Accessibility links

The EU Enters Russia's 'Parallel Universe'

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) has been confounding the West.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) has been confounding the West.

The surest way of wrong-footing a rational opponent is to act unpredictably. Unpredictability has been Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's best weapon in Russia's conflict with Georgia. "Poor [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev was one of the collateral victims of the war," noted the French daily "Liberation" in an editorial on August 11.

The highest interest of any rational agent is to be able to exert control over its environment, and war is an extreme form of the absence of rational control. This explains why the West, led by the EU, has been nervously reiterating that a cease-fire is what matters in Georgia -- not truth, values, or other higher ideals. War is Hobbes' "state of nature," the absolute opposite of a reasonably well-ordered world in the liberal-democratic mold.

One of Europe's mottos for some centuries -- admittedly honored as often in the breach as in the spirit -- has been "order over chaos." An obsession with order and rationality has today become an Achilles' heel for the EU and the West in general. Denied predictability, the West is paralyzed. When did the war in Georgia begin? Why did it begin? What goals is Russia pursuing? How far is Russia prepared to go in their pursuit? -- these are questions that flummoxed both Washington and Brussels.

It remains unclear to this moment what to make of Medvedev's announcement of an end to hostilities. Russian troops remain present on Georgian territory and attacks continue. There are reports of the systematic killing of Georgians by North Caucasian irregulars that Russian troops do not deter and Georgian troops are powerless to prevent for fear of violating the cease-fire.

The $64 million question for the EU, whose foreign ministers held extraordinary talks on August 13, is "has the world changed?" And, if so, in what way? "Who will say, and when, whether what began in South Ossetia at the weekend is a passing crisis or, on the contrary, a gravely worrying prospect?" asks another French daily, "La Croix," in its editorial on August 11.

Creating chaos and spreading confusion is not in itself an irrational activity. It does not mean Russia has no rational ends of its own.

Putin's 'Parallel Universe'

Nearly all of the rhetoric used by Moscow to justify its actions in the war with Georgia is derived from Western historical thinking and practice -- only put "through the looking-glass," to borrow a phrase from Lewis Carroll. An EU official stationed in Tbilisi throughout the conflict observed at one point that Putin appeared to be creating a "parallel universe, a mockery of the West" when he spoke of the Russian mission to end the "genocide" in South Ossetia and administer international justice on the "perpetrators" in Tbilisi.

But Putin appears to have a more serious objective than simply mocking the West. Not for the first time, he has usurped the pantheon of Western values and infused it with a very different theology. What emerges is a mirror image of the West, containing the same historical narrative with its high and low points, but strangely distorted for most Western eyes.

Russia's state-owned Russia Today television has been clear in its message.
In a manner reminiscent of the mythical Haitian high priest of voodoo, Baron Samedi, with his top hat and cadaverous countenance, Putin has resurrected choice moments from recent European and U.S. history -- the wars against Serbia, Iraq, and Nazi Germany, among others -- for zombie-like service of his own, very different ends. In his narrative, Georgia and its backers, above all the United States, are the forces of darkness and Russia alone upholds the values of light.

Putin's zombie-world of values with its spurious parallels and precedents is not a viable one in the long term. But parasitical as it is on European and American historical and political discourse, it serves to create diversions at a time when time is of the essence. It sows confusion and spreads paralysis among Western political elites.

Which is its main object. For Putin has succeeded in dividing the Western world more deeply than ever before. He has managed to sideline all international organizations, beginning with the UN Security Council, where the United States has any meaningful say. The United States, as Georgia's main backer, is not impartial enough to have any part in resolving the crisis, the Russian argument runs. And that argument has been bought hook, line, and sinker by the European Union, which now revels in its role as the sole mediator. (The OSCE, which notionally co-authored the terms of the cease-fire negotiated by the French President Nicolas Sarkozy, enjoys no respect in Moscow.)

EU Paralyzed, Divided

The war in Georgia has shocked Europe. Its unpredictability raised profound fears on a continent that has been the scene of the most murderous conflicts in human history. Russia's brute force and rhetorical voodoo make the carrot of status quo ante now dangled before Europe by Moscow a very desirable one indeed. Only there can be no return to the days before August 6. What happened in Georgia cannot be undone.

Moscow knows this, and its erstwhile ex-Soviet subjects know this as well. This is why Poland and the three Baltic countries have been hives of diplomatic activity in the days following August 6, culminating in a joint declaration by the four presidents condemning Russia's "imperialism" and "revisionism." A number of their leaders also traveled to Tbilisi on August 12, to act as human shields against a possible Russian run on the Georgian capital, feared by EU diplomats there.

Even the cease-fire announced by Medvedev on August 12 appears designed as a tactical feint. It caught unawares NATO's ambassadors meeting in Brussels the same day for the first time since the start of the hostilities. The EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on August 13 was a quiet and nervous affair, lest its spoil the mediating efforts of the bloc's French presidency.

Mediation means the EU remains relevant, many commentators in Europe have observed. But this relevance is illusory at best. Russia has once again reduced the EU's foreign policy to its component parts -- raw national self-interest. Most eastern member states fear Russia, while most western EU countries feel they need Moscow. All agree Russia is strong and dangerous.

The field of vision of national self-interest is necessarily narrow. It most easily recognizes its own reflection -- not least when Sarkozy told Medvedev in Moscow on August 12 that "it is perfectly normal that Russia wants to defend its own interests and the interests of Russians inside Russia, as well as Russian-speakers outside Russia." In a state of nature, national self-interest also obeys the simple rule that for the weak, peace is the single highest good.

It used to be a commonplace in NATO that security is indivisible. The EU is well on the way to turning that adage on its head: security can be divided. It is inversely proportional to a country's proximity to Russia.

Ahto Lobjakas is RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Crisis In Georgia
For RFE/RL's full coverage of the conflict that began in Georgia's breakway region of South Ossetia, click here.