What Is Not Being Said About South Ossetia

The New Republic has a good article about the South Ossetian conflict from a Georgia supporter. It is a pretty honest assessment, unlike much of what we have seen from others arguing for Georgia. Ronald Asmus writes:

I know that this is a war that the Georgian government never wanted. To be sure, the Georgian government and President Saakashvili himself is responsible for launching its military move on August 7--albeit in response to provocations and heavy shelling by South Ossetian separatists. That move gave Moscow the pretext to invade. Today, Western observers understandably ask why Tbilisi allowed itself to be goaded into what was clearly a Russian trap. President Saakashvili will have to answer that question himself. But I suspect I have a pretty good idea of what he will say.


In our recent conversations, it was clear to me that he was concluding that the West was not serious about resolving these conflicts, that he did not believe he would ever have the diplomatic support required, and that the status quo could not go on forever. He watched Russia's creeping annexation of Abkhazia start last spring with almost no Western response. That does not justify what clearly was a terrible strategic mistake by Georgia to act militarily. But it points to the mistakes--both of omission and commission--the West made that contributed to this crisis.

The article discusses what went wrong but what it never explains, imo, is why the West should have backed Georgia on South Ossetia in the first place. This is always the problem with these arguments. The assumption of strategic interests for the US and the West. Russia's interests are clearly discernible. The West's? To me, not discernible at all. The article does a great job of describing what went wrong IF YOU ASSUME that the West should have cared about South Ossetia:

First of all, it was the West that helped create and perpetuate the myth of Russia as peacekeeper in these conflicts. The origins of this mistake go back to the end of the first Bush administration--unwilling to get involved itself and convinced that a Russia under Boris Yeltsin and Andrei Kozyrev could be a benign force--which supported Russia taking the lead in policing these conflicts. That was Yeltsin. Then came Putin. What started out as a neutral role became a front for pursuing neo-imperial Russian objectives as Moscow increasingly took one side of the conflict. It became part of the problem, not the solution.

Assume all that is true, then those were the facts on the ground come 2008. You can not undo 16 years of mistakes in one week. And again, the WHY this should matter to the West remains unexplained. The article continues:

Over the years, many observers have urged the U.S. and its allies to amend these mandates--particularly to bring in non-Russian observers or peacekeepers in order to re-establish the neutrality of this force. The latest push for what was termed the "internationalization of the conflict" occurred earlier this summer as war clouds were appearing on the horizon in Abkhazia. But Western governments never seriously took up the issue. It was considered too difficult and too much to ask of Moscow, so diplomats demurred.

The calculation was South Ossetia was not worth it. Georgia did not like that calculation and decided to provoke this crisis. It got its ass kicked. And now expects the West to save his bacon. It seems to me that the problem here was not that the US and the West did not care much about South Ossetia the last 16 years, it is that is has decided to care now, backing a lunatic President of Georgia. The folly it seems to me is what we are doing now, not what we did then.

The article argues:

It would have been much preferable to fight that diplomatic fight then than have the situation we have now. Had we pushed for real neutral peacekeeping forces, we might have prevented this war.

I doubt that seriously. The Georgian President wanted South Ossetia and he would have provoked a crisis no matter what. As some point, he would have given Russia the excuse to kick his ass. This all depended on the US telling Georgia in the starkest terms that we did NOT have their back on South Ossetia. THAT was the mistake.

The article finally gets to the conflict itself - that South Ossetia does not want to be a part of Georgia:

Then there is Kosovo, where Western diplomacy increased Georgia's vulnerability and helped create the pretense for Putin's latest move. I supported Kosovo independence as did many others. But one need not be Clausewitz to understand that in doing so, we were putting a country like Georgia at risk for Russian retaliation. In spite of this, the West never had a plan to shield Georgia from the possible fall out from Kosovo. And today, the West is caught flat-footed as we watch Russia use many of our own arguments for Western intervention on Kosovo to justify Moscow's invasion of Georgia.

