Far from being a mystery and an enigma—to use Churchill's language—today's Russia now stands revealed as a bully, wrapped in nationalism and cloaked with its leader's arrogance. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's adventure in Georgia has produced shock and awe at the sight of tanks, planes and warships mobilized against a small neighbor. But Russia has always been a great mythmaker—from setting up Potemkin villages in the 18th century to fomenting great fear that Sovietism would conquer the world after 1945. Here are 10 of the biggest myths about today's Russia:
MYTH 1. Putin is the big winner of the incursion into Georgia. Yes, Putin has shown who runs Russia, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has been sidelined. And yes, Putin won the unanimous support of both houses of the Russian Parliament for the invasion and annexation of parts of Georgia. But he has united Europe after the years of division created by George W. Bush. In 2003, an emergency European Council split down the middle on Iraq. In 2008, European leaders came in behind French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the cautiously strong line advocated from the early days of the crisis by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. Putin could not even get the support of his erstwhile ally, China, as Beijing looked with horror at Russia’s endorsement of busting up frontiers agreed upon by the United Nations.
MYTH 2. The cold war has re-emerged. After 1945, there was a worldwide confrontation between two ideological systems. By contrast, the Georgian conflict was a war without an ideological basis, and within a capitalist system. While Georgia has opted to try to become a small branch subsidiary of transatlantic capitalism, and South Ossetia has become a festering sore of corrupt mafia-military capitalism, Russia has adopted a form of nationalist, state-controlled capitalism that suits the Putin generation of ex-KGB functionaries.
MYTH 3. Russia has been humiliated since 1989. In fact, no other former foe of Western democracy has been so welcomed. Russia has been brought into the G7. The Council of Europe has opened its doors to Russia even if the Duma refuses to recognize the European Court of Human Rights. Every European city has welcomed Russians. Investment has poured into Russia. Bush, Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder all gushed withpraise for Putin when he became president in 2000. For years, Western leaders were largely willing to overlook the deaths of journalists under Putin or the war crimes committed in Chechnya.
MYTH 4. The West refuses to deal with Russia as an equal. Rather it is Russia that cannot treat other European countries as equals. Under Putin there have been endless verbal, diplomatic, cyber or trade disputes with its neighbors, demonstrating that Russia, with an economy smaller than Mexico or South Korea, has not learned the key lesson of the European Union: that all states, no matter how irritating, have to be treated with respect. Russia refuses to afford Poland or Georgia or Estonia the equality it demands for itself.
MYTH 5. The West has sought to encircle Russia. Can a nation that stretches from Europe to Japan and China be encircled? Russia is the only nation allowed to station antiballistic-missile rockets around its capital city. Poland and the Baltic states may not like Russia but are not going to invade. Russian M.P.s sit on the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and Russian generals have observer status at NATO headquarters in Brussels. Ukraine and Georgia have a long way to go before they can join NATO or the EU, but by what right are sovereign states not allowed to decide what organizations they can or cannot join?
MYTH 6. South Ossetia is the same as Kosovo. The Kosovars sought the same rights as other nations and peoples in the former Yugoslavia. Despite Slobodan Milosevic’s Islamaphobe repression they peacefully created a parallel civil society that won freedom from Belgrade after Serb genocidal brutality obliged NATO to intervene in 1999. While Russia pushed hard to get independence for Montenegro, which now pullulates with Russian money and oligarchs, Russia refused to support the EU-backed Ahtisaari plan for the much bigger population of Kosovo to join other ex-Yugoslavian regions as an independent state. The idea that Russia would have stayed its hand in Georgia if Kosovo’s independence had been further delayed is not taken seriously by any observer in the region.
MYTH 7. The next U.S. president will be kinder to Russia. The Republican candidate, Sen. John McCain, has said that when he looks into Putin’s eyes he sees three letters: “KGB.” Democratic candidate Barack Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, is a close friend of Mikheil Saakashvili and is a foreign-policy hawk. Of the policy of appeasing Milosevic by British foreign ministers in the 1990s, he said that he could hear the “tap, tap, tap of Chamberlain’s umbrella at Munich.” Whether McCain or Obama sits in the White House, U.S. policy on Russia will not change.
MYTH 8. Europe is divided. The surprising outcome of the EU Council was its unity in suspending talks with Russia on a new partnership agreement. From the leftist Libération to the right-wing Figaro, the tone of editorials has been very firm and hostile to Russian aggression. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, once the darling of the American right, has emerged as the unlikely champion of Putin, but Berlusconi does not carry great weight in EU affairs. Nor has it been the new EU member states in the driving seat. Stable, neutral Sweden and Finland have been loud in expressing concern over Russian aggression and Labour’s Miliband has emerged as the voice of EU unity in standing up to Russia.
MYTH 9. There is nothing Europe can do. Oh, yes, there is. Already parliamentarians on the Council of Europe have called for Russian membership to be suspended. The Council of Europe and NATO’s Parliamentary Assembly are controlled by M.P. delegates, not governments, and there will be calls for Russian Duma members to be suspended as long as the Duma stands by its unanimous vote to dismember Georgia—also a member of the Council of Europe and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. If Putin refuses to withdraw troops and end the de facto annexation of part of Georgia, Europe’s G7 members could suspend Russia’s membership and put WTO membership on hold. The EU should increase its presence in Georgia. Building Turkey into the EU and offering a start on membership consultation to Ukraine can turn the Black Sea into a democratic European sea.
MYTH 10. Russia controls Europe’s energy. True, up to a point. The cutting of oil or gas supplies is a nuclear weapon not even Arab states have dared to use despite their hatred of Israel. Russia has sent panic waves through policymakers about Europe’s energy networks. Britain has failed to provide for energy security by building liquid-natural-gas storage facilities, but this is now happening at Milford Haven. Germany is rethinking its hostility to nuclear power as it considers its dependency on Russian gas and oil, while France provides 85 percent of its electricity from nuclear power. Russia may have been the spur to get increased EU unity on foreign policy and on energy.
Indeed, if Europe can stay calm and united, much of the damage can be undone. Russia would like to split the EU from the United States and separate EU member states into competing nations. It has on its side a gang of useful idiots, who are willing to justify its policies out of dislike for the United States. But this is a struggle over Europe’s future, and by understanding the key facts of the situation—and avoiding being misled about who is to blame for it—European policymakers will have gone a long way in figuring out what to do next. Putin is leading Russia into a dead end. If Europe sees through his bluster, he will be revealed as a bully and a would-be emperor who is more naked than he realizes.
MacShane is Labour M.P. for Rotherham and a former Europe minister.