Instead of spending the weekend watching the Olympics and enjoying some summer downtime with my family (like I assume many of this blog’s readers were planning on doing), I found myself up to my neck in newspapers, on the phone, and glued to the web and TV as I watched with horror Russia’s first invasion of a foreign sovereign state since the 1979 Soviet misadventure in Afghanistan. Anyone familiar with the lethal efficiency of the Russian military’s recent domestic campaigns in Chechnya and elsewhere knew that things were going to get uglier and uglier, and that the disproportionate bombing campaigns would seek to achieve a “shock and awe” type effect, taking out many casualties. There’s been a deluge of analysis out there, which hopefully we have robustly represented in earlier posts, and I only wish to add a few thoughts to these senseless and unnecessary events. Nearing the end of the day here in Europe, and having consumed about enough media on the subject to feel spin-dizzy, I am struck by several observations, mistaken assumptions in the media, and larger ideas about potential scenarios.
First and foremost, you can call me an unreformed pacifist, but I fail to see how this war is benefiting any party (apart from perhaps China, which may send Putin a thank you card for his generous provision of a distraction from Tibet/human rights etc. during the Olympics). As a longtime observer of these complicated and vastly misunderstood “frozen conflicts,” I am quite alarmed by how quickly this situation destabilized, and how willing Moscow has been to sacrifice its international credibility over these separatist regions. Clearly some hawkish elements within the Kremlin were successful in convincing Vladimir Putin (who is visibly in control of this campaign) that the international blowback on this war would be an acceptable cost if they could use the opportunity to force Mikheil Saakashvili out of office and replaced by a Kremlin proxy.I believe that this war has been very bad for long term Russian interests, and especially damaging to her economy and international relations. Let’s please not get wrapped up in the widespread false duality which assumes that criticizing these military actions is the same thing as criticizing the Russian people, the legitimate grievances of South Ossetians and Abkhazians. There’s also of course the line of pro-Kremlin arguments out there that assumes that just because of the American invasion of Iraq, Russia has every right to invade Georgia. Moral ambiguity is simply part and parcel of the war dialectic, and I’m not particularly interested in some of the blustery anti-Russian propaganda that this war has sparked in many circles, and neither do I believe that simply because Moscow may be catching some unfair flak that this validates and justifies dropping bombs on civilian targets for no reason whatsoever.It was clear from the second day of the war that there was an underlying cynicism that Russia was only protecting its peacekeepers when jets bombed two civilian apartment buildings in Gori, the first of many. From there forward, we saw continual military actions that seemed completely unrelated to any overt military strategy, such as taking out the civilian airport, targeting pipelines and refineries, roads and highways, railway systems, and ports. If military victory was all that Russia was seeking, then wouldn’t the attacks be concentrated on enemy bases and airstrips?It was clear that after nearly two days of coyly ignoring Georgia’s calls for a ceasefire (Saakashvili even had to sign an agreement in the presence of Kouchner) and preventing the disengagement of Georgian troops, that Russia was looking to 1) make a stunning example out to send an unequivocal message to bordering states, 2) severely punish Georgia by destroying her economy, and 3) erode Saakashvili’s base of support to have him removed from power. Although there are certainly other contributing motivations and objectives in Russia’s surprisingly unexpected conduct, I do believe that it is this last point that is the key strategic goal. Tonight as the fighting basically is wrapping up, I would speculate that the Kremlin has probably tabled a very clear and direct offer to Washington: we’ll roll back the tanks in exchange for Saakashvili’s resignation.But still anything could happen, and the entire lack of transparency and hard information makes a great amount of the news coverage rather unreliable. For example, there even seems to be disagreement about who started the war and who bears responsibility, arguing that whoever received the first shot is the victim (Russia as a victim of aggression from tiny Georgia is in my opinion laughable). Although I have it on very good authority from a Russian lawyer colleague who was in Tbilisi when the fighting started, who