(Emphasis supplied.) Again, the assumptions are that Russia's arguments on South Ossetia do not have merit (Ithink they do) and because we pressed the right argument in Kosovo somehow it becomes "not right" because it is Russia doing the pressing. We should not back Georgia on South Ossetia. Georgia is wrong on South Ossetia. We have not vital interests in defending Georgia on South Ossetia. This is all ass backwards.

Finally, the real complaint here is one General Clark ignores, EUROPE does not think South Ossetia matters much in the scheme of things, no matter how much the US and our Media want them to:

There is also a direct line between NATO's failure to send a unified signal on Georgia and Ukraine at the Bucharest summit in early March. After a spectacular row over whether to grant Georgia and Ukraine a Membership Action Plan (MAP), the alliance agreed to drop the MAP option but offered "intensive engagement" along with a vague promise of membership sometime in the future. At the time, diplomats tried to put a positive spin on this outcome, claimed it was creative ambiguity. Well, that ambiguity turned out to be more destructive than creative.

Actually, I agree here that the ambiguity was bad. But not for the reasons the writer posits - the reverse in fact. It encouraged the lunatic Georgian President to provoke Russia. Europe did not agree with the US on this. Period. Someone should have told Georgia that without unity in NATO, he should be cool. No one did.

Instead, the US encouraged the Georgian fantasy. As the article notes:

Thus far, the E.U. has never taken a strong stand on Georgia vis-a-vis Moscow or, for example, provided practical assistance in terms of meaningful observers or peacekeepers. Even today, some E.U. leaders profess the need to stay neutral in the conflict while Georgia is being destroyed. Neither the U.S. nor Europe have ever drawn a thick red line and made it crystal clear to Moscow in advance that an invasion of Georgia would be unacceptable and would have grave consequences.

Actually, the failure to draw the clear line was the one that should have been made clear to Georgia, not Moscow. The article has the failure exactly backward imo.

By Big Tent Democrat, speaking for me only

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    Well since with Iraq... (5.00 / 1) (#1)
    by Dadler on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 01:25:36 PM EST
    ...the assumption was that you could correct almost three decades of dictatorship and social destruction with more destruction and do so quickly, what did we expect from this administration?

    This is the logical extension of some quite illogical beliefs.  Interests of the west or no (and certainly we don't seem to have any here), we are run by people who think, literally, that human beings are simple creatures who can be altered with the snap of a finger.  

    S. Ossetia stated in the early 90's they didn't (5.00 / 1) (#7)
    by jawbone on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 03:02:39 PM EST
    want to be part of Georgia, and they fought fiercely to keep Georgia military out of their region.

    It's been going on much longer than just this year or last.

    Well (none / 0) (#2)
    by Steve M on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 01:31:29 PM EST
    You can't say Georgia didn't try.  Lord knows how much money they spent on lobbyists to play up Georgia's Christian and democratic roots in order to make themselves the "good guy" in American perceptions.

    Of course, you can run the best PR campaign in the world and the results aren't guaranteed.  At the end of the day, it got Georgia some nice words of support, but not the tangible support they needed.  So it goes.

    We do have a national interest in Georgia, a generalized interest in stability of the region, access to resources, etc.  Maybe there's more we could have done in advance of the current crisis to enhance stability.  There certainly wasn't a lot we could do once it all started.  Escalating a conflict is not the way to create stability.

    The Georgians won the US PR war (5.00 / 1) (#4)
    by andgarden on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 01:40:12 PM EST
    but that got them bupkis.

    I'm with you BTD (none / 0) (#3)
    by BernieO on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 01:37:35 PM EST
    No one is answering the question of why the West insists that South Ossetia be a part of Georgia when they are a distinct ethnic group with their own language and clearly want to either be independent or part of the Russian Federation like North Ossetia. We are supposed to be the champions of democracy, and self-determination is its bedrock.

    This is from a post in response to yesterday's article on the W Post op-ed page by Paul Sanders:

    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.

    From what I read this information is accurate. Someone please explain to me why we are supporting the Georgians on this issue?

