Seventy years ago Adolf Hitler's armies marched into Czechoslovakia, claiming they were responding to the desire of the German population of the Sudetenland to reunify with Germany. While other countries protested, no one lifted a finger to stop him. A few months later his troops swallowed up the whole of Czechoslovakia, followed not long after by most of Europe.
On Aug. 7, 2008, Russian armies marched into the Georgian province of South Ossetia, claiming they were responding to the desire of the ethnic Russian people there to reunify with the motherland. Other European countries and the United States have protested, but the reality is that none are in a position to do much of anything.
Russian policy since Joseph Stalin's time was to encourage Russians to resettle in its satellite states. This created the situation in Georgia where two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, have large ethnic Russian populations (North Ossetia is part of the Russian Federation).
Russia used these populations to foment unrest—including regular artillery exchanges between South Ossetians and the Georgian military—to essentially lure the Georgian government into a trap. When Georgian troops moved into South Ossetia on Aug. 7 in response to recent provocations, Russian armored columns and aircraft quickly poured in to counterattack. Within two days they fully controlled the province.
But that wasn't enough. On Aug. 11 Russian forces drove forward from Abkhazia, Georgia's other province with a large Russian population, while others drove south from South Ossetia, cutting Georgia in half by capturing its main east-west highway and rail route. And while a cease-fire agreement was signed on Aug. 14 calling for both sides to pull back to prewar positions, at the time of this writing the Russians were digging in and appeared to have no intention of leaving soon.
Russian saber rattling
These events clearly show that the Russian bear has awakened from its 17-year hibernation (since the 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union ) and is determinedly flexing its muscles.
Georgia is not the only target of Russian hostility. When Poland agreed on Aug. 14 to allow the United States to set up an antimissile base there, Gen. Anatoli Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the general staff in Moscow, threatened Russia's former ally with nuclear attack. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev dismissed American arguments that the missile shield is intended to protect against launches from rogue states such as Iran. “The deployment of new antimissile forces has as its aim the Russian Federation,” he stated.
Russia has also threatened Ukraine. As The Sunday Times [London] stated on Aug. 17: “Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, warned [Victor] Yushchenko [Ukraine's reformist president] last February that Russia could point nuclear missiles at Ukraine if it co-operated with US missile plans. Ukraine is insisting that the Russian military must leave Sebastopol when the lease on the base expires in 2017. The Russian navy has made it clear that it may refuse to do so” (Askold Krushelnycky, “Ukraine Torments Kremlin With Show of Solidarity”).
The stakes, as the London Times points out, could be much higher there: “If the West was surprised by the ferocity of Russia 's action in Georgia , the struggle over Ukraine will be far more intense. Many Russians regard their western neighbour as part of their homeland, a view shared by many Russian-speaking Ukrainians . . . Any outbreak of violence could have huge repercussions” (Richard Beeston, “A Catastrophe in the Making,” Aug. 16).
Russia seems determined to show its former Eastern Bloc allies who's boss in the region. Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of Die Zeit and a fellow of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, wrote in his Aug. 12 piece in The Wall Street Journal titled “Welcome Back to the 19th Century”:
“Moscow has unleashed a cyberwar against tiny Estonia, formerly a Soviet republic. It has threatened the Czech Republic and Poland with nuclear targeting if they host U.S. antimissile hardware on their soil that could not possibly threaten Russia's retaliatory potential. It has exploited small price disputes (normally resolved by lawyers screaming at each other) to stop gas deliveries and thus show Ukraine, Belarus and former Warsaw Pact members who runs [things].”
A strong message to Europe
In Russia, this invasion demonstrates that Prime Minister Putin still calls the shots, though he has given up the presidency to his protégé Medvedev.
With his invasion of Georgia, Putin is sending a message not only to countries formerly in the Soviet sphere, but to Europe. As Joffe stated in his Aug. 12 piece: “Georgia is the 'last of the independents,' so to speak, a critical conduit of oil and gas that goes around Russia into the Black Sea and (with a planned gas pipeline) via Turkey into the Mediterranean. It is no accident that Russian planes are bombing throughout the country, and narrowly 'missed' pipelines. The message to the West is: 'You don't really want to invest in energy here.'”
Many European nations, Germany in particular, are dependent on imported Russian natural gas to power their economies and keep them from freezing in winter. Outside of Europe and Russia itself, few people realize that the country is the world's single greatest energy producer. It also controls crucial pipelines to Europe and has already threatened to shut off essential supplies.
With Russia controlling the oil and gas spigots, Europeans are highly vulnerable. As Joffe put it: “If Moscow gains control over Georgia, it is 'good night, and good luck' to Europe. All of its gas and oil bought in Eurasia (minus the Middle East) will pass through Russian hands in one way or the other.”
