Georgia and the Reemergence of the Russian Bear

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[Map from The Economist]

In the 1990s, as the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the pundit class was gushing about the potential of “globalization” and the declining influence of the nation-state, few predicted the reemergence of Russia as a global power. With the infrastructure and productive capacity of the USSR in shambles, Russia returned to her oligarchic past. Great wealth was created for a small minority as former communist elites became the country’s new robber barons.

However, for a moment, it appeared that Russia might be able to escape the shackles of the past and embrace a form of democracy that allowed the millions who had been denied liberty for centuries to participate and influence the political process. This dream ended well before the rise of Vladmir Putin. It was crushed when Russian tanks obliterated the Duma in 1993. The equivalent in the U.S. would be President George Bush ordering a military assault on the Congress. Anyone harboring fantasies about Russian democracy after this violent attack was seriously delusional. Instead, the country returned to the comfort and stability of authoritarian rule.

Despite this show of force against its own citizens, Russia remained a has-been military power. Bogged down by the insurgency in Chechnya and facing an enlarging NATO the Russian people elected President Putin. A former KGB lieutenant colonel, Putin had the pedigree of an ideal authoritarian ruler. He proved incredibly popular with Russian voters and his power only increased as the state began to seize the assets of petroleum producer Yukos. Putin also began to express his opposition to NATO expansion and democratic developments in the former Soviet republics.

When Georgia regained its independence in 1991 it experienced a period of civil unrest, slowly stabilizing in 1995 and reforming to a more democratic form of government in the Rose Revolution of 2003. Problems remained in two provinces, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, both with significant Russian populations. Russia supported irredentist aspirations in the two provinces including issuing passports to ethnic Russians. As South Ossetia increasingly defied the political and military authority of Georgia, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili ordered troops into the region on August 7. This is what precipitated the current crisis.

In contrast to what was happening on the ground, Putin cynically claimed that Georgia was engaging in genocide against Russians in West Ossetia. In other words, Putin is framing this as an analog to NATO’s military strikes on Serbia and support for Kosovo’s independence. Haaretz reports:

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Saturday defended his country’s military actions in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, saying what was happening there was “genocide,” news agencies reported.

Georgia, which has close ties with the West, and Russia came into direct conflict over the pro-Russian rebel region after Tbilisi launched an offensive earlier this week to regain control over it.

“Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO… is driven by its attempt to drag other nations and peoples into its bloody adventures,” Putin said during a meeting in the Russian city of Vladikavkaz.

Russian troops, armor and aircraft were mobilized on August 8 and began to attack Georgian forces and civilians. Observers note the attack was timed to coincide with the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics as many Western governments, especially the United States, would be distracted. The conflict has continued to escalate with Russian aircraft attacking the outskirts to the Georgian capital, Tbilsi, and attempting to blockade Georgia’s naval access to the Black Sea.

Saakashvili has repeatedly attempted to implement a seize-fire but Russia appears convinced that this is their moment to topple the democratic government of Georgia, government that they view with great animosity and suspicion due to Georgia’s closeness with the United States and Europe and disdain for authoritarian Russia.

Sultan Knish notes:

With Russian tanks and jets waging war on Georgia and with Russia’s puppet government of thugs and drug dealers in Chechnya proposing to send two battalions of “peacekeeping troops”, the situation is about to get much uglier. The United States has abandoned Georgia. Israel has abandoned Georgia. Most of Europe couldn’t care less. Only a handful of British papers are reporting some of the truth, instead of repeating talking points straight from Moscow.

We’ve seen this happen before and we know how it ends. Russia is testing the West, just as Germany did when it marched into the Rhineland and then invaded Czechoslovakia and then Poland. Russia has already managed to isolate Georgia from NATO. If Russia gets the message that no one cares what happens in South Ossetia, it will move under the cover of “peacekeeping troops” to finish the job.

For many of us who lived through the Cold War, the image of Russian tank columns invading a small country on its periphery brings back memories of Hungary in 1956 and Prague in 1968. What happens next is anyone’s guess. I hold hope that a cease-fire will be reached but only with much increased Western pressure. At the minimum, President Bush should leave China to meet with Secretary of Defense Gate and Secretary of Defense Rice. This would send a signal to Russia that the U.S. takes this violation of Georgian sovereignty incredibly seriously and that Russia is precipitating an international crisis.