    Also on last night's PBS Newshour, the two men who spoke about Saakashvili said that the US had definitely given  mixed signals. Condi Rice publicly told him "we fight for our friends", a reference to fighting to get him into NATO, but which they believe emboldened the Georgians. In addition, even though the State Department kept warning Saakashvili not to provoke Russia, a lot of neocons were apparently egging him on.

    I would take it even further.. (5.00 / 1) (#6)
    by Polkan on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 02:15:21 PM EST
    why are we taking ANY sides on this issue? Because of Manifest Destiny?

    "why are we taking ANY sides" (none / 0) (#16)
    by D Jessup on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 04:15:25 PM EST
    Because Georgia joined us in the Iraq war, we have been financing and building up there defenses since they joined the coalition.  I think they just want Payback.

    Thanks for the source of the Condi statement which (none / 0) (#8)
    by jawbone on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 03:04:06 PM EST
    Saak may have misinterpreted--or understood fully and decided to make a move anyway.

    I knew I'd heard it--couldn't recall where.


    I read in the Globe and Mail (none / 0) (#12)
    by magisterludi on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 03:15:02 PM EST
    that Soros was a big backer of Saakashvilli.

    I was surprised. Soros isn't who I thought he was, but I admit to knowing just bare minimum about him before.


    You aren't addressing BTD's point (none / 0) (#9)
    by cawaltz on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 03:08:08 PM EST
    if the South Ossetians citizens do not want to be part of Georgia what right do we have to say they do not get to choose? Do we only truly support democratic choice and principles when it is in our self interest to do so?

    Russia and Georgia are both motivated by self interest in South Ossetia. General Clark has it right that a neutral third party needs to be dispatched to see that the cease fire is honored. Then if we truly support democratic ideals Ossetia should be given the opportunity to break away from Georgia if it wishes after a specified period of time. Democracy dictates that they be given a choice in who they feel better represents THEIR best interests(which may not necessarily be in ours).

    Photos of S. Ossetia--they bomb kitties, too. (none / 0) (#14)
    by jawbone on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 03:25:36 PM EST
    These are not easy to think about. Fair warning. It's almost worse thinking about them than viewing them.

    And more.

    Via commnet at MoonofAlabama.org

    Unfortunately, 'anyway' is the right choice. (none / 0) (#17)
    by Christy1947 on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 04:20:53 PM EST
    A couple of additional things I have found poking around trying for background.
       Stupid first.  I believe it was the FT which had an article about how Saakashvili got in and Shevardnadze got out, the 'Rose Revollution." The account said that both the US and Russia decided that Shevardnadze had to go, and they arranged his departure and replacement by Saakashvili by means of that Rose Revolution. In other words the two great powers put this silly goose into the position he has, and cannot blame one another or the Georgians for having him being stupid in a critical place. It reminds me unpleasantly of when Israel decided they wanted an alternative to Fatah and they and we supported another organization - now called Hamas. Oops.
        Awful next. One of the problems of big nations and small is that they remember when they were empires and want to be empires again, as if they had the immutable right to control anything they ever controlled even for a hot minute only. Tibet and China. Russia and the Near Abroad. Georgia as well, once a small regional power. In one small country there are at least five ethnic groups which have been duking it out since the Romans started writing about it. The Ossetians are descended from a tribe called the Allani, about where they are since Neolithic times and speaking a language related to Persian but not to that of anyone else in or near Georgia this side of Iran. Not even in the same language or ethnic branch as the Georgians, but something altogether different. They also have their own branch of the Orthodox church, apparently, not the Georgian branch. When Georgia had four years of independence in 1918-22, so did Ossetia and not as a part of Georgia either. The 1989 war between Georgia and Ossetia began when Georgia tried to incorporate Ossetia without its agreement into greater  Georgia, by force.

