On the war path (3)

This article is a translation of "Op oorlogspad (3)"

The ‘renewed threat’ talked about by the ‘Manifesto for the Reinforcement of Dutch Defence’, became acute when the NATO Summit in Bucharest in April 2008 announced that Ukraine and Georgia would be able to join NATO. From this promise President Sakaashvili drew the mistaken conclusion that his attempt, later in that year, to try and reconquer South Ossetia (seceded from the former Soviet republic of Georgia) with military means, would be covered by the West. 

However, in spite of considerable damage in the capital Tshkinvali by Georgian artillery bombardment and large numbers of casualties, Sakaashvili’s adventure turned into a fiasco. Russia drew a line in the sand to make clear that as far as Moscow was concerned, a further advance of NATO and the EU, which had started with the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1994 and ’99, and the extension of membership to all former Warsaw Pact member states and even Soviet republics (the Baltic states), would be tolerated no longer.

Who could have thought that there would ever again arise a Russia that demanded to be treated as an equal! Yet in the 1990s, under Yeltsin, things did not look remotely like it—this was a president who was privatising the Soviet economy without restraint and who, when parliament in 1993 turned against it, had it bombarded by tanks. Hundreds of dead as a consequence, but no Manifesto from Netherlands, no way. He was our guy!

After all, whilst the privatised billions were flowing out of Russia (and out of the other Soviet republics)—at a rate of approximately 1 to 1.5 billion a month and in 1997 alone, 20 billion—Western oil companies were freely operating at locations of their choice. Because industry collapsed, the former Soviet economy rapidly metamorphosed into a raw material supply base.

For Russia the ‘idyllic’ 1990s were a period in which, a first in ‘peacetime’, an absolute decline in population occurred because of the drastic decrease in the birth rate and a rise in the mortality rate, also the child mortality rate.

Because the inspection of working conditions had disappeared, the number of work-related dead catapulted, notwithstanding the massive contraction of the economy. Still in 1987 Russian men on average reached the age of 65; in 1995 this had declined to 58. In addition there was an absolute impoverishment of the population, with 30 to 35 million people below the poverty line in 1993, climbing to 50 million two years later. In 1995 Russia occupied the number three spot in the world suicide rankings.

For the large majority of the population there has therefore never been a so-called ‘transition’ (from state socialism to capitalism); in the oft-quoted phrase of Russia specialist Stephen Cohen of Princeton, only ‘an endless collapse of everything needed for a decent existence’.

That situation, so idyllic for the West, has been terminated by the changing of the guard from Yeltsin to (eventually) Putin. It says something about the mood in Russia that it was thought to be too risky to entrust this responsibility, in spite of his great qualities, to Y. Primakov, one of the candidates for the presidency, because of his inflammable character. The humiliations visited on Russia after 1991 were so profound that it was feared that Primakov (who had still been the negotiator on behalf of Gorbachev to prevent the first Gulf War and get Saddam Hussein to withdraw quickly from Kuwait) might lose his temper when confronted with further tricks played on Russia by the West.

Since Putin’s ascension to power the social dislocations in Russia have been checked and education has been saved, even though attempts to broaden the economic base have been unsuccessful, so that Russia is still far too dependent on oil and gas. The price that has been paid for keeping the vast country together is a strong state with authoritarian traits, but that is something widely accepted by a majority of Russians. People over there are conscious of plans like the one of the Polish-American strategist, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who still in the ‘golden’ 1990s proposed that after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia itself should also be divided in three. The Chechen revolt too was supported by the West in various ways.

This will not easily happen again under Putin, hence the furious campaign against his person in the West.

Both the fire-sale of Russian raw materials (trial of Khodorkovsky) and the further provocations by NATO (coup in Ukraine, large-scale naval exercises in the Baltic amongst others), have been responded to forcefully. Whether it is a wise move to do this with ostentatious display of military power, such as sending Russian battleships through the English Channel, is one thing. But it should be clear that Moscow is no longer willing to allow itself to be treated like a colonial appendage.

That is why the gentlemen of the Manifesto have put the pen to paper, because that is a real threat.

Kees van der Pijl

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