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Georgia

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The Breaking of NATO?

17 August 2008

The Breaking of NATO?

By Gwynne Dyer

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, is a remarkable case of institutional survival in the face of changing circumstances. It was created in 1949 to protect Western Europe from the Soviet threat, and in 1989 the Soviet threat vanished. Yet NATO not only survived the collapse of the Soviet Union but expanded, taking in all the former satellite states of Eastern Europe and even the Baltic republics that had been part of the Russian empire for more than two hundred years. But the Georgian debacle could break NATO.

In those Eastern European countries that were so recently ruled from Moscow, the presence of Russian troops in Georgia has reawakened all the old fears. On Thursday, Poland hastily agreed to let the United States place anti-ballistic missile sites on its soil, on condition that there must also be a full-fledged US military base in the country. Why? Because then, if Russia attacked Poland, the United States would automatically become involved.

What drives all this is historical memory, not genuine strategic calculation — Russia is not planning to attack Poland — but the emotions it evokes are very powerful. That’s also why fifty Estonian military volunteers have now arrived in Georgia (although nobody knows quite what to do with them).

The rhetoric in the new NATO members has been almost as hysterical as that in Georgia itself, where President Mikhail Saakashvili has been calling the Russians “21st century barbarians” who “despise everything new, everything modern, everything European, everything civilised.” Similar rhetoric pervades the parallel universe of the US media, where the fact that it was Georgia that started this war by unleashing a merciless artillery barrage on South Ossetia and then invading it has been virtually erased from the story-line.

Very few Americans know that there was only one battalion of Russian peace-keeping troops (less than a thousand men) in South Ossetia when the Georgian tanks rolled in less than two weeks ago. It’s all “plucky little Georgia” and democratic values vs. the Russian bear.

It’s a rousing morality tale that hits all the right notes for an American sensibility, and it’s not just Georgia’s PR firms that are pushing this line. It’s also the US State Department and the Pentagon, which had been building Georgia up as a key US ally on Russia’s southern flank. Yet US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice looked deeply uncomfortable on Friday in Tbilisi as she stood beside the ranting Saakashvili.

Perhaps she was pondering the fact that while the “new Europe” of former Soviet-bloc countries uncritically backs Georgia and the US commitment there, the “old Europe” of Germany, France, Italy and their neighbours mostly does not. This is a problem if she wishes to pursue her goal of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, since “old Europe” is the core of NATO, with three times the population and five times the wealth of “new Europe.”

Any American secretary of state can rely on the reflex loyalty of the British government, at least in its current “New Labour” configuration, but none of the other great states of Western Europe thinks that having a confrontation with Russia over Georgia is a good idea. In fact, they think it’s crazy.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, put it quite carefully after she met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Friday: “Some of Russia’s actions were disproportionate (but) it is rare that all the blame is on one side. In fact, both sides are probably to blame. That is very important to understand.”

The Italian government warned against trying to build an “anti-Moscow coalition.” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner works for the most pro-American French leader in recent history, President Nicolas Sarkozy, but he still said:”Don’t ask us who’s good and who’s bad here. We shouldn’t make any moral judgments on this war.”

This will all be seen as “appeasement” by the neo-conservatives who still rule the roost in Washington, but many in Western Europe would call it common sense. The Russians will stay in Georgia until they have dismantled the Georgian army and navy bases that could threaten the ethnic enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhasia again, removing all the new American weaponry that gave Georgia an offensive military capability, and then they will withdraw to the enclaves as the ceasefire agreement requires.

Sarkozy brokered that ceasefire, and he agreed to write those clauses into it. He knew that they allowed Russian forces to stay on Georgian territory until the military threat had been nullified, and he accepted them. He did so because he did not really see Russia as an aggressor in this crisis (although he will not contradict America publicly by saying it in so many words.) But if the US pursues its goal of bringing Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, there are only three options.

If “old Europe” digs in its heals and refuses, on the grounds that it does not need Russia as an enemy, then either the United States drops its demand, or NATO breaks up. The third alternative (and perhaps the likeliest) is that “old Europe” agrees to let the two former Soviet republics join — but with the unspoken reservation that they will never actually go to war with Russia to protect them.

That would be a less dramatic end for NATO, but it would be an end.A two-tier alliance is no alliance at all.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 5 and 8. (“What…them”; “Very…bear”; and “Any…crazy”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

No New Cold War (Probably)

13 August 2008

 No New Cold War (Probably)

By Gwynne Dyer

“Have you noticed,” my wife asked, “that when one of America’s allies thinks it has a green light to invade somewhere, they always do it in the summer?” She was right: Iraq invaded Kuwait in August, 1990; Israel invaded Lebanon in July, 2006; Georgia invaded South Ossetia in August, 2008. Israel really did have a green light from Washington (not that it helped much), but Saddam Hussein was catastrophically wrong, and Mikhail Saakashvili was, too.