    That produced the 1992 ceasefire which made Russians into peacekeepers. They are a problem to Russia aside from Georgia because any refugees interfere with the space given in that general area of the Russian republic to Ingusheti, a separate if tiny and warlike  group with its own republic in that area, Ingushetia, and the well known Chechens. So they couldn't solve the problem by just taking in refugees as it created other problems that were theirs but not those of the Georgians. In a prior post, I said I had read that various groups there were stirring whom the Russians would have preferred unstirred - today's times says bandits from Chechen and Cossack country have come to Georgia and the area near the Russian lines as bandits,and are killing people and burning down villages. Partisans on both nominal sides settling scores are also doing the same, and neither the Russians nor the Georgians are doing or can do much about it.

    The Abkhazians are a different group, also with a language with different roots than Georgian and a long time around something called Gali province, in the south of Abkhazia. Also with some history of independence from Georgians, who are concenterated in the southeast of modern Georgia. They also have a history of ethnic cleansing while in Georgia, where there was a huge eviction of Muslim Abkazians before the mid 20th century, many of whom are now in Turkey, and have laws which give preference to Abkhazians, which the Georgians don't like.

    In that instance, we have not figured in Russian need for plain old order in this area, which is very close to Sochi and the 2014 Winter Olympics. Wouldn't be good if partisans from that conflict raided the Olympic village. Not good at all. For those of you old enough to remember, Croatian nationalists did that and bombed a bank in Manhattan to bring attention to their demands for independence, in the 1970s at a time when Gothamites had no idea where Croatia even was, so it is not impossible to imagine what the  international media access via the Olympics might trigger in a warring area.

    These are not people who are being crabby, but peoples who have not merged sufficiently to have a national identity shared with the Georgians, and from whom they have fought for independence, sometimes more successfully and sometimes not for centuries.

    Georgians have a long imperial history, having been formed from the Kingdom of Colchis, yes that one, literally, and the ancient Kingdom then called Iberia which has nothing to do with Spain. Iberia was one of the first nations to have a state Christian church, in 327 (Rome did it in 313.)  Historically, they have conquered the neighbors, lost them, did it again, lost them again, all by military force over the course of two millenia for which there are records. At one point they controlled part of what we now call Azerbaijan. It appears to be the ethnic Georgian view that they have the right to dominate by force if necessary the other ethnic groups inside the borders of 'their' country, which is what Saakashvili set out to do. At least one minority group in the southwest was conquered early in this decade and forcibly incorporated into greater Georgia. We who had a Civil War still don't understand this quite the same way because we had essentiall a single culture and language and only political differences. Not ethnic and linguistic and cultural ones going back longer than the Middle Ages.  This is also relevant because Georgia cannot get into NATO unless it is in control of all of the areas inside its boundaries which it is not and is not about to.

    There are a couple of issues here, but I am surprised at the degree to which I think that this is a test case, where the real issue is Ukraine and more critical Near Abroad once Soviet areas. Ukraine has a treaty with the west where they gave up the right to have nuclear weapons and allowed the remains of Soviet weaponry to be removed, in exchange for defense if invaded. So unlike Georgia, NATO does have a defense obligation to Ukraine. Ukraine however is politically divided as there is a large presence in the east of that country which supports Russia anyway, and the elections there are often close. Right now, its orientation is officially western, but after another election, they may face the other way. I view that as up to them to decide, and re-decide and re-decide.

    Ukraine raises another issue, since BTD asked whether the US had any legitimate national interests in this mess. The original NATO did not have a contiguous border with Russia, but the new members being brought in sometimes do, and as former Republics have a fear of reconquest and reinvasion that France and Belgium simply do not have.

    When US conservatives got going on the current round, they apparently thought it would be a wonderful idea to have Western-looking republics right on Russia's borders, armed with nukes and whatever else that somebody who was flashing missiles instead of what was behind his zipper at the Russians thought would show the Russians who was boss. At the same time the Bush administration proclaimed the obligation of the US to spread 'democracy' and to use force to do it or other  similar regime change type strategies. So that all of the little states may arguably be within the 'spread of democracy' doctrine, and are now wondering how far the US is prepared in fact to go to support alleged western type democracies or at least those who proclaim them such. None of them is particularly good at executing 'democracy,' as we apparently assume or assumed before Florida in 2000 that everyone would do if they wanted to be called democracies - lots of irregular elections,  unhappy international observers, press suppression, etc.

