Swans Commentary » swans.com August 25, 2008  



The Situation In Georgia As I See It


by Michael Doliner





(Swans - August 25, 2008)   The war in Georgia started on August 8 in the middle of the night with a Georgian attack on Tskhinvali, a city of 30,000 in South Ossetia. Tskhinvali had no military value and the attack was a genocidal one. The Russians counter attacked, as they claim they were required to do under an agreement of 1992, (1) driving the Georgians out of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia. At the moment Russian forces occupy these two provinces and the area around Gori, a city near Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. How should we think about this? Below is my opinion.

The Russians have stated flatly that in negotiating a truce in the Georgia War they will not deal with Mikheil Saakashvili, (2) the Georgian president. They consider him both a war criminal and a pawn of the United States. Given the statements Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, and Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian president, have made about Saakashvili we should take them at their word. They will not, indeed no longer can, deal with Saakashvili, and they will remain where they are, or close enough to protect their gains at least until he is gone. The Russians have also stated that Georgia can "forget about its territorial integrity." South Ossetia and Abkhazia will no longer be a part of Georgia. From what has been said the Russians expect there to be a referendum or perhaps a vote in parliament in both provinces to decide their status. They will both almost certainly vote for independence, and they know they cannot maintain their independence without Russian protection.

The Russian defense of South Ossetia was not only to protect people Russia considers Russian citizens. It was, probably primarily, to prevent Georgia from becoming a forward American military base. Since Saakashvili became president the Georgian military budget has increased 30 times or 3000 percent. This can only be a military buildup against Russia. Given the missile defenses the United States wants to put into Poland and the Czech Republic, and the application for NATO membership of both Ukraine and Georgia, Russia not only feels, but is, threatened with American military encirclement. In their counter attack Russia destroyed a large part of the Georgian military and in the process lost 75 Russian soldiers. Having made this move the Russians are not likely to retreat and allow Georgia to rebuild its threatening military with American help. With the attack Russia has essentially declared that it will not allow Georgia to become an American forward base. The U.S. can do nothing about this.

Russia is not likely to continue on any further into Georgia unless that becomes the only way to prevent Georgia from becoming a forward military base again. More likely they will destroy the Tbilisi airport if they discover the U.S. bringing in military supplies. They already control the seaports, although the United States might challenge them there. Russia's experience in Afghanistan and Chechnya, and what they have learned from the US invasion of Iraq, has taught them that they have no interest in trying to subdue a hostile population. Why subject your soldiers to car bombs, roadside bombs, and suicide bombers? The Russians seem to have taken their cue from the Gulf War. Leave the weakened government standing, and let it worry about security and services. They will remain where they are until Saakashvili falls and a rational government, aware that they cannot be hostile to Russia, comes to power. Since the Russians are going to have to maintain a force in or near the breakaway provinces anyway, this won't be too much of a hardship to them. With Georgia's infrastructure damaged in the war, the visible impotence of the U.S. to protect them, and no peace in sight until Saakashvili is gone, the Georgian population is likely to turn on him soon. Whether they can overthrow him remains to be seen. With Russia refusing to accept Georgia as a US forward base with Saakashvili as president and the U.S. insisting on this, and with military assets of both countries in Georgia, Georgia is a tinderbox.

The United States is now ferrying so-called humanitarian aid into Georgia. I say "so called" because military aircraft are carrying this aid and the Department of Defense is in charge of it. The United States has already used military aircraft to transport 2000 Georgian soldiers from Iraq to Georgia during the war. Such a transport has always been seen as a hostile act. Were there no nuclear weapons the United States and Russia might already be at war. The United States apparently is counting on Russia to not take this final apocalyptic step. But with its move into Georgia, Russia has demonstrated that it will be pushed only so far and no further. Were the Russians to discover that the United States is rearming Georgia under the guise of transporting humanitarian aid, they would probably continue their offensive into Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, or, more likely, bomb its airfield and make it unusable. Having drawn a red line, and having lost 75 soldiers, the Russians will not now allow Georgia to be an American forward military base. Since there are certainly Americans in Tbilisi who might be killed this could easily lead to catastrophe.

