Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Georgia Versus Russia, the Verdict

It now appears that the war between Russia and Georgia is over for now as Russian troops are withdrawing from Georgia in line with the ceasefire agreement. As the dust begins to settle following the astonishing events in the Caucasus I want to post coldly and mechanically using the gift of hindsight to determine how this mess happened, who started it, who escalated it and what are the long term consequences for the region and western relations with Moscow.

A Russian tank withdrawing from Gori earlier today

On the 1st of August South Ossettian separatists placed a roadside bomb just inside Georgian territory. Six police officers were injured in the attack. As a result the Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili deployed the army in a way that suggested he was going to do what he had always promised to do, take back the rebel province of South Ossetia that had been granted partial self government in 1993. In response the Russian army reinforced its troops along the Georgian border by redeploying troops from the border with Chechnya. Then on the evening of the 7th, possibly timed to coincide with the opening of the Olympics, the Georgian army struck. They launched an all out attack to take back South Ossetia. Many Civillians were killed as they bombarded Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia with artillery. It will soon be confirmed if that number is as high as 2000 which the Russians claim. Also killed in the assault were several Russian peacekeepers stationed in South Ossetia as part of the 1993 settlement. The following day Russia invaded South Ossetia to drive out the Georgians and "protect ethnic Russians".

Saakashilli clearly overplayed his hand. Maybe he didn't expect the Russians to respond so decisively. Even the Americans struggled to defend their Georgian protege as their actions were in clear violation of the status quo. However what happened next shocked everyone. The Russians did not stop once Georgian troops were expelled from South Ossetia, they began a wider war against Georgia itself. Russian forces advanced into Gori, 30 miles south of South Ossettia and a mere fifty miles from the Georgian capital Tbilisi. It didn't stop there. Russian troops entered Georgia's western separatist region of Abkhazia and from there advanced as far into Georgia as the Black Sea town of Poti. Georgia was cut in half as the Russian air force bombed sites on the outskirts of Tbilisi and the Navy attacked Georgian ships in the Black Sea. The two nations were at war.

On the 13th of August under a massive international pressure the two sides agreed to a ceasefire brokered by the French. After the ceasefire the international community frantically worked to arrange a more permanent agreement which was achieved two days ago. Crucially this agreement insists that Russian troops withdraw from Georgia (not including the separatist provinces) except for a small buffer zone just outside South Ossettia and Abkhazia. Worryingly though, in this period between the ceasefire and the agreement reports have emerged of atrocities being carried out by south Ossettian militia against Georgian civilians inside South Ossettia. This is leading to fears that Balkan style ethnic cleansing is a real possibility.

My Take
It is almost impossible to know who really started this. We will probably never know who provoked who or whether it was a set up by the Kremlin as many are claiming. What we do know is that Georgia's efforts to become a modern Democratic European country and an economic success have taken a blow. President Saakashvili unquestionably miscalculated and he has made EU and NATO membership for his country more difficult. He made a mistake attacking South Ossettia and even the Americans know this as they did not rush to his defence until the Russians began their wider war.

However as we all know this what not just about South Ossettia. It was about Russian power and its desire to dominate the Caucasus. The policy makers in Moscow have decided that such a blatantly pro western country on its strategic southern border is too much of a security risk. They therefor want to undermine the Saakashvilli government. Also, in the last week in Washington we have seen the mad Neo-Conservatives and the right wing media revitalised. Long since silenced because of the Iraq fiasco the neocons have been ranting and raving about deceitful Russians, cowardly Europeans and heroic Americans, the only ones willing to stand up to the bullies. John McCain has been in his element the last few days. As I have said before on this blog John McCain is a cold war warrior who has a 20th century mentality. I heard him speaking in Trinity two years ago and all he spoke about was Russian aggression. Unfortunately many will now say that he has been proved right. In 2008 Russia has invaded a weaker neighbour. It is hard to see how NATO and EU relations with Russia will recover. We are entering a new era. On the 40th anniversary of the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring movement, Moscow is saying, we are back ! The world has just got a bit more interesting, and dangerous.

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