Friday, August 08, 2008

Why Words Matter: Final Thoughts on the Caucasus War

Over the weekend, the situation could escalate or it could simmer down. It's not clear at this point what will happen.

I wanted to close with some final thoughts, about how "words matter"--especially when uttered by Western politicians who don't always consider how what they say has an impact. So let me offer a few examples.

1) Internationalizing the peacekeepers in the region. For years, Georgia has complained about the lack of peacekeepers from states other than Russia. Western politicians echoed these complaints, but were never serious about actually proposing their own forces--certainly not the U.S. We'd complain, and then the mandates for the Russians would be renewed.

There were proposals floated a few years back about having a dual-ring of peacekeepers--Russian and Western--to provide greater security and assurance--but no takers. (Ian Bremmer and I advanced a similar, although more general, idea some four years ago.)

A comment posted on the last entry in the blog raises a very pertinent question: we say Russia is no longer able to be an impartial peacekeeper. But what happens if no Western country is prepared to send any peacekeepers should a new cease-fire come into being? Then what?

2) The reasons for keeping Georgia out of NATO. Rather than being more open and honest, a number of European leaders searched for excuses so as to avoid having to say no outright. One of them was that Georgia could not be considered for NATO membership until it had resolved the separatist conflicts and established its territorial integrity. Perhaps the feeling was that Abkhazia and Ossetia would end up being like the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus--an "eternally frozen" conflict. There are indications that one of the reasons for this operation, from the Georgian side, was to begin to restore the country's territorial integrity so as to remove this objection to Georgia's NATO membership.

Finally, I hope that there was nothing done by the U.S. that someone in Georgia could have considered to be a "wink" or a "nod" for this.

Interesting and balanced editorial from the Guardian:

Prisoner of the CaucasusAll comments () Editorial The Guardian, Saturday August 9 2008 By the time the international community realised what was happening, it was already too late. It is like that in the Caucasus, a zone of self-igniting conflicts that burn as fiercely as they do instantly. A day which started with a Georgian military offensive to retake South Ossetia - a pro-Russian enclave they had lost control of 14 years ago - ended with Russian warplanes bombing Georgian airfields. Columns of Russian tanks were headed into Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, and refugees were streaming out.

Disentangling claim and counter-claim is as hard as working out the real sequence of events. But there can be little doubt that Georgia's attack with assault troops, multiple-rocket launchers and artillery was a planned military operation. It was not just a reaction to Russian bombing the day before, or a ceasefire that somehow went wrong. The timing of the offensive, when Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, was in Beijing for the opening of the Olympic games, was also significant. Georgia may have calculated that Mr Putin might be constrained by the company he was keeping in Beijing, not to order an instant counterattack.

Anyone familiar with the history of the region could have predicted that Russia would hit back hard. First, the majority of the 75,000 Ossetians are pro-Russian, and have long been angling to join North Ossetia, which is part of the Russian Federation. Second, many Ossetians have now got Russian citizenship and passports. Third, this is a dispute that predates both the Georgian president, Mikhail Saakashvili, and the Putin era. Fourth, rushing to the aid of separatists was a precedent set by the west in Kosovo. Russia gave us fair warning of the consequences.

Rather than keep the dispute within a local compass, Mr Saakashvili has done everything in his power to internationalise it. He has banged loudly on Nato's door, and some US leaders have been taken in. The Republican candidate John McCain got a St George's Cross for visiting the Georgian part of South Ossetia last year. The Germans and the French on the other hand resisted Georgia's demand for a membership action plan at the last Nato summit in Bucharest. Georgia's actions yesterday show just how wise Berlin was.

Russia is far from blameless. Its official role as peacekeeper in South Ossetia is questionable. It has a history of destabilising independent countries and refusing to accept retreat from empire. But this does not mean that Nato governments should take everything they see at face value. This is not about plucky Georgian democrats versus Russian tyrants. The players in this drama are more devious than that.
From some of Saakashvili's comments they seem to imply that his actions were done for the benefit of the United States and because of that the U.S. is obligated to help. His days in Georgia may be numbered.
Saakashvili would have never started this massive senseless military assault (1400 dead first night in Tskhinvali, most of them civilians) without some sort of approval from Washington. Condoleeza Rice just returned from Georgia last month.
Nicholas Gvosdev:

Are these events likely to increase or decrease the enthusiasm of Americans for incorporating Georgia and the Ukraine in NATO?

If Americans are still keen, what concrete commitments are they prepared to make to assist these countries in possible future confrontations with Russia? In particular, what concrete commitments are they prepared to make to defend the 1954 grant of the Crimea to the Ukraine by Khrushchev?
Regarding the wink and nod, it's always been obvious that Americans couldn't simply tell the Georgians to keep quiet and protect the pipelines. After all, Georgia chose the alliance with the U.S. to large extent because it hoped that the U.S. would help to recover the separatist territories. Apparently, the fine balance of encouraging Georgians and keeping them away from action was lost this time. It had to happen with a lunatic like Saakashvili in charge in Tbilisi.
But it could happen with nearly any Georgian government as well. The whole combination has been intrinsically very unstable.
Well, ordinary Georgians are learning the worth of promises from Western politicians. From today's NYT:

Near the border, Georgian soldiers were bewildered that they had been pushed out. Exhausted troops, their faces covered with stubble, said they were angry at the United States and EU for not coming to Georgia’s aid.

A Georgian major who only gave his name as Georgy, said, “Over the past few years I lived in a democratic country, and I was happy. Now America and the European Union spit on us.” He was driving an armored truck out of South Ossetia.
I think Saakashvili thought he could accomplish all of this within 24 hours, hence the actions taken. I'm sure there was some sort of "nod" regarding this from Rice, on the condition of a quick conflict. Now that Saakashvili failed, everyone is getting involved.

I find it interesting that the Western media portrays this as a Russia vs. Georgia conflict, where the former is the brutal aggressor. There's pictures of the Gori victims, but what about all the civilians dead in Tskhinvali? There's been little blurbs about Ossetia, but nothing that mentions the cruelty of the Georgian soldiers toward South Ossetians.
The Late General William E Odom had publicly observed, back in 1998, that Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan were irrelevant to US strategic interests.

I think US leaders, both Republican and Democratic, however, chose to mislead the Georgian and Azeris leaders into believing otherwise.

Th results was the massive miscalculation of Georgian leaders.

Note that US has done the same thing vis a vis Israel with similar results; strategic escalation to Nowhere Land.
Out of curiosity, what is stopping Russia from just taking all of Georgia? Is that even a possible route they could go down?
No it is not useful since it will suck then into a quagmire.

They will hurt Geirgia plenty - they will make sure that the Georgian state and people learn that US & EU cannot help them - now or in the future.

Georgians were the useful fools of US & EU.
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