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Georgia: The Score

Srdja Trifkovic

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Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia makes it imperative to analyze the situation in the Caucasus dispassionately and comprehensively. The mainstream media (MSM) treatment of the crisis has been predictably monolithic, however — almost as biased (“bad Russia!”) as it was shallow. A more nuanced story does exist, but it is not readily available. We bring you a few samples of the commentary and analysis that you will not find in your Gannett paper or on your prime-time news channel.

Let us start with Princeton’s Richard Falk. He opens a detailed assessment, published on August 26 in Turkey’s English-language Today’s Zaman, by asking readers to imagine the American response if Russia acted comparably in Cuba or Mexico to the US engagement with Georgia in recent years:

President Bush announced that as many as 11 American naval vessels would escort humanitarian relief to Georgia via the Black Sea. We would be on the verge of world war if Russia dared to enter the American Great Lakes with warships. It is helpful always to reverse the identity of the actors when considering the reasonableness of their behavior... Saakashvili’s overt hostility to the Putin/Medvedev government seems... to have played into Russia’s hands, especially given the inability of the United States to back Georgia up with any support more tangible than strong words and humanitarian relief.

South Ossetia and even Georgia—writes Falk—are but hapless pawns in the larger geopolitical chess game that is beginning to assume alarming proportions reminiscent of the worst days of the Cold War era. We are also witnessing a collision of two contrasting geopolitical logics, he says, the interplay of which pose great dangers for regional and world peace, as well as to the well-being of the peoples of the world:

Russian behavior seems mainly motivated by a traditional spatially limited effort to establish a friendly and stable security belt in countries near its borders. It is reasserting an historic sphere of influence that has always been at odds with the sovereign rights of its neighbors, sparking their fear and hostility. We can interpret Russia’s behavior in this respect as seeking indirect control over its so-called ‘near abroad’ that was mainly lost after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992. In light of NATO expansion to incorporate the countries of Eastern Europe, the assertion of Russian primacy in relation to its former Soviet republics is a high priority for which Moscow seems willing to pay a considerable price, including a deep chilling of relations with the United States.

What was proclaimed as “democratization” of Georgia was seen in Moscow as Americanization, with but a slightly disguised anti-Russian agenda. Saakashvili was the ideal leader as far as Washington was concerned, Falk asserts, being so avowedly committed to the U.S., even sending 2,000 troops to aid the American effort in Iraq, but the worst possible leader from the Russian viewpoint. He spoke of Russia in derogatory terms, and was eager to do what Russia feared, join in a dynamic process of military encirclement as part of the American global security project:

In comparison with Russia, Washington considers that the entire world has become its geopolitical playing field in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse... [It] follows a global imperial logic rather than Russia’s pursuit of a limited regional sphere of interest logic. Thinking along these lines means that Georgia falls dangerously within both Russia’s sphere of influence and is a battlefield in the American attempt to build an informal global empire that acknowledges no geographic limits. The whole world is Washington’s ‘near abroad.’ This tension if allowed to persist is likely to produce a revival of an arms race reminiscent of the Cold War, and could easily lead to a horrifying renewal of the East-West conflict, even reviving risks of great power warfare fought with nuclear weapons. It is not a happy moment, perhaps the most ominous time from the perspective of world peace since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Falk notes that Russia now joins the United States as a major power willing to use non-defensive force without authorization from the United Nations, and hence in violation of international law:

The Russians were also probably motivated to act in Georgia by the disregard of their objections to the NATO approach to Serbia and Kosovo. After the NATO War of 1999 the West definitely pushed for first de facto independence of Kosovo, long part of the territorial domain of Serbia, and then in the past year gave diplomatic backing to its unilateral declaration of independence, and accompanying claim to be treated as a sovereign state. The experience of Kosovo provides Russia with a precedent that it seeks to imitate in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, thereby teaching a lesson to both Georgia and the United States: What goes around comes around.

There is much to be learned and much to be feared in relation to these recent events, Falk concludes. The Russian resurgence means, above all, that the central rivalry of the last half century again must be treated with utmost seriousness. It is more important than at any time since the breaching of the Berlin Wall that both Moscow and Washington exhibit sensitivity to each other’s fundamental interests as great powers:

It will not be possible to avoid encounters arising from this clash between regional and imperial geopolitics, but at least diplomacy can do a far better job of avoiding showdowns than has happened in relation to South Ossetia and Georgia. In the end, the prospect for peace and justice in the 21st century depends on respect for sovereign rights, and eventually on the repudiation of geopolitics, but we are not nearly there yet. And these developments suggest that the world may be drifting anew into the most dangerous form of geopolitics, namely, reliance on force to resolve international disputes.

