19th century attitudes still at work in Russia
For the past two weeks I have been watching events in the Caucasus from the balmy safety of a family holiday in Spain. There are times for a correspondent when missing out on the action can be a frustrating experience, but there can be others when the chance to reflect upon important happenings without reporting on them blow by blow has its own rewards.
To me one of the extraordinary things about Russia is how its nineteenth century attitudes seem to have been frozen when the Tsar was deposed and de-frosted after the Soviet empire fell apart in 1991. Reporting on the collapse of the hardliners coup in that year, and then on the failure of the rightist putsch against Boris Yeltsin in 1993, I was amazed to see so much of old Russia emerge, apparently untouched.
In the early to mid-1990s there were the "crime crackdowns" in Moscow markets that simply seemed to be an opportunity for the police to beat up traders from the Caucasus, thus venting popular anger at rising prices. Russians appeared in Cossack uniforms, and started holding curious ceremonials. The Russian church pushed for a ban on missionary or outreach activity by other denominations. Many Russians talked of national vozrozhdeniye, or revival.
As somebody who hurled himself into reporting these events, propelled to odd and often dangerous corners of the former Soviet empire by a love of the country, its history and people, I tried to keep an open mind about all these aspects of what many Russians saw as a national resurrection. But differences with Russian friends became clearer following the first Chechen War in 1994, when I discovered that even implied criticism of Russian actions brought a furious response, even from Moscow intellectuals.
With the rout of Georgian forces during this past month, these differing world views have become sharply focussed. Russia's military offensive seemed to have been designed not just to cripple Georgia's army (an objective acknowledged by some Russian officials) but, by sending Russian tanks deep into the country, to convey a message that they could do exactly what they liked with a small Caucasian pipsqueak that had got ideas above its station. The pro-Russian people of South Ossetia, attacked at the start of this by Georgia's misguided government, seem to have provided little more than a tripwire for action.
It can be argued - as some Russia specialists in the west have - that the lesson we should draw from all of this is that talk of expanding Nato to include Georgia and the Ukraine needs to be abandoned unless there is real political will among the alliance's countries to risk World War III. Quite right - expanding Nato for its own sake has been shown up to be a dangerous business when Russia is in this mood. The empty phrases and blather so common at Nato summits is going to have to give way to some serious thinking.
As for future relations with Russia, the Kremlin's decision to recognise Abkhazia and South Ossetia bodes ill for any kind of attempt to re-establish a system of collective security in the world - a common approach through the United Nations or some other body. It can be argued that the United States through presidents Clinton (the Kosovo war) and Bush (Iraq) had already shown the unilateralist way.
By trying to force the secession of disputed parts of Georgia, Russia has lost any high ground it might have held in that matter. It is one of those moments where neither appeasement nor confrontation will answer. It is only through engagement and dialogue that the message can be conveyed that a revival of Russia is a good thing, but that it requires the country to forge new relationships with its neighbours, not just to dust off those that had been in storage since the nineteenth century.
Watch my report from Tuesday's programme below: