Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Litmus Test

One of the features of the reporting of the Russian invasion of Georgia in the international media during the past week has been the appearance in the reports of certain tags or catchwords – “hubris” and “checkmate” are particular favourites of the pro-Moscow tendency, while “rhetoric” is intended to deflate statements by the Georgian president. It would never do for some international news outlets to accept at face value statement s by the leader of some non-NATO, non-EU state that has riled the Great Russian Bear. No, his remarks must be construed as rhetorical constructs – “propaganda”, in the words of some reporters and analysts.

Another such tag is the expression “litmus test” – but here the emphasis is slightly different, and the phrase is used with varying connotations and inflections depending on who it's being applied to. Indeed, there have been rather a lot of litmus tests during the week. The one that sticks primarily in one’s mind is the deafening silence of many Western leaders in the face of the obvious fact of Russia’s aggression – it took Britain four whole days to issue a statement condemning Russia’s action in Georgia, and even then it came not directly from Prime Minister Brown, but from his Downing Street office on his behalf.

But there were many other instances where either silence or equivocation prevailed, and where this failure to respond or confusion in doing so became a revealing factor – in the blogosphere many of the sites that are normally profuse in their comment on events in Iraq, for example, were curiously silent on the topic of Georgia and Russia. In some quarters, after days of silence a troubling consensus began to emerge: sites like the resolutely anti-Islamist Jihad Watch began to publish posts where the main thrust of the argument appeared to be that supporting Georgia might not be such a good idea, as there was nothing that Islamists would like better than to see a split develop in the ranks of its enemies. While it was heartening to see Charles Johnson’s LGF express a critical stance towards Russia’s invasion, it was depressing to read Victor Davis Hanson admiring Russia’s Sinister Brilliance, or Michael Binyon in the Times evoking the above-mentioned chess analogy

For my own part, the really meaningful litmus test came on Thursday, when Sky News and other channels showed footage of the Russian-backed ethnic cleansing in parts of South Ossetia and the areas of Georgian territory immediately adjacent to it. It was above all the interviews with terrified Georgian civilians – mothers, sisters, elderly men – who unarmed and without protection were faced with the terrorist gangs that are still today, Saturday, being unleashed by Russian forces. These images brought to mind others from a past that was supposed to be irrevocably gone: the Warsaw ghetto, Kristallnacht, or the large-scale murders of civilians committed by Soviet forces in the Baltic States during and after the second world war.

That terrorism and brutality of this kind should be considered – not only by Russia, but also, apparently, by a number of other states –as a legitimate weapon in 21st century conflict seems almost incredible. Yet by its actions, Russia is showing that is indeed a terrorist state, not much different in this respect from pariahs like Iran. The actions are backed up by an ideology that is not that of a New Cold War or a resurgent Soviet dialectical materialism: the ideas that lie behind it are those of Great Russian imperialism, modified through the prism of a Nazi ideology which in its turn derived in large part from ideas that were prevalent in Russia in the years before 1914.

As some commentators have pointed out, confronted with such a lethal mish-mash of ideology and military might, some of the de-Nazified or de-Sovietized countries of mainland Europe are baffled, at a loss how to react. Yet the right response is not too hard to formulate: what’s needed above all, given the hindsight granted by the experience of 1938 and 1939, is a firm and united “no” to military aggression, a willingness to accord membership of NATO to countries like Georgia and Ukraine, to call Russia's energy bluff, and to confront Russia in international forums. Russia's leaders, being the global bullies and intimidators that they are, above all respect strength – faced with a sufficiently strong and united resistance, and the threat of economic and political isolation, Russia will back down, as was shown during the Cold War in the Cuba missile crisis of 1961, in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968, where it similarly overreached itself in terms of its reputation and of world opinion, paving the way for the ultimate collapse of its Soviet construction A willingness to unite in this fashion is probably the only true litmus test of Europe’s will to survive.

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