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Jonathan Sanders: The Olympic Warlet

[One of the best things about running a blog is that friends and colleagues will often contact me to ask if I will publish an occasional guest contribution. The following comes from the respected veteran journalist, author, and academic Jonathan Sanders, Ph.D., whose expertise on Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union ranks among the best. I’m grateful for this interesting contribution. – Bob Amsterdam] georgiawar081508.jpgThe Olympic Warlet By Jonathan Sanders Little wars – “warlets” – in obscure far-off places teach sharp, if unromantic lessons. The Olympic warlet – the firefight-turned-invasions of the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that began on 6 August (another intelligence failure by the US military, with satellites looking down and some hundred agents on the ground looking up; either the agents were blind or failed to take the Putin-revived military seriously – this is the biggest blunder of this type since the Americans were asleep at the switch in December 1979 when Brezhnev and Company exercised their wet dreams of warm weather beaches and pretty Afghan maidens) – demonstrates even to the most election-campaign-fueled American patriots the folly of including a place like Georgia in NATO. Ronald Regan would ask a simple question: would you risk NATO-backed thermonuclear war to defend South Ossetia?

Should the might of the US be extended to defend this mosaic of independent khanates, clan hideouts, and smugglers’ dens that often don’t extend beyond a wildly beautiful mountain pass, in the name of freedom, Western unity, and Wall Street profits?What the Olympic warlet signals is the end of Russia’s long post-partum depression. This sulking and confusion followed the dissolution of the USSR.The Olympic warlet shows the uselessness of its deformed twins, the CIS (the Commonwealth of Independent States – all the Soviet constituent units, minus the Baltic States: Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania) and the Shanghai Pact (Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, plus lovely observer states such as Iraq and Mongolia). Putin’s Russia long believed that it got no respect in the world arena. It tried to get attention, if not esteem, by squeezing its oil and gas pipelines.This summer the ineptitude shown by America’s favorite post-Soviet leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, gave Prime Minister Putin a chance to flex his muscles. (How odd when it is well known how much Misha and Vlad hate each other; how odd when it is so clear that free speaking and free-from-Gazprom-control pipelines enrage the Judo Master. Maybe someone should have consulted Mikhail Khodorkovsky, or perhaps they tried but his cell phone wasn’t working well).ossetiatank081408.jpgAn Ossetian soldier sits on top of a tank in Tskhinvali, capital of the Georgian breakaway enclave of South Ossetia on Monday, Aug. 11, 2008. (AP Photo)How sad for military observers in Annapolis that hostilities in this six day war cut off before the spectacle of the rusty Black Sea fleet was able to demonstrate how far its capabilities had been degraded during the long post-imperial depression that saw many of its best ships sold off to India or China or, like the Kursk, simply sunk by Russia’s great art of ineptitude. Spetsnaz who flopped at Beslan, and tank commanders outfoxed by terrorists in Chechnaia, shown to be corrupt, bumbling, and inept fools, demonstrated that they have regained a measure of competence, if not “slam-dunk” “mission accomplished” first-class skills. For the surrounding noisy CIS states (read “Ukraine”) this is scary, threatening, and re-sets the game. The navy is still a question mark, the army is back, sort of, and despite stupid bureaucratic moves that eliminated some of the most efficient special forces units («Rus»), the most lethal war criminals perform their jobs well.American enthusiasm for “our favorite post-Soviet state” – a republic noted only for Stalin and good wine – dates back to the days of our wisest recent Secretaries of State, Schultz and Baker, who valued the counsel and caution of Georgian Communist leader Eduard Shevardnadze (1928-2003). “Shevy”, as the Western press nicknamed him, helped dismantle the Warsaw Pact with so little trauma or bloodshed.Today’s Republican brain trust coached the pseudo-democratic leaders to test the limits of Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia. (A hint of the Georgian devotion to US diplomacy can be measured by the 2000 Georgian soldiers shouldering their share of the burden in Iraq, as well as the hundred some US army ‘trainers’ plus various CIA-type agents currently enjoying the beauty of semi-tropical Georgia).Georgia’s grab for the pre-Olympic gold – re-imposition of unquestioned Georgian control over