The Seeds of Another Cold War?

Russia should not have attacked Georgia, especially Georgia proper, and some of its animosity toward Georgia is clearly not noble. But it is fascinating how the American establishment and media have portrayed this conflict as just another case of Good vs. Evil, with the U.S. ally, Georgia, clearly in the right and Moscow clearly in the wrong.

Some accounts barely even take note of the proximate provocation behind Russia’s attacks. On August 8, after shelling South Ossetia’s capital city, Tskhinvali, Georgia invaded. A thousand people fled. At least another thousand died, according to separatists.

South Ossetia has been independent along with Abkhazia since the close of the Cold War. About 95% of them are Russian citizens. This fact has irked Georgia. From Reuters:

South Ossetia, which fought to break free from Georgian rule in 1991-92, maintains close ties with its Russian North Ossetia. Most of South Ossetia’s 70,000 people hold Russian citizenship, entitling them to Russian state benefits.

South Ossetia’s affinity with Russia has been a thorn in the side of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who took power in a 2006 grassroots revolution. His aspirations to join NATO and promises to ensure territorial integrity have won support from Western governments.

In response to Georgia’s attempt to quash South Ossetian independence, Putin responded by coming to the defense of Russian citizens. As Caucasus expert Charles King put it,

Russia must be condemned for its unsanctioned intervention. But the war began as an ill-considered move by Georgia to retake South Ossetia by force. Saakashvili’s larger goal was to lead his country into war as a form of calculated self-sacrifice, hoping that Russia’s predictable overreaction would convince the West of exactly the narrative that many commentators have now taken up.

Indeed, Russia should be criticized. Aside from driving the Georgians out of South Ossetia, it bombed Georgia, including civilian infrastructure, ports and roads. The main airfield outside of Tbilisi was reportedly hit. Georgia claims 90% of Georgian casualties in the conflict were civilian, although before it put the figure at 20%. Either way, for this there is no justification.

It does appear that, for the time being, Russia is satisfied now that Georgia is out of South Ossetia. When accused of wanting regime change in Georgia, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin responded, “Regime change is purely an American invention.”

Russia claims Georgia had already destroyed Tskhinvali and now puts the death toll at above 1,500. The great majority of deaths were South Ossetians, and we don’t know how many deaths Russia itself might be responsible for.

Today, “The president of Russia decided. . . that his tanks and air raids had dished out enough punishment to the country of Georgia and called a halt to five days of devastating attacks.” And now, “Russia and Georgia have approved a plan brokered by French President Nicolas Sarkozy intended to end fighting between the two nations. . . . Under the plan, both sides would agree not to use force, and all troops would return to the positions they were in before the conflict began last week.”

The fighting has stopped, for now. This peace is certainly welcome. But we must assess the situation properly should something similar happen again. Of course, any “collateral damage” inflicted by Russia was morally inexcusable, but what about what Georgia has done?

The U.S. has been very friendly with Georgia, hailing its “Rose Revolution” as a triumph for democracy and human rights. It has subsidized Georgia’s military, enlisted the nation as a partner in the war on terror (Georgia announced withdrawing a thousand troops from Iraq in the midst of this war), and sees this paragon of “New Europe” as a bulwark against Russian and terrorist belligerence. While in the last couple days Americans have called for U.S. intervention against Moscow’s aggression, there has already been more than enough anti-Russian U.S. intervention in the region. Nathan Hodge warns against the “prospect of a larger regional war” that could drag America in, with the U.S. having already backed one of the main belligerents:

Since early 2002, the U.S. government has given a healthy amount of military aid to Georgia. When I last visited South Ossetia, Georgian troops manned a checkpoint outside Tskhinvali—decked out in surplus U.S. Army uniforms and new body armor. The first U.S. aid came under the rubric of the Georgia Train and Equip Program (ostensibly to counter alleged Al Qaeda influence in the Pankisi Gorge); then, under the Sustainment and Stability Operations Program. Georgia returned the favor, committing thousands of troops to the multi-national coalition in Iraq. Last fall, the Georgians doubled their contingent, making them the third-largest contributor to the coalition. Not bad for a nation of 4.6 million people.