confirmed that it was indeed South Ossetia’s shelling on Georgian police positions (killing two last weekend) that initiated the first reaction.However it is naive to suggest that there aren’t elements of the Georgian government, including Saakashvili himself, who actively sought this war. In some respects, it has been very poorly handled by the Georgian leadership in my opinion, with little to no diplomatic or public preparation, and an insufficient effort to educate the world on what was happening. Many sources regard the war as a vast miscalculation.Protests against the war have been organized from Madrid to New York. Here Israelis of Georgian descent take part in a protest outside the Russian embassy in Tel Aviv August 11, 2008 (Reuters).The news coverage has also been characterized as lacking two critical narratives, the criminal and the energy narratives. Yulia Latynina is one of the only commentators who has brought into the discussion the presence of the South Ossetian siloviki, whose alleged criminal activities in the lawless separatist regions of Georgia, under the guise of peacekeeping, generate significant rents worthy of motivating the fierce protection of their fiefdom. She writes:
So, why is this a victory over the siloviki — those in the Russian ruling elite with close ties to the state security organs? Because there is no way the regime in South Ossetia can be in any sense called “separatist.” Who there is a separatist? The head of the local KGB, Anatoly Baranov, used to head the Federal Security Service (FSB) in the Russian Republic of Mordovia. The head of the South Ossetian Interior Ministry, Mikhail Mindzayev, served in the Interior Ministry of Russia’s North Ossetia. The South Ossetian “defense minister,” Vasily Lunev, used to be military commissar in Perm Oblast, and the secretary of South Ossetia’s Security Council, Anatoly Barankevich, is a former deputy military commissar of Stavropol Krai. So who exactly is a separatist in this government? South Ossetian “prime minister” Yury Morozov?However, alas, I also cannot say this regime is “pro-Russian.” On the contrary, all the recent actions of Eduard Kokoity, the leader of the breakaway South Ossetian government, have run counter to the interests of Russia in the Caucasus — beginning with his embarrassing Russia in the eyes of the international community and ending with his ratcheting up the tensions in the very region where Russia might begin to come undone. South Ossetia is not a territory, not a country, not a regime. It is a joint venture of siloviki generals and Ossetian bandits for making money in a conflict with Georgia. For me, the most surprising thing in this entire story is the complete lack of any strategic goals on the part of the South Ossetians.
Although I am sure that many readers may disagree with Yulia’s presentation, there has always been a problematic contradiction with Russia’s support for South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence, when separatism is the last thing they want to see more of in the region, saddled as they are with their own threats to territorial integrity. Tbilisi and Moscow actually see the Kosovo issue with identical rejection … that’s why I had always thought that Moscow’s key policy goal was to keep the frozen conflicts frozen, as they were benefiting from the former status quo while Georgia hung in limbo.Then there is of course the energy play – most eloquently expressed by the Russian attempt to dismember all energy transit. Very few of the news stories has focused on Georgia’s immense geostrategic importance as the only energy transport state between Europe and Central Asia not controlled by Gazprom. If Russia is successful in installing a new proxy president, or if the rapproachment deal to end this conflict results in a closer alliance with the Kremlin, Europe can kiss its energy security goodbye, and look forward to significant price hikes and the permanent threat of an authoritarian state able to cut off the flow of energy.What is frustrating about this war, beyond the outrage of innocent civilian deaths on both sides, is how bad instability in the Caucasus is for Russia. It is frustrating that the Kremlin leadership is under the impression that the color revolutions and the attempts to implement democratic reform governments (even with flaws) are seen as such enormous threats. It is disappointing to see that this war against democracy, undoubtedly intended to send a message to any other uppity neighbors like Poland, Lithuania, and the Ukraine, has been waged for little regard for Russia’s international credibility and standing.I will be watching very carefully as these events develop, but let’s hope that more sensible elements can work on rebuilding the extraordinary damage of the past few days. More to come soon…