Thursday, August 14, 2008

Charles Fairbanks (and others) on the Russian Invasion of Georgia

Charles Fairbanks, former State Department official and Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, was interviewed for The New Republic. He comments on events unfolding around the Russian invasion of Georgia.

Everyone in Russia and everyone in Georgia, minus half a dozen people I could name, regards this as a proxy war, like the Korean War. They all thought Russia and Georgia were waging war, but we were the hand behind the glove of Georgia. So absolutely, without any question [Russia was targeting the West]. The more recent annoyances were that, while the United States constantly talked about friendship with Russia, and Bush talked about Putin as a real friend and a Christian, from the Russian point of view, every specific aspect of American foreign policy was hostile to Russian pride and to Russian interests. The leading items are NATO expansion--which achieved many good things, but it had an inevitable price, which no one was saving up to pay--and Caspian strategy, which, from the Russian point of view, amounts to filching away pieces of what is, in principle, the Russian empire.
Things look very, very different in the last 10 months than they did during the Rose Revolution. When the Georgian government smashed up the only independent television station for the whole of Georgia on November 7, beat up the journalists, and closed it down, President Bush's emissary delivered a public ultimatum that it had to be returned to the airwaves. The Georgian government never let anything political return on that channel: no news, no talk shows, nothing. We just dropped our demand, as though we had no influence over tiny Georgia, and invited the president who had crushed free television to the White House for hugs and photo-ops. We don't follow through on anything we say we insist on for democracy, and ignoring our demands has no consequences. So the bellicose elements in the Georgian leadership drew the inference: Our warnings against war for South Ossetia must be empty gestures. The feebleness of our democracy promotion efforts bore poisoned geopolitical fruit, and we were surprised by that.

Read the whole thing.

Digby argues that the same people who have muddled through the last eight years will spin these events into a cold war reprise. There Will be Bloodlust, she says...

The neocons and their hawkish buddies are not like other people. They don't learn from their errors or make any changes in strategy due to facts or experience or even embarrassment. They just keep repeating themselves over and over and over again, decade after decade, without any acknowledgment of their failures, simply changing the rhetoric to represent a different country on the Risk board. Indeed, that may be the whole point. Conservative hawks, in one form or another, have managed to dominate American foreign policy ever since WWII, in both the presidency and as a political constituency in Washington. They do it through red-baiting, race-baiting and chauvinistic appeals to demaaahcracy 'n freedom. It's been tough for them lately, with Iraq being an epic cock-up and Iran just not being a worthy adversary for a superpower. Terrorism doesn't fit their worldview. A resumption of the cold war, however, would be a return to their glory days. The Democrats would be fools not to be prepared this time.

Michael J. Totten is on his way to the area by prior happenstance arrangements.

Just as I’m ready to board a plane for Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Caucasus region, Russia invades South Ossetia in Georgia next door.

The Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy invited me to Baku for a week, and I figured I’d be heading to a region that hardly anyone would be paying attention to. That turned out to be wrong. I won’t be flying to the war, but I’m about to fly over it and will land right next to it.

The whole area is a big mess. Chechnya, of course, is the most notorious part of the Caucasus region, but all these countries are dysfunctionally wrapped up in each others’ business.

To understand the backstory of this mess, he offers this advice:

If you want some solid background reading about the hell that broke loose in Georgia a few days ago, take a look at this dispatch by Joshua Kucera from South Ossetia that Slate published a few months ago. You’ll learn a lot more reading that than you will from wire agency reports that focus mostly on tank movements and body counts.

Email from someone who just recently completed her PhD in Russian history, University of London. This is via
Bernard Avishai whose blog you can find in my blogroll.

The whole situation makes me weep. But Russia's actions don't any more than Georgia's. It is too early to really know what's been going on. But Condoleezza Rice is using dangerous, completely inaccurate historical analogies which will not contribute to solving this crisis. On the contrary, Rice's comparison of Russia's move into Ossetia to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 is so wrong that it almost gave me a heart attack. It certainly made me (once again) extremely cynical about the rhetoric of American foreign policy which, at least under this administration, is setting a world record for combining moral arrogance with complete ignorance of history; for a disregard for the complexity of reality, especially in an ethnically diverse region like the Caucasus.

The last thing I want to do is to justify Russian actions which have definitely gone too far. But Saakashvili went into South Ossetia first. The Russians are nationalistic and xenophobic, but so are the Georgians. When the Soviet Union collapsed, South Ossetia (which had been an autonomous region within the Georgian republic, and which even enjoyed brief independence in the 1920s) wanted to join Russia. North Ossetia is a part of Russia, and 98% of the population in the south voted in favor--especially as the Georgian regime after the collapse of the USSR operated under the strongly nationalistic slogan "Georgia for the Georgians," seriously threatening ethnic minorities like the Ossetians. Georgia then marched into South Ossetia and razed much of it to the ground. After an international agreement, the Russians were appointed peacekeepers, but the situation continued to be a ticking time bomb.

I know the US loves Saakashvili because he was educated in the US and speaks good English, but he is anything but a little democratic lamb. He also ran on a platform to regain full control of separatist regions like South Ossetia and started to build up troops there. The situation further deteriorated since the international acknowledgment of Kosovo's independence.

Watching all of this, I can't help thinking that the US clearly applies the principle of self-determination very selectively. If Georgia were Russia, and Russia were Georgia, the US would call for the world to accept South Ossetia's right for self-determination. Again, I am not in favor of what Russia has been doing, but I am appalled by the US rhetoric because it will only contribute to further escalation. Why can the US never see shades of grey, but instead has to use the rhetoric of black vs. white, good vs. evil?

The US understandably cares about the balance of power in the Caucasus, but why does it need to evoke 1968 and throw oil on the flames? This is not the moment for warped rhetoric and sound bites, but for astute diplomacy. And as always, the civilians in both South Ossetia and Georgia are the ones who'll suffer.

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