    The problem with the 'democracy support doctrine' is how much or how little a country has to do to constitute a western style democracy, constituting enough democracy for the US to agree they are one and willing to take risks over. It seems that little Georgia is on the US State Department Human Rights Watch List and not in the good guys column for steps Saakashvili has done to suppress even Georgian opposition, riot troops, closing parties, threatening or arresting individuals, funky elections, etc.  He looks less like a marginally competent democrat and more like Mr. Chalabi with each passing day, a man who tells tales that eager ears want to hear and believe without confirming the facts on the ground.

    There is another range of problems. Up in the area of Estonia, there is a block of land in the form of a triangle called Kaliningrad, which belongs to Russia, although it has, I think, no common border with Russia, a relic of the old USSR days. Another is called Moldova and has Russian troops in it, also far west of the current Russian border. Ukraine and Russia also have border issues about what sounds like islands in rivers. The Kaliningrad triangle is surrounded by new NATO members. Moldova also does not touch current Russia at all and is near Bulgaria.  But these little chunks are apparently part of Russia in the same way two islands in the St. Lawrence are literally a part not of Canada but France, and in the same way that Moscow is a part of Russia. I don't know enough about the Ukrainian islands yet, and there are probably other chunks of problematic real estate here and there.  A coherent defense policy for NATO would have to deal with this. And these are much nearer to core NATO areas than Georgia.

    What the US and its allies may have to do is come up with a position that, as to Georgia the issue is muddled and cannot be readily unmuddled but will not be allowed to grow, no matter what Saakashvili says or does since he is the one who triggered this mess, with troops the day after a ceasefire and without notice to us, but that in all other cases there can be no cross border adventurism, nor granting Russian citizzenship to residents of non Russian jurisdictions as a pretext for interest, and in case of odd ethnic disorder, truly international peacekeepers not invovled in the issue will have to be used. In so saying, I am not aware that any of the other Western former Republics there has an ethnic  problem like Abkhazia or South Ossetia to muddle the matter but could be wrong on that.  In view of Belgium and Scotland.

    Excellent Post (none / 0) (#18)
    by D Jessup on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 04:59:51 PM EST
    I would just like to add that a major reason that Georgia was turned down for NATO membership was because of it violent crackdown agianst it own citizens last year.

    Reuters headline on Nov 14, 2007 reads ANALYSIS-Georgia crackdown sets back NATO ambitions and goes on to state that "Georgia has severely damaged its chances of winning a promise of NATO membership at a summit next April with a crackdown on protests that has shocked even its supporters in the West, diplomats said on Wednesday." and the article also goes no to say that ""He has shot himself in the foot," said one alliance diplomat of Western dismay at Saakashvili's imposition of emergency rule, including a ban on independent media and meetings, and a raid on an opposition television station."

    What led to the crackdown?  BBC News says that "Thousands of Georgians recently took part in rallies accusing Mr Saakashvili of corruption and authoritarianism." and of course "Mr Saakashvili accused Russian agents of backing opposition protests and said the emergency measures were needed to thwart a "coup" attempt."


    Fascinating--looks like it could have been filled (none / 0) (#19)
    by jawbone on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 06:37:05 PM EST
    with links, which isn't to be done here, iirc. Limit of 2? or am I confusing with some other site.

    Anyway, instead of off the links could you just indicate where you found all this info?



    Thanks for the info (none / 0) (#20)
    by BernieO on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 07:58:00 PM EST
    Saakashvili also shut down an opposition TV station.
    So anyone know where our independent media is being held? The ones we hear from now are either completely ignorant or trying to keep us that way. They are giving the public a completely distorted picture of this conflict.

    demurring is what this administration does (none / 0) (#21)
    by coigue on Sat Aug 16, 2008 at 11:38:40 PM EST
    North Korea, Georgia, dealing with terrorism before 911.