Who’s afraid of big, bad Putin?

Lesotho Times - - Opinion - Richard Lourie

A STRONG cold wind is blow­ing from the east, and they’re shiv­er­ing in Poland and the Baltic states. It’s their worst night­mare: to be the tar­get of Rus­sian ag­gres­sion yet again.

Their re­ac­tion has been close to pan­icky. Hun­dreds of self-de­fense units have been formed in Poland, Lithua­nia is con­sid­er­ing re­in­stat­ing the draft, and Latvia re­ports that Rus­sian sub­marines ap­proached its bor­ders more than 50 times in the past year.

Th­ese coun­tries have some rea­son to be wor­ried. Carved up as they were by Stalin and Hitler, the va­garies of war made Soviet Rus­sia by turns their in­vader, lib­er­a­tor and oc­cu­pier.

The events in Ukraine raise valid con­cern, but Poland and the Baltic states are not likely to suf­fer sim­i­lar fates, for two rea­sons. First, Ukraine has enor­mous sym­bolic and his­tor­i­cal mean­ing for Rus­sia.

Many Rus­sians con­sider them­selves and Ukraini­ans one peo­ple, although, tellingly, this is a sen­ti­ment rarely voiced by Ukraini­ans.

The sec­ond rea­son is coolly prac­ti­cal and geopo­lit­i­cal. If Ukraine were to en­ter the West­ern camp, Rus­sia would be flanked by NATO from the Baltic to the Black Sea — an un­par­don­able dis­play of weak­ness that would cost any Rus­sian leader his job.

This isn’t to say that Rus­sia’s ac­tions and re­ac­tions to­ward Poland and the Baltic states haven’t been ex­treme. Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has been call­ing snap mil­i­tary ex­er­cises to re­mind his ri­vals to the west who has the whip hand. But does Rus­sia have real de­signs on the ter­ri­tory of any NATO na­tions and, if so, which ones?

An ob­vi­ous can­di­date is Narva, Es­to­nia’s third-largest and east­ern­most city, which juts into Rus­sian ter­ri­tory like a penin­sula. The statis­tics here are even starker and more alarm­ing than in Ukraine. Narva’s pop­u­la­tion is 94 per­cent Rus­sianspeak­ing and 82 per­cent eth­nic Rus­sian.

Fewer than half the city’s res­i­dents are even cit­i­zens of Es­to­nia, and only 4 per­cent are eth­nic Es­to­ni­ans. It’s a nat­u­ral place for Rus­sian mis­chief, which ex­plains the parad­ing of U.S. and other NATO troops in Narva on Feb. 24, Es­to­nia’s in­de­pen­dence day.

To mark the oc­ca­sion, the coun­try’s Prime Min­is­ter Taavi Roivas said, “Narva is a part of NATO no less than New York or Istanbul, and NATO de­fends ev­ery square me­ter of its ter­ri­tory.”

That’s a ring­ing en­dorse­ment of the NATO char­ter’s Ar­ti­cle V, which states that mem­bers “agree that an armed attack against any one or more of them in Europe or North Amer­ica shall be con­sid­ered an attack against them all” and has never been truly tested.

NATO troops would have to go out on a limb, even for a dis­tant and ob­scure city that is al­ready 80 per­cent Rus­sian, or risk a cri­sis of con­fi­dence in the viability of the al­liance.

For that rea­son alone, Putin would never haz­ard war for Narva, which has no par­tic­u­lar sym­bolic or strate­gic im­por­tance for Rus­sia. He has no real de­signs on any NATO ter­ri­tory.

His ac­tions in the West have three pur­poses, none of which is the ac­qui­si­tion of ter­ri­tory: to make Rus­sia’s pres­ence felt in the world, to be feared if it can’t be re­spected; to test NATO’S nerves and will, thereby weak­en­ing its re­solve; and to act as a di­ver­sion from ac­tions taken far­ther to the east.

Some ob­servers might point to Rus­sia’s quiet quasi-an­nex­a­tion of South Os­se­tia and Abk­hazia, two break­away re­publics from Ge­or­gia.

Ever since the 2008 Rus­sianGe­or­gian war, th­ese two tiny states have been es­sen­tially un­der Rus­sian con­trol. Re­cently Putin went a step fur­ther, merg­ing the se­cu­rity and armed forces as well as cus­toms con­trol be­tween Rus­sia and th­ese two ar­eas while mak­ing it eas­ier for their cit­i­zens to ac­quire Rus­sian cit­i­zen­ship.

This was not a big story in the West, which, just as Moscow wished, was more con­cerned with Tupolev bombers graz­ing NATO mem­bers’ airspace.

But Abk­hazia and South Os­se­tia are dif­fer­ent from Ukraine. They be­gan a bloody war for their in­de­pen­dence as soon as the Soviet Union col­lapsed; they didn’t wish to be part of Ge­or­gia’s small multiethnic state any more than Ge­or­gia wanted to be part of Rus­sia’s large multiethnic state.

As al­ways in such cases, two time- hon­ored prin­ci­ples clashed here: the right to self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and the right to ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity. Since North Os­se­tia is al­ready part of Rus­sia, a case can be made for re­unit­ing South Os­se­tia with it.

But that’s ir­rel­e­vant. Rus­sia’s real in­ter­ests are to keep pres­sure on Ge­or­gia so it won’t dare join NATO and, as with Crimea, to cre­ate tem­plates for later an­nex­a­tions. Those later an­nex­a­tions will take place in Cen­tral Asia.

Putin has bro­ken with the West and turned his at­ten­tion to the en­ergy mar­kets of Asia, but as Rus­sia re­ori­ents it­self, it risks be­com­ing a ju­nior part­ner — a mere sup­plier of nat­u­ral re­sources to Bei­jing. The Cen­tral Asian equiv­a­lents of Crimea, Narva and South Os­se­tia will thus be­come strate­gi­cally im­por­tant to Moscow.

This means the north­ern and eastern parts of Kaza­khstan, which are heav­ily Rus­sian and have been de­clared “part of Siberia” (that is, of Rus­sia), by no less a moral author­ity than No­bel Prize lau­re­ate Alexander Solzhen­it­syn.

If Putin man­ages to as­sert his in­flu­ence there, he will have what he re­ally wants: con­trol of Kaza­khstan’s bor­der with China, the bor­der through which China im­ports en­ergy and ex­ports man­u­fac­tured goods.

Then Putin’s true eastern am­bi­tion will be ful­filled. Rus­sia will no longer be China’s ju­nior part­ner, but a full-fledged equal. In other words, it is not the U.S. and NATO that need to worry about a resur­gent and ag­gres­sive Rus­sia. It is Kaza­khstan and China.

RUS­SIAN Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin

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