Sunday, 24 August 2008

Oceania v Eurasia once again?

Tweedledumber and Tweedledee.

For nearly two decades I haven't had to worry about a nuclear war in Europe. Maybe nuclear wars elsewhere (ie the Middle East, India v Pakistan, Korea) and possibly a "dirty bomb" being exploded in a Western city by a terrorist group, but not an all-out nuclear conflict between the West and Russia. However, the events of the last couple of weeks has made me think that the possibility is back.

There are definitely a lot of important and/or loud people in the West (and I should think in Russia too) who would love to see the Cold War back. If Georgia was a member of NATO we would be in a shooting war with the Russians by now. Some idiots think we should have helped Georgia after its attempt to take over South Ossetia by force went awry: how? Send troops in? (Very few of these armchair generals are prepared to go themselves to anywhere more dangerous than their laptops.) Where would that end? Perhaps some people should watch The Day After and Threads and see what a nuclear war with the Russians would be like.

What has really annoyed me in the last couple of weeks has been the characterisation of Georgia as the 'Plucky Little Belgium/Poland' of the Twenty First Century, fighting against the Russian jackboot. The Russian military are not saints, as the war in Chechenya shows, but they did not kick off the current round of fighting in the Caucasus. Furthermore, Messrs Putin and Medvedev do not need lessons in corruption, ballot rigging and intimidating their domestic opponents from Mikheil Saaskashvili. I mean, who wins 94% in a Presidential contest outside of North Korea these days? The best piece I have seen so far on the whole situation comes from Mark Almond who, as someone who practically supported dissidents in the Eastern Bloc during the 1980s, is far from a Russian stooge:

Plucky little Georgia? No, the cold war reading won't wash: It is crudely simplistic to cast Russia as the sole villain in the clashes over South Ossetia. The west would be wise to stay out
Mark Almond, The Guardian, Saturday August 9 2008

For many people the sight of Russian tanks streaming across a border in August has uncanny echoes of Prague 1968. That cold war reflex is natural enough, but after two decades of Russian retreat from those bastions it is misleading. Not every development in the former Soviet Union is a replay of Soviet history.

The clash between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia, which escalated dramatically yesterday, in truth has more in common with the Falklands war of 1982 than it does with a cold war crisis. When the Argentine junta was basking in public approval for its bloodless recovery of Las Malvinas, Henry Kissinger anticipated Britain's widely unexpected military response with the comment: "No great power retreats for ever." Maybe today Russia has stopped the long retreat to Moscow which started under Gorbachev.

Back in the late 1980s, as the USSR waned, the red army withdrew from countries in eastern Europe which plainly resented its presence as the guarantor of unpopular communist regimes. That theme continued throughout the new republics of the deceased Soviet Union, and on into the premiership of Putin, under whom Russian forces were evacuated even from the country's bases in Georgia.

To many Russians this vast geopolitical retreat from places which were part of Russia long before the dawn of communist rule brought no bonus in relations with the west. The more Russia drew in its horns, the more Washington and its allies denounced the Kremlin for its imperial ambitions.

Unlike in eastern Europe, for instance, today in breakaway states such as South Ossetia or Abkhazia, Russian troops are popular. Vladimir Putin's picture is more widely displayed than that of the South Ossetian president, the former Soviet wrestling champion Eduard Kokoity. The Russians are seen as protectors against a repeat of ethnic cleansing by Georgians.

In 1992, the west backed Eduard Shevardnadze's attempts to reassert Georgia's control over these regions. The then Georgian president's war was a disaster for his nation. It left 300,000 or more refugees "cleansed" by the rebel regions, but for Ossetians and Abkhazians the brutal plundering of the Georgian troops is the most indelible memory.

Georgians have nursed their humiliation ever since. Although Mikheil Saakashvili has done little for the refugees since he came to power early in 2004 - apart from move them out of their hostels in central Tbilisi to make way for property development - he has spent 70% of the Georgian budget on his military. At the start of the week he decided to flex his muscles.

