Lessons of the Caucasus war: Imperial ambitions need to be opposed

By Andrey Kolganov and Aleksandr Buzgalin, translated by Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal’s Renfrey Clarke

Moscow, September 2, 2008 -- To most Russians, it was obvious from the beginning that the latest war in the Caucasus began with an attack by Georgian forces on South Ossetia, and that ultimately it was unleashed on the initiative of the United States. To the West, meanwhile, it was just as clear from the outset that the August war in the Caucasus represented an assault on small, defenceless and democratic Georgia by huge, aggressive and authoritarian Russia. This is what almost all the world media have asserted, and continue to assert. To a significant degree, this is even believed by a significant section of world civil society, including by anti-globalisation activists who for the most part have little sympathy for the US establishment.

Why are there such directly counterposed versions of the same events? Why, after nearly 20 years of warm post-Soviet “friendship”, have Russia and the US so rapidly, and in such radical fashion, taken up positions on the opposite sides of the barricades? Are the politics of Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev so different from those of Russia;s first post-Soviet President Boris Yeltsin? Has Russia really become either an “enemy of democracy” (from the point of view of the West), or the “defender and hope of the anti-imperial forces” (from the point of view of Russian state officials)?

What does the conflict in the Caucasus signify? Is it the prologue to a new worldwide confrontation between the “democratic” empire of the West (with its centre in the US) and Russia’s mini-empire on the periphery? Or is it “merely” one in a series of local wars?

1. The Russian authorities demonstrated long ago that they should not be believed. This time, however, things are different.

We shall not be saying anything about the “democratic” and “pacifist” nature of the regime of Georgia’s Mikheil Saakashvili; a great deal has been written on this topic already. We must, however, address the subject of Russia, since it is no accident that so many people in the West are convinced of Russian aggression.

Concealed behind the façade of the Yeltsin-Putin administration (and Putin, we should recall, presents himself openly and officially as the successor to Yeltsin) lies a thoroughly aggressive strain of politics whose most vicious manifestation has been the bloody war against the Chechen people. Tens of thousands have been killed, and Chechnya’s capital Grozny has been reduced to ruins.

Behind the façade erected by our authorities are to be found not just increasingly anti-democratic domestic policies, but also a continuation of anti-social, hard-line market “reforms”. In Russia, Putin and Co. are putting into practice an economic and social model that is more market-liberal even than in the US, and even less socially oriented than in the US; in this sense, the Putins and Medvedevs are more than worthy pupils of the Bushes).

The Russian authorities, as is generally known, have been responsible for countless examples of “not quite precise” information. Everywhere, except in Russia, therefore, most people have refused to believe it when the Russian authorities have for once told the truth: the Saakashvili regime launched an aggressive assault on the citizens of South Ossetia.

As will be explained later, the Russian authorities did not, of course, tell the whole truth this time either. Their main assertion, however, was correct: Georgian forces used rocket artillery to unleash powerful blows against South Ossetia. They attacked Ossetian villages and seized its capital, Tskhinvali. In the process, they destroyed houses, hospitals and infrastructure. They killed more than 2000 peaceful citizens, including old people, women and children. That is the truth; it has been documented, including by Western journalists and reputable public figures. It is a truth which most people in the West do not know about.

Here in Russia, almost everyone believed it immediately. This was no accident either. For many years, people in our country have longed to be able to take pride in their homeland. Most of us, meanwhile, have never learned to conceive of our homeland as anything except the state. Nor have we learned to understand the state as anything except the president and the army. This is regrettable, and monstrous, but it is a fact.

Russians have yearned for just authorities, for a “benevolent tsar”. They have longed to be complicit in some good deed or other. This is why they immediately believed the authorities, and why most of our compatriots do not even want to hear about the far-from-innocent actions of the Russian authorities in this conflict.

We have written repeatedly about the sources of this yearning on the part of the majority of Russians, and it is not this that we are addressing here. What the discussion relates to in this case is the fact that circumstances were such that the top authorities in our country, largely as a result of the actions of Saakashvili and Bush, were forced to act more or less justly and properly. The logic of these spontaneously unfolding events simply did not leave the Russian authorities any alternative. Who knows, perhaps some of them even rejoiced in the chance to finally give effect to an ex-Soviet nostalgia for things just and proper.