The difference is that the US government continues to support Saakashvili even after his smash-and-grab assault on South Ossetia went so badly wrong. The Bush Administration is just trying to save face — sending in “humanitarian aid” in US military aircraft and ships after the shooting stops, for example — and Washington never really backed Georgia’s aggression. But if the Russians don’t understand that, we’re heading for a new Cold War.

That would be a very stupid way to spend the early 21st century, but the comically belligerent Vice-President Dick Cheney is not the only one declaring that “Russian aggression must not go unanswered.” The US and British media (but not those in most other Western countries) are talking as if Communists still ruled in Moscow and Russia had committed a wanton act of aggression.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain declares “We are all Georgians now” and suggests expelling the Russians from the G8. Even relatively balanced people like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are using Cold War analogies: “This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten a neighbour, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it.” She’s right about one thing – it’s not 1968 — but the rest is nonsense.

Russia didn’t threaten Georgia; it responded to a surprise Georgian attack on South Ossetia, a territory where there were Russian peace-keeping troops by international agreement. It has not occupied Georgia’s capital, nor has it overthrown the government (though the Georgians may do that themselves when they realise what a fool Saakashvili has been).

It is true that Moscow was unhappy about Georgia’s close ties with the United States, which included American sponsorship of Georgia for NATO membership. It is also true that, presented with the opportunity by Saakashvili’s attack, Russia has taken advantage of it to smash his shiny new American-trained army (which fled in panic from Gori on Monday).

It may even be true that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s government deliberately suckered Saakashvili into his attack by provoking him in various ways, but that is far from certain. Even if that did happen, it was still Georgia that launched an all-out assault on the enclave of South Ossetia on the night of 7 August, and Georgian peacekeeping troops who turned their weapons on their Russian colleagues.

If the Russians had not reacted as they did, Georgia would now control the whole territory, and the surviving South Ossetians would mostly be refugees in (Russian) North Ossetia. That does not give vengeful South Ossetians the right to drive the Georgian minority in the enclave out of their villages, as some reports suggest may now be happening, and it is the Russians’ duty to stop it. But this is not Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The current mess arose almost twenty years ago when South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which had been rolled into Georgia but given self-governing status by Stalin, began talking about complete independence as the Soviet Union stumbled towards collapse in 1990. The first post-Communist Georgian leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, replied by suppressing their autonomy entirely.

When the South Ossetians and Abkhaz revolted against this, Georgian troops were sent in to crush them but proved unable to do so. Several thousand people were killed, far larger numbers became refugees, and the quarrels ended up as two of the “frozen conflicts” around the fringes of the former Soviet Union, patrolled by Russian and Georgian peace-keeping troops.

Nothing much changed until the “Rose Revolution” that brought Mikhail Saakashvili to power five years ago promising to reintegrate the lost districts into Georgia. The Bush administration saw an opportunity to create a military foothold on Russia’s southern border, and began supplying Saakashvili with military equipment and training for his forces. Which brings us, fairly directly, to today.

Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia because he thought his American ties would frighten the Russians into silence, but in reality the United States was never going to fight a war against Russia over Georgia. So now we have the charade of the “humanitarian aid,” and the brazen cheek of the US special envoy to the region, Matthew Bryza, telling the BBC that the violence in the Caucasus strengthens Georgia’s case to join the Nato alliance.

“Russia, a country with 30 times the population [of Georgia] decided to roll into its much smaller neighbour and tried to roll over it,” said Bryza. “It failed to roll over Georgia, but it would never have even thought of doing this if Georgia were already a member of Nato.” Happily, this grotesque misrepresentation of the truth will carry little weight with the larger Western European members of NATO, so that isn’t going to happen.

The Russian troops will probably all be gone from Georgia within a week, and Saakashvili will also probably be gone within a year. There will be a certain chill in the air for a while, but the Cold War is not coming back. At least, not over this incident.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10 and 11. (“The current…today”)

South Ossetia: A Monumental Miscalculation

10 August 2008

 South Ossetia: A Monumental Miscalculation

 By Gwynne Dyer

The three-day war in South Ossetia is settled, and the Georgians have lost. There may be some more shooting yet, but it is now clear that Georgia will never regain control of the rebel territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, that President Mikhail Saakashvili has handed Russia a major victory, and that Georgia’s hopes of joining NATO are gone. Pretty impressive work for one long weekend.

