The internet has been bubbling for 10 days now with experts on the Caucasus, Ossetia, Abkhazia, Georgia, and the big bad Russian bear. Everyone understands what’s going on. No-one agrees with anyone else. Firm, decisive analyses from ‘experts’ (and a few experts) tell us precisely who did what, when, for which reason, and what we can expect to see next. Until you read the next analysis – which tells you exactly the opposite.
The Western Narrative
The mainstream media in the West has picked its enemy, its good guy, and its narrative: Georgia is a small struggling democracy whose territorial integrity has been violently assaulted by the big bad Russian bear. Occasionally the western press mentions that Georgia was the first to resort to arms, in an attempt to restore its own territory (by bombing it). Sometimes they couple this with the claim that the Russians had been provoking spikes of unrest in Ossetia in order to provoke Georgia into action; less often they mention that Russia had a peacekeeping role in South Ossetia and that it claims to be acting to protect its own citizens (which make up roughly 90% of the population of S. Ossetia1
But the overwhelming picture from the western media is simplistic and one-sided, and fails even to mention these few caveats (most of which are true). This latest piece in the Observer is typical:
It began when five men stole into the rustic village of Tkviavi … The men arrived outside Elene Maisuradze’s modest cottage. Waving guns and speaking rapidly in Russian, they wanted to know where Elene had hidden her Lada… Soon more paramilitaries, armed with Kalashnikovs, turned up. ‘They wanted to know where my basement was. I told them and said: "We have plenty of wine. Please take it." They went to the basement, shot it up and came back. I was crying. They said in Russian: "Rastreli, rastreli (kill her, kill her)." My neighbour, a Russian woman, told them: "Don’t do this." They shot into the ground and said: "Fuck Saakashvili." ‘A Dirty Little War, by Luke Harding, Ian Traynor, Helen Womack
The article continues in this vein for almost 3,000 words, ending with a reference to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. But there is no mention at all of the Georgian invasion which kicked the whole thing into action. In the view of the Observer’s writers – It began when five [Russian] men stole into the rustic village of Tkviavi.
The (Western) Left
The left blogosphere and commentariat, anxious to counterbalance the overwhelming bias of the media, has focussed on another enemy: the US and Israel, with Georgia as a willing pawn. They point out that as a key ally, at the very least, the US must have been aware of Georgia’s troop movements before the invasion – and most likely, the US had been explicitly informed by Georgia, and had in some form actually approved the action. Some commentators – like the respected Michael Chossudovsky – go still further, suggesting that ‘there is evidence that the attacks were carefully coordinated by the US military and NATO’ and even that this may have been a deliberate act of provocation, designed to suck Russia into a war with Georgia (and allied forces). I personally find this hard to believe, at a time when the US is bogged down in 2 wars and certainly considering a 3rd… but who knows?
The left’s narrative – in general – pays little attention to the Russian onslaught on Georgia proper which has followed the liberation of South Ossetia. And no attention – as far as I have been able to see – to the ethnic cleansing which is almost certainly being carried out in Georgian villages in South Ossetia, and which was probably to be expected as a consequence of the Georgian attack. Far from the public gaze, this may turn out to be the worst aspect of this whole sorry saga. It is certainly where the Russian ‘peacekeeper’s’ attention should have been directed, rather than in Georgia proper.
The Russian Narrative
The version given by the Russian media – including Russia Today, the English version specially doctored by the Kremlin for foreign viewers – places Russian troops in a peace-keeping role and frames each story with the initial Georgian onslaught on Tskhinvali. According to this narrative, Georgians invaded Ossetia in a brutal and unprovoked attack, killing about 2,000 civilians2 as a result of bombing raids and acts of ethnic cleansing. Russian troops were obliged to move into Ossetia in order to protect Russian citizens and Russian peacekeepers.
There are few authors who stray from this narrative: Sergei Markov, it is true, pins the blame on Dick Cheney and John McCain; and Pavel Felgenhauer, Russia’s best known defence analyst, believes that the Russians planned this war in April, just after the Nato meeting at which Ukraine and Georgia were promised eventual membership. He suggests (among other things):
… there is sufficient evidence that this massive invasion was preplanned beforehand for August. The swiftness with which large Russian contingents were moved into Georgia, the rapid deployment of a Black Sea naval task force, the fact that large contingents of troops were sent to Abkhazia where there was no Georgian attack all seem to indicate a rigidly prepared battle plan. This war was not an improvised reaction to a sudden Georgian military offensive in South Ossetia, since masses of troops cannot be held for long in 24-hour battle readiness.
