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Boris Kagarlitsky on the Russia-Georgia conflict


Bad habits are contagious

By Boris Kagarlitsky

August 14, 2008 -- Georgia has resolutely condemned Russia's actions in Chechnya. Russia has severely criticised NATO actions towards Serbia. Later on the Georgian authorities tried to do the same thing in South Ossetia as the Russian authorities had done in Chechnya. Moscow decided to treat Georgia in the same way as NATO had treated Serbia. Bad habits are contagious.

Saying that after Western leaders had recognised Kosovo’s independence the standards of international law ceased to exist, Russian diplomats must have second sight -– a year had not yet passed when the Russian government ignored those standards. The laws were replaced by precedents and customs. From this standpoint, there are good reasons for Moscow’s campaign in South Ossetia. South Ossetia is de facto a republic, even if no one (including Russia) has recognised it. However, it became Russia's protectorate. How can Russia allow somebody to attack it?

Moscow appeals to the commonsense and the will of the South Ossetian population. Those who did not share this collective will were driven out of the republic a long time ago (the same holds true for Chechnya). Like Serbia, Georgia makes reference to history. But neither of that is of importance, only force is all important.

It goes without saying that the Georgian authorities realised that when they decided to follow Moscow's example and hold an operation to restore constitutional order in the country. They hoped not only that the Georgian army was stronger than the Ossetian one, but also that the USA would support them. It could take two days to capture the capital of South Ossetia Tskhinvali while the Russian authorities consulted with each other and with Washington. This plan had almost been fulfilled, but, as so often is the case, the important decisions were made by the field commanders rather than by the Kremlin officials: while the Russian authorities were consulting with each other, the Russian peacemaking forces, which were deployed in South Ossetia, joined the battle, received the air support and actually turned the Georgian-Ossetian conflict into the Russian-Georgian war.

This time, the Georgian elite (and Georgian society) were greatly disappointed again. America was not going to protect Georgia. The USA was going to use Georgia to counterbalance Russia, as a supplier of soldiers for the war in Iraq and as a diplomatic ally in the UN. But that does not mean that Georgia could use America as anything.

The right of the strong implies that the strong have no commitments to the weak. To be more exact, those commitments are met when it is in the interest of the strong. For example, Russia has met its formal and informal commitments to South Ossetia. The reason for Russia's interference in the Georgian-Ossetian conflict is in line with US propaganda: protection of its citizens.

By the way, it is a mystery how the South Ossetians, who live in Tskhinvali, were given Russian citizenship at a time when many people who have lived and worked in Russia for several years cannot get it. The South Ossetians do not pay Russian taxes and do not serve in the Russian army. They have no duties, they have only rights. The Russian government is reluctant to take care of many of its citizens living in Russia and to protect their rights.

However, from the formal standpoint, everything is right. Governments must protect their citizens. If the Russian authorities took better care of their citizens in Russia, the words that there is a need to protect “our people” in Tskhinvali would ring more true.

The military do not think about the diplomatic and legal details very much. They simply know that they have the superior firepower that should be used. The Georgian army applied this power to the Ossetians and shelled Tskhinvali. A few days later, Georgia was attacked by the Russian army.

The Russian generals told the curious journalists that the army bombed and fired at only the military installations. They were likely to issue such orders. But they were not concerned about what actually the bombs hit. Surprisingly, even the XXI century “smart” bombs, which are much talked about, hit residential districts instead of enemy fortifications.

After the Russian generals made another statement that in Georgia only the military installations had been bombed, the destroyed houses of the civilian population in Gori were shown on the Western TV. They looked just like the destroyed houses in Tskhinvali, which were shown on the Russian TV.

[Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Moscow-based Institute of Globalization and Social Movements.]


Immanuel Wallerstein on the mini-war in the Caucasus

Geopolitical Chess:
Background to a Mini-war in the Caucasus
by Immanuel Wallerstein

The world has been witness this month to a mini-war in the Caucasus, and the rhetoric has been passionate, if largely irrelevant. Geopolitics is a gigantic series of two-player chess games, in which the players seek positional advantage. In these games, it is crucial to know the current rules that govern the moves. Knights are not allowed to move diagonally.

