Putin’s Imperial Designs Are Reminiscent of Stalin’s
Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to US President Jimmy Carter. He spoke with NPQ shortly after Russian troops invaded Georgia.
NPQ | What is the world to make of Russia’s invasion of Georgia?
Zbigniew Brzezinski | Fundamentally at stake is what kind of role Russia will play in the new international system. Unfortunately, (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir) Putin is putting Russia on a course that is ominously similar to Stalin’s and Hitler’s in the late 1930s. Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt has correctly drawn an analogy between Putin’s “justification” for dismembering Georgia—because of the Russians in South Ossetia—to Hitler’s tactics vis-a-vis Czechoslovakia to “free” the Sudeten Deutsch.
Even more ominous is the analogy of what Putin is doing vis-a-vis Georgia to what Stalin did vis-a-vis Finland: subverting by use of force the sovereignty of a small democratic neighbor. In effect, morally and strategically, Georgia is the Finland of our day.
The question the international community now confronts is how to respond to a Russia that engages in the blatant use of force with larger imperial designs in mind: to reintegrate the former Soviet space under the Kremlin’s control and to cut Western access to the Caspian Sea and Central Asia by gaining control over the Baku/Ceyhan pipeline that runs through Georgia.
In brief, the stakes are very significant. At stake is access to oil as that resource grows ever more scarce and expensive and how a major power conducts itself in our newly interdependent world, conduct that should be based on accommodation and consensus, not on brute force.
If Georgia is subverted, not only will the West be cut off from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia. We can logically anticipate that Putin, if not resisted, will use the same tactics toward the Ukraine. Putin has already made public threats against Ukraine.
NPQ | What, if anything, can the West do to contain this revived Russian behavior?
Brzezinski | Not only the West, but the rest of the international community, must make it clear that this kind of behavior will result in ostracism and economic and financial penalties. Ultimately, if Russia continues on this course, it must face isolation in the international community—a longer range risk to its own well being.
The United States, particularly, shoulders the major burden of mobilizing a collective international response. This invasion of Georgia by Russia is a very sad commentary on eight years of self-delusion in the White House regarding Putin and his regime. Two memorable comments stand out. First, when Bush first met Putin, Bush said he looked into Putin’s soul and could trust him. Second, not long ago, (Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice claimed that American relations with Russia have never been better in history!
NPQ | John McCain has already suggested that Russia be expelled from the G8. Is that something you would contemplate?
Brzezinski | The G8 is an impotent fiction anyway. But it has to be much more than that. It has to be a concerted effort on all levels—at the United Nations, in the Atlantic Council, in the EU or in NATO, in consultation with the Japanese, the Chinese and others—to convey to Russia that, whatever grievances it may have, it cannot resolve them by a deliberate policy of dismembering an adjoining state and trying to obtain political domination over it.
NPQ | Is the West obliged to help Georgia resist the Russian attack with some kind of military support?
Brzezinski | The question is not what obligation the West may have at the moment. The question is about our longer term interest. If a Russia, which misjudges its power and its capacities, embarks now on a blatantly nationalistic and imperialistic course, we will all suffer.
Therefore, it is all the more important that Russia be stopped now by mobilizing a concerted, global effort to oppose and condemn the Russian invasion. Ultimately, that could lead to economic and financial sanctions, though one would hope that other Russian leaders, including its business elite, will have cooler heads and be more aware of Russia’s own vulnerabilities. Russia is not ready to sustain a new Cold War.
NPQ | Should the Atlantic alliance urgently induct Georgia into NATO as one response?
Brzezinski | The West desisted from extending the NATO “membership action plan” to Georgia—a preparatory stage for becoming a member—out of deference to Russian objections. It is now clear that the deference shown to Putin, in the face of his obvious ambitions, has been counterproductive. In view of what has happened, NATO ought to extend the membership action plan to Georgia, therefore reinforcing the commitment NATO made in Bucharest last (spring) to the effect that NATO intends, at some future point, to include Georgia.
NPQ | You haven’t mentioned Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, once, but only Putin. Does Medvedev have any function in this?
Brzezinski | As much to do with it as the formal head of state of the Soviet Union in 1950 had to do with the running of the Soviet government. Does anyone remember his name? But the real ruler of the Soviet Union had a name that most still remember—and it rhymes with Putin.