Now Saakashvili is playing on old Cold War stereotypes of the Russian threat in a desperate bid for Western backing: “What Russia is doing in Georgia is open, unhidden aggression and a challenge to the whole world. If the whole world does not stop Russia today, then Russian tanks will be able to reach any other European capital.” Nonsense. It was Georgia that started this war.

The chronology tells it all. Skirmishes between Georgian troops and South Ossetian militia were more frequent than usual over the past several months, but on the afternoon of Thursday, 7 August, Saakashvili offered the separatist South Ossetian government “an immediate ceasefire and the immediate beginning of talks,” promising that “full autonomy” was on the table. The same evening, however, he ordered a general offensive.

South Ossetian’s president, Eduard Kokoity, called Saakashvili’s ceasefire offer a “despicable and treacherous” ruse, which seems fair enough. Through all of Thursday night and Friday morning Georgian artillery shells and rockets rained down on the little city of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s capital, while Georgian infantry and tanks encircled it. Russian journalists reported that 70 percent of the city was destroyed, and by Friday afternoon it was in Georgian hands.

It was obvious that this offensive had been planned well in advance, but this, it appears, was as far as Saakashvili’s plan extended. He assumed that the world’s attention would be distracted by the opening of the Olympics, and that the Russian reaction would be slow because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was off in Beijing.

If he had three or four days to establish full military control of South Ossetia, then he could put a pro-Georgian administration in place and declare the problem solved. Then, with Western diplomatic support and military aid, he could withstand the furious Russian protests and (perhaps) military responses to his action. But all of his calculations were wrong.

There was no delay in the Russian response. A large Russian force was on its way from North Ossetia (which is part of the Russian Federation) by mid-day on Friday, and Russian jets began striking targets inside Georgia proper. By the time Vladimir Putin reached the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz on Saturday morning, the Georgian forces were already being driven out of Tskhinvali again.

By Saturday evening, Georgia was calling for a ceasefire and declaring that all its troops were being withdrawn from South Ossetia to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Saakashvili’s gamble had failed, and any future prospect for Georgia to recover the rebel province had vanished. As Putin put it, the territorial integrity of Georgia has “suffered a fatal blow”.

Not just South Ossetia has been lost for good. Any hope that Georgia could ever recover its other breakaway province, Abkhazia, has also evaporated. On Saturday, the Abkhazian government announced a military offensive to drive Georgian troops out of the Kodori gorge, the last bit of Abkhazian territory that it doesn’t control. With overt Russian military support, it is very likely to succeed. How much does all of this matter?

It matters a great deal to Saakashvili, who is likely to lose power. It matters a lot to the 300,000 Georgians who fled their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia when the two ethnic enclaves, which had been autonomous parts of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in Soviet times, declared their independence after the old Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. The Georgian attempts to reconquer them in 1992-93 were bloody failures, and after this second failure it is clear that the Georgian refugees will never go home.

It is a reason to rejoice for most Abkhazians and South Ossetians. Although they share much history and a common eastern Orthodox Christianity with the far more numerous Georgians, they are ethnically distinct peoples with different languages, and they always resented Stalin’s decision to place them under Georgian rule. It will probably be decades before they achieve formal independence or are fully absorbed into the Russian Federation, but either way they will be happy with the outcome.

The Bush administration’s ambition to extend NATO into the Caucasus mountains is dead, which will please the French, the Germans and other NATO members who always found it bizarre and wilfully provocative. Russians, who were the target of the provocation, will be quietly pleased with the speed and effectiveness of their government’s response. And nobody else really cares.

There is no great moral issue here. What Georgia tried to do to South Ossetia is precisely what Russia did to Chechnya, but Georgia wasn’t strong enough and South Ossetia had a bigger friend. There is no great strategic issue either: apart from a few pipeline routes, the whole Transcaucasus is of little importance to the rest of the world. In six months’ time, we probably won’t even remember this foolish adventure.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“If he…wrong”; and “The Bush…cares”)

South Ossetia: A Monumental Miscalculation (REVISED)

NOTE: SOME ENGLISH-LANGUAGE MEDIA IN THE WEST ARE TREATING THE WAR IN SOUTH OSSETIA LIKE ROUND TWO OF THE COLD WAR. Several papers have therefore asked me to revise the article to take account of the prevailing bias in the coverage.

I have done so in this revised version, but it contains no new information. The first version is perfectly adequate unless your readers are immersed in that particular media environment. TRANSLATORS DO NOT NEED TO AMEND THE ORIGINAL VERSION OF THIS ARTICLE.

