By Jonathan Steele (THE GUARDIAN, 25/08/08):
After a fortnight of conflict on the ground and a flurry of propaganda and debate in European capitals the South Ossetian crisis is winding down. One of the abiding images – a Russian masterstroke – will be the moving concert given by world-renowned Valery Gergiev, a South Ossetian, and the Mariinsky orchestra in the ruins of Tskhinvali, the town the Georgians destroyed.
Another unforgettable memory will be Georgia’s flak-jacketed president cowering on the ground as a Russian plane flies over the town of Gori. Bravado turning into humiliation is a metaphor for the whole foolish adventure. Georgian men are hospitable and engaging, but fond of bombast and empty macho gestures. Unlike the Chechens, who have fought Russians for centuries, Georgians prefer poetry and vineyards to the challenge of war.
President Mikheil Saakashvili epitomises the style, made worse in his case by the lies he served up to deceive foreign opinion. He boasted of defeat. Georgia was being swallowed up, Tbilisi was on the verge of occupation, Russia was using weapons of mass destruction.
The biggest lie was his attempt to airbrush the fact that he created the crisis by launching an artillery barrage on the South Ossetian capital, which killed scores of civilians and 15 Russian peacekeepers. It was absurd to think Russia would not retaliate. So the next lie was to claim Russia’s leaders had prepared a trap. In fact, they were taken by surprise as much as the Ossetians. Russia’s initial response had the hallmarks of hasty improvisation – though, as the crisis unfolded, President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin showed increasing determination to exploit Saakashvili’s folly by preventing South Ossetia and Abkhazia from ever being forced back under Georgian rule.
Saakashvili and many of his western backers used ludicrous analogies to hype the crisis – from Poland in 1939 to Hungary in 1956, even though it is clear South Ossetians welcomed Russian aid and now want to break from Georgia once and for all. The more accurate comparison was Kosovo. Suppose Serbia’s leaders were suddenly to kill US peacekeepers, fire rockets at civilian houses in Pristina and storm the town, wouldn’t the Americans be expected to expel the invaders, even if the UN still recognises Kosovo as legally part of Serbia?
Russia’s destruction of Georgia’s radar stations, its military and naval bases, and several bridges in order to degrade the country’s military capability looks similar to Nato’s attacks on Serbian infrastructure in 1999. Instead of confining itself to Kosovo in seeking to protect Albanian civilians from ethnic cleansing, Nato bombed deep into Serbia proper. What Russia did to Georgia was disproportionate, but less so than Nato on Serbia a decade ago.
Nevertheless, Russia should pull back completely now. It should also have restrained South Ossetian militias from running amok against Georgian villages. Nato troops made little effort to stop revenge-seeking Albanians from looting and torching houses in the Serbian enclaves in Kosovo after Yugoslav forces were driven out. Russia’s forces should have done better in Ossetia. They had the moral high ground but quickly forfeited it by not changing the patterns of military indiscipline and cruelty shown in Afghanistan and Chechnya as well as towards conscripts in their own ranks.
How and why Saakashvili acted remains unclear. Did he tell the Americans of his plans? If not, he emerges as even more of a hothead than many in Nato feared. If yes, did the Americans approve? Giving him the green light would have been incredibly irresponsible. If the US warned Saakashvili off and he went ahead anyway, he should be condemned as an ally from hell.
Did he think that by playing on ancient anti-Russian prejudice and hysterical cold war analogies he could swap an inevitable loss of territory for accelerated entry into Nato? If that was the gamble, it is paying off in some quarters. One of the grimmest aspects of this crisis was the degree to which John McCain emerged as an undiplomatic hawk. Before the crisis he was on record as calling Putin “a totalitarian dictator” and saying Russia should be expelled from the G8. As Russia came in to defend South Ossetia, he demanded it pay a “serious negative” price.
In Britain David Cameron showed similar wildness. Gordon Brown and David Miliband were little better. Instead of the relative even-handedness of Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel, New Labour followed the White House line. Could it not bring itself to utter any criticism of Saakashvili? Even as poodles, does this government not see that the next potential US president, Barack Obama, is more nuanced? He called on Georgia, as well as Russia, to show restraint.
That said, there is only a slight chance the US, under any president, will do the sensible thing, which would be to announce Nato expansion has reached its limit and that no invitation to Georgia – or Ukraine – will ever be issued.
The mantra is that Russia cannot have a veto on Nato membership. True, but by the same token no country has a right to join Nato, or the EU. Look at Turkey, which has been a loyal Nato ally for four decades but was not allowed to start EU membership proceedings until 2005 and still has no guarantee they will succeed. Neither Russia nor the applicants decide who enters the club. Its existing members do. Whatever the next US president thinks, and whatever other traditionally anti-Russian countries such as Poland and the Baltic states feel, there are European countries that see the danger of extending the Nato umbrella where the alliance’s founders never meant it to go. Nato is not a global institution. It has no business looking for new members in the Caucasus or central Asia.
Nato and Russia are boycotting each other for the moment. But business will soon resume as western leaders see this was a manufactured crisis rather than the start of a new cold war or some cataclysmic shift in international relations. When Nato’s foreign ministers met last week, France and Germany made that point. The alliance promised reconstruction aid to Georgia but no support for rushing it into Nato. Earlier this year, France and Germany had the courage to defy Washington and say it was too early to invite Georgia. They were right then, and are even more so now.