Wednesday, 13 August 2008

They’re all the bloody same over there

A recurring theme in comments on the latest Russian invasion of Georgia is a concern that Georgia is not a pure and innocent victim, that by backing Georgia one might be falling into the trap of backing a bastard just because he’s our bastard. See greater or lesser examples in posts by Gene at Harry’s Place, by Francis Sedgemore, by Bob from Brockley, by Flesh is Grass, by History is made at night.

There are good grounds for some of this caution, but I think that there are also reasons for this caution to diminish as the nature of the Russian operation becomes ever clearer, with their occupation of Gori, the crossroads of the country,  their occupation of the Black Sea port of Poti, and with Human Rights Watch raising serious questions about Russian propaganda on casualties. Today from the New York Times:
Meanwhile, investigators began to look into allegations of atrocities committed in the separatist enclave of South Ossetia, where the war erupted on Aug. 8. Human Rights Watch reported that researchers witnessed “terrifying scenes of destruction” in four deserted ethnic Georgian villages, and said they the villages had been looted and burned by South Ossetian militias.

Anna Neistat, one of the researchers, said by telephone from Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, that they had found no evidence so far to substantiate Russian claims of widespread brutality by Georgian troops.

Human Rights Watch has been able to confirm fewer than 100 deaths — a far cry from the death toll of 2,000 regularly cited by Moscow.

“If the Russian government continues to claim that 2,000 people were killed as the result of the conflict, it’s time to provide some evidence, it’s time to provide some data, name, age, gender, the circumstances of death,” Ms. Neistat said.
(The above story has since been updated on the New York Times site, with the quoted passage slightly shortened.)

It has been widely reported that Russia had been escalating its military presence and activity within the contested Georgian regions in the months prior to the invasion. Its separatist proxies had escalated attacks against Georgia, and the Russian military had carried out direct attacks against Georgia in that time.

Now I’m a lousy chess player, but from what I read it looks to me as though Russia has been advancing its pawns in the hope that one of them would be taken, allowing its main force to attack. Georgia was facing losses either way, whether at the hands of the advancing pawns, or in risking confrontation with the main Russian forces. I’m not yet convinced that Georgian actions were wholly unreasonable. If they hadn’t responded, the Russian reaction to weakness would have undoubtedly have been an even greater buildup of their forces within the contested areas, and a continuation, if not escalation, of actions by its proxy separatist forces.

The effect would have been for Georgia to cede its claim to the contested territory, and to have an increasingly powerful Russian military force on Georgia’s side of the Caucasus mountains, within touching distance of the main cities and road and rail routes.

So what has Georgia gained by Russia achieving those same objectives through open warfare rather than by stealth? It has at least ensured that Georgia doesn’t sink quietly under the Russian imperial deluge. Russia’s rapaciousness is now clear to the world.

James Traub of the New York Times wrote earlier in the week that Czechlosovakia 1938 was foremost in the minds of President Saakashvili and other Georgians. They had evidently taken the lesson to heart that giving a little to an insatiable predator can mean losing the lot. Making the predator fight for it may not work, but it might yet give Georgia a better chance if the carnage attracts the solidarity of the West.

As well as concern over Russian accusations that Georgia had indiscriminately attacked civilians in South Ossetia, and concern that Georgian actions had been unjustified and reckless, another reason for caution in supporting Georgia has been worry that the government is less than fully democratic. I have no direct knowledge of Georgia, but it seems to me that whatever the shortcomings of the current government, their ambition is to place themselves firmly in the company of the democracies. As others have pointed out, opening negotiations for Georgian membership of Nato would give Western democracies greater ability to ensure that democratic and legal institutions are strengthened. They certainly won’t be strengthened by abandoning Georgia to the new imperial Russia.

The issue of oil and gas pipelines has been raised a number of places, by Francis Sedgemore, in the NY Times Q&A on Georgia, and in news stories and comment box responses to posts all over the place.

I agree with the talk of the necessity of Western Europe freeing itself of energy dependence on Russia. I notice that less emphasis is placed on the need for energy security in the states on Russia’s borders, states which have more often experienced the direct impact of Russia’s strong-arm energy tactics.