Whatever the case, they started defending people who really needed defending. They did this badly, using appalling methods. They will try, and are already trying, to make use of these basically justified actions to further their far from justified imperial ambitions. But they did this, and willingly or unwillingly, placed themselves in the position of an alternative to the US and NATO. Did the Russian authorities want to enter into opposition to NATO in such a radically new way? In our view, no. But the logic of events forced them to take precisely these steps, and to adopt this position.

Meanwhile the Russian people, hungering for at least something just and worthy in the actions of their state, have given this state their wholehearted backing.

We repeat that such behaviour by the official Russian authorities was almost certainly not the result of a consistently thought-out position of defending justice and the right of nations to self-determination in the world political arena. The Russian authorities have never taken this position, and are not doing so now. This position has resulted from the fact that the armed forces and ordinary people, first of all, began acting in a way that they considered just. They could not fail to resist the mass extermination of a peaceful population. The Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia began taking armed action against the hirelings of Saakashvili, in some cases fighting to the death. The commanders of Russian army units gave them resolute backing. The majority of the Russian people gave their immediate and unconditional support to these actions.

Precisely how the Russian forces acted, and what happened in the Caucasus on the second, third and subsequent days, is a different question. A very important question, but a different one.

Almost nothing has been said in our country on this topic, but the Russian authorities, who have long aimed to make Russia out to be some kind of empire, and who have planned to do this precisely in the Caucasus region, could not fail to exploit this situation. And indeed, they exploited it.

How precisely? And were their actions always just? In our view, no.

It is a fact that the Russian armed forces struck blows against military bases outside the territory of South Ossetia and Abkhazia (in Gori, Senaki, Vaziani, and elsewhere). The results of these strikes included the destruction of civilian installations, and there were victims among peaceful residents.

It is a fact that the Russian armed forces significantly strengthened their positions in Abkhazia, substantially altering the status quo as it existed in early August.

It is a fact that the Russian authorities are seeking to exploit the new situation to strengthen their geopolitical positions in the region.

These are facts. There are also numerous questions which must be answered with facts ready to hand, and finding such facts has been almost impossible.

There have been many lies in the West about this war, but have the reports of Russian aircraft also bombing residential districts in Georgia, and of Russian troops also killing peaceful civilians, exclusively been lies?

Did the threat of an attack by Russian forces on Tbilisi, a threat which forced the Georgian military and officials to flee from Gori, represent a real danger?

Why, how precisely, and on the basis of whose decision, did Russian forces penetrate beyond the borders of South Ossetian territory? Why, in particular, did they appear in Gori? And so forth.

Then there is the supremely important question: Were the actions of Russia and (no less important) those of the US and Saakashvili justified, and were they in the interests of the peoples of the Caucasus and of Russia? What relation do these interests have to the principles of international law?

2. Why the war began: the international roots of the attack on South Ossetia

Given the degree of dependency of Saakashvili’s regime on US support, there is no doubt that armed actions could be undertaken only with the approval, and indeed on the direct instructions of the overseas sponsors of the present-day Georgian authorities. The main question, therefore, is not why Mikheil Saakashvili contrived a bloody military adventure, but why this was necessary to the US.

There are two major reasons for such actions on the part of the Bush. One of these is conjunctural, and the other more fundamental.

The conjunctural reason is associated with the forthcoming US presidential elections. The Republican administration decided to allow its candidate to “show some muscle”. To judge by a CNN poll, the overwhelming majority of Americans – despite the propaganda lies – understand who in this case was the aggressor and who the victim. Nevertheless, this same majority is highly susceptible to the jingoist rhetoric of its politicians. John McCain thus scored some points in the election race, though only a few, and in this respect the calculations of the Bush administration were borne out.

The more fundamental cause has to do with the situation in the US and world economies. There are a number of components.

In the first place, it has long been customary for many US administrations to react to economic difficulties by whipping up international tensions. This makes it possible to inject additional funds into the economy in the form of military spending, and to justify a range of unpopular measures. Will such methods work this time? It is doubtful. The US is already involved in two drawn-out military operations, in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose prospects are dim. The evidence suggests that the US is not about to give Saakashvili any direct military backing, since this would mean a military confrontation with Russia. Meanwhile, the Iraqi and Afghan problems make such a confrontation undesirable; indeed, they give the US an interest in having Russia maintain at least a benevolent neutrality in the regions involved. Arms shipments to Georgia and financial support for Saakashvili, together with loud political rhetoric, would hardly succeed in creating the effect needed to improve the economic conjuncture in the US.

