Thirty-six years ago I was in Georgia and Abkhasia on assignment for CBS News. Last Friday, I was in the network's Moscow bureau watching the war unfold between Russia and Georgia. In between repetitive scenes of bombing, shelling and chaos, I switched channels to absorb the spectacular unveiling of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Obviously, it was a surreal experience. I'm not sure I could make sense of any of it.
The graphics from China were spectacular. The war was incomprehensible. My mind flashed back to Moscow's television news programs I used to suffer in the 1970s that were anchored by frumpy old Communist Party hacks. Instinctively, I knew they were telling us viewers nothing but lies. I remember watching a blank screen in 1972 when 11 Israeli athletes were murdered at the Olympic Games and we in Moscow were told merely that there had been a "disturbance" that interfered with the televised coverage. Not a hint of the tragedy that was unfolding.
Watching last week's newscast on Moscow TV with my wife and a friend was vastly different in appearance, but not content. There were lots of on-the-spot correspondents, talkative troop commanders and graphic scenes of fighting. An attractive anchorwoman, partnered with an attractive anchorman cut back and forth to scenes in South Ossetia, depicting the gore of war. It was hard to know what to believe. The Russian language programs contained anti-Georgian rhetoric that was fierce and exaggerated. The English language program depicted Russian troops, tanks and dive-bombing aircraft allegedly "enforcing the peace," whatever that meant. The coverage was totally jingoistic, condemning the invading Georgians in the runaway province of South Ossetia and of endangering the lives of thousands of Russian citizens. There was no mention of the fact that when Russia took control of the territory years ago, it handed out passports to local residents, automatically proclaiming citizenship to people who had once been regarded as Georgians. The broadcast clearly was laced with propaganda, one scene showing an Ossetian woman trapped in a basement in the town of Tskhingali with a dead son in her arms. It was an attempt to depict the brutality of the Georgian invaders.
Clearly, there has been bad blood between Russians and Georgians for generations even during the history of the Soviet Union. But the invasion of the breakaway province of South Ossetia was a calculated gamble gone awry by Georgia's unpredictable president, Mikhail Saakhashvili. He chose to attack, believing that there would be no response from Moscow what with President Dmitri Medvedev on a Volga boat cruise and Premier Vladimir Putin enjoying the Olympic Games in Beijing. The New York-trained lawyer miscalculated as we all know by now and the Russians struck back with little hesitation.
Blame for this mess can be apportioned equally. But while it has aroused the predictable hostility or posturing of the U.S. government, policy wonks, the media and our two presidential candidates, evoked sounds of the Cold War all over again. Cooler heads will have to prevail before the situation disintegrates altogether.
From what I was able to observe in a short visit to Russia these past two weeks is that it is a different, more confident country than I remember from my years as a Moscow correspondent. We may not like the nature of a regime that is autocratic and by no means democratic. But it is no longer a country that was in a state of collapse after the Berlin Wall came down. It is energy-rich with the kind of wealth that enables it to stiffen its back to threats and provocative gestures by Washington. We can no longer ignore what Russia has become since the collapse of communism. Provoking it by sending U.S. Marines into neighboring Georgia to train its army and by talking up membership of the former Soviet republic in NATO, is clearly one of the dumbest ideas in the post Cold War era. The notion that we could sell Poland, Hungary and now even Georgia as members of an outdated security treaty when none of them are anywhere near the North Atlantic Ocean, sounds like an insider joke. Putin, whom President Bush once referred to as "my friend, Vladimir," is no fool. Moreover, he is tough, nationalistic, dangerous and in control as the past week's events testify, with a resurgent military establishment that should give us some pause to reflect on the nature of Russia's political muscle.
We have enough headaches in the Middle East. Our armed forces have been depleted immeasurably by the Bush administration's commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last thing the United States needs now is another burden to preoccupy us when our domestic problems are almost too numerous to contemplate. Does John McCain understand this? Given his rhetoric, it certainly doesn't sound like it.
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