August 09, 2008

Georgia On My Mind

The commentary being churned out in the Western press regarding Georgia is rather pitiable in the main (most notably this dreary WaPo piffle, stinking of knee-jerk group-think as it does from beginning to end). A few quick points, in no particular order. First, let us disabuse ourselves from the notion that Mr. Saakashvili is some glorious democrat (the election he barely won in January included irregularities, and there continues to be endemic corruption in Tblisi). Second, let us recall that many south Ossetians and Abkhazians are not particularly keen to live under Tbilisi's yoke, indeed some prefer Russian influence to predominate there for the time being. Third, if there is any truth to Russian allegations that there are some 1,500 fatalities in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali--and they were caused by a major initial over-reach by the Georgian military (we will need to wait for more details to emerge)--expect many more brutish bombardments like the Russians apparently have conducted in the Georgian town of Gori, alas. Fourth, some context: ever since the overly hasty recognition of Kosovo went live, Putin has been very keen to intimate what's good for the goose is good for the gander, having personally threatened Saakashvili that Russia would formally recognize as independent states Ossetia and Abkhazia. Unfair and inconvenient, at least to Georgian 'sovereignists' (or, to others, irrendentists)? Yes, to a fashion, as the perils of too breezy analogizing among these different situations is quite clear. Still, the Kosovo precedent was going to be used to Putin's purposes, of course, humiliating as the events in Pristina were to Moscow, and with the barely concealed breezy cheerleading from Brussels and DC adding insult to injury.

Which brings me to a fifth point, and perhaps a more proximate causal factor contributing to this explosion of misfortune in Georgia, namely, that of stupidity, or at least, severe miscalculation. Saakashvili, an apparently quite idealistic 40 year-old former NY lawyer, seems to have erred too much in thinking that giddy summitry with Western big-wigs might pay dividends (or too his far too excited involvement in the Iraq adventure which, incidentally, looks to be coming to a quite precipitous end) but unfortunately, insufficiently appreciated the disastrous waning in U.S. power these past years, despite his constant hankering for NATO membership (which a resurgent Russia will never accept regardless of Kosovo or whatever else, best I can tell), and thus has fallen short with regard to better appreciating a variable which would have been more apropos, namely, a harsh dose of realpolitik. And this despite Putin having warned Saakashvili rather pointedly: "On April 21, Mr. Saakashvili called the Russian leader to demand that he reverse the decision [possible Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia]. He reminded Mr. Putin that the West had taken Georgia’s side in the dispute. And Mr. Putin, according to several of Mr. Saakashvili’s associates, shot back with a suggestion about where they could put their statements. Mr. Saakashvili, prudent for once, shied from uttering the exact wording, but said that Mr. Putin had used “extremely offensive language,” and had repeated the expression several times." Permit me to be less prudent than Mr. Saakashvili, who appears perhaps to be a poor prioritizer of where to be prudent and where not. Mr. Putin told him that he could (and excuse the crudity) stick American and Western European assurances regarding the territorial disputes in question up his rear end, I suspect, and I'm afraid that's not a too inaccurate assessment, if a bit biting and brusque (save if McCain trumps Obama and decides to ride the NATO cavalry up from Kabul to Tbilisi a few months hence--perhaps on the back of some more WaPo interventionist rhapsodizing--devoid of the merest smidgen of appreciation for historical context and subtlety, leading to another toweringly idiotic 'Washington consensus' of some sort).

What's needed now, rather critically, is rather a large dose of humble pie by Mr. Saakashvili (let Solana visit him to hand-hold some, and perhaps then send our own Condi-the-Great too, as face-saver, if she's not too busy showcasing our incompetence elsewhere), with an understanding that the main objective is an immediate cease-fire with the goal of returning to the status quo ante, which is to say, de facto Russian control of the provinces in question. We could do far worse (indeed Putin may be minded to just have them go ahead and declare their independence under Russian control, or simply annex them), and bloviating about the death of the Rose Revolution in far-flung Abkhazia and Ossetia, while doubtless fun cocktail chit-chat among the grandees of our favorite editorial pages, well, Putin might have an idea or two where to put such talk, and it won't save any lives at this urgent juncture either. Put differently, let's stop our fanciful reverie from points removed (and where the ramifications don't include rampant lost of life, say) in favor of trying to dampen back a bloodbath that is looming today in the Caucasus, especially should Saakashvili delude himself some quasi-cavalry might be in the offing, and push back on the Russians even harder. For there is no cavalry coming, save if cavalry can be construed as 'we must respect Georgian sovereignty' soundbites that will blanket around clueless anchors striving mightily to pose intelligible questions on the cable news circuit that might be overheard at the Tbilisi Marriott.

