After reading Russian and western media reports of events in South Ossetia you could be forgiven for thinking that they were about two different conflicts. Russian coverage has emphasised the initial Georgian assault on Tskhinvali and the carnage which it has caused, while one British headline quoted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili pleading for western help saying: "We are being annihilated!" Other reports spoke of Russian tanks rolling into Georgia in "a tactic reminiscent of one used by Nazi Germany at the start of the second world war." Such blatant attempts to portray Russia as the main aggressor in this conflict form the propaganda part of a new cold war directed against Russia.
It is easy to paint Georgia as the innocent victim given the vast disparity in geographical size between the two countries, and such assumptions fit into the media image of Russia that was built up during the anti-Soviet cold war, and which has gradually been re-asserted since Russia began to recover its economic and political independence after the dark years of the 1990s. However, such an approach grossly distorts what has actually been happening in the former USSR in general and between Georgia and Russia specifically.
The reality is that this conflict is the result of a series of interlinked factors, some old and some much newer, with none of the parties entirely innocent, but for which the lion’s share of the blame must rest with US-educated Saakashvili and his backers in the United States and NATO.
After Georgia declared independence from the Soviet Union, the political parties representing the Abkhaz and Ossetians were banned, a move that triggered the first modern wars between Georgia and what are now referred to as the ‘breakaway republics.’ Russia intervened to end the conflict and its peacekeepers have maintained the relative peace ever since, at a cost of about 20 lives over the years. At the same time, Russia passed a law that made Russian citizenship available to any citizen of the former Soviet Union, a law that the vast majority of Abkhazians and Ossetians took advantage of, specifically as a guarantee against further Georgian aggression. The situation and the conflict remained frozen in time until the ‘rose revolution’ and the election of Mikheil Saakashvili in 2004.
Saakashvili was elected after the so-called ‘rose revolution’, the second of the ‘color revolutions’ which brought pro-western governments to power in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine, with training, funding and support from a series of US NGO’s (including Freedom House), government agencies (such as USAID) and individuals such as George Soros. These revolutions also received assistance from US consultancies and polling firms to ‘manufacture’ public opinion. These ‘revolutions’ manipulated and capitalized upon popular discontent with existing governments to install ones with markedly little in the way of social policies, but a great deal in the way of neo-liberal reform packages. Similar opposition movements have been tried in Belarus and a number of former Soviet republics, leading many of these, including Russia, to curtail the activities of these NGO’s, seeing them as tools for western interference in their domestic politics.
In Georgia’s case, the ‘revolution’ could not have happened without the US State Department declaring the 2003 parliamentary elections to have been fraudulent (something that has never been proven), paving the way for Saakashvili to lead the outraged opposition into power in fresh elections held early in 2004. Upon election Saakashvili carried out a thorough privatization of remaining public assets, as well as a re-run of his own ‘color revolution’ in the autonomous region of Adzharia, bringing it under central control. Saakashvili has also cracked down on the political opposition, casting doubt upon his claims to be a democrat. Nationalism, which has been relatively popular in Georgia since independence, had never stopped Georgia from having strong economic links and relatively good relations with Russia, and its other neighbours and yet Mr. Saakashvili’s extreme Russophobia has led to a gradual deterioration of relations until their current nadir. How the current conflict will affect the 12% of GDP remitted by Georgians in Russia remains to be seen, but it is a mark of the Saakashvili regime’s irresponsibility that it started this war when Georgia has so many other more pressing needs.
More worrying than the deterioration in economic and political relations with Russia has been the way that Georgia under Mr. Saakashvili began a massive military build- up, supported by the US, members of NATO and the usual US client states. As well as its own military spending, which reached a staggering 10% of GDP, Georgia received military aid and training from the US, Turkey and Israel as well as deliveries of armaments from Ukraine and some of the newer members of NATO. Since its failed attempt to take South Ossetia in the summer of 2004, Georgia has increased the size of its armed forces, re-equipped them and had them well trained in NATO tactics and doctrine, so much so that Georgian forces outnumber the Abkhaz armed forces 10 to 1 and the Ossetian armed forces by 20 to 1. President Saakashvili obviously chose to order the attack thinking that his armed forces were now big enough and well-trained enough to create a fait accompli which would be supported by his new allies before Russia could react.