10 August 2008

South Ossetia: A Monumental Miscalculation (REVISED)

By Gwynne Dyer

The war in South Ossetia is essentially over, and the Georgians have lost. This was Georgia’s second attempt in eighteen years to conquer the breakaway territory by force, and now that option is gone for good. So are the country’s hopes of joining NATO. Yet sections of the Western media are carrying on as if the Russians started it, and are now threatening to invade Georgia itself.

President George W. Bush has condemned Russia’s “disproportionate and dangerous” response, although there is no evidence that Russian ground troops have violated the borders of Georgia proper. Nor are they likely to, but it will make Bush look decisive when it turns out that the Russians do not invade Georgia.

Much is made of Russian air attacks on targets inside Georgia, and especially of the inevitable misses that cause civilian casualties, but the vast majority of the 2,000 civilians allegedly killed so far in this conflict were South Ossetians killed by Georgian shells, rockets and bombs. Some shooting and bombing will continue until all the Georgian troops are cleared out of South Ossetia — including the 40 percent they controlled before the war — but then it will stop.

Meanwhile, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is playing on old Cold War stereotypes of the Russian threat in a desperate bid for Western backing: “What Russia is doing in Georgia is open, unhidden aggression and a challenge to the whole world. If the whole world does not stop Russia today, then Russian tanks will be able to reach any other European capital.” Nonsense. It was Georgia that started this war.

The chronology tells it all. Skirmishes between Georgian troops and South Ossetian militia grew more frequent over the past several months, but on Thursday, 7 August, Saakashvili offered the separatist South Ossetian government “an immediate ceasefire and the immediate beginning of talks,” promising that “full autonomy” was on the table. Only hours later, however, he ordered a general offensive.

South Ossetia’s president, Eduard Kokoity, called Saakashvili’s ceasefire offer a “despicable and treacherous” ruse, which seems fair enough. Through all of Thursday night and Friday morning Georgian artillery shells and rockets rained down on the little city of Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s capital, while Georgian infantry and tanks encircled it. Russian journalists reported that 70 percent of the city was destroyed, and by Friday afternoon it was in Georgian hands.

The offensive was obviously planned well in advance, but Saakashvili didn’t think it through. He knew that the world’s attention would be distracted by the Olympics, and he hoped that Russia’s reaction would be slow because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was off in Beijing. Given three or four days to establish full military control of South Ossetia, he could put a pro-Georgian administration in place and declare the problem solved. But his calculations were wrong.

There was no delay in the Russian response. A large Russian force was on its way from North Ossetia (which is part of the Russian Federation) by mid-day on Friday, and Russian jets began striking targets inside Georgia proper. By the time Vladimir Putin reached the North Ossetian capital of Vladikavkaz on Saturday morning, the Georgian forces were already being driven out of Tskhinvali again.

By Saturday evening, Georgia was calling for a ceasefire and declaring that all its troops were being withdrawn from South Ossetia to prevent a “humanitarian catastrophe.” Saakashvili’s gamble had failed — and, as Putin put it, the territorial integrity of Georgia had “suffered a fatal blow”.

Not just South Ossetia has been lost for good. Georgia’s hope of ever recovering its other breakaway province, Abkhazia, has also evaporated. On Saturday, the Abkhazian government announced a military offensive to drive Georgian troops out of the Kodori gorge, the last bit of Abkhazian territory that they control. How much does all of this matter?

It matters a lot to the 300,000 Georgians who fled from Abkhazia and South Ossetia when the two ethnic enclaves, which were autonomous parts of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic in Soviet times, declared their independence after the old Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Georgia’s attempts to reconquer them in 1992-93 were bloody failures, and after this second failure it is clear that the Georgian refugees will never go home.

It is a reason to rejoice for most Abkhazians and South Ossetians. Although they are Orthodox Christians like the far more numerous Georgians, they are ethnically distinct peoples with different languages, and they always resented Stalin’s decision to place them under Georgian rule. Whether they ultimately get full independence or simply join the Russian Federation, they will be happy with the outcome.

The Bush administration’s bizarre ambition to extend NATO into the Caucasus mountains is dead. Russians are pleased with the speed and effectiveness of their government’s response. And nobody else really cares.

There is no great moral issue here. What Georgia tried to do to South Ossetia is precisely what Russia did to Chechnya, but Georgia wasn’t strong enough and South Ossetia had a bigger friend. There is no great strategic issue either: apart from a few pipeline routes, the whole Transcaucasus is of little importance to the rest of the world. A year from now the Georgians will probably have dumped Saakashvili, and the rest of us may not even remember his foolish adventure.

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To shorten to 750 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 3. (“President…stop”) To shorten further to 700 words, omit also paragraph 7. (“The offensive…wrong”)