Last, and somewhat tangential, interesting to note in passing (though highly unsurprising) that when we are are not speaking of a hiccup in financial regulatory issues in Moscow or such (where Medvedev was taking to flexing some muscle), it is Putin who leaves Beijing for the staging ground of the operation, not Medvedev. All the more reason for Saakashvili to be concerned...

NB: Larison is on top of this as well, just keep scrolling over there--but this post might be a good starting point--as it's particularly cogent (especially his contention that "Kissinger and Cohen are right", with which I mostly concur, and helpfully saves me the trouble too of having to write about yet another Kagan).

UPDATE: WP: "U.N. Security Council met for the fourth time in four days, with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad accusing Moscow of seeking "regime change" in Georgia and resisting attempts to make peace." You can't make this stuff up. You'd think a capable diplomat like Zalmay K. would steer clear of such phraseology, not least given the gross attendant ironies given the Iraq imbroglio, no? Incidentally, I've espied commenters at other sites (where this post has been picked up) who appear to find me unsympathetic to the Georgian side. Not at all. It's precisely because I care about innocent Georgian lives being needlessly spilled that I'm so dismayed by Saakashvili's recklessness, including notably his naive belief in Western support should Putin get nasty (by the by, and to stress again, the notion that Georgia would become a full-fledged member of NATO was always absurd fare, and shame on Brussels and Washington for playing pretend). I should say too, any concerted military action by the Russians south of Gori begins to well cross red-lines (Putin will argue Gori is too close a staging ground towards Tskhinvali--not necessarily false, though civilian apartments don't pose a threat, but again, if you believe Russian reports, Saakashvili's excesses in Tskhinvali were even worse). Meantime, Saakashvili might take a peek at his reward for 2,000 men in Iraq: here is our charming POTUS (courtesy of Andrew Sullivan, for which thanks) cavorting about the sand volley-ball dunes of festive Beijing during Misha's time of troubles. Nero meets Crawford meets NASCAR, I guess. Send the pic to other possibly interested parties in Kiev, Central Asia and the Baltics too....

Posted by Gregory at August 9, 2008 02:40 PM

To make matters worse, the Telegraph is reporting that the Bush administration gave the Georgian's the green light for their move against South Ossetia. Is there truly no one in the US Government with a lick of sense?

Posted by: Alexei McDonald at August 9, 2008 04:12 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Please stop genocide of Ocetian nation!

Starting 1989 nationalistic fascist Georgian government tries to annihilate and expel Ocetian nation from its territory. As the result of Georgian warfare against small nations, tens thousands of Ocetian, Abhasian, Armenian and Russian people died since 1991. The scale of genocide is concealed by Georgian mass media. Brutality of Georgian fascists and freaksville torture of the local population overrode the torture of fascists during the Second World War.

Georgian mass media stir up the sickness of Georgian nation – they believe they are only people deserving life on Georgian territory, they are exclusive, elitist; other nations should move out or be killed.

At the moment the tragedy is happening – Georgians systematically shooting dead the Ocetian people in their own houses or burying under the falling homes.

Georgian fascists destroyed Ocetian settlements and town Tskhinvally – they lay even with the ground.
The number of victims buried by Georgian fire under the ruins cannot be calculated – it is amounted to thousands.
Georgians destroyed all hospitals. Medics cannot work under the fire of Georgians. People saved in underground stores do not have food, water, electricity, gas for 3 days – they cannot go out because of Georgian fire and cannot move out of town because Georgians are trying to take hold with tanks and armored vehicles of the only road from the town to tunnel controlled by Russians.

At that Georgian president insincerely is saying that he tries to make constitutional order and peace, and suggesting lefthandedly to cease fire. All his actions are aimed towards USA and NATO (he even speaks with his nation in English so that you understand him).

USA has strategic interest in region – pipeline going through Georgia. So official government of USA will never realize that Georgian president is criminal politician betrayed its nation (in fact people in Georgia do not want war), instead government of USA will support him (several hours ago a train with NATO armored machines came to Georgia).

The next victim of Georgian fascists will be Abhasian nation.

People in USA and Europe please force your politicians to stop Georgians.

Posted by: Mikhail at August 9, 2008 06:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Heh - the wonders of the Internet Age: even as remote a place as South Ossetia has an online presence: and its own robo-trolls too!

