Germany will be either a world power or it will not be at all. – Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, 1925.
Russia can either be big and strong or it will cease to exist. – Dmitry Medvedev, speech to senior military officers, The Kremlin, September 30, 2008.
Planning for Russia’s August invasion of Georgia was already underway when Dmitry Medvedev became Russian President on May 7. Nonetheless, he became an enthusiastic war proponent, and in the weeks since, an articulate spokesman for the revisionist doctrine that spurred the attack. Two Medvedev statements that have garnered too little attention in the west reveal that the assault on Georgia was just the first violent eruption of the Medvedev doctrine.
Russian gun barrels were still warm in Georgia when Medvedev laid out five foreign policy points on Russian television. His second point is the key to understanding Kremlin thinking. “The world should be multipolar. A single-pole world is unacceptable. Domination is something we cannot allow,” Medvedev said on August 31.
International relations students may debate whether today’s world is unipolar, multipolar, non-polar or even flat. The practical point is that Russia is unhappy and Medvedev is staking out a revolutionary position. “The distinguishing feature of a revolutionary power is not that it feels threatened,” writes Henry Kissinger in his 1957 masterwork A World Restored, “but that nothing can reassure it.” Consequently, Kissinger continues, “the desire of one power for absolute security means absolute insecurity for all others.”
This observation sheds essential light on Medvedev’s apparently innocuous first point, “the primacy of the principles of international law.” If international law is the juridical expression of the generally accepted world order, Medvedev cannot at once reject contemporary world order and revere its consequent body of law. Instead, a revolutionary power such as Russia employs international law to befuddle those who truly revere it. Kissinger offers an historical example that had dire consequences. “Hitler’s appeal to national self-determination in the Sudeten crisis of 1938 was an invocation of ‘justice,’ and thereby contributed to the indecisiveness of the resistance.”
Today, western indecision in the face of Russian aggression is reinforced by Medvedev’s third point: “Russia does not want confrontation with any country.” Like his appeal to international law, this claim is only apparently innocuous. Medvedev perpetuates the myth of Russia as the eternal victim—its aggression is forced upon it by others. In the case of the August assault on Georgia, he said, “We were left with no choice but to respond to this absolutely insolent and brazen attack.”
There are a variety of views about the sequence of events on August 7, the first day of the invasion. However, few people doubt that Russia prepared the attack for months, that its operation was disproportionate to any reasonable objective, and that its objective, therefore, must have been wider than to “return things to normal and protect the lives and dignity of South Ossetia’s people,” as Medvedev brazenly told his television interviewers.
Medvedev’s fourth and fifth points complete the explanation of the choice that he and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made. Fourthly, Medvedev said, Russia will protect its citizens and business interests “wherever they may be.” In particular, fifthly, “there are regions in which Russia has privileged interests.”
The dangerous doctrine that brought the Russian Army to Georgia is clear. However, the Russian Army’s performance in Georgia cast doubt about its ability to uphold the Medvedev doctrine. Accordingly, on September 26, Medvedev set out five principles for the restoration of the Russian military by 2020. First, Medvedev told a gathering of Russian military district commanders at the Donguz Testing Ground, “Military formations and units must change to become permanently combat ready.” Second, military management must become more efficient. Third, so must military training and education. Fourth, said Medvedev, “We need an army that is equipped with sophisticated weapons…Fundamentally new, high-technology weapons will play a particular role in this regard.”
Finally, he said, “I would like to mention the social aspects of the armed forces, ranging from wages, housing conditions and everyday life to a wide variety of other issues. (Graffiti left by Russian invaders on the walls of the Georgian Armed Forces Senaki Base expressed shock at the superior living conditions of Georgian soldiers.) Medvedev proceeded to stress intelligence, air superiority, precision strike, mobility, surface ships and both attack and strategic submarines “with cruise missiles.” “By 2020, we must guarantee our capacities of nuclear deterrence,” Medvedev said.
Significantly, Medvedev visited Donguz—in Russia’s Orenburg Region, near the border with Kazakhstan—to mark the close of Center 2008, a joint military exercise with Kazakhstan. Signaling that Central Asia is one of those “regions in which Russia has privileged interests,” the Center 2008 exercise scenario was an aggressor state attempting to seize Kazakhstani energy assets. Center 2008 was part of Stability 2008, the largest military exercise since the fall of the Soviet Union. The exercise scenario was a regional war that escalates into nuclear war with the US. The exercise culminated two weeks later with launch of submarine-based and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Medvedev’s message is clear—and we had better pay attention.
David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington. This column originally appeared in 24 Saati (24 Hours), Tiblisi’s major newspaper.