Books on Russia
Update No: 332 (29/08/08)
War and Peace or War or peace?
Everyone knows the most famous novel of all time. Tolstoy's War and Peace. It is
of course a masterpiece, even if not quite so great as his next work, Anna
Kerenina, a sublime exploration of the human soul and tribulations thereof.
It is poignant to recollect these facts at a most unhappy time in Russian
history the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the author of mighty works
himself, Cancer Ward, The Gulag Archipeligo, et al, and at a new explosion of
violence in the Caucasus, the war in Georgia.
The opening sentence of Anna Kerenina rather defines the scenario: Happy
families are happy in much the same way; unhappy families are unhappy each in
their own way. the same could be said of nations- and the same alas -
most certainly of Russia! - and the nations of the Caucasus?
War in the Caucasus again
On August 7th the Georgian president inaugurated another Caucasus war. It is
true that he was much provoked to do so; indeed he fell into a trap.
The Russians have been goading the Georgians for years. If there is one part of
the former USSR they want back it is Georgia. It is a fabulous bit of real
estate, replete with fine vineyards, suburb mountainous scenery and a
magnificent coastline on the Black Sea. It is also, not quite an exactly
irrelevant point, betwixt and between vital energy entrepots.
Most of this munificent territory is in Georgia proper, but not a little in
Abkhazia and even South Ossetia, the secessionist provinces of the same.
The Abkhazians and the South Ossetians, as it so happens, are pro-Russian and
very inclined to be re-incorporated in the Russian domain. That they were rather
pro-Russia is not surprising. It is after all the richest and most disponable of
the former Soviet republics to put it in a polite way Georgia is the
grimmest and the poorest of them all.
On the proclamation that President Medvedev recognises their independence from
Georgia on August 26 they fell into jubilation. In fact why should they not
There is a curious view abroad that territorial borders should be unchangeable
forever. It was broken for once by the secession of Kosovo, acknowledged as
justified even by the UN.
If the South Ossetians and Abkhazians crave independence from Georgia and
incorporation in Russia, which of course their so-called independence forebodes,
why should they not have it?
This is the truculent message of Medvedev's announcement in August 26 that:
We are ready for a new Cold War. Rearmament is certainly proceeding apace.
The new frostiness between these two powers has certainly been advanced by the
change of place in the Russian presidency.
Bush puts down Medvedev
The gloves have finally came off the Dmitry Medvedev presidency in Russia. It
had to happen sooner or later, but few would have expected this soon. It was
crystal clear US President George W Bush administered a diplomatic snub to
Medvedev on the sidelines of the Group of Eight (G-8) summit meeting at
Hokkaido, Japan, in July.
Bush characterized him patronizingly as a "sharp guy" soon after they
met in Hokkaido on July 9, but that was after making sure Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice proceeded to Prague and signed a deal just the previous day to
install a US radar system as part of its missile de fence system in Central
If Medvedev's core mission in Hokkaido was to underscore Russia's growing role
in the world arena as a power with which the West has to contend, Bush acted as
if he couldn't care less. The US was also plainly dismissive of Medvedev's
proposal at the G-8 for a pan-European security system that would include
Medvedev expressed his "dismay" on hearing about the Prague deal. As
if to rub in the snub, Rice proceeded from Prague to Bulgaria, where the US has
for the first time established a military base, with 3,500 operatives, and then
on to Georgia to discuss its plans of joining the North Atlantic Treaty
While in Tbilisi, she called for international mediation to stop violence
spilling over in Georgia's breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abhkazia,
which have been sources of rising tensions, with Georgia accusing Russia of
trying to annex the regions. To carry matters further, the US began a joint
military exercise with Georgia codenamed Immediate Response 2008, near Tbilisi,
which continued through the month of July.
The exercise, financed by the Pentagon and planned by the US Armed Forces
Eastern Command, was intended, as a warning to Russia that Georgia is America's
project and Washington wouldn't hesitate to do some heavy lifting to safeguard
the "Rose Revolution".
On the face of it, such hubris is illogical and unnecessary since the West
should have every reason not to embarrass Medvedev. The West has been
propagating in recent months that the youthful Russian president is a potential
independent decision-maker in the Kremlin with whom it could do business -
unlike his predecessor, Vladimir Putin.
Reflecting US thinking, Carnegie Moscow Centre scholar Dmitri Trenin wrote
recently that the West noted "Medvedev's quick-wittedness, his calm style
of conducting talks, and his clear desire to show that he is the one who is the
real master of Russian diplomacy ... There are much greater grounds for
expecting that Dmitry Medvedev ... will slowly but steadily concentrate powers
in his own hands."