Anyway: a good (if sadly rare) post, Greg: I would offer the thought though, that if you were expecting much in the way of any kind of in-depth, reasoned or balanced analysis from the US press (print, TV or online) about the Russia/Georgia conflict, that you were bound to be disappointed: very little coverage of this sad little war (outside the Internet) has been much more than dumbed-down, Good-Guys-vs-Bad-Guys sensationalism. Alas: only to be expected.

Larison makes a good point in one of his AmCon pieces: residual Russophobia among the US punditocracy (especially on the Right) leads them to view anything relating to Russia through a very skewed lens: magnifying both Russian malfeasances - and (as you point out) the "virtues" of Russia's opponents. Thus the common simplification of the issue as "The Brave Plucky Georgians Cruelly Crushed by the Russian Bear" - never mind the realities of the situation on the ground.

Thanks again, Greg, for a needed dose of realism.

Posted by: Jay C at August 9, 2008 06:53 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Saakashvili Is A War Criminal. He has to be tried for murdering innocent people he claims are his own.

Posted by: FC at August 10, 2008 10:43 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Leaving aside the hero worshiping of Gates, now rampant among the chattering class, who WOULD be in this administration, at least high up in it, if the HAD "A LICK OF COMMON SENSE"?

Sure, senior civil servants and military types who will be around after the Admin leaves in Jan, their exempted from my broad brush. But the rest? I would not give ya a bucket of warm spit for the bunch of them. Gates included.

And think Saakashvili should be in the dock alone?

We're gonna learn, if we decide to have eyes to see, and ears to hear, a lot about McCain and Obama in this crisis. In a way we already have. McCain is blustering about making a dangerous fool of himself, and viewing this situation via the lens of the 1960s. Hey fool, this ain't the Prague Spring in 68.

Obama, what, he's got 3 different positions statements out already? Reacting to McCain's dumb allegations that he, Obama is not reacting 'strongly' enough. McCain has "forgotten nothing, and learned nothing"

Posted by: jonst at August 10, 2008 02:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Saakashvili, an apparently quite idealistic 40 year-old former NY lawyer, seems to have erred too much in thinking that giddy summitry with Western big-wigs might pay dividends ..."

Not just a lawyer, Greg. Seems he practiced at a heavyweight NYC law firm which also happened to have Mike Mukasey in residence. Yea, that Mukasey, our closet-neocon AG whose of Russian lineage and who taught at Columbia Law School when dear Misha was present and enlightening himself on handling the future reigns of usurped power.

That the Georgian Mensheviks sent word for him to quell the Tskhinvali Bolsheviks is more a fait accompli than proof of his power lust. But I don't doubt that his nexus to the WH is stronger than one might suspect,; beyond the Mukasey link, Bush has been yapping for Georgia's NATO embrace for months, and one wonders why. I doubt he saw much geopolitical promise for Georgia when he looked deeply into the soul of Putin's eye.

Posted by: resh at August 10, 2008 04:11 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

edit: who's for whose; regrets.

Posted by: resh at August 10, 2008 04:15 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Incidentally, I've espied commenters at other sites (where this post has been picked up) who appear to find me unsympathetic to the Georgian side. Not at all."

Ha. Of course you're indifferent. Realists care nothing for human life and want "stability" at all costs. It's just one giant chessboard to you. Half-hearted denials can't hide it. Arrogant and clueless as usual.

Posted by: andrew at August 10, 2008 11:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Realists care nothing for human life

Seems to me the non-realists aren't distinguishing themselves on that front here.

Posted by: Ned R. at August 11, 2008 12:38 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It seems as though no one comes out of this mess smelling of roses.

Though I would be inclined to ask the politicians why, if Kosovo can be independent, South Ossetia can't?

Posted by: Steve Hayes at August 11, 2008 02:03 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Seems to me the non-realists aren't distinguishing themselves on that front here."

Gee I don't know, the first thing that came to my mind when this first happened wasn't to bad mouth some poor country that's outnumbered 30 to 1 by a country run by gangsters and ex-KGB. Seems to me you have to be a pretty empty soul to have such an overwhelming arrogant posture towards Georgia. But that's pretty much par for the course for some.

Posted by: andrew at August 11, 2008 02:24 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Let's see. Imagine I am a foreign leader. My ever so powerful neighbor uses unpleasent language to tell me what will happen if I take certain steps. My best friend is occupied with other interventions, and, in any event, does not have available troops anywhere nearby.

