Tuesday, August 19, 2008



The war in Georgia seems to be over.

How it began is still not clear. The first major military action was Georgias bombardment of Tskhinval, but some claim that this was itself a response to escalation in the low-intensity fighting in the villages of South Ossetia that has been going on for many years. In any case, the Georgian assault on South Ossetia gave Russia a golden opportunity to pursue its own goals under cover of humanitarian intervention.

In general, both sides have excelled in hypocrisy. Russia as the protector of small peoples after Chechnya? The United States as the champion of national sovereignty against foreign aggression after Iraq? And yet there are always people prepared to take such guff seriously, or pretend to.

The context of the war needs to be understood at three levels:

Level 1: the struggle within Georgia for control over territory, waged by ethnically based mini-states (Georgian, Abkhaz, Osset).

Level 2: the confrontation between Georgia and Russia.

Level 3: the renewed great power confrontation between Russia and the West, especially between Russia and the U.S.

The West in its propaganda stresses Level 2, casting Russia as aggressor and Georgia as victim while obscuring its own role. Russian propaganda stresses Level 1, casting Georgians as aggressors and Abkhaz and Ossets as victims, and also Level 3, casting the U.S. and its allies as aggressors and Russia as their victim.

Only by focusing on Level 3 can we grasp what the war is really about.

The rulers of great powers often regard the areas immediately beyond their borders as their rightful sphere of influence. Thus, the U.S. calls Central America and the Caribbean its backyard, while Russia refers to other parts of the former USSR as its near abroad. They are especially concerned to prevent military ties between outside powers and states in their sphere of influence. Recall the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

After a period of weakness, Russia is now reclaiming great power status and a sphere of influence. In the military field, the main goals are to prevent Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO and block the deployment of ABM systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. In addition, Russia will not allow post-Soviet states to cooperate with the U.S. in any attack on Iran.

The Russian operation has succeeded in keeping Georgia out of NATO for the foreseeable future: it has demonstrated the risks involved and several of the existing European member states are unwilling to take those risks. Another Russian goal not yet achieved is to oust Saakashvili, who is rightly viewed as an American client. (The rose revolution that brought him to power in 2003 was funded by the US government, through such agencies as the National Endowment for Democracy.)

It would be a mistake to interpret even the knee-jerk support of the American media for Georgia as indicative of unequivocal support. The US and its allies (with Israel playing a major role) did create the conditions for war by encouraging their client and by arming and training his forces. However, it appears that Saakashvili started major hostilities on his own, without seeking prior approval from Bush, who was enjoying the Olympics at the time. This evidently caused some annoyance. The US refused him the practical support on which he was counting. Like many ambitious but inexperienced politicians before him, he overplayed his hand.

We must bear in mind that the Western ruling class is deeply divided concerning policy toward Russia. Certain forces, especially in the U.S., are upset that Russia is no longer subservient to the West and regard it once more as an adversary. Other forces have a more realistic view of the shifting balance of world power, are wary of making too many enemies and fighting too many wars at once, and want to maintain a more cooperative relationship with Russia. These forces are particularly strong in West European countries that are dependent on Russian gas.

The dominant view among our masters, fortunately, is that they have no interests at stake in Georgia worth the risk of war with Russia. They have only one really important economic interest in Georgia: the pipelines connecting the Caspian oil and gas fields with Turkeys Mediterranean coast (Baku Ceyhan), which pass through the south of the country. Significantly, although Russia bombed many valuable assets in Georgia care was taken not to bomb these pipelines. Perhaps secret assurances were given that the pipelines would not be damaged.

The Russian rulers too have no really vital economic (as opposed to strategic) interest in Georgia. Abkhazia has long been their favorite vacation spot and still has considerable tourist potential. Western Georgia is a traditional source of tea, tobacco, walnuts and citrus fruit.

Our hearts go out to the many thousands of ordinary working people who have borne the brunt of suffering in this war, as they do in every war cowering terrified in basements as the shells burst above them, jumping to their death from burning buildings, trudging along the roads tired, hungry and thirsty in the summer heat …

And yet we also have to say something that must sound heartless in the circumstances. The majority of these ordinary working people of the adults among them share responsibility for their current plight. Because it was they who demonstrated and voted for the politicians who ordered the shelling and the bombing. And most of them, it appears, are still ready to demonstrate and vote for the same politicians. Because they still believe that the location of state borders matters more, infinitely more than their own lives or the lives of their children. Because they still view as their enemy ordinary working people who happen to be of different descent and speak a different language. These delusions, for so long as they persist, guarantee that this will not be the last war.

1 comment:

Gwynn said...

Controlled instability.

Some interesting background to the current situation in Georgia can be read in an academic policy paper from 2004.

It provides a taster of the kinds of considerations that inform decision making at the highest level and which do not often appear in the press:

Unresolved security issues in the South Caucasus have a direct and negative impact on the security interests of NATO and the U.S. They impede access to Central Asia and Afghanistan, threaten the security of needed energy resources as well as access to friendly allies in the Wider Middle East, and create an environment of instability that Russia can both exploit and perpetuate.

NATO’s enlargement to the western Black Sea and the planned enlargement of the European Union are turning the South Caucasus into a direct neighbor to the institutionalized West.
… the South Caucasus has de facto been drawn into the perimeter of Euro-Atlantic strategic security interests. Regional insecurity there, which is Europe’s Southeastern flank, affects the EU directly.
… the national security interests of NATO and its members in the South Caucasus, … have grown to such a degree that its interests would be significantly affected negatively by instability and unrest in the South Caucasus. The individual and collective interests of NATO members therefore suggest that a larger role of the Alliance in strengthening the security of the South Caucasus is warranted.

This paper therefore suggests that NATO, in its June 2004 Istanbul summit, asserts that the security of the countries of the South Caucasus is an integral part of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.

… the South Caucasus is no longer a backwater of international politics. With U.S. and allied military presence in Central Asia, Afghanistan and the Middle East, the South Caucasus is a crucial area enabling the connection between NATO territory and military operations in Afghanistan and staging areas in Central Asia...

Since the independence of the South Caucasus, Moscow has reluctantly seen its influence in the region gradually declining, a process that it has sought to block by the use of various diplomatic, economic, and military means. Moscow has tried to keep the South Caucasus within the Russian sphere of influence, and has to that end tried to hinder the local states from pursuing independent foreign policies, and impede the United States and Turkey from increasing their presence and influence in the region.

The Russian integration model aims to a situation where the U.S., NATO and EU would be required to deal primarily with Moscow – rather than with the South Caucasus states themselves – on key issues of Caspian energy transit to the West and strategic access to operational theatres in Eurasia. In that case, Moscow would obtain major bargaining cards vis-à-vis Washington and European allies. Leading policymakers, especially in Moscow’s power ministries, have sought to apply a policy paradigm of controlled instability in the South Caucasus through “peacekeeping” and mediation in ethnic conflicts and through military footholds in the region.

(S. Cornell, and others “Regional Security in the South Caucasus: The Role of NATO". Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University, 2004.)

The fighting may have stopped for the time being but clearly could flare up again. And soon.