Brendan O’Neill helps explain the U.S.-sponsored crisis:

On the ostensible basis of protecting Georgia, and the world more broadly, from the threat of al-Qaeda-style Chechen terrorism, Washington has pumped more than £100million into Georgia’s security forces. . . . It has provided the Georgian military with Huey helicopters, tonnes of weaponry, and high-level training – just last month it was reported that 1,200 US servicemen and 800 Georgians were undergoing intensive ‘joint military training’ at the Vaziani military base near the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. . . .

Washington has also discussed building vast new anti-missile radar systems in the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and possibly Georgia, in order to guard the Western world against missile attacks from Iran or North Korea; the Kremlin has described these plans as a ‘threat’ to Russia. . . . Georgian troops have been deployed as part of the ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq, and America wants to reward Georgia by making it a permanent member of the NATO alliance. NATO, lest we forget, was founded in a very different era as a North Atlantic alliance against the Soviet Union. . . .

. . . The transformation of the republics into life-and-death states in a civilisational war against terror (Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili has said the current clash with Russia is about defending the ‘freedom of the world’) allows rulers to take extraordinary measures to protect their internal authority. . . . The ‘terrorisation’ of former Soviet republics warps their internal dynamic, allowing rulers to present every protest or criticism as part of an ‘Islamic threat’ that must be put down with their American arms.

. . . Washington’s outposting of former Soviet republics has heightened instability in the East. From the dying years of the Soviet Union, when various Soviet republics began to rediscover their old nationalist identities and cultural heritage, to the often-difficult breakaway process of 1990 and 1991, there have been tensions between Soviet republics and the Kremlin. In many ways, these tensions have been exacerbated and even crystallised – made more global and earth-shatteringly serious – by Washington’s invitation to some of the former republics to join the ‘Western fold’ and its war for the preservation of Western civilisation.

And Georgia is not the democratic paragon it is claimed to be, even in relative terms. Saakashvili’s regime there has punished political opponents for “espionage” and has unleashed martial law and beatings on peaceful protesters:

To top it off, Georgia has responded to this war by resorting to martial law. Interestingly, some victims of the war in Georgia blame their own regime, as well as Russian aggression and American betrayal, for this horror.Again, this is not to defend all of Russia’s actions, but what of Washington’s actions and hypocrisy? As David Beito points out, the secession of Kosovo was hailed as a just cause of “self-determination” – a cause worthy not just of moral support but the brutal U.S.-NATO war on Serbia. Certainly what Russia has done is no worse than what Clinton did in the 1990s, and has probably been more restrained. But Georgia’s aggression against South Ossetia is supposedly no reason for NATO or Russia to act against Georgia; indeed, Georgia deserves America’s full support, we are told, and should itself be inducted into NATO. (The situation is not totally analogous: more similar would be U.S. support of a regime trying to break away from Mexico and be independent or join the U.S. –– not that that would ever happen.) Further, in contrast to the US occupying troops who have overstayed their welcome in the Middle East, the Russians do indeed seem to be regarded in South Ossetia as liberators.

On behalf of all of us Americans, Dick Cheney has “expressed the United States’ solidarity with the Georgian people and their democratically elected government in the face of this threat to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” John McCain has been more belligerent than the administration, calling on Russia to be excluded from the Group of 8. Obama was initially more restrained than McCain, but “as Russian warplanes pounded Georgian targets far beyond South Ossetia this weekend, Bush, Obama, and others have moved closer to McCain’s initial position.” For more on the troubling consensus against Russia and the attempts of U.S. leaders, American exceptionalists and neocons to spark up another war in a particularly volatile region, see the former staunch Cold Warrior Pat Buchanan.

Some people argue that South Ossetia has no claim to be independent, that it is naturally a part of Georgia. But for seven centuries, the Iranis have been settled in the Caucuses. While South Ossetia has an ethnic minority of Georgians, 20% of the population, two years ago the nation had a referendum. 99% voted for complete independence. It would seem that even if there are disagreements about pre-Soviet history in the region, this secession is fairly valid and the nation’s independent status for almost a generation should be respected.

Georgia should stay out of South Ossetia, Russia should stay out of Georgia, and the U.S. should stay out of it all. If the U.S. uses this or similar future incidents as a pretext to confront Moscow, we could arrive at what the neocons have been wanting since 1991: To restart the Cold War with the Kremlin. But however criminal Putin’s regime is, and it certainly is criminal, we must remember: It is not anymore the Soviet Union, the Cold War is over, and more U.S. intervention is not the answer.

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