From 1945 to 1989, the principal chess game was that between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was called the Cold War, and the basic rules were called metaphorically "Yalta." The most important rule concerned a line that divided Europe into two zones of influence. It was called by Winston Churchill the "Iron Curtain" and ran from Stettin to Trieste. The rule was that, no matter how much turmoil was instigated in Europe by the pawns, there was to be no actual warfare between the United States and the Soviet Union. And at the end of each instance of turmoil, the pieces were to be returned to where they were at the outset. This rule was observed meticulously right up to the collapse of the Communisms in 1989, which was most notably marked by the destruction of the Berlin wall.

It is perfectly true, as everyone observed at the time, that the Yalta rules were abrogated in 1989 and that the game between the United States and (as of 1991) Russia had changed radically. The major problem since then is that the United States misunderstood the new rules of the game. It proclaimed itself, and was proclaimed by many others, the lone superpower. In terms of chess rules, this was interpreted to mean that the United States was free to move about the chessboard as it saw fit, and in particular to transfer former Soviet pawns to its sphere of influence. Under Clinton, and even more spectacularly under George W. Bush, the United States proceeded to play the game this way.

There was only one problem with this: The United States was not the lone superpower; it was no longer even a superpower at all. The end of the Cold War meant that the United States had been demoted from being one of two superpowers to being one strong state in a truly multilateral distribution of real power in the interstate system. Many large countries were now able to play their own chess games without clearing their moves with one of the two erstwhile superpowers. And they began to do so.

Two major geopolitical decisions were made in the Clinton years. First, the United States pushed hard, and more or less successfully, for the incorporation of erstwhile Soviet satellites into NATO membership. These countries were themselves anxious to join, even though the key western European countries -- Germany and France -- were somewhat reluctant to go down this path. They saw the U.S. maneuver as one aimed in part at them, seeking to limit their newly-acquired freedom of geopolitical action.

The second key U.S. decision was to become an active player in the boundary realignments within the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This culminated in a decision to sanction, and enforce with their troops, the de facto secession of Kosovo from Serbia.

Russia, even under Yeltsin, was quite unhappy about both these U.S. actions. However, the political and economic disarray of Russia during the Yeltsin years was such that the most it could do was complain, somewhat feebly it should be added.

The coming to power of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin was more or less simultaneous. Bush decided to push the lone superpower tactics (the United States can move its pieces as it alone decides) much further than had Clinton. First, Bush in 2001 withdrew from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Then he announced that the United States would not move to ratify two new treaties signed in the Clinton years: the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the agreed changes in the SALT II nuclear disarmament treaty. Then Bush announced that the United States would move forward with its National Missile Defense system.

And of course, Bush invaded Iraq in 2003. As part of this engagement, the United States sought and obtained rights to military bases and overflight rights in the Central Asian republics that formerly were part of the Soviet Union. In addition, the United States promoted the construction of pipelines for Central Asian and Caucasian oil and natural gas that would bypass Russia. And finally, the United States entered into an agreement with Poland and the Czech Republic to establish missile defense sites, ostensibly to guard against Iranian missiles. Russia, however, regarded them as aimed at her.

Putin decided to push back much more effectually than Yeltsin. As a prudent player, however, he moved first to strengthen his home base -- restoring effective central authority and reinvigorating the Russian military. At this point, the tides in the world-economy changed, and Russia suddenly became a wealthy and powerful controller not only of oil production but of the natural gas so needed by western European countries.

Putin thereupon began to act. He entered into treaty relationships with China. He maintained close relations with Iran. He began to push the United States out of its Central Asian bases. And he took a very firm stand on the further extension of NATO to two key zones -- Ukraine and Georgia.

The breakup of the Soviet Union had led to ethnic secessionist movements in many former republics, including Georgia. When Georgia in 1990 sought to end the autonomous status of its non-Georgian ethnic zones, they promptly proclaimed themselves independent states. They were recognized by no one but Russia guaranteed their de facto autonomy.