A few thoughts I’d had on this were addressed in the Times Q&A. One reader raised the question of whether Russia’s strength as a supplier of fossil fuel might not also be its weakness in the longer term, and in response to the question ‘is it all about oil’, Moscow bureau chief Clifford J Levy responded:
Pipelines may have played a role, but I doubt it was a determinative one. There is a lot going on in this conflict: lingering resentment in the Kremlin about Russia’s loss of influence in the 1990s, and a resulting desire to prove that the country is once again a power and can stand up to the West; personal animosity between the Georgian president and the Russian leadership; longstanding territorial disputes; historical relationships between Moscow and the former Soviet republics; ethnic conflicts, and so on. It’s hard to isolate just one factor.
In the James Traub piece quoted earlier, he writes:
But economic considerations alone scarcely account for what appears to be an obsession with Georgia. The “color revolutions” that swept across Ukraine, the Balkans and the Caucasus in the first years of the new century plainly unnerved Putin, who has denounced America's policy of “democracy promotion” and stifled foreign organizations seeking to promote human rights in Russia.

Georgia, with its open embrace of the West, represents a threat to the legitimacy of Russia’s authoritarian model. And this challenge is immensely compounded by Georgia's fervent aspiration to join NATO, one of Russia’s red lines.
This touches on another topic that has been kicking around some of the blogs I read regularly: non-violence. The New Centrist recently quoted a post by Sultan Knish attacking the ideology of non-violence. I piped up in the comments to TNC's post, mentioning my favourite fancy-dress peace campaigner, and also bringing up non-violence theorist Gene Sharp. Bob from points south of London Bridge then posted on how Gene Sharp has been making Hugo Chavez nervous. And perhaps with good reason, as Sharp’s writings were apparently essential reading for many of those organising the colour revolutions.

The point I take from this is that Putin & Co. find the non-violent tactics of Gene Sharp as much of a threat as the military deterrence of Nato. Non-violence offers little defence against artillery, but given half a chance non-violence can be an effective weapon against authoritarian regimes. Putin & Co. are determined not to give it half a chance, but their fear of it shows that we should not dismiss using the option where appropriate.

UPDATE 14 AUGUST: A military response, or a non-violent response, or a non-violent military response? The difference here is that when these currently non-violent peace campaigners place themselves before the invading force, the invaders know they won’t stay non-violent if attacked.

ALSO: Editorial in today’s Washington Post: Blaming Democracy.

UPDATE 15 AUGUST: Human Rights Watch on civilian deaths, and more on Georgia to be found via the HRW main page.


bob said...

An excellent post, made me re-think my position (my second re-think since the current blast of the conflict began, a long week ago).

The non-violence discussion is fascinating, and I think my view is very close to yours (closer to yours than to Sultan Knish's, although his post was very thought-provoking for me).

I had missed your Gene Sharp comments in the New Centrist post when I mentioned Gene Sharp in relation to Chavez, so a little bit of weird serendipity there.

kellie said...

Thanks for the link Bob. My initial reaction to the headline on Marko's piece was similar to yours, and the firmness of my position in the above post only came about later later as I read more, and as the situation developed.

I hope it's clear that I don't think that problems with Georgian democracy should be ignored, but rather that they're best solved by responding with the strongest possible solidarity and not ambiguity in the face of the threat from Putin & Co.

Rather than the mild caveat that you expressed in that early post, I wrote the above more in response to Gene's post on Harry's Place and some of the comments which followed.

Gene's primary target was John McCain, and it always bothers me if it looks like someone is approaching the fate of another country primarily in terms of domestic politics. That is after all what we saw so much of over Iraq.

I notice Andrew Sullivan seems to have fallen even deeper into a similar trap, arguing on Georgia based on Bush & Cheney's record in Iraq. This seems hopelessly confused to me.

Of course the far left, kitsch left, tankie left, whatever it's called, is even worse, but it's less influential I hope.

Anonymous said...

Thanks as always for the link.

kellie said...

You're very welcome. And thank you for yours today.