Monday, August 11, 2008

War in Georgia

As you may or may not have heard by now, Russia and the former Soviet republic of Georgia are in a state of de facto war. The conflict is the result of what now appears to be a tremendously fool-hardy decision on the part of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to re-assert control militarily over the breakaway province of South Ossetia, a region that has enjoyed a measure of autonomy after a war with Georgia that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union (though to be fair, this decision appears to have been provoked in part by artillery attacks by South Ossetian rebels.) The offensive into South Ossetia was suspiciously timed to begin on they day of opening ceremonies for the Olympics, but the Georgians were hoping to catch Russia (or anybody else) unawares they have been proven to be sorely mistaken. Russia has long been on unfriendly terms with Georgia, and especially with its President Saakashvili, who has made overtures to the West and whose nation has been courted by the West as a future member of NATO. Russia-which has maintained "peace-keepers" in South Ossetia since the end of the conflict with Georgia-responded initially with "support" of the South Ossetian rebels, but that quickly blossomed into military activity by Russian armed forces, who moved into South Ossetia to drive Georgian forces out, and whose air forces have wreaked havoc on Georgian cities. And in the last two days, Russian forces have driven into Georgia itself, seizing Georgian towns and giving Georgians reason to fear that a general invasion may be under way that would cost them their independence. The Bush administration and its European allies have called for Russia to cease the escalation of the conflict (and the U.S. military has gone so far as to fly 2,000 Georgian troops home to Georgia from Iraq to boost Georgian combat forces) but Russia continues to resist all calls for a cease-fire, and refuses to indicate at what point they will cease their drive into Georgia. At this point there is simply not telling where this conflict is headed, or what will remain of Georgia when it ends.

And frankly, none of that spurred me to write a post on this topic, though I've been following it as closely as I've been able to for the past several days. What spurred me appears to be the reaction by some commentators who aren't quite sure how this mess came about, but are pretty sure that it's the Bush administration's fault. John Cole links to a whole host of them, and concludes in general that Russia is only following the Bush administration's modus operandi when it comes to dealing with smaller countries that we aren't fond of (Cole even links to Putin trying to use our invasion of Iraq to justify his invasion of Georgia, which really is just a silly piece of propaganda even by Putin's standards.) Even Fred Kaplan succumbs to this to some degree, when he writes:

Bush pressed the other NATO powers to place Georgia's application for membership on the fast track. The Europeans rejected the idea, understanding the geo-strategic implications of pushing NATO's boundaries right up to Russia's border. If the Europeans had let Bush have his way, we would now be obligated by treaty to send troops in Georgia's defense. That is to say, we would now be in a shooting war with the Russians. Those who might oppose entering such a war would be accused of "weakening our credibility" and "destroying the unity of the Western alliance."

I can promise you that there are about no circumstances under which we would be at war with Russia over Georgia, or South Ossetia, or any other former Soviet state. Were Georgia already a member of NATO, Russia would not be so quick to invade Georgia for fear of triggering conflict with Georgia's NATO allies. But were Georgia in NATO, Saakashvili probably would also have been less eager to deal with South Ossetia by force, as his NATO allies would never tolerate an offensive that could risk putting them in conflict with Russian forces. The push to get Georgia into NATO might have provoked Russia into dealing with Georgia, but it was Georgia's foolish attack on South Ossetia that sparked the general war they and Russia are facing now.

Also, I pretty much am not that sympathetic to claims we act on behalf of the "poor" Georgians who were under the mistaken impression that we would swoop in to rescue them from their decision to subvert the diplomatic process and subdue South Ossetia by force because we were willing to give them some weapons, train their troops, and speak very nicely of Saakashvili and Georgia in general (see the Cole link above.) For one, if the Georgians thought our support and efforts to incorporate them into NATO meant we'd have their back when they attacked South Ossetia, then that's pretty much their mistake, not ours. And second, why on Earth would they believe we'd come to their aid if push came to shove against Russia? Did Saakashvili and his countrymen honestly believe that NATO troops would take the field against Russian troops, at least prior to Georgia's inclusion in the alliance? Are they really that stupid, as Cole and some of the commentators he links to seem to believe?

But of course, neither can I possibly be on Russia's side in this dispute. Although Georgia foolishly gave Russia the pretext for military action, it's clear that Russia's response is wildly out of proportion Georgia's initial offensive, and has more to do with Russia's desire to deal with an unruly and ideologically dissimilar neighbor who is a favorite among Western powers. Russia has obviously decided to put Georgia in its place, and Medveded (and more importantly Putin) might seriously be considering the viability of replacing Saakashvili's democratic government with a friendlier set of rulers. It is a long-favored theory that first the Soviet Union, and now Russia, deals with border states and former republics in a manner that suits a nation that lives in a permanent state of paranoid insecurity, but there's some truth to that view. But such a state of mind, however justified by history, does not itself justify overt meddling in the affairs of nascent democracies along the borders.

Of course, the hawks in our country are apparently salivating at the thought of resuming the Cold War (apparently they lack purpose in their lives when we're not overthrowing dictators and living in constant fear of nuclear annihilation.) Robert Kagan seems to believe Russia's actions have ushered in the return to an era of great-power politics, which is just silly as the circumstances surrounding this conflict are uniquely Russian.

I'm not entirely sure what the Neo-cons would have us do with Russia, other than issue thinly-veiled threats of military action that cannot possibly be followed through on. We should neither angle for nor anticipate future military conflict with Russia (in fact, I cannot imagine a course of action that could possibly be more stupid, as Russia simply poses little real threat to us outside of what remains of their nuclear arsenal.) That being said, the present situation is intolerable, and every single source of diplomatic pressure must be brought to bear upon Russia, as Russia cannot be permitted to think that they can obtain with military force what they cannot with diplomacy and economic coercion (on this matter, the left and the right should certainly agree.) Russia is almost certainly gauging the reaction of Western nations at this moment, as they weigh exactly how much they can get away with in Georgia. They should come to understand that not only is further intervention unacceptable, but that what intervention has already occurred must be undone.

UPDATE: Russian President Dmitri Medvedev has announced that Russia will cease attacks into Georgia, but Georgia reported additional air attacks after Medvedev's announcement. Medvedev has not indicated that Russian troops will withdraw from their positions in South Ossetia and Georgia.

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