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Home > English > Website archives > Rainbow of Crisis > Assessing the Crisis


Assessing the Crisis

Monday 15 September 2008, by Richard Falk

The confrontation over South Ossetia represents a collision of US and Russian geopolitical logics which poses great dangers for regional and world peace, as well as to the wellbeing of the peoples of the world.

After delays, the Russian promise to withdraw its military forces from Georgia seems to be taking shape. By the terms of the French-brokered ceasefire Russian troops will remain in South Ossetia, plus occupy a security belt of undisclosed width in South Ossetia. The situation remains fluid and far from resolved. The South Ossetian leadership has indicated its unwillingness to have international monitors on its territory as was agreed in the ceasefire arrangement. There are also new indications of breakaway intentions on the part of Abkhasia, the other ethnic enclave hostile to Georgian claims of sovereignty, including the seizure of the Kodori Ridge, a strategic strip of land by Abkhas soldiers in the Caucasus Ridge. There is no doubt that at this point the territorial unity of the Georgian state has been shattered on a de facto basis as a result of the crisis, and that Russia power will act as a guarantor of South Ossetian and Abkhasian autonomy, which will achieve at minimum de facto independence for these two ethnic enclaves.

Without qualification the scope and intensity of Russian military moves against Georgia deserve legal, moral, and political condemnation, but at the same time Georgian and United States responsibility for the crisis is significant, and should not be overlooked. Russia violated the core norm of the UN Charter by sending its military forces beyond its borders to attack a small neighbor on August 12, doing heavy damage in the densely inhabited capital city of Tskhinvali by firing a flurry of rockets and missiles, including cluster munitions. There are unconfirmed media reports that as many as 2000 civilians died from the combined Georgian and Russian attacks on South Ossetia, with the bulk of these being caused by Georgia. The violence has also displaced tens of thousands, fleeing both the war zone and fearful of being caught in the ethnic crossfire. It has been established that Russia was especially targeting several villages in the region populated by Georgians, which adds an ethnic cleansing element to the accusations of aggression being made against Russia. These violations of Georgian sovereignty amount clearly to a crime against the peace and the military tactics deployed by Moscow are flagrant violations of the laws of war. Beyond this, if the charges of ethnic cleansing hold up, this would seem to make Russia guilty of crimes against humanity.

The Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili is far from innocent. It did its irresponsible best to provoke the crisis, militarily attacking the Russian peacekeeping presence in the minority republic of South Ossetia five days earlier, and doing serious damage to the resident population, even generating Russian claims of a genocidal Georgian acts and intentions. The apparent objective of this major use of force by Georgia was to disrupt the ceasefire arrangements that had been in place there since 1992, which had allowed a limited number of Russian troops to remain in South Ossetia along with contingents from Georgia and South Ossetia as a tripartite peacekeeping force. Saakashvili made no secret of his goal to drive the Russians out and bringing about a regime change in South Ossetia that would install Georgian leaders compliant with the will of his Tiblisi government in place of the current leader, Eduard Kokoity, who is popular with the local population and enjoys the backing of Russia.

The South Ossetians had voted overwhelmingly in a 2006 referendum to join their brethren in North Ossetia, which enjoys a high degree of autonomy within the Russian state. The disputed sovereignty of South Ossetia poses a delicate issue of self-determination that was just beneath the surface of the current phase of the struggle before the crisis erupted. It has now been brought to the surface by Russia’s formal diplomatic recognition of the political independence of South Ossetia (and Abkhasia), allegedly in response to the Georgian provocation of August 7th that killed South Ossetian civilians and Russians military personnel present in their peacekeeping roles. By taking this step Russia is further antagonizing the West that has seemed so inept in responding to this challenge directed at its Georgian ally. The actual status of South Ossetia is likely to remain contested for the foreseeable future, with Russia, possibly joined by other states, recognizing the de facto independence of the breakaway enclave, and the West continuing to insist that this political entity remains part of Georgia.

