Via rail, I travelled to the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan in 1996 and was surprised by the number of ethnic Russians still living there five years after the Soviet Union dissolved. With their blonde hair and northern features, they stick out from the darker, more exotic looking Kazaks, Uzbecks, Uighurs, and other Central Asia tribes.
Intermarriage is also common, and ethnic cleansing didn't seem to make sense as those two former Soviet states seemed to be closely connected back to motherland Russia, although the farther from Russia we went, the less resolute this connection appeared to be. Our train got pelted by rock-throwing youths on a nightly basis, a hangover from the days that Russian party officials would travel the routes across the Kazakh steppe. Repression of Muslim minorities was commonplace, especially during the days of the Afghan war, where Muslims were seen as a separatist threat, and motivated the vandalism. We were told to draw our shades down; one American woman suffered minor injuries when struck with a rock through the glass window in her lighted cabin.
The US has been pushing against Russia's sphere of influence for years now, in an effort spearheaded by Dick Cheney. A missile shield is scheduled for placement in Poland, a nation which had spend decades behind the Iron Wall. Russians may also bear some inferiority complex as the result of the dissolution of its empire during its greatly weakened years early in the 1990s.
For those who know well how fierce the Russian bear can be, the invasion of Georgia poses little surprise. Perhaps less astute observers believe that the Russians have been tamed from the days of the commissars and gulags, and were a different people after being defeated by capitalism. Well, apparently they are mistaken.
Misplaced trust in Russia may have led to the failure to anticipate the Russian attack. Seven years ago, a then- (and still-) unsophisticated American President looked into the eyes of Vladimir Putin, ex-KGB chief, and "was able to get a sense of his soul" (link) and found him "very straightforward and trustworthy" (link) [CNN's Situation Room made this point at about 6:10 PM EST.] In a nod towards realpolitick, during his Thursday morning press conference Secretary of "Defense" Gates said that national security policies were better based on interests and realities when asked if the US should trust Russia, in a clear reference to Bush's comments about Putin.
That same President has demanded that the Russians withdraw from Georgia. When they don't pull out, and continue to occupy a portion of the Republic of Georgia, Bush will likely throw another public tantrum. And what can he do, short of restarting the Cold War? Humanitarian flights have begun, which put US soldiers in harm's way, where an inadvertent miscalculation could start a Russo-American war--which would be perhaps the neo-cons' greatest achievement, one more unfinished mess for the next administration (unless of course it results in Armageddon.)
American planes flew some 1,800 troops from Iraq back to Georgia, to help keep their nation from getting attacked by the Russians. So much of what Rice and Bush have said about the Russian's conduct--civilian deaths, illegal occupation, etc.--could be applied to US conduct in Iraq. In a Wall Street Journal Op-ed, John McCain writes that "the world has learned at great cost the price of allowing aggression against free nations to go unchecked." Without the stipulation "against free nations," I guess all aggression is OK, or at least when done by the free against the not-so-free, including any hapless civilians who might be in the way in places like Afghanistan, who had the most unfortunate luck of being born somewhere that was not free.
American media and self-image is built around the premise that what we do is different--exceptionalism. We Americans don't think we are exerting military force on behalf of empire even when we are. Despite killing over two million Vietnamese, we think the wars we wage are somehow cleaner, our "smart" bombs better aimed, and our bullets less capable of killing children. Our leaders have the gall to accuse the Russians of doing exactly what we would do if Americans were attacked by Mexican paramilitaries or by some Carribean nation like Grenada, where in 1983 a Cuban-affiliated Marxist regime allegedly held American medical students hostage and was invaded.
I'd read on the Web that Georgia had been given the green light by the US to invade South Ossetia. True or not, it's no surprise that the Russians have decided to push back. The bigger issues really revolve around the contraction of empire--the US has clearly gone too far by supporting Georgia, a nation wholly within the Russian sphere of influence.
By continuing the conflict, and escalating, the Russians are projecting a level of force far beyond that required to neutralize the threat. They are demonstrating the extent of their true capabilities.
True amateurs, even with eight years of foreign policy failure under their belts, the Bush administration is clinging to the notion that because it says that something must be so, the rest of the world will simply oblige because the orifice in Washington says so. What an infantile perspective on which to base a nation's foreign policy! Unchecked power has clearly corrupted the political structure in this country, to the point we can't possibly back up our lofty dreams of unilateral dominance, much less convince the Russians to stop.
We've managed to confuse our rhetoric with our version of reality. We are forced to act on what Bush says we will do, or else the US becomes a paper tiger. Lacking the military capacity and political authority to intercede, the Russian know we cannot stop them, as do the Iranians and everyone else. Without the capacity to project conventional military power, we can only bluster, and every blustery outburst by Bush only brings our infirmity farther out into the open.
Neo-cons hold that the US emerged at the center of a new unipolar world order when the Soviet Union fell. Dick Cheney and the neocons soon launched into developing new warcrafting policies through the 1992 document "Draft Defense Planning Guidance" which tried to focus the US military machine towards any potential new rivals and smaller, regional threats.
The neo-cons have made perhaps their biggest misjudgment in assuming that the US has ascended to the top of a new unipolar order. The strategic threat posed by China and a resurgent Russia were underestimated. The capacity to alter events through the application of military force and hard power alone was overestimated. Any plan for global hegemony was hatched prematurely, in the rosy afterglow of communism's demise, and doomed to fail.
Bush and the neo-cons also made the dangerous assumption that American military power is both omnipotent and infinite.