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Russia May Be Trying to Flex Muscles


The historian Robert Kagan writes this today in the Washington Post about the Russian attack in Georgia. Historians, he writes, will come to view August 8th, 2008 as a turning point no less significant than November 9th, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell.

Russia's attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th century style of great power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even, though it shocks our 21st century sensibilities, the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives.

Those are the words of Robert Kagan, who joins me in the studio right now. Welcome.

Mr. ROBERT KAGAN (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Thank you.

SIEGEL: In today's column, you invoke a chilling analogy. Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union and its loss of global power is like Germany defeated after World War I. How are they similar?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I don't want to carry the analogy too far, but there is a kind of seething resentment in Russia, which Putin has both benefited from and also fanned at the way the Cold War ended, at the loss of power from the great heights of being a superpower when the Soviet Union was intact, really to being a much weaker power, and there is a great yearning for Russia to retake its appropriate spot on the international stage and even perhaps, as we're now seeing, to reconstitute Russia's traditional boundaries.

SIEGEL: Not to belabor the analogy too much, as you would say, in the 1930s, the U.S., Britain and France will have been faulted by historians for failing to contain similar ambitions of Nazi Germany. What should those same countries and the rest of Western Europe be doing now to confront Russia?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, the first thing is they should be making it very clear that there are long-term relationships at stake here. If Russia is revealing itself, as I think it is, to being a kind of 19th century great power rather than what we would have hoped was a kind of 21st century post-power, post-geopolitical nation, then the rest of the countries of the region and the United States are going to have to deal with that accordingly.

Obviously, we should urge Russia to withdraw from Georgia, but beyond that, I think they have to understand the enormous price that they're going to pay if they pursue on this course.

SIEGEL: The president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, said today: So far, we have got from the West moral support and humanitarian aid, but we need more than that to stop what he called this barbaric aggression. What can they realistically expect?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, the United States has obviously helped fly back the 2,000 Georgian forces that were serving alongside American forces in Iraq. In any other situation like this, we would be willing to provide the kind of military assistance that can allow Georgia to make sure it has enough military stocks to defend its sovereign territory against this attack, but I think that overall what we need is a united Western response to Moscow to make them understand the high price that they're going to pay.

SIEGEL: But even a united vocal response wouldn't necessarily carry consequences for Moscow. Should there be a threat of sanction?

Mr. KAGAN: Oh absolutely, a threat of sanctions, a threat of expelling Russia from various organizations that it's part of. There's a NATO-Russia Council, which doesn't have to continue. There's an EU-Russia strategic partnership that's being negotiated. It doesn't have to go forward.

Some people have talked about expelling Russia from the G8, and there has been a G7 foreign ministers discussion, I understand, and so these are the kinds of diplomatic and economic consequences Russia should face.

SIEGEL: Georgia is small, a population under five million. It's remote. It's near the easternmost fringe of the West. Ukraine is also a former Soviet republic. It's big. It has a population of more than 45 million, and it's also been increasingly democratic in recent years.

Would the fact of Russian - let's say Russia acting with impunity in Georgia be a green light in Moscow to do similar things in Ukraine?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, it's a very good question, and in fact the Russian government has already fired a warning shot at Ukraine because in listing the countries that are to blame for Georgia's actions, right after the United States they've been naming Ukraine for actually, they allege, encouraging ethnic cleansing in Georgia.

The fact is, like Georgia, many of the Russian people and certainly Vladimir Putin does not accept the legitimacy of an independent Ukraine and would like to again exercise Russian hegemony over that very important country.

SIEGEL: Robert Kagan, thank you very much.

Mr. KAGAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Robert Kagan is the author most recently of "The Return of History and the End of Dreams." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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