[Image from Der Spiegel]

Senator John McCain released the following statement:

The news reports indicate that the Russian military forces crossed an internationally recognized border into the sovereign territory of Georgia. Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory. What is most critical now is to avoid further confrontation between Russian and Georgian military forces. The consequences of Euro-Atlantic stability and security are grave. The government of Georgia has called for a cease fire and for resumption of direct talks on South Ossetia with international mediators. The U.S. should
immediately convene an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council to call on Russia to reverse course. The U.S. should immediately work with the E.U. and the OSCE to put diplomatic pressure on Russia to reverse this perilous course that it has chosen.

We should immediately call a meeting of the North Atlantic Council to assess Georgia’s security and review measures NATO can take to contribute to stabilizing this very dangerous situation. Finally, the international community needs to establish a truly independent and neutral peacekeeping force in South Ossetia.

In an escalation of the conflict, Russian aircraft have bombed Georgia’s primary oil pipeline and troops are reported to be advancing on the Kodori Gorge of Abkhazia. The West must not abandon Georgia to the forces of Russian authoritarianism.

Richard Holbrook on the crisis:

Read More:

AFP

John Batchelor

Bob from Brockley

The Economist

Michael Klare on Russian “Energo-Fascism”

Greater Surbiton

The Start Tenet

Sultan Knish

The Telegraph

Villagers with Torches

Washington Times

[Destruction in Gori. Image from Der Spiegel]

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2 responses »

  1. I’m pretty sure there will be feelings amongst those in Georgia asking why in their time in need, after their country sacrificed for Iraq, that the sole superpower in the world couldn’t even give a nudge of support. I’m sure Taiwan is watching this closely, looking at our response. If the United States can’t stop Russian aggression, how can it stop Chinese aggression? Yet again, how can we respond? How do we tackle the might of a nuclear power?

    Thoughts of “Is it worth it?” come to mind and then I’m reminded of research I did for a paper on the Hungarian uprising in 1956, where in various magazines opinions flared on our inaction to the thousands of Hungarians rising up to Soviet power. One respondent said of the events, “The Hungarian tragedy taught the rest of the world two important things: Don’t cross Russia, and don’t expect U.S. assistance.” (“Letters” Newsweek 10 December 1956: 20.) A correspondent of U.S. News and World Report, Edward C. Burks said of the events, “Think of the street you live on and a spectacle of Russia tanks clanking down it, firing into homes, killing children along with adults.” (Burks, Edward C. “I Saw Budapest Crushed” U.S. News and World Report 23 November 1956: 59.)

    Now this isn’t to say the two events are exactly the same, yet there are some similarities. One for instance is the helplessness and inaction in the West (the United States in particular) to the events. While Russia extends it’s influence, intimidation, and subversion with it’s greater Russia policy, we fiddle our thumbs. Do actions bear consequences? Will Russia get Scott free? We’ll see.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    I agree with your general conclusion, the failure of the Western democracies to act decisively in a collective manner is being observed by all of our adversaries and enemies, from large powerful countries like Russia and China, to much weaker ones like Zimbabwe and Sudan, to terror-cells operating throughout the world. Our failure to stand together is our biggest weakness.

    Some blame this on President Bush. He, or his administration, or the perception people have of his administration certainly plays a role. I would never say otherwise. But I suspect that even if Al Gore had been president for the past eight years, Western European countries would not have behaved that much differently than they are today. I think there is a general ambivalence if not outright hostility to the use of force. Part of this is understandable given recent European history (two World Wars) and is even commendable in some cases. But there is flip side. I am concerned there is an unwillingness to act until it is too late.

    The Russian tanks bring back a lot of memories for so many people who lived under Soviet domination. My mother’s family is from Hungary. I’d be very interested in reading your paper.

    You can bet China is paying close attention to what is happening, Olympics or no Olympics. Thankfully, the situation with Taiwan and China, while similar, has some important differences. The most obvious is Taiwan is an island, it does not share a border with China the way Russia borders South Ossetia. So moving tanks, soldiers and materiel in a long column is not an option. They need to transport everything by sea or air. Does China have the sort of air/sea transportation capacity to launch a successful invasion of Taiwan? I don’t know the answer to that question.

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