Secondly, the US is not above using the situation against its European partners. In the 1990s the NATO action against Yugoslavia, by exacerbating tensions in Europe, allowed the US to slow the rise in the exchange rate of the euro and the rapid strengthening of the role of the euro as a reserve currency and as a currency for international contracts. Now, with the decline in the US economy and the growth of inflation, the European countries are losing part of the export market for their goods. The European economy is significantly more dependent on the state of its exports than is the economy of the US; this is why the decline in the European economy is already more severe than in the case of its US counterpart.

In these circumstances, one of the anchors capable of saving Europe from sliding into a still more destructive crisis is represented by the relatively low prices in the long-term contracts under which Europe is supplied with energy and raw materials from Russia. To maintain these prices, Europe needs good relations with Moscow. This is why the US has made such efforts to exploit the tragedy in South Ossetia in order to force its European partners into a sharp worsening of relations with Russia. The calculations of the Bush administration are relatively simple, and there is nothing new about them: if there is a significant deterioration in the economic and financial situation in Europe, this could provoke a flight of European capital to the US, where conditions appear to be at least relatively more prosperous. This would allow the US to bolster its tottering economy.

Will this trick work? So long as Europe is inclined on the diplomatic level to make a show of Euro-Atlantic solidarity, even if not with any special zeal, the US will want to do the same. It is quite obvious, however, that Europe has no wish to go beyond verbal rhetoric. This is why the US devotes such great attention to the new members of the European Union and NATO, counting on them as clients who are able to exert pressure on the “old” Europe. In particular, this is why the US agreed so promptly to Poland’s conditions for the stationing of elements of the anti-missile defence shield on its territory. For the US, the chance to mobilise the efforts of Poland and other “novices” to advance its positions in NATO and the European Union is no less important than the anti-Russian thrust of the anti-missile system.

The chance that such schemes will be successful are not, of course, very great. By no means least important here is the tough position adopted by Russia; this has forced not only Europe but even the US to show caution in its practical moves, however sharp the tone of the speeches and declarations.

3. Georgian aggression and the position of Russia

Why is Russia’s position on the South Ossetian problem (and on that of Abkhazia) now so different from its position in the first half of the 1990s?

There is no doubt that Medvedev and Putin have taken into account the economic and political reasons why a serious confrontation with Russia would be extremely disadvantageous both for Europe and for the US. This is one of the secrets behind the Russian leaders’ firmness. But there are domestic political reasons as well.

In the course of its economic recovery Russia has grown stronger both in economic and in military respects, despite all the problems remaining in the Russian army. The Russian ruling elite are now making use of the fruits of a favourable economic conjuncture and of political stability. The economic prosperity, however, rests on insufficiently solid foundations. It is undermined by a series of profound systemic problems that include the low technical level of Russian industry, resulting in poor competitiveness; weak innovation, and consequently, technological dependence on the West; extremely obsolete and worn-out infrastructure, including the communal service networks in the towns, the energy and transport systems, and so forth; the crisis of the pension system; the loss of independence in food supplies; the growing dependence of banking and corporate capital on Western credits; and so forth.

The threat of economic shocks is growing as the world economic crisis unfolds, and as the possibility appears of a further fall in oil prices. If this happens, the techniques of political manipulation that have ensured political stability until now may not work any longer. Hence the aggressive action by Georgia against the Ossetian people has allowed the Kremlin to take on the role of defender of the general interests of Russian society, and in the process, to win additional support among the population (in the same way, it was Putin’s actions in repelling inroads by bandits into Dagestan that spurred the growth of his authority).

In the present case, the conjunctural political interests of the Kremlin administration and the interests of the overwhelming majority of the Russian people have coincided. If we add to this the growth of nationalist moods in Russia, something that has now been under way for many years, the ruling circles have made a bet they cannot lose. They are guaranteed of mass support, especially since in this case the actions of the Russian authorities have in the main been justified.

So what has happened in South Ossetia? Aggression? Genocide? A stern rebuff to presumptuous Georgian warriors?

Yes, all these have been present.

