New Cold War?

“Have you noticed,” my wife said to me, “that when one of the United States’ allies thinks it’s got green light to invade somewhere, it always happens during the summer?” She’s right. Iraq invaded Kuwait in August 1990, Israel invaded Lebanon in July 2006, and now Georgia has invaded South Ossetia in August. Israel really did get the green light from Washington, although when it came to it, Washington didn’t actually help them much. But Saddam Hussein was completely mistaken. And so is Mikhail Saakashvili.

The difference between Iraq and Georgia is that the American government is continuing to support Saakashvili, even after the dismal failure of his violent assault on South Ossetia. But United States is only doing just enough to save face such as the “humanitarian aid” brought by air and sea by the American army after the cessation of hostilities–but the Bush administration never really supported the Georgian assault. If the Russians fail to grasp this situation, then we will be heading for a new Cold War.

That would get the 21st century off to a really stupid start. And yet Dick Cheney, America’s ridiculously bellicose Vice-President, is not the only one to have declared that “Russian aggression must not go unanswered.” John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, asserts that “today we are all Georgians” and is proposing that Russia should be excluded from the G8. Even a relatively moderate figure like Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is making allusions to the Cold War, saying, “This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia, where Russia can threaten its neighbors, occupy a capital, overthrow a government, and get away with it.” Rice is right about one thing: “this is not 1968”. The rest is ridiculous.

Surprise attack

Russia did not threaten Georgia. It responded to a surprise attack by Georgia against South Ossetia, a region where Russian peacekeeping forces were based under the terms of an international agreement. Russia has neither occupied the Georgian capital nor overturned its government. There is a distinct possibility, however, that the Georgians themselves will “overturn” their own government when they realize just how foolish Saakashvili has been.

True, Moscow disliked the idea of Georgia maintaining close ties with the United States. Washington particularly supported Georgia’s candidacy for NATO membership. It’s true too that Russia took advantage of the attack by the Georgian President to crush his brand new American-trained army, which fled Gori in panic on Monday, August 11th.

It’s even possible the Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, deliberately pushed Saakashvili into the attack by provoking him in various ways. But that is by no means certain. And even if that were the case, it’s still Georgia which was responsible for mounting a general attack on the enclave of South Ossetia on the night of August 7th, and it was Georgian peacekeeping forces who turned their guns on their Russian counterparts.

If the Russians had not reacted as they did, then Georgia today would be in control of the entire region, and most of the surviving South Ossetians would have become refugees in Russian North Ossetia. That does not give the South Ossetians the right to hound members of the enclave’s Georgian minority out of their villages, as some newspapers have reported, and it’s the Russians’ duty to prevent them from doing so. But this is not Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Origins in 1988

The current chaos has its origins in events of 20 years ago. South Ossetia and Abhkazia, which had been integrated into Georgia even though they were also granted formal autonomous status under Stalin, began to call for total independence after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990. Georgia’s first post-Communist leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, responded by completely suppressing their autonomy.

When the South Ossetians and the Abkhazis rose up against this suppression, Georgian troops were sent in to wipe them out, but proved incapable of doing so. Several thousand people were killed, even more became refugees, and the disputes eventually became two “frozen conflicts” on the edge of the former Soviet Union, watched over by Russian and Georgian peacekeepers.

Nothing very much changed until the “Rose Revolution” five years ago which brought Saakashvili to power. Saakashvili then promised to reintegrate the lost regions back into Georgia. The Bush administration saw its opportunity to get a military foothold on Russia’s southern border. The Americans therefore provided the Georgian President with military equipment and training, and now we have the present conflict.

Saakashvili attacked South Ossetia because he thought that his links with the Americans made the Russians uneasy and that the Russians themselves would not respond. But in reality the United States would never have entered a war with Russia over Georgia, despite all the talk now of “humanitarian aid”.

The Russian troops should be out of Georgia in a week. Saakashvili should be gone in a year from now. Temperatures will be cool for a while, but we won’t see a repeat of the Cold War. Not because of this little conflict, anyway.

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