The Russian narrative completely fails to mention – as you would expect – the brutality and disproportionality of the Russian response, and it fails to mention what is happening in Georgian villages now in South Ossetia (and maybe in Abkhazia). On the other hand, the Russian government has spoken loudly about ethnic cleansing carried out by Georgians – which has neither been confirmed
Sunk in the difficulties and complexities of the region, those who have lived and worked in the Caucasus tend to see no deep conspiracy, no geopolitical game, but rather a mass and a mess of interwoven grievances, emotions, and heightened sensitivities at the root of the conflict. While they recognise continuous provocation and political manoeuvring by the Russians; and that this has been exacerbated by the geo-political antics of Nato and the US, in general the blame falls squarely on the fiery mix of nationalism, ambition and irrationality that is the Georgian President. Tom de Waal, for example, reminds us that:
Saakashvili is a famously volatile risk-taker, veering between warmonger and peacemaker, democrat and autocrat. On several occasions international officials have pulled him back from the brink. On a visit to Washington in 2004, he received a tongue-lashing from then Secretary of State Colin Powell, who told him to act with restraint. Two months ago, he could have triggered a war with his other breakaway province of Abkhazia by calling for the expulsion of Russian peacekeepers from there, but European diplomats persuaded him to step back. This time, he has stepped over the precipice.
Near certainties and possibilities
It is difficult at this still early stage to make sense of the different local, national and international strands to this conflict – let alone to apportion priority or blame. One thing is very clear: the Georgian attack on Tkhinvali was the first and most glaring act of disproportionate aggression. It was a cruel violation of the South Ossetians’ right to self-determination and of a relatively peaceful status quo, and it was almost bound to lead to a Russian invasion. Never mind that there were spikes of activity beforehand – and there were – and never mind, for the moment, whether these were Russian or locally inspired. As the Nuremberg Charter made clear:
To initiate a war of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.
But if the Georgian President – and those around him who took part in the decision to invade – is fairly evidently culpable, the Russian invasion of Georgia proper5
What seems less clear to me, at least for now, is how much this was an act of wild folly on the part of the Georgian President, and how much it was provoked or even planned by one of the greater powers – either the US or Russia. I tend to go for the wild folly interpretation, but there is no doubt at all that Russia has been using the unrecognised regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (and others) to further its own strategic goals, ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union. And however much we on the left tend to (or wish to?) excuse Russia’s acts of aggression in the face of much worse US aggression, the fact is that Russia is still an empire, still has a great power mentality, and still behaves towards smaller powers in a dominant, bullying, self-preserving and aggressive fashion. I shall not be surprised if it turns out that Russia engineered this nasty war, banking on the wild folly of Saakashvili and his personal desire to reunite the Georgian state.
A different question concerns the role of the US and its poodle allies. I have already expressed my personal doubt that this war was a conscious attempt on the part of the US to confront Russia – but I am prepared to be proved wrong on this. There is almost nothing I would not believe about the deviousness of those in power in the US right now; but I suspect that their thoughts lie elsewhere at the moment – in the middle east – and I can see little strategic value in this small war in the Caucasus – which they were anyway bound to lose6
Finally – whether or not the US sanctioned or planned the Georgian invasion of South Ossetia, there is no doubt at all that years – decades – of provocation, aggressive warmongering, behaving-as-they-wish, trampling on international law, marching into other countries’ spheres of influence, installing first-strike nuclear facilities in Russia’s backyard, expanding Nato, smashing Yugoslavia (…Iraq, Afghanistan…), recognising Kosovo, backing paramilitary groups, tearing up missile treaties – and so on – has created an atmosphere in the world where Russia is bound to want to hit back – and is bound to try to play by the same rules. Russia, after all, which used to behave like that itself, which used to be regarded as the equal of the US, used to be able to call the shots in its own back yard (and further).
When two rival gangs are smashing each other up in the playground, the rest of the school crowding round, cheering them loudly, you pull out the ringleaders on both sides and punish them roundly – but you know the solution is temporary, because others will spring up in their place. You know that neither and both are nearly always to blame: they have egged each other on for years, each forced to ratchet up their behaviour in response to the other’s relative advantage, each winning supporters through devious means, each building a culture of strength, superiority and machismo which cannot be relinquished because the whole machine would topple.
When one side has a temporary advantage and nothing seems to stop it in its tracks – nothing seems to stop the trampling and bullying of underlings, and nothing seems to stop the quest for overall control, you may be temporarily glad of anything that comes along to challenge the power – even another gang, led by another bully. The problem seems too big to tackle any other way, the strength of the ruling bully seems too overpowering.
Then hope is lost – which I confess is almost where I find myself. Close down the school, in that case. Close down this sick society where might is right and where the culture of machismo seems too entrenched and permanent to be destroyed.
4. I tend to think that it would not have been in the Georgian interest to ‘cleanse’ the population of South Ossetia by two thirds – even with the irascible Saakashvili in charge. One might also have expected them to have made more of the 16 hours they had before the Russian troops arrived – if this was indeed their aim. But again… who knows, just yet?