A detailed critique of the media treatment of Georgia is provided by Gary Leupp, professor of history at Tufts. Writing in Dissident Voice on August 19, he summarized the MSM spin:

Georgia’s young leader Mikheil Saakashvili, the Columbia Law School graduate who came to power after the heroic ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003, is a great friend of America (providing the third largest detachment of ‘Coalition’ troops to Iraq). His commitment to democracy and Georgian independence have annoyed Moscow, which still retains aspects of Soviet-era authoritarianism, still cherishes ambitions to dominate border states once part of the USSR, and is (for unexplained reasons) suspicious of U.S. hopes to integrate Georgia into NATO. It has taken advantage of separatist movements in Georgia to weaken the Tblisi government. Saakashvili, in an effort to establish effective control over his whole country, sent troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia August 7 (just before the Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing). Russia used this as an excuse to flex its muscle, invading a country for the first time since the USSR invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. It not only drove Georgian troops from South Ossetia but along with allies in the separatist Abkhazia region attacked targets throughout Georgia. It’s a clear case of unwarranted aggression.

Leupp responds to this summary with eight points:

  • Saakashvili, who owes his position to U.S. interference, is no liberal democrat but an autocrat who jails political foes and uses force to quash anti-government demonstrations.

  • Russia is alarmed at the unceasing expansion of NATO, which it expected to dissolve along with the Warsaw Pact. The U.S. is pushing for the inclusion of Ukraine (another country where it has been meddling politically) and Georgia in the alliance. Russia has repeatedly warned that it will not tolerate this.

  • Already in 1991-92 Georgia applied crude force in a failed attempt to subdue South Ossetians and Abkhazians.

  • Most South Ossetians are Russian citizens, and Russia has an obligation to defend them—just as it has an obligation to defend its peace-keeping troops from attack.

  • Saakashvili seeks NATO membership depicting Georgia as a democracy confronted with a bullying undemocratic neighbor—thus additionally provoking Moscow.

  • The crisis started with Georgia’s surprise air attack on Tskhinvali on August 7 followed up by a tank and mortar assault August 8.

  • The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline passes through Georgia, connecting the Caspian oil fields to NATO member Turkey and bypassing Russia. Saakashvili may have believed Georgia was so valuable to the U.S. bloc that he could assault South Ossetia counting on the U.S. to restrain any Russian response.

  • The Russians have made pointed references to U.S. recognition of Kosovo and NATO’s bombing of Serbia in 1999.

The parallel between Kosovo and South Ossetia is not exact, Leupp concludes, but any such differences notwithstanding, Moscow’s response is clear: You cannot violate international law with your constant aggressions and provocations without expecting us, at some point, to respond in kind. You have created this problem, and more to come.

Arguing for Abkhazia’s and South Ossetia’s independence in the Houston Chronicle on August 24 (“Give Russia respect it’s due”), Gail Stokes of Rice University notes that, from the Russian point of view, Europe and the United States first militarily attacked Serbia on behalf of breakaway Kosovo and then helped the province proclaim independence; but when Russia intervenes in South Ossetia, the United States reacts with shock and anger.

The tensions are greatly increased, Stokes says, by America’s recent agreements with the Czech Republic and Poland to place missile monitoring radars in those countries. Despite U.S. protestations that its intentions are defensive, one only needs to consider what any American government’s reaction would be to the placement of Russian radars in Mexico to defend against a rogue Latin American state. The problem is that, during the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States did not take Russia seriously:

Even today, we continue to chastise the Russians for human rights abuses, for “misusing” their oil and gas resources for political purposes and for obstructing our wishes in various international venues. What did we expect? That a great country with an educated work force just starting to feel its economic oats would be content to play second fiddle forever? It was just a matter of time before the Russians reappeared as a strong state on the international scene. They have now arrived, and it is in everyone’s interest if we begin to deal with them like the great power they are.

Dallas Darling, the author of The Other Side of Christianity, goes a step further and argues in The Middle East Online (August 20) that the “global war on terror” has always been about encircling Russia. When the US-backed Georgia invaded South Ossetia and fired on Russian peace keepers, he says, “it was a nation-fulfilled prophecy... it is what the US has long dreamed of, hoped for, and desired”:

A nation-fulfilled prophecy is why hundreds of Special Forces have trained Georgian troops and are now stationed in Georgia. It is the reason Bush II mentioned Hungary during the Olympic Games and why Rice flew to Georgia claiming “this is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten a neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it.” It is the reason the US mainstream press considers Russian military maneuvers similar to the Nazi takeover of the Sudetenland, refers to Russia’s leader as another Hitler and Stalin, and publishes political cartoons showing a Russian bear standing over a mountainous heap of corpses. When Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential hopeful, told an audience, “My friends, we have reached a crisis, the first probably serious crisis internationally since the end of the Cold War,” he was speaking about the finalization of our nation-fulfilled prophecy. This is also the reason the US wants to desperately deploy military bases, Patriot Missiles, and a defense missile shield in Poland and the Ukraine. The timing of this agreement sends a clear message embedded in our historical psyche.”