The immediate spurs to the current mini-war were twofold. In February, Kosovo formally transformed its de facto autonomy to de jure independence. Its move was supported by and recognized by the United States and many western European countries. Russia warned at the time that the logic of this move applied equally to the de facto secessions in the former Soviet republics. In Georgia, Russia moved immediately, for the first time, to recognize South Ossetian de jure independence in direct response to that of Kosovo.

And in April this year, the United States proposed at the NATO meeting that Georgia and Ukraine be welcomed into a so-called Membership Action Plan. Germany, France, and the United Kingdom all opposed this action, saying it would provoke Russia.

Georgia's neoliberal and strongly pro-American president, Mikhail Saakashvili, was now desperate. He saw the reassertion of Georgian authority in South Ossetia (and Abkhazia) receding forever. So, he chose a moment of Russian inattention (Putin at the Olympics, Medvedev on vacation) to invade South Ossetia. Of course, the puny South Ossetian military collapsed completely. Saakashvili expected that he would be forcing the hand of the United States (and indeed of Germany and France as well).

Instead, he got an immediate Russian military response, overwhelming the small Georgian army. What he got from George W. Bush was rhetoric. What, after all, could Bush do? The United States was not a superpower. Its armed forces were tied down in two losing wars in the Middle East. And, most important of all, the United States needed Russia far more than Russia needed the United States. Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, pointedly noted in an op-ed in the Financial Times that Russia was a "partner with the west on . . . the Middle East, Iran and North Korea."

As for western Europe, Russia essentially controls its gas supplies. It is no accident that it was President Sarkozy of France, not Condoleezza Rice, who negotiated the truce between Georgia and Russia. The truce contained two essential concessions by Georgia. Georgia committed itself to no further use of force in South Ossetia, and the agreement contained no reference to Georgian territorial integrity.

So, Russia emerged far stronger than before. Saakashvili had bet everything he has and was now geopolitically bankrupt. And, as an ironic footnote, Georgia, one of the last U.S. allies in the coalition in Iraq, withdrew all its 2,000 troops from Iraq. These troops had been playing a crucial role in Shi'a areas, and would now have to be replaced by U.S. troops, which will have to be withdrawn from other areas.

If one plays geopolitical chess, it is best to know the rules, or one gets out-maneuvered.

Immanuel Wallerstein is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Sociology, State University of New York at Binghamton. Among his numerous books are The Modern World-System (1974, 1980, 1989), Unthinking Social Science (1991), After Liberalism (1995), The End of the World As We Know It (1999), and The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (2003). This commentary was published on 15 August 2008. © Immanuel Wallerstein, distributed by Agence Global. For rights and permissions, including translations and posting to non-commercial sites, contact:, 1.336.686.9002 or 1.336.286.6606. Permission is granted to download, forward electronically, or e-mail to others, provided the essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To contact author, write:

Visit the archive of Wallerstein's previous commentaries at . These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.

Boris Kagarlitsky on the Russia-Georgia conflict & video

[I oringinally posted this to the Marxism list ( At the request of an Australian comrade, I'm also posting it here.]

The talk seems better than the article. He says while he's an opponent of the current Russian government, Russia was responding to a provocation, and says clearly this wasn't so much a provocation from the Georgian side as it was a provocation from the American side.

This evoked the first applause in his talk from his London audience, BTW.

I think his stance and tone was very good for a Marxist speaking INSIDE Russia. For the "western" audience, the talk and article are confusing and off-base, at best. He assumes everyone knows and understands --which is true of Russians, probably, and perhaps even of his immediate London audience of leftists-- that Russia didn't start this, the Georgians did, egged on by the Americans. That supposition, as it applies to people in western Europe and most of all in the U.S., is entirely unjustified.

His attempt to attribute to Russian "field commanders" the decision to move into Georgia is simply incredible. The initial Russian deployment, by all accounts, was that of a unit or units equivalent to a heavy armored brigade by the end of the first day, or something very close to that mass. And the elements of this force *immediately* launched a counter-offensive.