Bush and Condoleezza Rice have given vent to anti-Russian rhetoric, and the American corporate media have amplified it. The media have also insisted that Russia has agreed to withdraw from "Georgian Territory." I cannot find the text of the agreement anywhere, but it is hard to believe that Russia agreed to withdraw from the breakaway provinces unless they feel confident they can defend them without actually occupying them. They no longer recognize these provinces as Georgian territory. For Georgia to again threaten these provinces would negate everything Russia has done and would be a sign of wavering after having taken a momentous step. Nothing that has happened makes this likely. It seems that they also plan to hold a security zone around these territories. That the Bush administration is deliberately obscuring the issue indicates that it will continue to support Saakashvili and expects somehow to return to the status quo ante. That expectation makes Russia that much less likely to withdraw even to the breakaway provinces. To relax the tensions in Georgia, one side will have to give way. Since the Russians certainly won't, it will have to be the U.S. Unlike in most such situations, it will not simply freeze into a permanent standoff. For the Russians will not let Georgia rebuild its threatening military, and without that the whole US plan for encircling Russia will collapse.

It is virtually certain that Washington approved, if it did not order, Saakashvili's midnight attack. We can only assume that its purpose was to reveal that Russia would do nothing, fearing a clash with the United States. This would have strengthened both the Georgian and Ukrainian applications to NATO, which old Europe, France, Germany, and Italy, had rejected earlier this year and the U.S. strongly supports. Presumably old Europe would have acquiesced if they felt there was no danger of war with Russia. Now the very reverse has happened. If Bush is to continue with his plan for forward bases around Russia he will now have to overcome European resistance. Although Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, seems to be saying otherwise, it is hard to imagine she would now risk war with Russia over the fate of Georgia.

Were this all, it would be enough to endanger the world, but it is not all. Victor Yushchenko, President of Ukraine, is also an American client who would like his country to become part of NATO. To support the United States he has threatened to restrict Russian use of the port of Sevastopol where the Russians have a lease that extends to 2017. The Russians have already announced that they will ignore the restrictions. Soon some of the fleet will return to Sevastopol from Abkhazia, where they went to aid the Russian war effort. What will happen? Perhaps Yushchenko will quietly drop his restrictions on the Russian Black Sea fleet. That would be all but admitting that the Russians have won a decisive victory in Georgia, further weakening, if not ending, any illusion that the U.S. can protect former Russian clients from Russian power. The US policy of encircling Russia would be dead.

Or will Yushchenko actually try to restrict the Russian fleet? That would be extremely dangerous for Yushchenko. Sevastopol is located in the Crimea, long part of Russia. Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine in 1954 when Ukraine was part of the USSR. It was more of an administrative decision than anything else. When the USSR broke up, Crimea went with Ukraine. Fifty-eight percent of the Crimean population is ethnic Russian and only 24 percent Ukrainian. In 2006 the Crimean parliament voted Crimea a NATO-free country. Recently Ukraine has accused Russia of handing out passports in Sevastopol, essentially giving people Russian citizenship. (3) If Ukraine joined NATO and there was a referendum in Crimea there is a good chance that Crimea would prefer to be independent or a part of Russia rather than part of Ukraine. That would give Sevastopol to Russia, leaving Ukraine without a seaport. The recent separation of Kosovo from Serbia would be a decisive precedent for this move. Were Ukraine to actually attempt to restrict the Russian fleet by force, Russia, after the Georgia War, would not likely back down. All they would have to do is turn off the gas and the political turmoil would finish Yushchenko. This confrontation alone could pry Crimea away from Ukraine. Russia cannot afford to lose Sevastopol as a port for its fleet, and would have to respond to any threat of force with force unless other measures were persuasive. More than likely a threat to restrict the flow of gas would be effective and all of Ukraine would turn toward Russia. So the U.S. would lose that alliance too. No doubt even a couple of years ago an alliance with the U.S. seemed glitzy as hell to many Ukrainians, but given the Russian stranglehold on Ukrainian energy supplies, no Ukrainian in his right mind could see his interests lying with the U.S. now. Russia cut back gas supplies last winter and it was cold in that part of the world. What does the U.S. have to offer? Britney Spears?

As it is Yushchenko's hold on power is tenuous. His election after the Orange Revolution was of dubious legitimacy, and there is a large opposition to his rule, especially in the east, on Russia's borders. Yulia Tymoshenko, formerly an ally of Yushchenko, and now a candidate for the Ukrainian presidency, seems to favor neutrality in the Georgia standoff. (4) She is the leading candidate, yet Yushchenko has called her a traitor for refusing to condemn Russian action in Georgia. Actually, she is no Russophile, just a rational politician. If the election were held right now polls say she would win. Yushchenko gets only 7 percent of the vote. (5) With all this there is every chance of political turmoil in Ukraine and a dismemberment of the country if Yushchenko actually tries to enforce the restrictions he has decreed.