But why were the US and the UK involved in stoking this conflict by arming Georgia? A large part of the answer must be oil. Georgia happens to straddle the US-backed BTC oil pipeline which was built specifically to bypass Russia. However, it is too simplistic to see the current war as motivated by oil, especially in the light of wider western policy towards Russia in recent years. Since the election of Vladimir Putin in 2000, Russia has followed an external policy of ‘Sovereign Democracy’, which has been characterised by a steady refusal to bow to foreign interests. This policy was a natural reaction to the way Russia was treated throughout the 1990s, when Russia suffered serious political, economic and military humiliations, and Russian living standards plunged far below Soviet levels. It is also a reaction to western policies since the turn of the century when former Soviet satellites were welcomed into NATO and then into the EU, in direct contradiction to earlier promises made to Russia. Since then, NATO has been brought right up to Russia’s borders in the Baltic, and membership is now being touted for Ukraine. As if this weren’t bad enough the US is planning to use Poland and the Czech Republic for its missile defence program, which is blatantly aimed at Russia rather than Iran. What lies behind this western passive aggression is Russia’s new-found political and economic independence, and a need for some in Washington to always have an enemy at hand to justify inflated military spending.
From the Russian point of view the current crisis has been created by the US for its own aims. Western money bought the hardware that destroyed Tskhinvali and trained the troops that carried out the attack which reportedly killed at least 1,500 civilians as well as at least 20 Russian troops whilst destroying much of the city and sending over 30,000 people to seek refuge in Russia. To Russia it seems that the US was using Georgia to pursue its own, anti-Russian agenda, an agenda that includes expanding NATO.
Yet, rather than engage with Russia the west continues to treat Russia as a poor and rather stupid country cousin. Earlier this year Britain declared Russia to be the third biggest threat to national security alongside Al-Qaeda and Iran whilst berating Russia about democracy (this from a country with an un-elected second chamber and an un-elected Prime Minister). It is also galling for Russia to receive lectures on the legality of ‘invasions’ from the UK and the US, countries that have – as the Russian representative to the UN security council, Vitali Churkin pointed out – invaded not one country, but two, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. Russia is a country that cannot be ignored, and nor can its interests. The west must engage with Russia and treat it as an equal, instead of arming its neighbours and promoting instability on its borders. This new cold war is a policy which will backfire, much as President Saakashvili’s policy to militarily integrate the ‘breakaway republics’ has backfired.
The outcome of the most recent conflict has been a resounding defeat for Georgia’s aggressive policy with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian forces captured plans outlining a subsequent Georgian offensive against Abkhazia once South Ossetia had been occupied, in an offensive obviously modelled on Croatia’s offensive against the Serb Krajina in 1995. However, the 6-part peace accord that Saakashvili has signed envisages among other points, that both sides reject the use of force, pull back to their initial positions and begin international discussions over the future status and security of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Russians have also stated that in any negotiation, the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia, and the planned invasion of Abkhazia must be taken into account, in what may be a preparation for referenda in both regions which could feasibly see both become independent following the precendent established with US and NATO support in Kosovo. For Georgia this defeat must mean facing up to the fact that they may have to accept the independence of these regions, and also the futility of seeking confrontation with Russia. For the US this defeat of a client regime should lead to a re-evaluation of the strategic situation in the Caucasus, and a recognition of the need to deal with Russia constructively and as an equal. It should also sound a warning to those wishing to expand NATO ever further into the former Soviet Union. The danger is that the US will not pull back from its current stance, and will aggressivly re-arm Georgia, and push for its inclusion in NATO. To do so could risk becoming entangled in a future conflict that will be extremely hard to extricate from and could have catastrophic consequences.
Photo from Wikipedia Commons.