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Russia-Georgia: Behind the war on South Ossetia

By Tony Iltis

August 16, 2008 -- On August 7, after a week of border clashes, Georgia's pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili launched a military attack against South Ossetia.

South Ossetia, while internationally recognised as part of Georgia, has been predominantly under the control of a pro-independence administration since Georgia separated from the former Soviet Union in 1991. Since a 1992 ceasefire, the South Ossetian statelet has been protected by Russian peacekeepers.

Within 24 hours, Georgian troops had taken the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, after destroying much of it with artillary. More than 30,000 refugees (out of a population of 70,000) fled across the border to the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, which is part of the Russian Federation.

Using this, and the killing of 20 Russian peacekeepers, as pretexts, Russia intervened in full force: bombing targets throughout Georgia, driving the Georgians out of South Ossetia (including territory not previously held by the South Ossetian administration) and crossing into Georgia-proper to take the town of Gori.

At least one Georgian naval vessel was sunk by the Russian Black Sea fleet. In the face of the Russian offensive the Georgian army melted.

On August 12, the pro-independence administration of Abkhazia (another unrecognised statelet that separated from Georgia after the dissolution of the Soviet Union) took advantage of the situation to dislodge Georgian forces occupying 17% of its territory.

The fighting has killed thousands of civilians, the majority South Ossetian. According to Russia, 2000 Ossetian civillians were killed by the Georgian shelling of Tskhinvali.

Russian airstrikes against populated areas, including in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and the assault on Gori, has also resulted in high civilian casualties. Reports have emerged alleging atrocities by all sides.

US role

Saakashvili came to power in the so-called “rose revolution” in 2003, a combination of a mass movement against the corrupt former government and covert US-instigated regime change.

Under his rule, Georgia has become a close ally of the West, with the US and Israel providing arms and military advisors.

The US has hailed Saakashvili as a “model democrat” (rigged elections notwithstanding) and has promised to defend Georgian sovereignty — supporting Georgia’s claims over Abkhazia and South Ossetia and pushing for Georgia to be accepted as a member of NATO (something Russia is resolutely opposed to).

Saakashvili demonstrated his commitment to this alliance by dispatching 2500 Georgian troops to Iraq, the largest contingent after the US and Britain.

The expectation that the US and other Wester powers would provide support, including military, to its attempts to reclaim South Ossetia is the only explanation for Georgia’s move to provoke a war with Russia. Georgia has a population of just 4 million compared to Russia’s more than 140 million. The Russian army dwarfs Georgia’s and Russia has the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal.

Russia’s powerful military retaliation was predictable. Russia already feels its interests are threatened by the expansion of NATO right up to its borders and was unlikely to take an attempt to further erode its sphere of influence without responding.

Western hypocrisy

The hypocrisy of Western leaders and media in condemning Russia’s actions is striking. It is justified largely by claims that Georgia is a “new democracy” — a code word for “pro-West”. The brutality of the US-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan leaves the US and other Western powers with no moral high ground from which to deliver lectures to Russia.

However, the failure of US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan makes going to war with Russia in support of Georgia’s claims over South Ossetia and Abkhazia far from an ideal option for Washington, and the Georgian government has largely been left dangling by its erstwhile allies.

The only military support so far given by the US has been to transport the Georgian forces back from Iraq.

On August 15, US secretary for defence Robert Gates stated that US involvement would be restricted to humanitarian aid, declaring, “I don’t see any prospect for the use of military force by the United States in this situation. Is that clear enough?”

While US leaders (and presidential hopefuls) have been full of praise for Georgia and condemnation of Russia, the only demands they have put on Russia have been to refrain from overthrowing Saakashvili’s government and to withdraw troops from Georgia-proper, although not from South Ossetia or Abkhazia.

Furthermore, the US has deferred to a peace initiative by current European Union head, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, despite France having a less confrontational stance toward Russia. In April, at the meeting of NATO heads of state in Bucharest, France and Germany blocked US attempts to gain Georgia NATO membership.

Russia's goals

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has reponded that the overthrow of Saakashvili is not a Russian objective and that Russian forces would be withdrawn from Georgia-proper. However, on August 15 a third of Georgian territory was still under Russian control, including the main port, Poti, where the Russian troops are reported to be systamatically sinking Georgian naval boats. Russia seems intent on destroying Georgia’s military capability before it withdraws.

While thousands of Georgians have rallied in Tbilisi in support of Saakashvili, Western media have also reported growing anger against the president by Georgians blaming him for bringing the destructive wrath of Russia upon the country.

“Why did [Saakashvili] take on Russia with 10,000 soldiers? Maybe he was thinking somebody would help us. But nobody did … We hope Saakashvili disappears from Georgia … because he’s a bastard”, the August 13 Guardian quoted a 24-year-old student as saying.

Such sentiments have been particularly strong among refugees fleeing the advancing Russian forces.

US global power weakened

While Russia has been politically and militarily strengthened by Saakashvili’s adventure, the US has had the limits of its global power demonstrated.

US President George Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have appealed for Russia to respect international legality, prompting Russian leaders to justify their war with reference to the Bush administration’s justifications for its own military adventures.

“Of course, Saddam Hussein ought to have been hanged for destroying several Shiite villages … And the incumbent Georgian leaders who razed 10 Ossetian villages at once … these leaders must be taken under protection”, Putin responded sarcastically.

Bush’s August 15 comments that “Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century”, is unlikely to provoke anything but laughter.

The Bush administration must bear much of the responsibility for this war, especially for its diplomatic support for, and military aid to, the ultranationalist Saakashvili, both directly and through its Israeli proxy.

Oil?

However, it seems unlikely that the US directly authorised Saakashvili’s attack on South Ossetia. The main economic significance of Georgia to the West is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline that takes natural gas from the Caspian Sea to Turkey’s mediterranean coast.

This pipeline does not run through Abkhazia or South Ossetia and no Western interests are threatened by Russian control of these territories.

The current fighting, however, does have the potential of threatening the pipeline. Furthermore, Saakashvili’s recklessness has vindicated Franco-German opposition to Georgia’s NATO membership.

On August 15, Saakashvili agreed to a US-supported EU-initiated ceasefire that would leave Russia in effective control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia while Russian troops withdraw from Georgia-proper.

While he insisted that this arrangement was not the basis of a permanant peace settlement, Saakashvili is not in a position to affect the final outcome.

Russia has drawn parallels with the Western-supported independence of Kosova from Serbia (which has left Kosova under Western “supervision”) and hinted that it may end its opposition to Kosovan independence if the West recognises a similar Russian-supervised independence arrangement for Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Unification between South Ossetia and North Ossetia-Alania is supported by most Ossetians.

However the current conflictis eventually resolved, it is clear that the division of the world according to the needs great powers on behalf of competing economic interests is the source of permanent instability that constantly threatens to, and regularly does, explode into warfare. As long as this system remains, the threat of wars like the one that has broken out between Russia and Georgia hangs over humanity.

[From Green Left Weekly issue #763, August 20, 2008.]

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