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Russia is feeling on top of the world

August 25, 2008|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — 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.

"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."

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.

"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.

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."

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