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South Ossetia

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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”)

Abkhazia: Russian Bluff

21 March 2008

Abkhazia: Russian Bluff

By Gwynne Dyer

Last month Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia, and most of the NATO countries recognised it. Russia condemned this as an illegal and dangerous precedent, and hinted that it might recognise other breakaway states like Abkhazia and South Ossetia. But early next month Russian President Vladimir Putin will show up at the NATO summit in Bucharest, in one of his last official acts before passing power to the president-elect, Dmitri Medvedev. He will not have recognised Abkhazia or South Ossetia. He was only bluffing.

It sounded serious at first. Early this month, Russia ended the trade restrictions it placed on Abkhazia and South Ossetia when they declared their independence from Georgia in the early 1990s. Moscow is very angry about the way that NATO and the European Union have dismantled Serbia without permission from the United Nations, and it wanted to make a point.

Georgia accused Russia of “an undisguised attempt to infringe the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia, to encourage separatism,” but all Moscow actually did was to ease the rules on trade between the two would-be countries and Russia. It did not officially recognise them as independent states, and it never will.

The back-story is that when the Soviet Union replaced the Russian empire in 1917, its new Communist rulers rationalised the patchwork quilt of smaller nationalities they inherited in the Caucasus and Central Asia into “republics” that formally respected the principle of national self-determination. But they never actually became independent, of course, and Moscow didn’t want to have to deal with dozens of them directly.

So the republics were ranked in three tiers, with fifteen “Union republics” (including Russia itself) as the top tier. The lower tiers, having been granted “autonomy”, were bundled into one or another of the Union republics, with Russia getting the lion’s share of them. Georgia got several of them, including Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 it expected to keep them. However, the locals had other ideas.

By then massive immigration into Abkhazia, a subtropical area on the Black Sea coast, had reduced the Abkhaz ethnic group to only one-fifth of the population. Over half the 550,000 people living in Abkhazia in 1991 were Georgians. But in two years of vicious fighting an Abkhaz militia, backed by volunteers from other parts of the north Caucasus (and perhaps also secretly by Russia), drove out the Georgian army and most of the Georgian civilians as well.

It was unapologetic ethnic cleansing, conducted by a tiny nationality (less than 100,000 people) who feared that they were disappearing under an avalanche of immigrant foreigners. Now two-thirds of the previous residents of Abkhazia have fled, including all but a few tens of thousands of Georgians, and the Abkhaz are a large majority of the remaining population. But nobody recognises the independence of their heavily armed little state.

Russia does not like the current Georgian government, which talks about joining NATO and the European Union. But Moscow has not recognised Abkhazia’s independence (or South Ossetia’s) because that would be a precedent that could be used by ethnic minorities in other “autonomous republics” in Russia itself. And there is a bigger problem, too.

What horrifies the Russians about many recent actions of the United States and some its European allies — the war against Serbia in 1999, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the creation of an independent Kosovo in 2008 — is that they are deliberately tearing up the United Nations Charter, the rules that the victorious powers drew up at the end of the Second World War in the hope of avoiding further great-power wars.

Attacking the UN is often popular in the United States. Republican presidential candidate John McCain now talks about a League of Democracies that would effectively bypass the UN (and would presumably authorise its members to invade anybody who needed a lesson). President George W. Bush acts as though such a vigilante outfit already exists.

The Russians, who lost forty million killed in the last world war, think that this is a very bad idea. They are right. If the great powers were ever to go to war again, the nuclear weapons would come out and hundreds of millions would die.

The United Nations’ core rules are that no country can attack another, and that the whole international community will defend and preserve the existing borders of every UN member. These rules creates much injustice, especially when oppressed minorities are seeking independence from intolerant majorities, but they are probably necessary. They have certainly been useful: no great power has fought another directly since 1945.

Kosovo was legally part of Serbia, even if most of its people didn’t want anything to do with Serbia. Giving it independence without Serbia’s assent and in defiance of the UN rules suits the Western great powers for the moment, but it undermines those essential UN rules that were invented to bring some order to international affairs.

If Russia one day recognises Abkhazia’s independence without Georgian consent and Security Council approval, it will mean that Moscow has finally lost its faith in international law and accepted that the world has reverted to jungle. For the moment it’s just bluffing, but to no avail. The historically challenged dwarves who currently run foreign policy in Washington, London, Paris and Berlin don’t even understand what really troubles the Russians.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 10 and 11. (“It was…state”; and “Attacking…die”)