In a world with atomic weapons, problems that are likely to lead to nuclear confrontations are usually simply allowed to fester in the hope that they will go away -- e.g., Iran, Korea, Taiwan. Unfortunately, the festering solution does not seem possible here. The Black Sea Fleet will arrive at Sevastopol and something will or will not happen. Russia will or will not withdraw from Georgia and will or will not negotiate with Saakashvili. The decision will have been made. All this will result in either a strengthening or a collapse of the US policy of encirclement of Russia. If the policy collapses NATO will collapse with it. The best solution, of course, would be for Yushchenko to forget about his restrictions and accept the reality that Ukraine, along with Georgia, and most of the other small states on the Russian border are within the Russian sphere of influence and cannot take up hostile positions against Russia. They should drop their application for NATO membership. NATO is not in a position to protect them. Saakashvili would have to go, and the sooner the better.

Unfortunately, the United States does not seem ready to give up the dream of surrounding Russia with military bases. Right after the Georgia War, Poland agreed to host a missile shield that destabilizes the nuclear balance of power. The Poles had been hemming and hawing about this missile shield before the war. Apparently they now think accepting the shield would assure them of American protection if the Russians attacked. They insisted they wanted a military response within the first day of attack, a response that would precipitate World War Three. For this they made themselves a first strike target of Russian atomic weapons after seeing how the U.S. could not and would not defend forward military base Georgia.

The U.S. also seems to have twisted the arm of Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, who had opposed Georgian membership in NATO in April, but now says she supports both Georgian and Ukrainian membership, "in the long run." We can only hope that run remains long. She is probably carrying out the important German political duty of sounding like she supports the U.S. while keeping Germany out of trouble.

Working against the Bush plan is Europe's utter dependence on Russia for energy supplies and its diminishing real mutual interests with the United States. To throw Ukraine and most of Europe into turmoil Russia need only turn off the gas. Recent deals with China that would allow Russia to sell gas there make this possible. To be sure this is a drastic step Russia is not likely to take unless the situation has deteriorated completely. Although Europe is dependent upon Russia for energy, it needs the U.S. for very little. Were Europe to act in its own interest it would continue to oppose NATO membership for the states surrounding Russia, for that membership obligates the western European countries to enter a war like the recent Georgia war against Russia, and Russia would win by simply turning off the gas. Indeed, if France, Germany, and Italy were to act in their own interest they would withdraw from NATO themselves. In reality, Europe only allies itself with the U.S. out of habit. Were Europe to actually seek its own interest in this squabble it would remain neutral. Entrenched power blocks within each country keep them from doing so, but if the tension grows national self interest might become more important.

From the tone in the corporate media I sense that everyone expects Russia to withdraw from the breakaway Georgian provinces and leave everything as it was before. I don't think so. Why would they lose in negotiations what they gained on the battlefield? Ever since the Cuban Missile Crisis the United States has always counted on Russia to back down in these confrontations. This doesn't seem likely to happen now and is time for the U.S. to return the favor and back down now.

The dithering and blustering and absolute idiocy of the Bush administration is dangerous because the Bushies are too stupid to notice that the Russians are talking seriously, like adults, and mean what they say. They are not going to talk to Saakashvili. If we continue to shore him up there will be no peace. If there is no peace the U.S. cannot rearm Georgia, for that would be an act of war against Russia. The Russians need only stay where they are to achieve their goals, but these goals are really only their national security. Nothing like that is at stake for the U.S. What is up for contention is a forward American military base, part of a system that surrounds Russia and adds nothing to US security. If anything it endangers the U.S. because it is the source of a potential war with Russia. Something has to penetrate the dim collective brain of the Bushies that we are going to have to give up Saakashvili and with him the dream of surrounding Russia with military bases. They are not going to yield, and we have little to lose. War is something important to them. They lost 23 million people in WWII. They would not go to war to distract attention from a blow job. Americans think of war as something far away that hurts other people. We debate with ourselves whether or not we should care. Well, you care when the bombs have hit you, believe me. They did not take this step lightly.




1.  http://english.people.com.cn/90001/90777/90853/6470812.html (August 22)  (back)

2.  http://en.rian.ru/world/20080818/116117244.html (August 22)  (back)

3.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/ukraine/2575421/Russia-distributing-passports-in-the-Crimea.html (August 22)  (back)

4.  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/7568376.stm (August 22)  (back)

5.  http://www.canada.com/topics/news/world/story.html?id=273fa56b-73c5-4f60-a329-1b8e97012883 (August 22)  (back)


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About the Author

Michael Doliner has taught at Valparaiso University and Ithaca College. He lives with his family in Ithaca, N.Y.



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Published August 25, 2008