Blood in the Caucasus

Blood in the Caucasus

It’s time for the US to dissolve its cold war military alliances and develop realistic new policies toward Russia.


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.

There are also unasked questions about the conflict’s eruption. Was Saakashvili’s military strike designed to force NATO’s hand after its hesitant endorsement of future membership for Georgia? Did the Bush Administration’s public support of Saakashvili’s belligerent stance toward Russia convince the Georgian president that he would have US backing if he attacked?

Such questions have been virtually ignored amid the relentlessly one-sided commentary, with critics like William Kristol and Robert Kagan drawing hysterical parallels with Munich in 1938, and Clinton Administration diplomat Richard Holbrooke issuing a truculent demand in the Washington Post that Russia pay a price. Yet calls for sanctions or boycotts are hollow. Even if the United States were not already stretched to the breaking point in Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush Administration policies have left us with no credibility in Moscow and, therefore, little diplomatic leverage. That is why it was left to the European Union, despite its internal divisions, to arrange a cease-fire and advance a framework for resolving the conflict.

Yet crises like these also present opportunities–and new dangers. As I write, there is ambiguity to the current French-brokered cease-fire agreement—with the Russians interpreting it as permitting them to establish new security measures beyond South Ossetia and Abkhazia until international monitoring mechanisms can be worked out. Thus, Russia has positioned forces outside of Gori and have taken control of the port area of Poti. Meanwhile, the Bush Administration’s response of sending humanitarian aid–delivered by the US military–poses dangers because it could cause an inadvertent hot war if US military forces engage Russian forces. Bush Administration and Pentagon officials have made it clear that US forces would not be “protecting the Georgian airport or seaport, but we we’ll certainly protect our assets if we need to.” Instead of hollow threats at this stage, we should seek restraint on all sides, and make every effort to move these issues into an international forum were cooler heads could prevail.

Above all, as Mikhail Gorbachev said Thursday night on CNN’s Larry King Live, this crisis–and the opportunity it provides–should create the space for a different US-Russian relationship. A new approach must begin with recognition of Georgia’s sovereignty but also recognize that Russia has legitimate interests along its borders and in areas that have been its traditional zones of security, from Central Asia to the Caucasus to Ukraine. And having established a precedent in supporting Kosovo’s independence, Washington should work with Russia to set up a process, monitored by the UN, that could likewise lead to South Ossetia’s and Abkhazia’s eventual independence. This could establish the basis for a more cooperative US-Russia relationship that would also be in the interests of the Georgian people. As Mark Ames points out in a companion article at, this conflict exposes a clash between two fundamental principles of international relations: the right of nations to control territory within their borders versus the right of peoples to self-determination. The West cannot simply claim the precedence of one principle (self-determination in Kosovo, for example) and then assert that of the other (national sovereignty in Georgia) without exposing its own hypocrisy and motivations based on power politics.

A key element in a new security paradigm must include a US commitment to end eastward expansion of NATO, especially to Georgia and Ukraine. In return, Washington and Moscow should jointly guarantee the sovereignty of those two countries. NATO expansion has furthered no one’s security–in fact, it has increased regional tensions, aroused Russian insecurity and hostility, and discouraged countries from pursuing independent relations with Moscow, leading them instead to adopt provocative policies and act, at times, like virtual US colonies.

Worryingly, neither US presidential candidate has given a hint of being willing to rethink policy toward the region. While Obama argues for UN mediation and the importance of finding a settlement, both he and McCain support NATO membership for Georgia. (McCain is, of course, far more bellicose, tied as he is to ultra-neocons who demand that Georgia’s–and Ukraine’s–NATO membership be expedited and that Russia be excluded from the G-8.) Does either candidate even bother to consider that if Georgia had been a member of NATO when it launched its incursion into South Ossetia, the United States would now be at war with Russia? Isn’t it finally time to dissolve a cold war military alliance and build a new geopolitical security structure for this century?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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