A Victory for State Paranoia
- By Pavel Felgenhauer
- May. 17 2005 00:00
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Most observers believe the road maps signed with the EU were a vain attempt to paper over serious disagreements. The grandiose Victory Day celebrations did not close the growing gap between Moscow and the West. In fact, the Kremlin's anti-Western paranoia seems to have increased.
Then, as if to underline this, Nikolai Patrushev, the director of the Federal Security Service, told the State Duma last week that a meeting held in Bratislava last month was a U.S. spy get-together. He claimed that the United States was planning to infest the post-Soviet space with new anti-Russian color revolutions like the ones that struck in Ukraine and Georgia. Patrushev added that in Bratislava $5 million was allocated to overthrow the regime in Belarus.
Last month, I was invited to a round table in Bratislava -- expenses paid by a democracy-promoting U.S. endowment -- that apparently coincided with the gathering Patrushev mentioned. I politely declined the invitation because of other commitments and only last week realized how lucky I was. In Russia, many people have been punished for lesser offenses than being mixed up with a so-called spy get-together.
Back in May 1995, the 50th anniversary of Victory Day brought just as many world leaders together as last week's event. During the festivities, there was a partial lull in fighting in Chechnya that ended as soon as the guests departed.
Similarly, last week's extravaganza was swiftly followed by a resumption of bickering between the Kremlin and its former dependencies, the Baltic states and Georgia.
The Kremlin steadfastly refuses to accept the simple fact of Soviet-era occupation and apologize, while absurdly accusing the Baltic nations of fascism. This confrontation is being used by extremist nationalist forces on all sides to promote their agendas.
The Baltic states today are members of the EU and NATO, so a military escalation of ill will is out of the question. The situation with Georgia, however, is different. Tbilisi is demanding Russian military bases close and has threatened to shut them down unilaterally if Moscow does not agree to withdraw in two years. The Kremlin, in turn, has been making pronouncements that could be interpreted as threats to use force to defend the bases.
The entire issue seems to be a senseless fight. The old bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki on the Turkish border were once front-line strongholds steeled for the coming war with NATO countries.
Today they are small, run-down garrisons manned by locally enlisted soldiers, along with several hundred Russian officers overseeing a stockpile of rusty tanks and guns. The bases have no adjacent airstrips and therefore no air cover and no possibility of reinforcement from Russia in the event of hostilities. The Turkish forces on the other side of the border outnumber the Russian troops 100 to one. Keeping the bases does not make any strategic sense, and demanding four years and almost $500 million to move out is absurd.
In 1999, Russia officially agreed to withdraw its remaining forces by the end of 2002 but failed to comply. An open confrontation with Georgia would only mean international isolation for Russia. And the bases would probably be lost anyway.
Outsiders usually believe Kremlin paranoia is senseless or senile, but it is not. Putin's ministers know very well how to defend their interests; they do not need anyone from the West to teach them. The problem is that the interests of the ministers who promote state paranoia and isolationism do not coincide with the interests of the nation.
Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.