a guard-post in the long de facto indecent scrape on the rugged Caucasian map – gave Kremlin leaders the perfect pretext for an aggressive response. Were the Georgians who watched Putin ruthlessly wipe out the terrorists hiding in their Chechen liars, as he rudely promised, or those who saw him ready to sacrifice hostages at Beslan School № 1 five years ago (1 September 2003) in order to kill terrorists, counting on the goodness of his liberal KGB-exercised heart?Georgia has bullied, prodded, and twisted the tail of its big bear of a neighbor, Russia (often at the instigation of the Pentagon’s best counselors and eager oilmen building an alternative pipeline to negate the Russian/Putin-dictated energy monopoly coming from the east). No American in his or her right mind would want to send its “Generation Kill” to defend this Western-oriented state. This Christian land living in big bad Moscow’s shadow for so long has been testing the limits of Moscow’s patience for many years. Americans needing a bad guy to root for have reflexively taken to cheering for little Georgia. It may a case of “Georgia on my mind”, but they are not the good guys in this brawl. The country’s President and its enablers, including the Secretary of State, could not easily pass a CSI forensic test for blood on their hands.Yes, the Georgians are comparatively more democratic, more open, and more Western than the Russians to the North (although they can destroy an independent television station with the very best of Putin’s thugs, as they demonstrated last November when Georgian Special Police smashed up Imed-TV in an act of angry vengeance that could only but conjure envy in the dreams of Dick Cheney or Bill Clinton). But the Georgians can certainly give Russia a good run in a race for who is the most corrupt. And both sides know well how to destroy independent-minded mass media institutions.Both are propaganda masters, although with their slicker international outlet, «Moscow Today», and their savvy in posting statements on YouTube, the Russians are running neck and neck with the Georgians, whose great advantage is a prime-time-ready, trained-at-Columbia-Law-School multilingual President. (If he only spoke Chinese, his offensive might have captured all the Olympic attention).How many keen Kremlin observers were shocked, shocked!, when Prime Minister Putin showed in hostage crisis after hostage crisis (Nord Ost in October 2002, Beslan in September 2003) his full-fledged commitment to nothing less than a total Machiavellian response: punish the aggressor, forget the victims. Send the armed men a tough lesson, ignore the hostages, victims, and innocent bystanders.Russia’s new Prime Minister may have been in Beijing making eye contact with his war-prone comrade George Bush, but how could anyone but the most romantic steroid-filled Georgian leader think his little country could get away with twisting the tail of the Russian bear, even if world attention was turned elsewhere. Ever since they tortured, torched, and terrorized Chechnya into submission, Russia’s Special Forces have been spoiling for another chance to prove their might. Georgia gave it to them. Like a sick patient shocked into finally emerging from a twenty-year depression, the Kremlin has sprung to life as if to prove that its status as the world’s has-been has been over for a number of oil-soaked years now.Cleaning up borders takes years. Disputes over little lines on maps were only settled in 1953 with our most peaceable neighbor, Canada. In December 1991, Russian President Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin left the borders just as they had been drawn by Soviet cartographers. Adjustments to real politics will take years. American help needs to be both tender and gentle.The Russian Foreign Ministry and the current quiet and able foreign minister are contemptuous and distrusting of the incumbent American Secretary of State. Any number of more esteemed US interlocutors may point slowly to solutions, perhaps modeled on US settlements of border disputes with Mexico and Great Britain. Would revisiting the Gadsden Purchase, with terms made in light of petro-dollars, be the worst starting point for solving the Abkhazian standoff? Could some kind of United Nations peacekeeping mandate bring a measure of tranquility to South Ossetia? Would a little peacemaking reduce Prime Minister Putin’s Olympic goal to knock out President Saakashvili’s teeth, if not totally knock him out of the Georgian political ring as that worst kind of Russian enemy – a democratically-inclined English speaker backed by Foggy Bottom who carries his own big stick: an independent (of Moscow) energy pipeline?Jonathan Sanders is the Director of a very independent Think Tank, Project of the Russian Future. He has covered six wars in the Caucasus for CBS News. He sails Bullseye #281 out of Elrian Beach in New London.