If I am truly concered about the lives of my citizens, what should I do? Sending in the troops, somehow, seems like a terrible idea.

I think Greg has Kosovo called wrong, but he has Georgia called just about right. And, unfortunately, the US and EU is going to look impotent because, truth be told, they really are impotent. And, honestly, that would have been as true in 2001 as it is in 2008. We do not hae the means to assert our power in the Causcuses because we have no troops nearby. Spheres of influence seems like a terribly 20th century concept, but seems most applicable. About the best we can hope for is that the results of this whole venture does not give Russia iseas about reannexing all of Georgia, or other ex Soviet republics. Because its going to be real tough to do anything about it, unless we are talking the Ukraine or the Baltics.

Posted by: Appalled Moderate at August 11, 2008 08:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Seems to me you have to be a pretty empty soul to have such an overwhelming arrogant posture towards Georgia.

Georgia != its leaders. (The same goes for Russia.) If this is too hard an argument to process, my apologies.

Posted by: Ned R. at August 11, 2008 01:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The more war and instability in the world, the better the chances John McCain wins the election. So, don't expect the Bush administration to do anything but inflame the situation.

Posted by: DA in LA at August 11, 2008 02:23 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Agreed that "the commentary being churned out in the Western press regarding Georgia is rather pitiable." Brezezinski is among the few who are honest, clear and direct: "the stakes are very significant. At stake is access to oil as that resource grows ever more scarce and expensive and how a major power conducts itself in our newly interdepedent world, conduct that should be based on accommodation and consensus, not on brute force."

Problem is that brute force is exactlly how major powers conduct business, the US being first and foremost among deploying hard power. Any moral authority the US might try to bring to bear would be met with absolute derision, given the example is has set for the last 7 years.

While Khalilzad's reference to "regime change" is ironic, the real analogy is not to Iraq, where the US is trying to control the oil spiggots, but to the 1989 Panama invasion, which assured US domination of a key transportation pinch point: the canal. Likewise the Russian attack is to secure control over key parts of the BTC pipeline.

Putin offered to negotiate energy security at the G-8 summit two years ago, but his request was largely ignored, even though he set the agenda and put energy security at the top. The problem was that Putin meant energy security for producers (long term price guarantees in return for long term production commitments). The West wanted to return to the 1990s, when a buyer's market brought suppliers like Russia to their knees.

Nonetheless, the only solution I see for the predicament that the industrialized world has gotten itself into is to negotiate an agreement with producing countries guaranteeing supply and prices. Trying to defend the remote and fragile network of pipelines and shipping lanes is prohibitively expensive and probably futile, as Russia's incursion into the Georgia shows.

Unfortunately, the West is in denial about the dire straits of its life support system. The reality of its dependence on a few despicable oil suppliers represents a serious blow to its ascendancy in the world and ultimately to its way of life. And who will tell the children (their voters) how badly the adult screwed up?

Posted by: JohnH at August 11, 2008 05:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

you Slavs once again prove yourselves to be 1 or 2 centuries behind in mentality. reading English language news out Moscow, one finds propaganda that sounds exactly like old-school Soviet drivel. i guess that mindset that empowered leaders (some of whom killed millions of your own countrymen) is alive and strong. stay belligerent, comrade.

Posted by: mateo luiz at August 11, 2008 11:54 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Excellent commentary. Having actually been in a war I must say that-and everything that I have ever read about warfare is in total agreement-if you want to win you go with everything you have. That way you win quickly. Germany led the way on that with the Blitzkrieg, they were correct in WWII and the Russians are correct today. Go in with overwhelming force, that way you save the lives of your soldiers, you don't care or worry about your opponents population. This concern with civilian casualties is only a recent phenomena, you saw none of this concern for the citizens of the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo and hundreds of thousands died by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the case of these cities destroyed by firebombing or by Atomic bombing the reasoning at the time was sound. Destroy the enemy infrastructure, part of which is the human component, the workers who make the weapons that allow the enemy to kill your troops. Taking casualties because you did not want any 'collateral damage'is a stupid way to run a war. The entire idea, which has been followed for millenium, is to kill them before they kill you. Going to war without using overwhelming force-if it is available-is criminal on the part of those who want to win. While I don't have a degree in military history, I fought in Vietnam and have been studing the history of warfare for the last 35 years. What I have learned is this, if one starts a war without the intent of winning as quickly as possible, then one most likely loses.

Posted by: timr at August 13, 2008 12:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

great work,

Posted by: GalenPerkins at August 14, 2008 06:30 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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