Friday, August 08, 2008

Update on the Caucasus War

My sense, as of 12:30 PM EST:

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili upped the ante this afternoon when he called for American support. "We are a freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack," he said in an interview to CNN. This follows the arrival in South Ossetia, on the heels of “volunteers”, of regular Russian military forces whose apparent mission is to re-establish the status quo as it stood earlier this week: a division between Georgia proper and a South Ossetia which still proclaims its right to separate. In order to accomplish that, however, Georgian forces would either have to withdraw to the previous lines of control, or they would have to be compelled by force. The latter is what is happening—and the danger is that the fighting will spread beyond Ossetia if the Russian forces decide they must target Georgian military forces elsewhere in order to achieve this purpose.

With television screens across Russia displaying the destruction of Tskhinvali and reports circulating of hundreds of civilian casualties, it is becoming difficult for the Kremlin to back down, given that most residents of South Ossetia are Russian citizens.

Tbilisi, which feels it may be on the verge of “solving” the Ossetian secession once and for all, is not going to meekly accept a return to any status quo ante bellum.

The West, and particularly the United States, which poured on the rhetoric of support for a “democratic Georgia”, may now find itself trapped by those honeyed words. Does President George W. Bush want to be accused, as was his Republican predecessor Dwight D. Eisenhower, of abandoning a “freedom loving people” to Russian tanks? (It does help that, like Eisenhower in 1956, there is a major ongoing Middle Eastern crisis to distract attention, in fact there are three!)

So far, the response from official Washington is a mix of reaffirming support for Georgia’s territorial integrity with calls for an immediate cease-fire and the dispatch of an as-yet unnamed envoy to the region. Senator Obama focused on the need for fresh negotiations on all sides to seek a diplomatic solution.

Senator John McCain went further. He said, “We should immediately call a meeting of the North Atlantic Council to assess Georgia's security and review measures NATO can take to contribute to stabilizing this very dangerous situation. Finally, the international community needs to establish a truly independent and neutral peacekeeping force in South Ossetia.” Left unsaid, of course, is what those measures might consist of, who would supply the forces and material (since Afghanistan, a much more pressing mission, remains undersupplied), and, of course, whether such action by NATO would terminate Russian assistance to the alliance in transporting men and material to Afghanistan, especially when the future of the Pakistan-based supply routes is unclear—not to mention what might happen if other key NATO allies didn’t see things his way.

The real danger, and we’ve seen it in the last 24 hours, is that the pattern of escalation/counter-escalation has taken over. If not interrupted, the conflict will worsen.
Jonathan Eyal, director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, summed up the West’s dilemma in comments to The Guardian: “There is considerable sympathy for Georgia among western governments such as the US and London. It is clear that the Russians have fermented the separatist movement for a particular strategic purpose. "There is also however an enormous amount of frustration with the reckless behaviour of the Georgian president at this moment.”

But there can be no progress on a diplomatic solution if the Ossetians are left out of the equation. Whether we in the West like it or not, a 2006 referendum showed clear support among the population for independence from Georgia (and many might wish to reunite with the Ossetians north across the border in Russia). These may be inconvenient facts, but all sides will have to confront them.

One final note: the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline stopped working as a result of PKK attacks. Oil shipments were suspended. So, with the oil flow stopped, the current fighting in Ossetia can't be blamed as the cause.

This is precisely what you warned about in your "Wag the Dog" article of several years past. I've tried searching for it in the National Interest archives and can't find it. Do you have a link?

Find Articles has a copy of Nik's piece, that he wrote with Travis Tanner. It is at;col1
My prediction is that Russian forces will restore the South Ossetians to their previous positions, the conflict will refreeze, and US-Russia relations will go into the cold freeze big time.
Many thanks for the link. In the Wagging the Dog article, Nik asked:

So what happens when the chief executives of states that remain dry under the umbrella of U.S. power and fervently proclaim that they are America's most reliable allies in their respective parts of the world, choose to pursue policies--optional policies, really--that complicate America's efforts to be effective on the world stage? The question is not rhetorical. Over the course of this year, for example, the presidents of Taiwan (Chen Shui-bian) and Georgia (Mikheil Saakashvili), each in pursuit of his political agenda, have taken steps that have needlessly complicated U.S. relations with China and Russia, in defiance of clear requests from Washington. It bears repeating that in each case--Chen's pursuit of formal independence for Taiwan and Saakashvili's brinkmanship in the Caucasus--these steps are not only harmful to critical American interests, but arguably do not even serve the national interests of Taiwan or Georgia.

So now we're about to find out what happens when the tail tries to wag the dog.
What happens if Georgia calls for a new peacekeeping force and no Western country wants to take part? Then what?
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