That takes careful preparation and TONS of logistics. Thus it seems quite clear the Russians had very good intelligence, excellent intelligence, and tremendous confidence in it, to respond with heavy units for an instantaneous counter-attack, rather than lighter, more flexible and mobile units to establish a perimeter south of the peaks of the caucuses where the forces for a counter-attack would muster for a day or two, until the disposition of the enemy's forces and the extent of his advance could be determined.

The decision to counter-attack and do it immediately, and with overwhelming mass and firepower, was made IN THE PLANNING, long before the shooting. Meaning, among other things, it was based on intelligence about Georgia's planned operations. Basically, the events suggest the Russians had the detailed operational plans for the Georgian campaign, and set out to humiliatingly SMASH Georgian pretensions, grabbing their military by the scruff of their neck, pulling down their pants, and giving them a spanking they would not soon forget.

The leisurely mopping up operations this past week, after the collapse of Georgia's military as a coherent force a week ago, adheres to the same design. They went to all of Georgia's brand-new NATO-standard-compliant military bases and installations the U.S. built and equipped for them and quite thoroughly and completely trashed and destroyed them. They found Georgia's U.S.-supplied hardware and took what they wanted and destroyed the rest. They sank every ship in the Georgian navy, destroyed every plane in its air force, and took out every radar in its air defense grid.

From all I can tell, and contrary to Georgian and American claims, Russia did not make a significant effort to attack transportation networks or other "dual use" assets vital to the civilian economy. I've seen no reports that power plants or bridges were bombed nor harbors mined. This was a very specific campaign focused on Georgia's military assets. That the Americans can easily replace them in short order the Russians know. That isn't the point. A broader campaign aimed at infrastructure would have a longer effect in terms of Georgia's capacity to wage war against Russia. But Georgia's capacity to wage war against Russia is nil in any case. This was not an effort to make it harder or impossible for a re-armed Georgia to launch another adventure in two or three years. The message was, the Americans may give you their toys, but they will never defend you because they can't. Here. Look at this base they built for you. Watch us blow it up. Look at us turn their tanks and artillery and computers and radios into scrap.

Russia's final message came via Condy Rice. After bloviating all sorts of empty threats against Russia for a week, she came on a mission Friday two days ago and told Saakashvili he had to sign his acceptance of Russian-dictated surrender terms, which specifically legalized and authorized Russia's trashing of Georgia's military bases and equipment and specifically opened the question of the future status of Georgia's two "breakaway" provinces. It was a five-hour meeting, and Saakashvili eventually capitulated.

Putin must have had a good laugh listening to Condy's empty rhetoric in defense of Georgia's "territorial integrity" in the press conference she held minutes after forcing the president of that country to sign surrender terms that officially renounced it.

The truth is, the "West" has no leverage with Russia. An economic blockade would only mean Europe depriving itself of Russia's petroleum and gas. The agreement to deploy a "star wars" missile shield in Russia would be more convincing if the technology actually WORKED -- which it doesn't -- and if Russia didn't have the option to nuke Western Europe and the United States with missiles launches from thousands of miles away in Asia, way outside the range of any possible Polish shield, which it does. In a million and one ways the "West" has refused Russia's request to be admitted into the imperialist club, so even the "threat" to throw it out of the G8 or block its joining other "multilateral" institutions are devoid of substance.

Turning every last piece of US military equipment the Georgians have into scrap metal is Putin's way of reminding Bush that he can STILL nuke the U.S. back to the stone age, which is WHY the U.S. not only has to stand by and see its Georgian ally humiliated, but actually serve as Moscow's courier service in bringing the message that Saakashvili has NO CHOICE but to capitulate to Moscow-dictated surrender terms.

The stuff about "damaging long term relations" and promises of "a new cold war" are empty threats from Russia's perspectives. From where Putin sits, the old cold war never ended. Georgia turned out to be Russia's way of telling the Americans that from now on, this continuation of the cold war wouldn't be as one-sided as it had been for the last fifteen years, that Russia was through begging and retreating.


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