Georgia war reflects ancient Russian fears
Suspicion of West, wounded pride had role
MOSCOW - This spring, Russian tanks and missiles rolled across the cobblestones of Red Square as soldiers in olive green uniforms goose-stepped and a military band played the revived Soviet anthem. It was the first full-scale military display at the annual Victory Day parade in almost two decades.
On Aug. 8, the tanks rolled again, but this time it wasn't just a parade. As hundreds of Russian armored vehicles rumbled toward the cavernous Roki tunnel into Georgia, the show ended and the shooting started.
The move stunned many in the United States and Europe. But it was the result, at least in part, of factors the West has never really understood: Russia's wounded pride over its loss of the Soviet empire, its fear of NATO expansion along its borders, and its anger over being treated as a backwater in Europe rather than a global power.
Russia says it was forced to respond to Georgia's ferocious assault on the capital of separatist South Ossetia, which killed scores of civilians and a number of Russian peacekeepers. But Russia's role in the Caucasus is much more than that of a neutral peacekeeping force, and its intervention goes much deeper than the latest clashes.
Georgia, meanwhile, blames Russia for provoking the crisis by supporting separatist territories on its soil. The sight of Russian tanks rolling down its highways was also a searing reminder that Moscow dominated Georgia for almost two centuries, and that Soviet tanks entered the capital of Tbilisi in 1989 and soldiers beat 20 protesters to death with shovels.
For much of the world, the motives behind the conflict seem murky; after all, the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union is dead. Russia, it seemed, was becoming a modern nation, part of the international community.
What is hard for the world to see, though, is that there are two Russias. The first is a rapidly developing modern country, a major energy exporter with expanding ties to the global economy, a nation with a sense of pride and purpose after years of struggle.
Symbols of this new Russia are everywhere, from the gleaming skyscrapers springing up along the Moscow River to shopping centers being built in Siberia.
But behind this growing European facade is an older and less familiar Russia, one that is much harder for foreigners to grasp. This Russia is a 1,000-year-old civilization that is distrustful of political change, wary of the West, and jealous of its historic role as master of its corner of the world.
This is a country that throughout its history has felt threatened by independent nations on its borders, and now feels under siege.
The feeling of being surrounded is an uncomfortably familiar one for Russia, which has no natural borders and has been invaded by everyone from the Mongols to the Swedes, the French, and the Germans.
To protect itself physically, Russia continually sought to extend its borders and prop up neutral buffer states at the periphery of its sphere of influence. To protect its unique culture, which is neither European nor Asian but both, it adopted a kind of psychological isolation from the rest of the world.
Russia's intervention in Georgia draws on a long history of empire that goes back not just to the Communist era, but much further, to its Czarist past.
The symbols of this past survive in the names of many Russian provincial cities - Vladivostok, which means "Conqueror of the East," and Vladikavkaz, "Conqueror of the Caucasus" - in the canals and mansions of St. Petersburg, dredged from a swamp on orders of Peter the Great; and of course in the red-brick walls of the Kremlin itself.
Unlike many Western powers, Russia seems unable or unwilling to turn its back on its cruel but glorious legacy of empire.
Andre Mironov, one of the last of the Gulag prisoners and a longtime human rights advocate, said Russia's decision to send troops into Georgian-controlled areas showed that the habits of empire survive under Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer.
"People like Putin, they have no other idea of how to rule," Mironov said. "What Russia does now, it cannot be analyzed with modern political logic. It is obsolete. If modern countries like the US declare war, they have more or less rational reasons, even if they are mistaken."
But Mironov's views are in the minority in Moscow.
A survey by the respected Levada Analytical Center showed more than half - 53 percent - said Russia was right to send troops into South Ossetia to fight Georgia, as opposed to 36 percent who opposed the idea.
"Russia is a big and capable country, which will not let the West dictate the conditions," Igor Saryov, 33, of Moscow, said matter-of-factly as he waited on a sidewalk outside a Moscow metro station. "In any situation, Russia is going to act as it sees fit."