But the acute problem of the imperial ambitions and actions of Russia has been present as well, and it remains a factor.

Also present, and remaining, has been a cynical behind-the-scenes game by countries that describe themselves as free, democratic and civilised, but which unhesitatingly sacrifice thousands of peaceful citizens to their political calculations. This, undoubtedly, is the crime of the ruling elites of the US, and of its satellites and allies.

Most importantly, there remain the people of the Caucasus, who are compelled to live and develop under these circumstances.

4. The principled defence of the interests of peoples is more important than Realpolitik

It is no accident that geopolitics, like politics in general, is considered a matter for “realists”. Here it is not considered good form to speak of principles, morality and so forth. If people mention such things, it is only in connection with the need to mount one or another public relations action.

Still less has it been considered good form, especially in recent decades, to speak of interests and of the socioeconomic roots of policy in the context of geopolitics. More and more, the discussion here is of “states” and “elites”. Meanwhile, the state as an apparatus of power is identified vaguely but universally with the people of a country and with its territory, and the ruling socio-political forces with the nation’s elite in the intellectual and moral sense.

But is this really how things are?

The new war in the Caucasus has once again shown the inadequacy of such a view; in this respect, it continues the series of lessons from Afghanistan, the Balkans and Iraq (to speak only of recent decades). In geopolitics, principled behaviour has well-known foundations.

If nations or peoples want to be independent, and to have their own statehood, they must not be opposed in this. Especially with force, and especially from outside.

If peoples and nations want to enter into unions, these unions must be voluntary. And here the use of force, including economic coercion and politico-ideological manipulation, is inadmissible.

The imperial ambitions of any state or bloc of states must be resisted, and decisively.

Meanwhile, it must be remembered that nations and peoples are not homogeneous, and that under modern conditions the majority of citizens are excluded from the deciding of geopolitical questions. In some cases, clan-corporate groups interwoven with the bureaucratic state apparatus attempt to express citizens’ opinions. In other cases it is the largest private and state corporate structures, concealed beneath the trappings of liberal democracy. In yet other cases it is semi-feudal, semi-capitalist structures, hiding behind one or another set of religious ideas.

It must also be remembered that any national grouping is subject to enormous pressure (military, economic and ideological-political) from a group of states and blocs (above all, but not only, the US and NATO) that lay claim to imperial status.

This is familiar to everyone, but no less pertinent for that fact.

Precisely for this reason, in geopolitics it is especially important for states that claim to be cooperating justly and democratically in solving international conflicts to clearly formulate the principles on which they stand, while using all available peaceful means to help the majority of “rank and file” citizens of one or another social entity – South Ossetia or Abkhazia, Chechnya or Kosovo – to formulate, express and defend their positions democratically and independently. It is necessary to say out loud: What are they seeking? Is it independence? Is it membership in a union? Which union, with whom, and on what conditions?

It is especially important to support this approach through blocking external imperial or other pressure on peoples and nations that are seeking independence. This is especially true if the pressure comes from outside and takes the character of armed aggression. And if those seeking independence ask for help. And if the UN and other international institutions fail to make their presence felt, if all this is the case, then it is necessary to aid the people’s struggle for independence, including through the use of force.

After that, however, it is necessary to remove this force, promptly and without fail. To cut off the head of the dragon is a matter of conscience and honour. But to seat oneself in the dragon’s armchair is categorically forbidden; there, one will grow horns, fangs and a tail…

In this sense, Russia acted justly when it supported the aspirations of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to their independence.

But the people who do not trust the Russian dragon are also correct. Seizing the dragon’s throne by force, Russia has already turned from a liberator into an invader.

If the Russian authorities from the very beginning (and the beginning here was the first Chechen war, if not earlier) had taken a firm position of defending the right of nations and peoples to self-determination, the support which these authorities enjoy in the present confrontation would be incomparably broader. But that was not and is not the case. Consequently, even international democratic forces that are critical of the US do not trust the Russian authorities. And consequently, national groupings within Russia that would have been willing finally to trust the Russian authorities, do not.

Here we would like to point to a few more important elements that bear on various lessons of the August war.

