Manipal, India — The Soviet Union became a superpower during the rule of Josef Stalin, who terrorized those territories that he did not immediately annex. After the 1939-45 war, the USSR controlled Eastern Europe and challenged the primacy of the United States and its European partners across the world.
But since Stalin’s death in 1953, Moscow has almost always given way when confronted with a resolute Western response. Nikita Khruschev blinked hard in Cuba in 1962, with the United States agreeing only to avoid another invasion of Cuba -- a course that anyway had been shown to be folly a short while earlier -- in exchange for a humiliating withdrawal of Soviet missiles from the island.
Throughout the Cold War, although Moscow enjoyed considerable conventional military superiority in Europe, its forces never once strayed beyond the boundaries set in 1945. Had it done so, the history of Europe may have been different in that such tensions would almost certainly have affected the economic environment negatively.
As it turned out, it was the USSR that imploded economically, drained both by a dysfunctional central-command system as well as by military spending that would have been justified only if the armaments so expensively procured were put to use to secure geopolitical gains.
The Afghan war most exposed the strategic cowardice of the Soviet leadership. At any stage in the decade-long conflict, an attack on Pakistan would have resulted in the immediate drying up of the flow of supplies from across the border to the mujahideen. It is unlikely that the United States and other NATO partners would have risked a flare-up of Warsaw Pact-NATO tensions in Europe by seeking to protect Pakistan from a Soviet assault. Peshawar and other centers of Afghan resistance would have been pulverized by Soviet bombing, and international jihad -- which today has morphed into a severe threat to international security -- would have lost its Afghan-Pakistani sanctuary.
Today, it is the United States that is following in the timid footsteps of the USSR, by winking at the blatant support given from within Pakistan to a re-energized Taliban, thus dooming to eventual failure the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
The Russian invasion of territory belonging to the independent state of Georgia has shown that the rulers in Moscow have analyzed the numerous instances when Moscow gave way to NATO, and come to the conclusion that these have been without any reciprocal benefit. This is similar to the assessment of some within the Indian strategic community regarding India's self-restraint when juxtaposed with the absence of concessions the country has received for its exemplary record on nuclear and missile non-proliferation.
The combination of bluster and cowardice that characterized both Khruschev and Brezhnev has given way to a ruthless acceptance of risk and violence that marked the tenure of Josef Stalin. Although only a middling economic power, its nuclear and missile might has made modern Russia a military colossus, impossible to challenge except at the cost of a war that would devastate Europe. Clearly, the authorities in Tbilisi miscalculated the frequent expressions of support from the United States and the European Union as implying a serious commitment to defend their country against a Russian attack -- a bluff that Moscow has now called.
Next on the menu will be Ukraine, which for strategic reasons cannot be allowed to enter into a military alliance with the Western powers. Russia has exacted a considerable geographical cost to Georgia for its decision to side with the West, and a partition of Ukraine may follow any move by Kiev to follow the Georgian example of seeking to bait the Russian bear.
A Sino-Russian condominium has become a reality in today's world, and this formation possesses both military and economic muscle. Ironically, it is the policies of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney -- measures that have had the consistent effect of pushing up oil prices -- that have made it possible for Moscow to show up Washington's support to Georgia as so much hot air.
Should the Chinese and Russian militaries expand their cooperation and conduct joint exercises, including in the European part of the Russian Federation, it is not certain that NATO would risk a nuclear conflict to protect Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary from Russian pinpricks. With the separation of Slovakia from its territory, the Czech Republic has already "paid its dues" to Moscow, and will thus enjoy greater freedom to mesh its strategic establishment closely with its western neighbors.
Interestingly, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin now gives the example of Kosovo to justify his invasion of Georgia. The forced breakup of Yugoslavia -- begun by Germany's backing for Croatia in 1992 -- has created a useful precedent for the redrawing of boundaries in Europe. It may soon be copied in Ukraine, following on Russian successes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Despite three decades of economic reform, the political system in China has remained authoritarian, with powers vested in the Communist Party that would have met with the approval of one of the party’s icons, Stalin. As for Russia, although some of President Dimitry Medvedev's personal advisors may seek to emulate Mikhail Gorbachev in linking Russia firmly with Europe, the reality is that the current president of the Russian Federation owes his selection to the “siloviki” who are the heirs of post-Yeltsin Russia, and not to any democratic process of candidate selection such as that witnessed in the United States over the past year.
Should Medvedev fail to back those intent on ensuring a return to the "good old days" of superpower status, he will very soon either be rendered ineffective or replaced "on grounds of health." It is Vladimir Putin who represents the actual ruling caste in Moscow, a group that sees itself facing a steady diminution in Moscow's geopolitical space after Boris Yeltsin replaced the Communist Party in 1991 and followed a policy of conciliation.
The Bush-Cheney oil dividend, combined with the generosity of U.S. corporations such as Walmart, have enabled Moscow and Beijing to present a challenge to the West that they expect will begin a process away from Western primacy over the globe, replacing it with a new "Lukewarm" War.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)