US-backed Georgia pokes the Russian bear

Mikheil SaakashviliIn diplomacy, it is usually a mistake to try to force resolution of a territorial dispute. The cure is often worse than the disease.

Such is the case with the Georgian crisis. Reckless provocation by the Bush administration and its protégé 'Rose Revolution' anti-Russian Saakashvili government has led to a major realignment in the balance of power between post-communist Russia and the West.

It is the most important event in East-West relations since the fall of Soviet Communism in 1990. In Georgia, Russia took on US-led attempted Western strategic encirclement, and won. There will be consequences all along Russia's western and southern borderlands.

Russia had given ample warning to Georgia that it would defend its interests in its 'near abroad'. In Helsinki, the Finns understand that Russia expects bordering states — its security glacis — to be non-confrontational in their diplomacy and national security.

But, encouraged by the Bush administration, Saakashvili defied such prudence. Georgia imported US and Israeli weapons and US military advisers. It hosted a Western-financed oil pipeline designed to bypass Russia. It pursued NATO and EU membership, and ramped up pressure on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the non-ethnic Georgian regions in Georgia that were under Russian nominal peacekeeping protection since 1991.

In response, Russia issued Russian passports to these non-ethnic Georgian citizens who wanted them as a security. The status of these territories was frozen — they were effectively fully autonomous regions.

Two weeks ago, under cover of the Olympic Games opening, Georgian forces mounted a surprise attack on South Ossetia, taking its main city Tskhinvali after major artillery bombardment that caused great destruction, civilian casualties and refugee outflows.

Russian forces moved in two days later, easily rolling back the Georgian army and advancing deep into Georgia proper, demonstrating their power to cut the country in two and take its capital if they wished. They bracketed the oil pipeline with targeted shells to either side of it.

European peace diplomacy kicked in, and a ceasefire was negotiated. A victorious Moscow said it expected the Georgian people to have the good sense to remove the reckless government that had led it to such disaster, and that South Ossetia and Abkhazia might never wish to become part of Georgia after this experience. Russians drew pointed parallels with Western acceptance of Kosovo's right to independence after Serb brutality.

Map of Georgia A spin campaign to present Georgia as victim of Russian aggression ran up against the hard facts that Saakashvili had initiated the armed conflict. Washington wheeled out old cold war rhetoric. It played well at home but badly in Paris and Bonn.

The war was a tragedy for Christian, Orthodox Georgia that has close cultural ties to Russia, its historical ally and protector against Turkish expansionism in the Caucasus. Now there will be deep hatred between these formerly friendly peoples. It did not have to happen like this.

The consequences on Russia's western rim of post-communist states are unpredictable. In Ukraine, Poland and the three Baltic states, there was an initial emotional display of sympathy for Georgia. The war triggered a Polish decision to instal a US-offered missile defence system that Moscow sees as anti-Russian. Fortunately, Poland has no Russian minority or border disputes with Russia.

The Baltic republics will know now that any violation of the human rights of the ethnic Russian communities in those countries will lead to forceful Russian intervention. Ukraine will be well advised to tread more softly with its bigger neighbour. The war has raised the bar of what Moscow expects of its 'near abroad'. Provocative encirclement strategies encouraged by the Bush administration and Washington neo-cons have had their day.

These facts are not well understood in the US. The viscerally anti-Russian US media reporting of the war feeds public opinion already so inclined.

The war thus favours Republican-style international truculence and ignoring of realities. Bush's jibe that Russia has failed the test of international civilised behaviour will help John McCain, and force Barack Obama to follow in his wake. Obama will be portrayed as weak if he does so, and as not to be trusted with national security if he does not.

Georgia poses a test for Kevin Rudd, too. Will he go with West European prudence and moderation, or echo Washington's more aggressive rhetoric? If he is serious about Australia's contribution to international security, and our future relations with an important world power, he will do the former.

Tony KevinTony Kevin served as an Australian diplomat in Moscow (1969-71), UN New York (1973-76), and as Australian Ambassador in Poland (1991-1994).

Topic tags: russia, georgia, south ossetia, Saakashvili, rose revolution, cold war, soviet, communism



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Existing comments

Tony's article is a timely reminder that if we are to understand the actions of others we need to try and put ourselves in their shoes. From a Russian point of view, the threat of attack by Western European powers through the lands to its east and south has been realised many times in the last century or so. By expanding NATO's boundaries into these lands, the US has simply fed the perfectly rational fear that Russia has of this threat. Whether this is another example of the US's gross insensitivity to the feelings of others or whether it is simply US belligerence or both is a moot point.

Warwick | 19 August 2008  

Tony's article fits my impressions gained during a visit to the Caucasus in June ‘08. I saw explicit signs of American intervention in Georgia: a military airbase near Tbilisi flying the Georgian, US and EU flags; a huge new US embassy in a fortified compound on the outskirts of the capital; the road from the international airport recently renamed “George W Bush Avenue”, after a presidential vist.

In contrast, landlocked Armenia has welcomed Russian troops to guard its border with Turkey, a traditional enemy. Russian helicopters were patrolling near Mount Ararat.

Alan Stewart | 19 August 2008  

Another moment of truth for Kevin Rudd: yesterday his challenge related to putting pressure on the Indonesian government by arguing against capital punishment. Today it relates to standing up to the US by arguing against its aggressive approach in the Russia/Georgia dispute which could so easily have devastating ramifications.
Now the Rudd government has the opportunity to show where it stands. Or will it take the easy way out and be nothing more than a bystander?

David | 19 August 2008  

Of course Russia has interests in the surrounding Baltic and Caucasian states, but what needs to be made clear to the Russian government is that regional influence cannot be pursued through excessive force.

If we are to place ourselves in Russian shoes, it is important to be alert to the political values we'd be wearing. The EU needs to be forceful about the kinds of political values it wants to see reign on its eastern borders. Otherwise I fail to see what checks exist on Russian interventionism in the future.

And if we're speaking about sensitivities, the occupation museum in Tallin, Estonia teaches that they exist on all sides.

Benedict Coleridge | 19 August 2008  

Thanks for this article. It's surprising how the mainstream media in Australia portrays Russia as the big bad bear attacking defenseless Georgia. There's been nothing much in the news about Georgia prodding the bear, provoking the attack.

Kevin | 20 August 2008  

Tony Kevin's pieces are always informed and convincing. This one provided the best account of the Georgian conflict I've seen. Thanks to all.

Joe Castley | 20 August 2008  

Am I missing something? Didn't Mr Putin's government put down, with great ferocity, Chechnya's attempts at self-determination and independence, yet now supports with equal ferocity Southern Ossetia's right to break away from Georgia?

Claude Rigney | 22 August 2008  

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