Clearly, what has been going on for the past few months on the East-West stage
is one of those pantomimes that the West and Russia are equally adept at
playing. But the US seems to have concluded that all the Western flattery about
him hasn't really gone to Medvedev's head and he has merely been demonstrating
his own skill in dramatics. Actually, nothing much has changed in Russia. The
polls show Putin, now premier, is still se en by Russians as their "supreme
leader", with a popularity rating coasting above 70% - with Medvedev stuck
at 47% - and the truth might be somewhere near what a Moscow commentator
recently sized up, namely, that Medvedev is a co-pilot in the cockpit in which
Putin remains the captain.
Besides, Medvedev would know that even if he wished to be the European
modernizer and G-8 club member that the West wanted him to be, he would find
himself hopelessly at odds with his country. According to a recent poll by a
Russian television network, the symbol of renewal of present-day Russia turns
out to be none other than Josef Stalin. By a substantial margin, Stalin left
behind two colorful Vladimirs - the singer Vladimir Vysotsky and the
revolutionary Vladimir Lenin - and a host of other perennial Russian heroes like
Ivan the Terrible and Alexander Pushkin.
Indeed, when Medvedev signed on July 12 a new foreign policy strategy for
Russia, it came to light that for the first time the prime minister has been put
in the driving seat to implement foreign policy measures - hitherto a
presidential prerogative - which also shows that the Kremlin will pursue the
line set by Putin in his eight-year presidency. The vague and somewhat
incomprehensible expectations that there might be of some kind of
"liberalization" in Medvedev's foreign policy have proved to be
But Moscow hasn't taken lightly the US snub. In an address to Russian envoys in
Moscow on July 15, Medvedev unambiguously stated his intention to continue
Putin's foreign policy course, criticizing the US moves on missile defense
deployment, the West's failure to ratify the revised Treaty on Conventional
Armed Forces in Europe, Kosovo's independence, etc. He said, "We strongly
affirm that the deployment of elements of the global missile defense in Eastern
Europe only exacerbates the situation ... we will be forced to respond to it in
kind ... This is linked to Russian-American agreements on strategic stability.
Obviously, this common heritage will not be able to survive if one party is
permitted to selectively destroy individual elements of this strategic regime.
We cannot agree to that."
According to the noted German expert on Russia, Alexander Rahr, last week's
Russian veto on the United Nations Security Council draft resolution on Zimbabwe
was also a response to the US move on missile defense. "China's opposition
is easy to understand as it has many economic interests in Zimbabwe. Russia has
none. Russia's veto is a response to the missile shield, to Abkhazia and to many
other things ... Russia is trying to show that America cannot decide
everything," Rahr said.
The Russian veto generated a new American theme song that Medvedev isn't calling
the shots in the Kremlin and might have got slapped down on Zimbabwe. But Moscow
brushed aside the suggestion. The Foreign Ministry issued a statement calling
the draft resolution on Zimbabwe "a dangerous precedent ... illegitimate
and dangerous, leading towards unbalancing the whole UN system". The
statement rebuked Washington and London, saying, "Russia took into account
the fact that the situation in Zimbabwe does not pose a threat to regional, let
alone international peace and security and does not warrant adoption of
sanctions against that country."
Again, on July 14, Moscow announced that for the first time since the breakup of
the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian warships were resuming patrol of the Arctic
waters. In effect, Medvedev signalled he was maintaining the course of expanded
military patrols begun by Putin. Why such a sudden quickening of the tempo in
US-Russian relations? The answer might be found on an entirely different plane -
What emerges is that if anything, Medvedev is pursuing Russia's energy diplomacy
more robustly than Putin. Soon after taking over in the Kremlin in May, Medvedev
ordered the expeditious completion of the first stage of the Eastern Siberia
Pacific Oil Pipeline (ESPO) by end-2009. The ESPO has a vital role in Moscow's
efforts to balance its oil export strategy between Europe and Asia-Pacific.
Moscow hopes to target Asia-Pacific as the export destination for one-third of
its oil exports by 2020, as compared to 3% currently.
In early July, Medvedev undertook a diplomatic tour of the Caspian region,
covering Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. In Azerbaijan's20capital Baku,
he made a stunning offer that Russia was prepared to buy Azerbaijan's entire gas
output at market prices. In Ashgabat, he shored up Turkmenistan's commitment to
the modernization of the Central Asia-Center Pipeline and the construction of a
new littoral Caspian pipeline.
Medvedev succeeded in prevailing over competing European and US rivals in the
struggle for Turkmen gas. He further ensured that oil and gas from Turkmenistan
and Kazakhstan will not bypass Russia. But what has truly incensed the Bush
administration are Gazprom's dramatic inroads into Africa.
Russian giant Gazprom, the largest extractor of natural gas in the world, has
announced plans to build a pipeline across the Mediterranean to pump Libyan gas
to Europe. This is the final lap of a Kremlin strategy that involves Gazprom
handling the entire output of Libya's gas, oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG)
designated for export to Europe and the US.