In its Aug. 17 lead editorial “A Divided West Plays Into Russia's Hands,” The Sunday Times pointed out how powerless Europe is to respond to Russia's aggression toward its neighbors. In response to Russian aggression, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “have made a poor show of it but Britain's response has been even more feeble . . .
“If nothing else, this . . . has confirmed that Europe cannot allow itself to be reliant on Russia for vital energy supplies . . . Fast forward a few years and Britain and other EU countries could find the lights going out, courtesy of Russia , and there would be little anybody could do about it.”
Putin also knows that the United States is in no position to come to Georgia 's aid militarily in any meaningful way. With its armed forces stretched thin in the global war on terror and with ground troops already committed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan , America 's hands are tied.
Russia is also apparently becoming somewhat contemptuous of the West and its program of expanding democracy in Eastern Europe . James Sherr, head of the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House and a recognized authority in international affairs, wrote: “Central to Vladimir Putin's nationalistic policy is a conviction that the power of the West —seemingly unassailable at the end of the Cold War— is on the wane” ( The Telegraph [London], Aug. 10, 2008, emphasis added).
Pressing in many directions
In recent years Russia has followed a pattern of pressing outward in many directions to gauge the level of resistance. Though many have protested, the Russians have met little real resistance anywhere from other nations.
Last year a Russian submarine planted a titanium flag on the sea floor 14,000 feet below the polar ice cap, staking their claim to as much as half of the Arctic Ocean's seabed and vast oil and gas deposits that could comprise much of the planet's remaining energy supplies.
“The Russians know what they want the Arctic for, and under Putin and Medvedev they have been very aggressive,” observed Rob Huebert, associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary in Canada . “They are way ahead of everyone else” (Christopher Mason,” Russia's Arctic Ambitions Challenged,” Financial Times, Aug. 17, 2008).
The Russian military has been a major beneficiary of Russia's skyrocketing oil and natural gas revenues. Russia has spent much of its newfound wealth on modernizing its military.
According to The Guardian's columnist Simon Tisdall: “Russia's bullish plans, unveiled this week, to build up to six aircraft carrier battle groups and upgrade its nuclear submarine fleet are part of a worrying trend. They provide further evidence that Moscow's military revival, initiated by Vladimir Putin and continued by his presidential successor, Dmitri Medvedev, may in time pose some unwelcome challenges for Europeans determined to believe the days of east-west confrontation are over” (“The Bear Is Back,” July 31, 2008).
Sadly, those days are far from over. The Russians have also developed a new generation of nuclear-tipped ICBMs that they claim are able to penetrate U.S. antimissile defense systems. In Iran, Russia has not only built a nuclear reactor that jump-started the Iranian nuclear program, but it has provided diplomatic cover for Iran to continue its nuclear ambitions without fear of serious sanctions.
Moscow has also sold Iran sophisticated antiaircraft missile systems that will make it very difficult for any other country to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, as well as several advanced diesel submarines and hundreds of antiship missiles and mines that could wreak havoc in the Persian Gulf.
Russia has also not been afraid to directly challenge the United States . In August 2007 Putin announced that Russia would resume the Cold War practice of flying long-range Tu-95 Bear bombers near American airspace, and the following February one Bear bomber twice buzzed the U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier Nimitz in the western Pacific at an altitude of about 2,000 feet.
In July 2008 Moscow upped the ante even more when it announced that it planned to land and refuel Tu-160 supersonic bombers in Cuba , and possibly station them there, if the United States persists in plans for a missile defense shield in Europe .
What's on the horizon?
Without question Russia 's recent moves have made the world a considerably more dangerous place. Does the West have the means or the will to counter these?
The Sunday Telegraph 's Edward Luttwak pointed out an uncomfortable truth in his Aug. 17, 2008, article “Moscow Has Blown Away Soft Power”: “This is not a game and participation is not voluntary . . . The decision on whether to confront Russia is an enormously tough one. But that decision will have to be made. It means that Europe's holiday from serious geopolitics is over” (emphasis added).
This question must be asked: Given America's deep involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, a president with only a few months left in office, uncertainty as to the identity of the next U.S. president and vice president, and severe EU energy vulnerability—will the European Union begin to redouble its efforts to construct a political and military union that can meet the Russian threat more effectively?
As we have long taught, the Bible foretells that the Roman Empire will be revived in the end time and will be centered in Europe like the original empire (Daniel 2, 7 and 11 and Revelation 13 and 17; see The Book of Revelation Unveiled for more explanation). The current crisis shows one way that development might be speeded along.
Stay tuned. The world appears to be changing before our eyes. GN