Sunday, August 10, 2008

Background on the South Ossetia conflict

Some good background on the South Ossetia conflict is provided by Tony Karon at Time Magazine, Thomas de Waal at the Observer, and Mark Almond for the Guardian. The broader context of the "new Cold War" between NATO and Russia, is set out in The Nation by Stephen Cohen (whose book "Failed Crusade: America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia" is an essential component of any meaningful understanding of modern world history).

At the end of the Cold War, US President Bush I pledged to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not take advantage of the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact to expand itself eastwards. Historically, the Russians have suffered repeated attacks through Eastern Europe - most recently from the Nazis, losing 20 million lives in its defence - so the pledge was of obvious importance. Nevertheless, the United States broke its promise almost immediately, enacting an effective military encirclement of Russia under Presidents Clinton and Bush II, thus giving the lie to the claim that NATO was always a defensive alliance.

Noam Chomsky noted recently that "[i]f NATO had been developed to defend the West against the USSR, it would have been dissolved when the USSR collapsed. If, on the other hand, the goal was to extend the dominance of the US and its allies and clients, it would not only remain but would expand its membership and range of actions [which is] exactly [what] has happened.".

It is also worth mentioning that under IMF (i.e. US Treasury) tutelage, the Russian economy was destroyed by a wave of reckless privatisations and deregulations, leading into a
depression worse even than that suffered by the US in the 1930s, from which Russia has only begun to recover under Putin. That recovery has been characterised by a general resolve to no longer be history's victim, as one might expect from one of the traditional great powers.

It is in this wider historical context, of a western alliance pushing up hard against Russia and an economically resurgent Moscow pushing back, that current events need to be understood.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili has been lobbying energetically for entry into NATO, encouraged by the US but in the face of opposition from Germany, amongst others, who are in no mood to jeopardise relations with Russia, not least since they rely on it for imports of gas for their power stations. What we may have seen in recent days is a reckless attempt by Saakashvili to force the issue of NATO membership by dragging the Western alliance into a shooting war.

Though formally a part of Georgia, South Ossetia has had the status of an autonomous region since a civil war in the early 1990s, and is now largely administered
by Russia with which it has very close ties. Ideally, South Ossetians would like to unify themselves with North Ossetia, on the Russian side of the border. Skirmishes between Georgian troops and South Ossentian secessionists have been rumbling on for some time, but on Friday Georgia decided to take the latest skirmishes as sufficient provocation to invade the region and reassert its authority there by force.

It seems highly probable that this action was planned well in advance. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was at the Beijing Olympics at the time of the invasion, possibly leading Georgia to believe (however foolishly) that it could catch Russia off-guard. And the fact that Georgian troops assisting in the occupation of Iraq pulled out of that US-led mission almost immediately to join the fray at home surely indicates foreknowledge on Washington's part.

If that's correct, it was a both a cynical gamble and a foolish one. Cynical, because events in Chechnya over the last 15 years, for example, will have made it plain that Russia would react to any challenge to its regional dominance decisively and with extreme brutality. The Georgian government will have banked on this, so that it could then paint itself as the victim of Russian aggression, even though it was Saakashvili who initiated this sharp escalation of the conflict from border skirmishes to open warfare by launching "a massive artillery assault on the town of Tskhinvali, which has no purely military targets and whose residents, the Georgians say, lest we forget, are their own citizens", quoting de Waal. Portraying itself as the innocent victim, the Georgian government could then cry out for international assistance, and plead a stronger case for NATO membership as a necessity to defend itself.

And foolish because unless Washington actually planned for, or Tiblisi genuinely expected, some sort of military intervention from
NATO - a pretty outlandish assumption - it was plain that Russia would crush the Georgian forces swiftly and with ease, thus tightening its grip over South Ossetia and probably Abkhazia (another pro-Russian breakaway region of Georgia) as well.

As a leading member of NATO, and one always ready to team up with the US against the continental European members, Britain immediately took sides in the conflict. Reuters reports:

"At the request of Russia, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session in New York but failed to reach consensus early Friday on a Russian-drafted statement. The council concluded it was at a stalemate after the US, Britain and some other members backed the Georgians in rejecting a phrase in the three-sentence draft statement that would have required both sides "to renounce the use of force," council diplomats said."

From a British point of view, we can expect most media, politicians and commentators to fall into line, with Russia portrayed as the sole aggressor. One Sky News presenter opened his interview with some rent-a-pundit yesterday by demanding "What on earth does Russia think its doing?", which might have been a fair question if it had been followed by a query as to what Georgia thought it was doing picking a fight with the same Russian army that laid waste to Chechnya in the 1990s, and what the US thought it was doing by helping the Georgian government launch itself into this foolish adventure to begin with. But faith in the state religion that war is never "our" fault remains strong, even after Iraq, so these questions will rarely be asked.

The fact is that all sides have shown contempt for human life in pursuit of unworthy objectives. For Washington and its lapdogs, the goal has been strategic advantage in Central Asia; for the Georgian government, the patronage of a wealthy superpower; for
Saakashvili more personally, the chance to reinvent himself after recent domestic troubles as a national hero; and for Russia, the instilling of fear into anyone in its backyard who dares to challenge its supremacy (call it state terrorism, as long as you're prepared to recognise that we're not averse to such behaviour ourselves).

In amongst this geo-strategic manoeuvring, the lives of Georgians, Ossentians and Russians have been mere pawns to be casually disposed of, underlining once again the old maxim of international relations; that the strong do as they please while the weak suffer as they must.

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