Devoted to achieving Nato entry for Georgia, Saakashvili has sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan - and so clearly felt he had American backing. The streets of the Georgian capital are plastered with posters of George W Bush alongside his Georgian protege. George W Bush avenue leads to Tbilisi airport. But he has ignored Kissinger's dictum: "Great powers don't commit suicide for their allies." Perhaps his neoconservative allies in Washington have forgotten it, too. Let's hope not.

Like Galtieri in 1982, Saakashvili faces a domestic economic crisis and public disillusionment. In the years since the so-called Rose revolution, the cronyism and poverty that characterised the Shevardnadze era have not gone away. Allegations of corruption and favouritism towards his mother's clan, together with claims of election fraud, led to mass demonstrations against Saakashvili last November. His ruthless security forces - trained, equipped and subsidised by the west - thrashed the protesters. Lashing out at the Georgians' common enemy in South Ossetia would certainly rally them around the president, at least in the short term.

Last September, President Saakashvili suddenly turned on his closest ally in the Rose revolution, defence minister Irakli Okruashvili. Each man accused his former blood brother of mafia links and profiting from contraband. Whatever the truth, the fact that the men seen by the west as the heroes of a post-Shevardnadze clean-up accused each other of vile crimes should warn us against picking a local hero in Caucasian politics.

Western geopolitical commentators stick to cold war simplicities about Russia bullying plucky little Georgia. However, anyone familiar with the Caucasus knows that the state bleating about its victim status at the hands of a bigger neighbour can be just as nasty to its smaller subjects. Small nationalisms are rarely sweet-natured.

Worse still, western backing for "equip and train" programmes in Russia's backyard don't contribute to peace and stability if bombastic local leaders such as Saakashvili see them as a guarantee of support even in a crisis provoked by his own actions. He seems to have thought that the valuable oil pipeline passing through his territory, together with the Nato advisers intermingled with his troops, would prevent Russia reacting militarily to an incursion into South Ossetia. That calculation has proved disastrously wrong.

The question now is whether the conflict can be contained, or whether the west will be drawn in, raising the stakes to desperate levels. To date the west has operated radically different approaches to secession in the Balkans, where pro-western microstates get embassies, and the Caucasus, where the Caucasian boundaries drawn up by Stalin, are deemed sacrosanct.

In the Balkans, the west promoted the disintegration of multiethnic Yugoslavia, climaxing with their recognition of Kosovo's independence in February. If a mafia-dominated microstate like Montenegro can get western recognition, why shouldn't flawed, pro-Russian, unrecognised states aspire to independence, too?

Given its extraordinary ethnic complexity, Georgia is a post-Soviet Union in miniature. If westerners readily conceded non-Russian republics' right to secede from the USSR in 1991, what is the logic of insisting that non-Georgians must remain inside a microempire which happens to be pro-western?

Other people's nationalisms are like other people's love affairs, or, indeed, like dog fights. These are things wise people don't get involved in. A war in the Caucasus is never a straightforward moral crusade - but then, how many wars are?

Mark Almond is a history lecturer at Oriel College, Oxford

To be honest, you've got to be a bit certifiable to start a war with Russia (or with the USA and China for that matter). History shows the Russians are not good soldiers when they march into other countries for no good reason, but on their home soil, with the local population behind them, you are not likely to come out on top, as Napoleon and Hitler found to their cost.

One man who certainly gives the impression that he would like to march on Moscow is John McCain. I invest no hopes in Barack Obama changing the world for the better if he becomes US President, but McCain seems intent on making things worse. Even if you do not think McCain is the Anti-Christ, he is definitely someone who gives the impression of being an instinctive warmonger:

If it’s war we want, McCain will deliver:The Republican candidate has been in his element during the past week
Andrew Sullivan, The Sunday Times,August 17, 2008

Last week John McCain came alive. He’s a mercurial fellow – sometimes obviously bored, more often careening around his surroundings like a white, scarred and bowed Tasmanian devil, occasionally bursting with temper, often joking, very occasionally mild and funny. But he really comes to life when a conflict is around and he knows who the enemy is. The enemy can be the president of Russia or fellow Republican senators, but they’ll know it if McCain is on the warpath.

