What Is Russia Afraid Of?

Forty years ago this week, on the night of Aug. 20 and early morning of Aug. 21, 1968, thousands of tanks and hundreds of thousands of soldiers rolled into Czechoslovakia. The goal of the invasion was straightforward: to prevent a Soviet satellite from carrying out democratic reforms, which, if they had been allowed to succeed, could have threatened the legitimacy of the governments of the other Soviet satellites and, indeed, of the Soviet Union itself.

Superficially, it has to be said that the events of August 1968 do bear some resemblance to the events of August 2008, as the American secretary of state has already observed. For yes, not only are there again tanks with Russian commanders rolling over the territory of another sovereign country, some of the invaders’ intentions are similar. Once again, Russia is punishing a former satellite whose reforms, if successful, could challenge its own political system.

True, Russia is no longer Soviet. But its ruling clique, led by former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, remains steeped in the paranoid, highly controlled, conspiracy-obsessed culture of the old KGB. He and his entourage are not Communists, but neither do they believe in free markets or free societies. Instead, all important decisions must be made in Moscow by a small, unelected group of people who know how to resist sabotage organized from abroad. Events cannot be allowed to just happen; they must be controlled and manipulated. Elections cannot just take place; they must be determined in advance.

The Russian state’s open hostility, not only toward Georgia but also toward Ukraine and the Baltic states, is, in this sense, partly ideological. Genuine elections have taken place in all these countries; people who have not been preselected by the ruling oligarchy sometimes gain wealth or power. Georgia’s Rose Revolution and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution even involved street demonstrations that helped unseat more-oligarchic regimes. Thus it is not pure nationalism, nor mere traditional great-power arrogance, that makes the Russian leadership disdainful of Georgia and Ukraine: It is also, at some level, fear that similar voter revolutions could someday challenge Russia, too.

Nevertheless, the word superficial is worth repeating here: As I’ve written before, I don’t really like historical analogies, which can conceal as much as they reveal. For one thing, the ethnic conflict that sparked the Georgian president’s foolhardy response and the Russian invasion two weeks ago has been twisted and manipulated, but it nevertheless involves real people. Any long-term solution to the current crisis has to find some accommodation for the South Ossetians whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed in the exchange of fire.

More important, though, the international situation is utterly different. Despite some misty-eyed memories of alleged Cold War decisiveness, we had, back in 1968, neither the will nor the ability to help its victims. Our only real response to the Soviet invasion was a bit of public spluttering. Most of Europe was still recovering from the “events of 1968,” the student uprisings celebrated across the Continent earlier this year in a haze of post-radical nostalgia.

Today’s Russian leaders, despite the paranoia they learned in KGB training, have far more profound relationships with Western institutions, not only the G-8 and the Council of Europe but the Western banks and companies that invest their money and manage their property. Today’s Europe is theoretically better prepared to engage Russia, though it has not done so until now. On Aug. 8, I wrote that the West, which failed for many years to address the security vacuum in the Caucasus, would have no influence over Russia, and in the short term this has proved true. Despite a cease-fire brokered by France, Russian troops are withdrawing very slowly, if at all. We have no military means to force them out and should not pretend otherwise.

But if this turns into a long-term conflict, if the Russian military remains in Georgia proper, if this proves to be only the first of more incursions into other neighboring states, there are relationships we have and meaningful levers we can use, whether over Russian membership in international institutions or Russian leaders’ luxury apartments in Paris—if, of course, we are willing to use them. The critical question now is whether the West is prepared to behave like the West, to speak with one voice and create a common trans-Atlantic policy. In recent years, Russia has preferred to deal with Western countries and their leaders one by one. Just last week, an affiliate of Gazprom, the Russian state-dominated gas company, added a former Finnish prime minister to its payroll—which already includes former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. If we hang together instead of allowing Gazprom to pick us all off separately, there is at least a chance that this minichill won’t last another 40 years.

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