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Russia is feeling on top of the world

Times Staff Writer

In this historic hub of expansion and empire, Russia’s military victory over U.S.-backed Georgia was cheered as evidence that Moscow has regained its global dominance -- and proof that the rest of the world can’t risk standing in its way.

As Russian soldiers poured into neighboring Georgia this month and Russian warplanes bombed fleeing, ill-equipped Georgian troops, U.S. and European officials condemned Moscow. But the image of Russia that appeared over and over in media here was that of a country rising from its knees.

The United States and the nations of Europe may not like what Russia is doing, but officials in Moscow now believe those countries lack the leverage, strength or unity to intervene, analysts here say. Several of them repeated the same idea: that the West no longer exists as a unified force.

With the U.S. floundering economically and bogged down in two costly wars, Russian officials were confident that it could not and would not come rushing to Georgia’s defense with a military intervention, analysts here say. Europe, meanwhile, depends upon Russian oil and gas exports, and was leery of a conflict with Moscow that could further raise fuel prices, they said.

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“There is no West anymore. It’s eroding and weakening,” said Sergei Karaganov of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a Moscow think tank. “We are feeling very strong, and we don’t trust anybody. Especially the United States.”

Three or four years ago, he said, Russia would have been nervous to hear threats of expulsion from the Group of 8 leading industrialized nations, as Republican presidential candidate John McCain suggested. Now, Karaganov said, many Russians laugh at the notion.

“I mean, who are these nations? Russia is probably stronger than any country in the G-8 except for the United States, and it has more credibility because it hasn’t killed hundreds of thousands of people recently,” he said. “It has won wars, and the other countries are losing them.”

He paused. “There is arrogance in my statements,” he said, “but that’s the way people see things.”

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Many here read the current conflict not as the defeat of a smaller, poorer Georgian army but as a strike against the U.S., which has backed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and trained his troops. After years of fuming while the U.S. built up ties with former Soviet republics and Eastern European nations, many Russians view the Georgian conflict as an important turning of the tide.

“As far as the Russian elite is concerned, it’s another very important step in Russia’s restoration of its position in the world,” Andrei Piontkovsky, a visiting fellow at Washington’s Hudson Institute, said in a telephone interview. “The public and government is so proud not only because they defeated Georgia, but because they humiliated and defeated their great geopolitical rival, the United States of America.”

With war raging between Russia and Georgia, which has hopes of someday joining NATO, the U.S. was limited to sending humanitarian aid and railing against Moscow. Badly needed aid is still pouring in: The U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer McFaul arrived at the Georgian port of Batumi on Sunday with baby food, bottled water and other supplies.

Georgia now finds itself on the front line in a broader, deeper and slower ideological war. Since the Soviet collapse, the last vestiges of the Cold War have lingered in the form of a struggle between Washington and Moscow for influence in the former U.S.S.R.

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“Moscow is very much concerned with the meddling of the United States in the post-Soviet space,” said Sergei Markov, a Russian analyst close to the Kremlin. “We have been watching for a long time how the United States, under the guise of helping new democracies, has in fact been gaining managerial control over these countries.”

Nations once firmly under Moscow’s thumb, especially Ukraine, Georgia, Latvia and Estonia, have pulled away from Russia and worked to develop new alliances in the West.

With regional tensions inflamed over Georgia, other neo-Cold War fights are brewing. Many Russians are keeping a close eye on Ukraine, whose loss remains an existential challenge to a Russian culture that traces its empire to the banks of the Dnieper River. Moscow has long resisted the notion that Ukraine is an independent nation.

Some analysts believe that watching Georgia get pummeled by Russia may have given Ukrainians a more visceral sense of vulnerability. That could result in the opposite reaction sought by Moscow, helping to nudge reluctant citizens to support Ukraine’s own bid for NATO membership.

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At the same time, there is increasing tension over historical Russian claims to Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, home to many ethnic Russians as well as Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

If Ukraine joins the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Karaganov said, “it will be seen as an act of belligerence.”

“Ukraine is the cradle of Russia,” he said. “It’s more Russian than Russia.”

Meanwhile, Poland enraged Moscow last week by agreeing to host a U.S. missile defense base that the Bush administration insists is designed to bring down weapons launched from nations such as Iran. Russian officials, who regard the missile shield as deterrence meant to curb Moscow’s military might, responded by saying that Russia would be “forced to react, and not through diplomatic channels.”

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But for now, the biggest fight remains in the Caucasus. Russian military officials this weekend vowed to beef up their forces in Georgia in direct proportion to American military spending to rebuild the Georgian army.

Russia accuses Georgia of starting the current conflict by launching a military operation meant to reassert control over the breakaway republic of South Ossetia.

“We just repelled a frenzied attack on Russia from the United States,” Markov said. “Everybody knows that it was none other than Washington that gave Tbilisi [the Georgian capital] the green light to kill thousands of peaceful residents in South Ossetia.”

In the popular Russian narrative, Moscow is the defender and peacemaker, not the aggressor and invader.

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U.S. officials argue that Russia wedged itself between Georgia and its breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in a de facto annexation, then labored for months to provoke a conflict in order to formalize the arrangement. Russia then reacted far too forcefully to the Georgian operation in South Ossetia, they say, exaggerating the death toll while dropping cluster bombs on Georgian civilians and occupying swaths of Georgia proper that it has yet to relinquish.

American propaganda, Russians say. Alongside a newfound sense of might, Russians appear firm in their belief that they hold the moral high ground.

“This crazy, trigger-happy monster was killing civilians in South Ossetia,” said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a political analyst and head of the Russian World foundation, which promotes Russia and its language. “What else could [Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev do?”

After watching the West’s reaction to the conflict, Russia’s elite is rethinking its strategic planning along military lines, Nikonov said.

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“We took for granted that we had some working relationship with the West, and it looks like that’s not the case,” he said. “There will be a serious strategic debate in this country, rethinking many things: alliances, military spending, the role of the nuclear component in the armed forces.”

But other Russian analysts were more critical of Moscow. By boosting hopes for independence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have taken the first step toward redrawing post-Soviet borders, Piontkovsky said. There is a strong parallel between today’s resurgent Russia and the rise of Germany in the 1930s from broken country to would-be empire, he argued.

“Under the same slogan of rising from the knees . . . Hitler was getting away with everything, and every demonstration of weakness from the West emboldened him to the next adventure,” Piontkovsky said. “Now we can say that Putin has gotten away with dismembering countries.”

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megan.stack@latimes.com

Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.


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