Five days after Georgia invaded and seized the breakaway separatist region of South Ossetia, sparking a larger-scale Russian invasion to drive Georgian forces back and punish their leaders, Russia surprised its Western detractors by calling a halt to the country’s offensive. After all, the mainstream media, egged on by hawkish neocon pundits and their candidate John McCain, had everyone believing that Russia was hellbent on the full-scale annihilation and annexation of democratic Georgia.
But then came Tuesday’s cease-fire announcement–and we’re now forced to ask ourselves serious questions about the recent conflict: what really started it, how dangerous was it and what, with serious careful consideration, could be done to prevent it from turning into a worst-case scenario?
Up until now, this war was framed as a simple tale of Good Helpless Democratic Guy Georgia versus Bad Savage Fascist Guy Russia. In fact, it is far more complex than this, morally and historically. Then there are two concentric David and Goliath narratives here. The initial war pitted the Goliath Georgia–a nation of 4.4 million, with vastly superior numbers, equipment and training thanks to US and Israeli advisers–against David-Ossetia, with a population of between 50,000-70,000 and a local militia force that is barely battalion strength. Reports coming out of South Ossetia tell of Georgian rockets and artillery leveling every building in the capital city, Tskhinvali, and of Georgian troops lobbing grenades into bomb shelters and basements sheltering women and children. Although true casualty figures are hard to come by, reports that up to 2,000 Ossetians, mostly civilians, were killed are certainly believable, given the intensity of the initial Georgian bombardment, the wanton destruction of the city and surrounding regions and the generally savage nature of Caucasus warfare, a very personal game where old rules apply.
But you don’t hear about this story from the Western media. Indeed, you hear little if anything about the Ossetians, who seem to hardly exist in the West’s eyes, even though their grievance is the root cause of this war.
While Russia and America see the conflict in abstract terms about spheres of influence and protecting allies, for Ossetians, who still recall the centuries of massacres Georgians committed against them, it is highly personal. They will still recall the Georgian massacres in the early 1920s, when Georgia was briefly independent, which exterminated up to 8 percent of the Ossetian population. In 1990, when Georgia was again moving towards independence, the ultranationalist leader Zviad Gamsakhurdia abolished Ossetia’s limited autonomy, leading to another Ossetian rebellion that was only quelled by a peace agreement signed by Georgia, Russia and the Ossetians. Gamsakhurdia was subsequently deposed, and Georgia’s ethnic chauvinism was shelved until the rise of current president Mikhail Saakashvili in 2003.
Ossetians have traditionally relied on their powerful northern neighbor Russia for protection against Georgia. The Georgians, in turn, have tried to counter Russian hegemony, for which they are no match, by aligning closely with the United States, finding friendly ears among old cold warriors and Bush-era neocons.
When he first rose to prominence, the American-educated Saakashvili was often referred to as “Georgia’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky”–the Russian ultranationalist firebrand who once promised to retake Alaska. Although Saakashvili was subsequently rebranded as a Euro-democrat, he promised to reunite Georgia and bring his separatist regions to heel, by force if necessary, whether the aggrieved ethnic groups liked it or not.
At the root of this conflict is a clash of two twentieth-century guiding principles in international relations. Georgia, backed by the West, is claiming its right as a sovereign nation to control the territory within its borders, a guiding principle since World War II. The Ossetians are claiming their right to self-determination, a guiding principle since World War I.
These two guiding concepts for international relations–national sovereignty and the right to self-determination–are locked in a zero-sum battle in Georgia. Sometimes, the West takes the side of national sovereignty, as it is in the current war; other times, it sides with self-determination and redrawing of national borders, such as with Kosovo.
In that 1999 war, the United States led a nearly three-month bombing campaign of Serbia in order to rescue a beleaguered minority, the Albanians, and carve out a new nation. Self-determination trumped national sovereignty, over the objections of Russia, China and numerous other countries.
Why, Russians and Ossetians (not to mention separatist Abkhazians in Georgia’s western region) ask, should the same principle not be applied to them?
The answer is clear: because we say so. That sort of logic, in an era of colossal American decline and simultaneous Russian resurgence, no longer works on the field.
But sadly, this news hasn’t been conveyed to neocon hawks like Robert Kagan or to John McCain, who seem to still be living in 2002, when American military power was seen as the answer to all the world’s problems. There is even evidence to suggest that America encouraged Saakashvili to think he could solve this conflict by war. Ever since 2002, when American Green Berets dropped into Georgia to train its troops against phantom Al Qaeda cells, the Bush Administration has drawn the former Soviet nation closer into what appeared to be a military alliance, culminating in Georgia’s 2,000-man contribution to the Iraq coalition forces (the third-largest contingent), and American joint training exercises in July, just a few weeks before Georgia’s blitzkrieg attack on South Ossetia. In the UN, Russian attempts in the early hours of the war to pass a resolution calling for a cease-fire were shot down by American and British diplomats, who objected to the clause calling on both sides to “renounce violence”–exactly Saakashvili’s position.
The question we must ask is: Are we willing to risk war, including nuclear holocaust, in order to fulfill the aspirations of Mikhail Saakashvili? While Bush and McCain speak of Saakashvili as if he’s a combination of Thomas Jefferson and Nelson Mandela, he’s seen by his own people as increasingly authoritarian and unbalanced. Last year, Saakashvili sent in his special forces to violently disperse opposition protesters in the capital city, followed by a declaration of martial law. He sacked the opposition television station (partly owned by Rupert Murdoch), exiled or jailed his political opponents, and stacked the courts with his own judges while removing neutral observers, leaving even onetime neocon cheerleaders like Bruce Jackson and Anne Applebaum feeling queasy. Hardly the image of the “small democratic nation” that everyone today touts.
The Russian response has, of course, been disproportionate and heavy-handed–exactly what’s to be expected of them ever since Boris Yeltsin first showed the world how post-Soviet Russia fights its wars, starting with Chechnya in 1994. Georgia has been terrorized by indiscriminate aerial bombing and the constant threat of invasion by a vastly superior Russian force–eerily reminiscent of NATO’s campaign against Serbia in 1999. Indeed, many observers believe that the current Russian response is a direct blowback of the Kosovo campaign, which is why there are so many similarities.
But what is the best way to respond? The neocons and even CNN reports talk about exploring military options, which is absurd given the consequences of war with nuclear-armed Russia. Woofing loudly like John McCain is likely to prove as effective as Bush’s woofing did with North Korea, before he was forced to crawl back to the negotiating table.
In fact, one of the most effective ways America could respond to this crisis is by rethinking its entire geopolitical approach of the past two decades, which has been hegemonic, arrogant, hypocritical and reckless. If we set a better example, then we could at least reclaim the moral authority, or “soft power,” that we once had.
Instead, we’ve left the world other more brutal lessons about geopolitical power and how to use it, and the Russians are showing they’ve learned from us well. One lesson they learned from Kosovo is that when you bomb a petty nationalist leader like Saakashvili or Milosevic, eventually–when the cease-fire is called and the sense of defeat settles in–the nationalist firebrand who brought them to defeat pays with his seat in power.