Week In Review: Russia And Georgia

The conflict in Georgia reveals much about Russia past and present, including its regional ambitions.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. There have been several important developments this week in domestic politics. A deal with the Obama campaign will put Hillary Clinton's name into nomination at the Democratic convention in Denver. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says she'll only allow a vote on offshore drilling to come onto the floor if it's part of a comprehensive energy plan. And of course, the week's biggest unfolding story has been the conflict between Russia and Georgia. NPR's Senior News Analyst Dan Schorr joins us. Hello, Dan.

DAN SCHORR: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: And we're just going to talk about Georgia in this segment because you opened the CBS news bureau in Moscow in 1955.

SCHORR: True.

SIMON: You have had a lot of experience reporting not only events in Russia but trying to understand the Russian minds. So let...

SCHORR: True.

SIMON: Let me address a few questions to you that maybe will help us understand that perspective.

SCHORR: OK.

SIMON: Why is South Ossetia important to Russia?

SCHORR: Well, the immediate reason it's important to Russia is that it has a lot of pro-Russian people there, many of whom have been given Russian passports, and because they are threatened, or so the Russian's think, by the state of Georgia, they decided to go and rescue there. That's the immediate reason.

SIMON: Why expand through the rest of Georgia, then, if it's localized in South Ossetia and maybe Abkhazia?

SCHORR: Because that raises the larger issue, at least as seen by the Russians, and that is they seem to think the United States is getting ready for a new Cold War, and that they're using Georgia - they have Saakashvili, who's the president of Georgia and is really more or less in the pocket of the president of the United States. They have American arms, they have American military advisers, and it begins to look to the Russians, at least, as though this is the outpost for a new attempt to encircle the Russians.

SIMON: Recognizing that historical analogies are difficult, how is this different, or is it not, from what Germany did in the 1930s in the Sudetenland?

SCHORR: Well, there's always been through history the examples where they suddenly are going, we have to this and this, and then it turns out that it's really a cover-up for a much larger operation. So you have that right, the Sudetenland, where the Germans there lived. Hitler said he just wanted to freeze the Sudetenland and ended up by taking all of Czechoslovakia and a lot more, and so that is kind of a tradition. The Russians say, we're only going in to see our wonderful neighbors who have Russian passports, but then it turns out there was a larger purpose.

SIMON: Is that purpose to regain the territory of the old Soviet Union?

SCHORR: At least to gain a great deal of influence in what was formerly the Soviet Union. You know that Putin once said that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century. What they're now looking for is to be able to say that we have a sphere of influence in what was the Soviet Union, so that includes Georgia.

They can be free, they can have a constitution, they can have American friends, but we've got to treat them as though they are there on behalf of their client state, the United States, and we'll act accordingly.

SIMON: And for all the - if I might refer to it as scenery chewing - that American and European leaders do, what they can do about what Russia is doing in Georgia?

SCHORR: Well, not very much. I mean, the United States is in a position of being historically weak, tied up as it is in Iraq and in Afghanistan, with perhaps Iran somewhere to come - yet to come. The United States is hardly in a position to say - although President Bush has said it - we are with you, we are on your side, all of those things. What would really be very helpful in this situation if the United States didn't claim to be able to do what it can no longer do.

SIMON: President Medvedev of Russia, perhaps the junior partner to Prime Minister Putin, says that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are - his quote is "destined for independence." He doesn't think that they'll be able to live together with Georgia in one state again.

SCHORR: That's right. And the Russians apparently are going to keep troops in Georgia to make sure it happens that way. And not only that, not only are they going to try to annex these too little enclaves, but it's also very likely that they will want to seek the overthrow of the president.

SIMON: Is this a new Cold War or something like it?

SCHORR: Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was security adviser to President Carter, is now warning of a new Cold War, so we may be on the eve of that.

SIMON: Is the United States, and for that matter, Western Europe, too dependent or at least hopeful of oil from Russia and even some political assistance from Russia in checking, for example, Iran? Will that...

SCHORR: Dependent is exactly the word. And it's also due to the fact that Georgia wanted to build a pipeline that would bypass Russia, and they weren't going to stand for that, either. Yes, the politics of oil does indeed, as you suggest, play an important part in this.

SIMON: Dan, have you been watching the Olympics?

SCHORR: Some.

SIMON: Isn't women's beach volleyball a great game?

SCHORR: Oh, it really is remarkable. It's almost as good as swimming.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Well, they're covered up with that funny suit in swimming, you know. The laser suit.

SCHORR: Oh, the Speedo. Oh, boy I can't wait to get one of those.

SIMON: All right. Thanks very much, Dan Schorr.

SCHORR: Sure thing.

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