This claim is not as simple as it might seem for several reasons. First of all, it had been the understanding that claims of self-determination that fragmented the unity of existing states had no validity in international law, but this consensus was set aside without much hesitation by European countries eager to facilitate the breakup of former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Secondly, the ugly realities in this small enclave of 70,000 or so raise questions about its legitimacy as a political entity, taking into account its small size and considering the prevalence of gangsterism, ranging from money laundering to human trafficking. At this point there is no comfortable solution for the future of South Ossetia or Abkhasia squeezed in a tight geopolitical vise between Russia and the United States/Georgia, and lacking an acceptable self- governing process of its own.

Thirdly, the Russian principled claim that Georgia’s abuse of South Ossetians and Abkhasians resulted in the forfeiture of its sovereign rights contradicts Russia’s brutal and bloody suppression of Chechnya’s secessionist movement. At the same time, the NATO approach to Kosovo’s independence claims, in the face of Russian opposition, was no less state-shattering than what Moscow is seeking to achieve in Georgia, and resting on the same combination of forfeiture and consensus arguments, that is, Serbia’s violation of human rights forfeited their sovereign rights and the Kosovar consensus favored political independence. As with Russia, NATO led by the United States, fought a war to ensure that Serbia would be divested of its sovereign rights in Kosovo, initiated without any prior approval by the UN Security Council. Such a precedent played a role in seeming to establish a precedent for the sort of unilateralism exhibited in 2003 when the United States and the United Kingdom invaded Iraq, and made a variety of claims, including liberating the Iraqi people from tyrannical rule.

Our understanding of this seemingly local struggle cannot get very far without an appreciation of these complex geopolitical forces that are at play. There is to begin with the geopolitics of oil, the strong desire of the West to have pipelines from the Caspian Sea area that pass through a friendly country, and somewhat lessen dependency on Middle Eastern oil. This gives the Baku-Tiblisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline a major strategic importance, as well as directly engaging Turkey’s interest in the conflict. This helps to explain why both Russia and the United States are so interested in controlling the outlook of the Georgian government. Here again Saakashvili, and his backers in Washington that include President Bush, have taken a militaristic approach to security for Georgia that was bound to agitate a leadership in Moscow newly preoccupied with Russian border security and international status. The United States has poured military assistance and training units into Georgia ever since Saakashvili came to power, as well as exerted great pressure a few months ago to gain NATO membership for the country, ignoring warnings from the Russian leadership such a move was unacceptable, and would cause trouble. The major European powers, including France and Germany, were quite sensible in opposing membership in Georgia, being unwilling to accept a future commitment that would include an obligation to defend Georgia in a situation such as now exists. The events of August are quite likely to put NATO membership on hold, perhaps indefinitely, although NATO formally did indicate before the recent crisis that Georgia and Ukraine could become members at some future time. From a Russian perspective recent American moves and rhetoric are bound to be troublesome, especially in the wider context of American plans to deploy an anti-missile interceptor system on Polish soil as well as to locate an elaborate military radar system in the Czech Republic. These recent American moves seem coordinated efforts to threaten Russia with hostile encirclement, although they can be interpreted as gestures of support for the governments along Russia’s borders that are disturbed by this obvious effort by Moscow to reassert its will at the expense of the sovereign rights of its neighbors.

It is impossible to overlook the timing that set off the destabilizing chain of events. The aggressive Georgian posture toward South Ossetia was struck just as Russia was beginning to flex its post-Soviet muscles having apparently regained its geopolitical confidence and ambition. This probably reflects the effects of its sustained rapid economic growth in recent years that has been given added weight as a result of the rising monetary value of its vast energy reserves. Even if Vladimir Putin were a more moderate leader with a better human rights record, Georgian violent provocations in South Ossetia on August 7th would almost certainly produced some sort of show of Russian force, although the extreme rapidity of such a major and organized Russian response raises suspicions that Moscow was waiting for an opportunity for a show of force to challenge Georgia’s sovereign rights. Of course, Saakashvili’s overt hostility to the Putin/Medvedev government seems in this sense to have played into Russia’s hands, especially given the inability of the United States to back Georgia up with any support more tangible than strong words and humanitarian relief. Taking all these considerations into account makes it tragically clear that South Ossetia, and even Georgia, are hapless pawns in the larger geopolitical chess game that is beginning to assume alarming proportions reminiscent of the worst days of the Cold War era.

