This latest crisis with the Republic of Georgia is the best thing that could have happened for Moscow since the break-up of the former Soviet Union. Flexing its muscles in the Caucasus has allowed Russia to send a number of messages to the world.
First, the Kremlin has reminded its former satellite states that they are not beyond the reach of Russian armed forces, even if they hope to eventually hide behind the NATO shield. Communism may well be an ideology of the past, and for better or for worse the Russians have discovered and adopted capitalism along with all its advantages and sins. Nevertheless, the Russians, with or without Soviet dogma, will not miss an opportunity to remind the world that they very much remain a force to be reckoned with, even if Russia has lost the stature of a superpower.
Right about now the Czechs and the Poles must be having second thoughts about allowing the United States to install a missile and radar system on their territories and upsetting Moscow along the way. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have let their neighbors and their foes know they will not allow Russia to be pushed around, and at the same time they have sent a message to others that Moscow is open for business, much as in the past.
Second, Moscow has demonstrated to Washington that it remains master of its destiny; that it remains unafraid of the hyper-power of the United States, which is allied to Georgia. The Russians did not hesitate to point out that the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush has no moral lessons whatsoever to give to Russia.
Responding to accusations they breached international law by invading Georgia, the Russians can remind the Americans that unlike Iraq, where the United States invaded a sovereign country without provocation, the Georgians embarked upon this inexplicable and ill-fated military expedition.
It was an uncalculated, Rambo-esque affair that will end up costing the Georgians membership in NATO at the very least. It is highly questionable that the organization will now consider including Georgia after its leaders demonstrated such blatant adventurism and lack of forward thinking.
Moscow also has been able to show the world that despite repeated calls by Washington and Brussels for an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal of its troops from Georgian territory, it will not accept to be pushed, bullied, threatened or cajoled into honoring a cease-fire, unless that request meets its terms.
Third, in the process of the preceding points, Russia has awakened long-dormant sentiments among some of its former friends who now see in Moscow a potential alternative to Washington as a Middle East powerbroker.
I hate to say “I told you so,” but, well… I did tell you so. Writing in these pages recently, this reporter made reference to the real and present danger to the United States in seeing a new schism take shape in the Middle East, pitting the Arab world against itself with some countries rushing headfirst to offer their support to the Russians.
Meanwhile, as some Arab leaders will opt to remain loyal to their alliance with the United States, or maybe take a wait-and-see attitude, others will feel the urge to be drawn toward Moscow, much like lemmings drawn to the sea.
Indeed, no sooner had the Russians shown their intention to reassert themselves as a major power and to not be ignored than Syrian President Bashar Assad traveled to Moscow on Thursday to meet with Russian leaders.
This will likely turn into a major setback for U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East where, after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Washington was the undisputed powerbroker. The Bush administration failed to appreciate and understand the value of that position or to take advantage of it by trying to re-energize the stagnating Middle East peace process. Instead, the U.S. administration chose to ignore the region entirely until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and afterward shunned its major players, such as Syria.
Mr. Assad will not be the last Arab leader to fly to Moscow to offer his support to the Kremlin in return for Russian help. The end result will certainly make for a more complicated Middle East.
As the U.S. president prepares to vacate the White House in a little more than 150 days, he leaves behind two unfinished wars. If you think the situation cannot possibly get any worse, well, think again.
Claude Salhani is editor of the Middle East Times.