Not many senators, after all, knew who Mikhail Saakashvili was before last weekend. McCain did. He’d spoken to him often, even nominated him for a Nobel peace prize in 2005. Randy Scheunemann, one of McCain’s closest neoconservative advisers, was paid by the Georgian government to lobby for it in Washington. And McCain’s long-standing hatred of the Russian government is common knowledge. He once mocked George W Bush for his eminently mockable statement that he had looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and seen a force for good. McCain said he’d looked into Putin’s eyes and seen three letters: K, G and B.

So Putin’s invasion of Georgia brought out the fiery righteousness that has marked the McCain family for generations. He dominated the news, eclipsing the laconic Barack Obama, holidaying in Hawaii, and the hapless American president, still making faces in the crowds at the Olympics. McCain sent a delegation, held press conferences, issued vague threats and championed the plucky Georgians. The prospect of another armed conflict – even better against the old Russian enemy – seemed to lift his mood. And it may lift his ratings.

Nobody who knows McCain was surprised. His ancestors, as Matt Welch pointed out in the best short biography of the man, The Myth of a Maverick, have served in almost every war America has been involved with since the war of independence. McCain’s ideal president is Teddy Roosevelt and if you want to understand McCain’s view of the world, a quick perusal of Roosevelt’s presidency is about as good a primer as you can find.

“For the McCains of the United States navy,” McCain wrote in his 2002 book Worth the Fighting For, “as well as for many of our brother officers, presidents just didn’t get much better than Teddy Roosevelt. He transformed the American navy from a small coastal defence force to an instrument for the global projection of power.” Roosevelt was also a pious scourge of the corrupt, a military adventurer who went on to win the Nobel peace prize and a pioneer of environmental protection. He loved finding enemies and defeating them and saw America’s future partly in world adventurism.

McCain’s core belief – after many years of partying, philandering and generally goofing around – is that Americans are at their best when committed to a higher noble cause. And no cause is more noble than projecting American power everywhere on God’s earth to deter evil, reward good and save the victims of bullies. I am not aware of any war in recent times that he hasn’t at some point supported. Peace-time makes him nervous, listless.

He favoured the first Gulf war and the second Iraq war. He wanted to intervene early in the Balkans in the 1990s, favoured the Afghanistan war and wanted more military pressure against North Korea. He also wants to keep the military option against Iraq prominently on the table. His problem with the Iraq war was that the United States did not send enough troops and his support for the “surge” was, to his credit, a defining moment in his recent career.

So a dramatic, polarising conflict with Russia has come as God’s gift to the Republican nominee as he trails Obama by a frustrating few points and seems unable to get ahead. It’s even better that the cause is all but hopeless and that the notion that the West will escalate conflict with Russia to insist on Georgia’s right to South Ossetia is preposterous. The hopeless-ness of this situation is partly what appeals to him.

Vietnam was his template. It was a losing battle but he fought it honourably. The United States lost the war and McCain lost his soul in that Hanoi Hilton, eventually cracking to make false taped confessions under the exact techniques now deployed by Bush against terror suspects. But he survived and refused to be released early and came back home a tortured war hero.

There’s your formula: tragic, noble victim. Domestically his great cause has been preventing lawmakers from bringing pork-barrel spending to their districts – a practice that is as old as all representative government – and curtailing campaign spending in a country where there is a First Amendment that will never, mercifully, be repealed. Yet McCain is still drawn to battling for the impossible. It somehow gives him meaning and purpose.

He is drawn to the beleaguered Kurds, the victims of genocide in Darfur, the people of Burma, the massacred Bosnians and now the plundered Georgians.

Watch his rigid, impassioned performance last week and you will see the president he would surely be. If he becomes president, there is no knowing what he would do to defend Ukraine or any other country bordering Russia. He will certainly be prepared to go to war to stop Iran going nuclear – and will strongly support Israel if it initiates the conflict.

He will never withdraw all troops from Iraq – because the withdrawal of troops always means surrender to him. He wants a “surge” for Afghanistan. And he has pledged not to raise taxes to pay for any of this. You want a Bush third term? McCain would take us right back to Bush’s first, with bells on.

The question that Americans must decide in November is whether, at this point in history, after the five-year $3 trillion (£1.6 trillion) occupation of Iraq, with a nuclear Iran on the horizon, an oil-fuelled Russia resurgent, with the American economy teetering and the Taliban rebounding in Afghanistan, the right direction for America is more military aggression, more presidential power, more unilateralism and less diplomacy.