First, however, a few words about international law and the principle of the inviolability of national boundaries. Over the past 20 years the world political map has changed repeatedly and radically. The borders of the USSR have vanished along with the USSR itself. The borders of the Federal Republic of Germany have moved eastward. On the territory of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, independent states have arisen. More than 15 years ago, virtually all consistently democratic forces (unlike the pro-Yeltsin “democrats”) took a stand in defence of the right of the Chechen people to self-determination, even though this would have been an obvious breach of the principle of the inviolability of borders. Quite recently, the Western political establishment gave decisive support to a new breach of this principle, concerning recognition of the independence of Kosovo.

Unfortunately, the experience of recent decades shows that most of the NATO states and Russia as well regard both the right of peoples to self-determination and the principle of the inviolability of national boundaries in cynical and pragmatic fashion. If it is advantageous for them to support these principles, they will support them. If this support is disadvantageous, the principles will be ignored.

5. A few words on the lessons of the new Caucasus war

We shall begin by noting that the inconsistent geopolitical approach of the Russian authorities (who depending on what they find advantageous, either support the sovereignty of “small nationalities” or oppose it) dealt them a painful blow precisely when they did something really useful, defending thousands of people in South Ossetia. The worst of the situation is that this blow, in a sort of ricochet effect, is also being felt by the citizens of the Russian Federation and by the anti-fascist forces of most of the world’s countries.

Outside our country’s borders, the Russian authorities are not trusted, and this is bad. Far worse, however, is the fact that this mistrust extends to the citizens of Russia, many of whom aided their Caucasus comrades honestly and sincerely, at the expense of their energies and sometimes their lives.

This is bad, and bad for us. It is bad for those members of international civil society who do not distinguish between the Russian authorities and Russian citizens.

Unfortunately, this is a well-earned payback for the fact that most of us Russians did not oppose the authorities’ imperial geopolitics earlier. And it is a payback for the fact that many of us are now inclined to support these geopolitics more strongly than ever.

It is also a payback for the attempts, variously active and half-hearted, by our country’s authorities to depict themselves as the rulers of a “mini-empire”.

It is high time for us, and the country, finally to do something really worthwhile. Such as giving not only Abkhazians and Ossetians, but also Chechens the right to finally make a genuinely free decision on the question of their independence. In doing this, we should stop relying on behind-the-scenes trade-offs with the chiefs of various local clans.

We should make a clear distinction between the people of Georgia and the authorities that support Saakashvili, and we should help Georgians living in Russia to feel at home. We should take a series of steps to develop Georgian-Russian friendship in the fields of culture, education and popular diplomacy.

The West as well would be strongly recommended to start thinking about its policies, about its lack of principle with regard to questions of the self-determination of peoples. Also with regard to Russia, and to the importance of distinguishing between the citizens of Russia and the Russian authorities.

These are lessons, however, which neither the authorities nor most of the forces that practice Realpolitik are so far prepared to draw from their experience. Neither in Russia, nor in the West. Here in Russia, the tendency to support the state is growing ever stronger. In the West, formal pretexts have appeared for at last finding the “enemy of democracy”. Both of these roads lead into a dead-end.

We are certain that after having merited a certain trust as a result of actions that in their essence were genuinely correct, the Russian authorities will hardly succeed in turning this potential for trust into reality. The Russian authorities express the interests of forces which have pursued, and most likely will pursue, policies which are fundamentally anti-social, undemocratic and petty imperial. With their character as it is, the Russian authorities sooner or later will squander this potential for trust. They will squander it in the same way as the authorities of the Russian Empire, which in the late 19th century supported the genuinely just struggle by the Balkan peoples for their independence in the war against Turkey (which at that time, we should note, enjoyed the support of Great Britain, the super-empire of the 19th century).

The West will make certain that the demonisation of Russia as a country (unlike criticism of the Putins, Medvedevs and so forth) is monstrously damaging not only for the peoples of Russia, but also for the West, where the first volleys in a new cold war are strengthening conservative right-wing political forces which even without this are becoming increasingly influential. These forces support a liberal-capitalist social and economic course; aggressively imperial geopolitics; and increasingly conservative, authoritarian domestic policies, crushing the rights and freedoms of individuals, of unions and of social movements.

All this means that peaceful, consistently democratic, anti-imperial alternatives are now more important than ever. So too is solidarity between the forces advancing and defending these alternatives, in Russia and around the world.

[The authors are members of the central council of the all-Russian social movement ``Alternatives’’, alternativy@tochka.ru.]