blunders during the botched Second Lebanon War: not to initiate an armed conflict in the absence of a clear understanding of the ultimate game plan. Like our Ehud Olmert, hotheaded Georgian President Mikhail Saaskashvili was utterly reckless in dispatching his army to regain control of the breakaway pro-Russian enclaves without considering the possible repercussions of such a brazen act. He merely provided the Russians with the pretext to bloody their “upstart” neighbor and demonstrate that they are still in control of the region.
The second lesson, also of considerable relevance to us, is that without the resources and power to mount a strong independent defense, it was folly of the Georgians to assume that a geographically distant allied superpower like America would intervene militarily to defend them.
The third lesson is that in contrast to the standards by which the world judges us, concepts like morality, proportionality or harming civilians are utterly irrelevant when great powers are involved. The Russians made no apologies for their brutal behavior, and were certainly not deterred by “humanitarian” considerations. On the contrary, they threatened to get even tougher if their neighbor failed to conform to their demands. One can visualize how they would have responded had the Georgians behaved like Palestinians and launched even a single missile at their territory.
For Israel, the repercussions from the Georgian conflict could be very grave. If US-Russian relations continue on a downward spiral and revert to a cold war, our bitter foes will once again be armed by the Russians with advanced weaponry. It may also have dire consequences for Jews still living in Russia. This explains why Israel is maintaining such a low profile in the conflict, even to the point of cutting off previously contracted arms deliveries to the Georgians.
This is also the context in which to view the recent rush visit to Moscow by Syria’s President Bashar Assad, pledging support for the Russians and seeking to obtain the latest missile systems. The call initiated by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to our prime minister declaring that any Syrian arms deal will not undermine our security is hardly reassuring, but may signal that the Russians have not yet decided to totally throw in their lot with our enemies.
Where the present differs from the past is that, in contrast to the Communist era, the Jewish factor no longer occupies a central role in Russian policy. I can testify from personal experience, based on extensive negotiations with the Soviets relating to Soviet Jewry, that crude anti-Semitism and Jewish pressure to emigrate were the dominant elements affecting the Israel-USSR relationship.
Not any more. Whereas anti-Semitism, ingrained into Russian culture from the time of the tsars to the end of the Soviet Union, remains a powerful factor among the people, the era of state-sponsored Jew baiting has ended. True, in recent years, for reasons of realpolitik, the Russians have tilted further toward the Arabs, especially their former ally Syria. But however imperfect our relations with the Russians may be, they are a far cry from the vicious hostility and the obsession to destroy us which prevailed during the Communist era. Indeed, one gains the impression that Russia’s strongman Vladimir Putin is entirely indifferent to Jews, and on occasion has even identified himself with Jewish objectives which he thought enhanced Russia’s global interests.
It is of course undeniable that the latest trends within Russia have been toward greater authoritarianism and suppression of human rights. But having said that, and without detracting from the brutal behavior of the current regime, the frequently expressed comparisons by pundits of Russian behavior today with Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia are exaggerated, as are suggestions that the autocratic Russia of today is comparable to the evil totalitarian system of the Soviet Union.
The fact is that the Russians are attempting to reclaim their superpower status and overcome the humiliation associated with their perception that the Americans are orchestrating a potentially hostile armed alliance within their sphere of influence. Much of Putin’s and Medvedev’s popularity over the invasion of Georgia can be attributed to their aggressive posturing against and resistance to NATO encroachments and Polish approval for the US to station a missile system on its territory.
This climaxed when their immediate neighbors, the Georgians, also sought to join NATO. The Russians not only responded brutally toward the Georgians, but also signaled a new hard-line approach to the West, especially the Americans, warning them that any effort to continue to promote NATO or impede their support of independence for the Georgian secessionist enclaves (a Kosovo in reverse) would intensify the tensions.
Under these circumstances, whereas Israel is only a minor player in this confrontation, it would be totally against our interests to take sides. In fact, to the extent that we have any say at all, our diplomacy should do all it can to avoid a revival of the Cold War.
Despite its oil wealth, which may be transitory, Russia remains a poorly developed state. But if the Russians become divorced from the international community, the damage they have already caused would be intensified and they could become spoilers in every area of global activity, effectively heading a new axis of evil. They could undermine Western interests in relation to Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Venezuela and the UN. They would also have the capacity to sabotage our global efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and substantially undermine our security. Ongoing polarization of relations between Russia and the West will also inevitably lead to a strengthening of the forces of Islamic fundamentalism and global terror.
This need not be. Russia shares a common interest with Western countries in containing Islamic terrorism, which poses a threat to us all. It is perhaps reminiscent of the pragmatic alliance between the Allies and the Soviet Union to defeat the Nazis during World War II. It will be a diabolical balancing act to avoid polarizing the situation, and there are no guarantees that we can come to an accommodation with the Russians. But to discourage further polarization, instead of indulging in righteous indignation we should consider their real and perceived national sensitivities as well as their obsession to regain recognition as a major power.
Seeking to avoid a confrontation is neither appeasement nor an abdication of morality. For a little country like ours in the volatile neighborhood in which we live, we are obliged to concentrate on the menace from the barbarians at our gates, who threaten us and all civilized mankind.
Some may interpret this approach as unprincipled realpolitik. But morality in diplomacy ceases to be moral when it becomes self sacrificial by ignoring the overriding threat from Islamic fundamentalism, which would benefit enormously and become far more potent by a renewal of the Cold War.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post