Russia's perception of reality

Why would it have decided to play the victim in the Georgian debacle?

By DAVID STROMBERG
September 22, 2008 23:40
4 minute read.
Russia's perception of reality

Russian tanks and cows 224.88. (photo credit: AP)

Speaking of the Georgian military attempt to retake its breakaway region of South Ossetia, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said, "The world has changed and it occurred to me that August 8 has become for Russia as September 11, 2001 for the United States." In case anyone begged to differ, he added, "This is an accurate comparison corresponding to Russian realities." Though it "occurred" to Medvedev to express this to the world on September 12, more than a month after Russia's illegal occupation inside Georgia, on August 14, a week after the outbreak of the crisis, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov had already been quoted as saying, "I may remind you - September 11, the reaction was similar." It was a strange and surprising comment, as many people believed Russia already had its own 9/11 - the Chechen terrorist hostage crisis in North Ossetia that ended with the Beslan school tragedy of September 1, 2004, in which more than 300 people were killed, about half of them children. Then president Vladimir Putin gave a speech then in which, like Medvedev, he spoke of a "changing world" and used the events to abolish local governmental elections and replace them with Kremlin-appointees. HOW MANY 9/11s does the Russian government expect to exploit? For America, one was more than enough. PERHAPS IT is worth examining what this says about Russia's perception of reality. If August 8 is Russia's September 11, then the democratically elected Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is approximately equivalent to the Saudi rogue super-terrorist Osama bin Laden. The small Caucasus city of Tskhinvali, of which most people hadn't heard until this battle and which had a population of about 30,000, somehow compares in significance to the near mythical 8-million-person megapolis of New York City (or maybe Medvedev had the Pentagon in mind). Georgia's under-equipped and under-prepared army is representative of four hijacked airplanes used as missiles. And, most importantly, the threat that Islamic extremists posed and realized to one of the world's most important financial, cultural and social centers somehow compares with the threat that Russia felt when Georgia led its offensive. This last point holds some water: America was shocked and frightened by the creativity and grandiosity of the attacks on the Twin Towers. Similarly, Russia fears the Western-backed support that inspired such a bold (if misguided) move by Saakashvili. Unlike Russia, the US didn't get to pick and choose which historical event would be its 9/11. In America, 9/11 was often compared to Pearl Harbor, which in the element of a "surprise attack" looks, ironically, a little more like Russia's August 8. The Pearl Harbor attack was carried out on a military base which was on undisputed American soil, just like 9/11 was carried out against civilians on undisputed American soil. IF RUSSIA feels free to compare these two events, then it follows that it considers South Ossetia to be Russian soil. And here we get to the heart of the matter: Long before this military engagement between Russia and Georgia - throughout 12 years of tension and 12 months of provocational Russian overflights and cross-border incidents - Russia had already considered South Ossetia its own. So if Russia's assumption in this battle was that a region which the rest of the world considers sovereign Georgian territory was actually Russian territory, why is Russia suddenly painting itself as the victim in this debacle? One reason is the overwhelming media backlash against what was perceived as Russia's disproportionate response. The Western media has been critical of Putin's regime ever since since it became clear that he was actively curbing freedom and centralizing power. When Russia not only invaded and then occupied Georgia, but held its occupying positions despite the called-for withdrawal of the French-brokered cease-fire, and also acted as protector for South Ossetian marauders who looted and burned Georgian villages in South Ossetia, murdering those who didn't hide or flee, the Western press issued forth a critical reaction that was consistent with its perceptions of Russia's actions. PUTIN CALLS the free press "the propaganda machine of the so-called West" - this after he systematically took state control of television and newspapers in a country notorious for the murders of journalists during so-called peacetime - but more telling is the fact that Russia had closed off access to Western media from the devastation of Georgian villages in South Ossetia for which its army provided cover. If a united critical response from a widely varying Europe and America is proof of a "propaganda machine," then Russia's limiting of access can only be seen as its fear that the machine will find something uncomely to report. Another reason why Russia needs to present itself as the victim - so much so that Medvedev has no qualms disrespectfully invoking September 11 on behalf of Russia's aims - is that despite its strong pose and brutal response, it feels afraid and genuinely threatened. Russia perceives Western interests to be in conflict with its interests, which Medvedev has pledged to "defend." But if the interest is stability, there's an inherent and maybe even stubborn misperception here: With Georgia as a NATO member, Saakashvili could have never answered to the West for a war it didn't want, and Georgia would have never attacked South Ossetia. What would be more difficult for Russia to admit is that with Georgia in NATO, Russia also would have had to think twice about its ongoing border provocations. And one underlying factor behind this crisis is that Russia has no intention of doing this kind of thinking. The writer is editor of Zeek: Russified, a volume of works by contemporary Russian Jewish writers, poets and artists.


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