Editor’s Note: This editorial from the September 1 issue of The Nation has been updated to take into account Russia’s acceptance of a cease-fire agreement.
“The past week’s events in South Ossetia are bound to shock and pain anyone…. Nothing can justify this loss of life and destruction. It is a warning to all.”
–Mikhail Gorbachev, Washington Post, August 12
Former Soviet President Gorbachev’s condemnation of Georgia’s assault on Tskhinvali on the night of August 7, which precipitated the larger Russia-Georgia conflict, reminds us that if we had heeded his vision of a truly post-cold war world, we might not today be confronting such dangerous geopolitical gamesmanship. It should also remind us, as a wobbly cease-fire is put in place, that the conflict has been flagrantly misreported in this country.
I am heartsick at the violence and brutalities on all sides. Georgian, South Ossetian and Russian friends have all suffered. Yet commentary in the US media, almost without exception, has turned a longstanding, complex separatist conflict into a casus belli for a new cold war with Russia, ignoring not only the historical and political reasons for South Ossetia’s drive for independence from Georgia but also the responsibility of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for the current crisis. So eager have commentators been to indict Vladimir Putin’s Russia that they have overlooked Washington’s contribution to the rising tensions.
Certainly Russia should be condemned for escalating the fighting beyond what was necessary to defend South Ossetians and Russian peacekeepers. But the US media have failed to provide the full backdrop. For one, the role of Saakashvili–who has sought to provoke Moscow over a range of issues in recent years–has been whitewashed. Georgia’s president has often seemed more intent on currying favor with the Bush Administration, which has strongly supported Georgia’s bid for NATO membership, than on looking after the interests of his people. The United States has also sent hundreds of military advisers to Georgia and welcomed Georgian troops in its “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. The irony is that the Bush Administration, which violated Iraq’s sovereignty, now feigns outrage over Russia’s actions. And for all the flowery talk of promoting Georgia’s democracy, the Bush Administration has in the past year downplayed Saakashvili’s violent crackdown on Georgian protesters, as well as his rigged election, declaration of martial law, attacks on opposition media and jailing of opponents.
In intervening militarily to protect South Ossetians and Russian peacekeepers, Moscow suggested it was following the precedent of Washington’s 1999 war against Serbia. And just as Washington widened that war beyond the Kosovo theater to attack Serbia’s infrastructure, Russia expanded its war, hitting targets in Georgia proper, thereby challenging the UN Charter. By doing so, Moscow is warning that NATO expansion on Russia’s borders will not be tolerated.