A great tragedy of modern history, according to Dallas, occurred when the US squandered not only a Cold War victory, but also a Cold War peace. As Rice resurrects the Iron Curtain motif and claims “Russia will pay a price,” he concludes, she fails to understand millions of people, with their lives and resources, have already paid a steep price: “The elite ruling class should have realized too that all along, what needed to be ‘contained’ was their misguided nation-fulfilling prophecy to entrap and destroy Russia.”

The Edmonton Journal offered a simple statement of geopolitical facts by Lorne Gunter (“West can do nothing for Georgia”) on August 15. “Moscow wanted to send a message: If you provoke us, we will find ways to retaliate,” the author says, “Georgia is payback for Kosovo”:

Just as America’s invasion of Grenada in 1983 was a signal that the U.S. had shaken off its post-Vietnam lethargy, Russia’s invasion of its southern neighbour is likely a sign it is over its chaotic, criminal post-Soviet phase.... It will no longer permit sand to be kicked in its face.

The West’s reaction was best summed up by Secretary Gates when he said there would be no U.S. troops, and by Victor Davis Hanson, when he asked “Who wants to die for Tbilisi?” The answer, of course, is “no one in the West.” And that was not the answer just since Bush or Iraq, Gunter concludes, it has always been the Western answer.

We’ll end this survey with a solid analysis by George Friedman, published by Stratfor on August 25. He sees the “Russo-Georgian war” as an event rooted in broad geopolitical processes: the Russian/Soviet empire expanded for centuries, and then collapsed in 1991. The Western powers wanted to make the disintegration permanent. It was inevitable that Russia would, in due course, want to reassert its claims. There is, however, the context of Russian perceptions of U.S. and European intentions and of U.S. and European perceptions of Russian capabilities, and those attitudes can only be understood if we trace the question of Kosovo. The 1999 NATO campaign was carried out without U.N. sanction because of Russian and Chinese opposition:

The United States and other European powers disregarded the Russian position. Far more important, they established the precedent that U.N. sanction was not needed to launch a war (a precedent used by George W. Bush in Iraq). Rather — and this is the vital point — they argued that NATO support legitimized the war. This transformed NATO from a military alliance into a quasi-United Nations. What happened in Kosovo was that NATO took on the role of peacemaker, empowered to determine if intervention was necessary, allowed to make the military intervention, and empowered to determine the outcome. Conceptually, NATO was transformed from a military force into a regional multinational grouping with responsibility for maintenance of regional order, even within the borders of states that are not members. If the United Nations wouldn’t support the action, the NATO Council was sufficient.

In Friedman’s view, the Kosovo war directly effected the fall of Yeltsin and the rise of Vladimir Putin. It was driven by the perception that NATO had shifted from being a military alliance to seeing itself as a substitute for the UN, arbitrating regional politics. Russia had no vote or say in NATO decisions, so NATO’s new role was seen as a direct challenge to Russian interests. Thus, the ongoing expansion of NATO into the former USSR and the promise to include Ukraine and Georgia into NATO were seen in terms of the Kosovo war. From the Russian point of view, expansion meant a further exclusion of Russia from decision-making, and implied that NATO reserved the right to repeat Kosovo if it felt that “human rights” or political issues required it:

Then came Kosovo’s independence. Yugoslavia broke apart into its constituent entities, but the borders of its nations didn’t change. Then, for the first time since World War II, the decision was made to change Serbia’s borders, in opposition to Serbian and Russian wishes, with the authorizing body, in effect, being NATO. It was a decision avidly supported by the Americans.

On May 15 the foreign ministers of India, Russia and China made a joint statement reasserting their fundamental position that the unilateral declaration of independence by Kosovo contradicts Resolution 1244 and calling on the West “to encourage Belgrade and Pristina to resume talks within the framework of international law” and expressed hope that they can “reach an agreement on all problems of that Serbian territory.” The Europeans and Americans rejected this request as they had rejected all Russian arguments on Kosovo. The Russians let it be known that they would not accept the idea that Kosovo independence was a one-of-a-kind situation and that they would regard it, instead, as a new precedent for all to follow. As Friedman stresses,

The problem was not that the Europeans and the Americans didn’t hear the Russians. The problem was that they simply didn’t believe them — they didn’t take the Russians seriously. They had heard the Russians say things for many years. They did not understand three things. First, that the Russians had reached the end of their rope. Second, that Russian military capability was not what it had been in 1999. Third, and most important, NATO, the Americans and the Europeans did not recognize that they were making political decisions that they could not support militarily.

Kosovo wasn’t everything, Friedman concludes, but it was the single most significant event behind the current crisis. The war of 1999 was the framework that created the war of 2008. The problem for NATO was that it was expanding its political reach and claims while contracting its military muscle. The Russians were expanding their military capability and the West didn’t notice. In 1999, the Americans and Europeans made political decisions backed by military force. In 2008, in Kosovo, they made political decisions without sufficient military force to stop a Russian response.

Read the entire article on the Chronicles Magazine website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 29-Aug-2008



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