We are also witnessing a collision of two contrasting geopolitical logics the interplay of which pose great dangers for regional and world peace, as well as to the wellbeing of the peoples of the world. Russian behavior seems mainly motivated by a traditional spatially limited effort to establish a friendly and stable security belt in countries near its borders. It is reasserting an historic sphere of influence that has always been at odd with the sovereign rights of its neighbors, sparking their fear and hostility. We can interpret Russia’s behavior in this respect as seeking indirect control over its so-called ‘near abroad’ that was mainly lost after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992. In light of NATO expansion to incorporate the countries of Eastern Europe, the assertion of Russian primacy in relation to its former Soviet republics is a high priority for which Moscow seems willing to pay a considerable price, including a deep chilling of relations with the United States. Russia’s behavior in Georgia undoubtedly is meant to serve as a warning to other governments on its Southern border, especially Ukraine, not to opt for strong ties with Washington. The clash arises with the United States, which especially during the Bush presidency, has stressed its intention to encourage the democratization of the former Soviet republics. Georgia was treated as the shining example of the success of this policy. From Moscow’s viewpoint, what was proclaimed as democratization was surely perceived as Americanization, with only a slightly disguised anti-Russian agenda. In this sense, Saakashvali was the ideal leader as far as Washington was concerned, being so avowedly committed to the United States, even sending 2,000 troops to aid the American effort in Iraq, but the worst possible leader from the Russian viewpoint. He spoke of Russia in derogatory terms, and was eager to do what Russia feared, join in a dynamic process of military encirclement as part of the American global security project that has pushed so hard during the neoconservative presidency of George W. Bush.

In comparison with Russia, Washington considers that the entire world has become its geopolitical playing field in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, and as an aspect of the global war on terror. The United States follows a global imperial logic rather than Russia’s pursuit of a limited regional sphere of interest logic. Thinking along these lines means that Georgia falls dangerously within both Russia’s sphere of influence and is a battlefield in the American attempt to build an informal global empire that acknowledges no geographic limits. The whole world is Washington’s ‘near abroad.’ This tension if allowed to persist is likely to produce a revival of an arms race reminiscent of the Cold War, and could easily lead to a horrifying renewal of the East-West conflict, even reviving risks of great power warfare fought with nuclear weapons. It is not a happy moment, perhaps the most ominous time from the perspective of world peace since the 9/11 attacks.

There is also much to worry about of a less grandiose character. Russia now joins the United States as a major power willing to use non-defensive force in world politics without authorization from the United Nations, and hence in violation of international law. It adds its irresponsibility to the recklessness of the United States proceeding in 2003 to invade Iraq despite the refusal of the UN Security Council to support the claim of the Bush presidency that the basis for a defensive ‘preemptive war’ existed due to Iraq’s arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and Baghdad’s demonstrated willingness to use force aggressively against foreign states. In this respect, the crisis surrounding the events in South Ossetia puts at greater risk the grand design adopted after World War II, never either fulfilled or renounced, resting on governments foregoing the war option as a matter of foreign policy discretion except in situations of self-defense.

There is much to be learned and much to be feared in relation to these recent events. The Russian resurgence means, above all, that the central rivalry of the last half century again must be treated with utmost seriousness. It can no longer be ignored. Ideally, this should encourage countries threatened by the dangerous geopolitical maelstrom to work toward respect for international law and the authority of the United Nations. If such an effort fails, as it likely will, then it becomes more important than at any time since the breaching of the Berlin Wall that both Moscow and Washington exhibit sensitivity to each other’s fundamental interests as great powers. It will not be possible to avoid encounters arising from this clash between regional and imperial geopolitics, but at least diplomacy can do a far better job of avoiding showdowns than has happened in relation to South Ossetia and Georgia. In the end, prospect for peace and justice in the 21st century depend on respect for sovereign rights, and eventually on the repudiation of geopolitics, but we are not nearly there yet. And these developments suggest that the world may be drifting anew into the most dangerous form of geopolitics, namely, reliance on force to resolve international disputes.