When one encounters a potentially dangerous wild animal, it goes without saying the animal should be given due respect-- you should not poke it with a stick or enrage it in any other fashion. With the recent re-emergence from hibernation of the Russian Bear, this is advice that much of the West, and the United States in particular, is failing to heed. Having recovered from the disastrous '90s, Russia is once again exerting its influence on the international stage and this is something we are all going to have to learn to accept.
With its coffers filled with revenues from the surging price of oil, Moscow feels it should be taken seriously once again. To emphasize this point, the Bear has in recent years shown its teeth. Last May, for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union, tanks, soldiers and nuclear ballistic missiles were paraded through Red Square in Moscow as fighter jets and strategic bombers flew overhead. Even prior to this show of force on the home front, the Russian Air Force revived the practice of strategic bomber patrols beyond its borders last summer. The planes, which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, began their sorties last August in response to "security threats," according to then-President Vladimir Putin.
The most obvious example occurred while the world's attention was focused on Beijing. On the evening of Aug. 7, the American-supplied Georgian military launched an offensive into the heart of South Ossetia, shelling the capital Tskhinvali. Although within Georgia's internationally recognized border, South Ossetia won de facto independence following a 1991 war with Georgia. It has maintained its autonomy and forged close ties with Russia which gave most of the 70,000 South Ossetians Russian citizenship. The Russians reported that several of their peace keepers in South Ossetia were killed by the Georgian aggression and responded with land, air and sea attacks (after, the conflict spread to Abkhazia and its Black Sea coast)-- pushing the Georgians back and occupying strategic points in Georgia proper, some of which the Russians have only recently abandoned.
The reaction from the West was swift and critical: aggression of this sort would not be tolerated. But these criticisms were not levelled against the aggressor nation, they were levelled against Russia. While there can be no mistaking the fact the Russians were waiting for their chance to strike at Georgia-- their plans were well developed and ready to be implemented at a moment's notice-- it was the action of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili that instigated this war, not those of his Russian counterpart.
The hypocrisy of the Bush Administration in particular suggests that old Cold War habits die hard. Seemingly forgetting they are in the midst of occupying a country which they invaded five years ago on a much weaker pretext, the administration has fired rhetorical shot after rhetorical shot at Moscow. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned the Russians they risked "international irrelevance" over their actions. Rice herself may become irrelevant internationally over the next few months, but Russia is not going anywhere. Republican presidential hopeful John McCain took it a step further, claiming on CNN, "In the 21st Century nations don't invade other nations." Truly, hypocrisy at its finest.
The double standard does not stop with rhetoric, though. In recognizing the unilateral declarations of South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence, Russia followed the precedent set by the West's similar recognition of Kosovo-- a precedent Putin tried to dissuade other nations from setting, warning that it may have far reaching consequences. Though disallowed under international law, dozens of countries (including Canada) have recognized Kosovo, while Russia essentially stands alone in recognizing the two breakaway Georgian enclaves.
The Bear feels cornered and that it is not being given a fair hearing. It sees NATO expanding into its traditional sphere-- its "near abroad"-- and a missile defence shield being planned for Poland and the Czech Republic. The natural response of any animal in such a situation is to become aggressive and the Bear is no different. Aside from the military parades and bomber sorties, Russia has threatened to cut gas supplies and even to re-aim its nuclear missiles at European targets if the defence shield becomes operational.
Relations between Russia and the West are lower then they have been since the end of the Cold War, but this does not necessarily mean we are on the brink of a new Cold War. The Bear's hibernation is over and the West has a responsibility to acknowledge this and to end the double standard with which Russian actions are currently scrutinized. Gone are the days when the drowsy Bear can simply be ignored and the sooner this is realized, the better off we'll all be.