What you saw last week is a taste of what may yet be to come. And if it sounds like a doomed strategy, it will only make McCain embrace it even more.

If McCain gets in, it looks like the only thing guaranteed to boom are the guns...


Madam Miaow said...

An illuminating post, Noel. Thanks very much. I'd missed the Marc Almond piece in the Guardian. Tainted Love, indeed.

There's a major threat to world peace at the mo and it ain't China and it ain't Russia. As I keep saying on the rajo.

A Very Public Sociologist said...

No disagreements from me, Noel.

I had the pleasure of watching Russia Today yesterday - the official international mouthpiece of the Putin-Medvedev administration. Yes, it was massively biased in favour of the Rodina but it didn't pretend to be otherwise. Unlike the BBC and their faux neutrality and Sky News and its Fox-style reporting from the warzone.

I don't think leftists should be backing either side, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be sick of the blatant bias on our screens.

Anonymous said...

I read an article in The Independent not long ago which claimed that a Moscow insider was quoted as saying that plans for an invasion of Georgia were already agreed before the Georgians tried to recapture South Ossetia.
I have no problems with small states claiming independence as long as it is done democratically.
Also your articles make no mention of the fact that ethnic Georgians have been ethnically cleansed from Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
James W

Anglonoel said...

James- Russia probably did have plans for military action in South Ossetia, but that doesn't alter the fact that the Georgians attacked first and thought they'd get a cheap victory. Or are Georgian cheap victories (albeit short-lived ones) more worthy of our respect than Russian ones?

As for 'ethnic cleansing'- if the Georgians had 'won' instead of the Russians do you think the Russian populations of Abkhazia and South Ossetia would have hung around to see if the Georgian security forces would be more magnaminous towards them than they are towards Georgia's domestic opposition? I doubt it. Saying the Russian regime and military are bad is true enough, but don't kid yourself that John McCain's mate in Tiblisi is any better.

I have no problem with small countries and states declaring independence in a democratic manner, but how far are you prepared to go to support their aspirations, short of going over there, grabbing a rifle and joining the fight? Would you be prepared to lose your life in a war to save the political skin of a creature like Mr. Saakashvili? I know I wouldn't, and I wouldn't do it for Messrs. Putin and Medvedev either.

Anonymous said...

The so-called 'Russian' populations of Abkahzia and South Ossetia are only Russian because they were recently all given Russian passports by the Russian government.
If Georgia had given the Chechen people Georgian passports would they have been justified in invading Chechnya during the Russian atrocities and war against Chechnya?
Both sides in this recent war have behaved badly.
There should be UN peace keepers, not Russian ones and the status of the two breakaway regions should be decide by referendum and not military force.
James W

Anglonoel said...


Well if the Russians don't agree with a UN peacekeeping force, it won't happen will it?

'I read an article in The Independent...which claimed that a Moscow insider was quoted as saying that plans for an invasion of Georgia were already agreed before the Georgians tried to recapture South Ossetia.' The article claimed that some insider was quoted as saying- a bit Chinese whispers isn't it? Not that I take anything said in The Daily Mail For Liberals (not least on the EU) without a generous pinch of salt. Also its current editor Roger Alton had a track record at The Observer of swallowing any line US-UK hawks were pushing- remember its support for invading Iraq to stop Iraq's WMD programme? Surely that was another example of insiders being quoted as saying that plans by an anti-Western regime were coming to the boil?

My bottom line for the whole crisis in the Caucasus is that it has nothing to do with us, or nothing we can do about without starting something big and nasty. I doubt whether the two Boy Davids - Cameron and Miliband- who have been over to Georgia to support Saaskashvili- have thought the implications of 'solidarity' with the local answer to Putin through.

For when I come down to it, I'm a 'Little Englander' in the original sense of the term, opposed to unneccesary entanglements abroad, especially military ones, whether they are on behalf of the US, EU, the Russian Federation or Plucky Little Georgia. It seems to be that those who hold onto an obsolete and dying British national identity who seem most keen on sticking our noses into situations which have nothing to do with us.