Russia's invasion of Georgia is part of a bigger fight that pits Moscow against the West

MICHAEL PETROU August 25 2008


Russia's invasion of Georgia is part of a bigger fight that pits Moscow against the West

MICHAEL PETROU August 25 2008

Russia gave notice that it would one day send its tanks into Georgia two years ago. “If people believe that Kosovo can be granted full independence, why then

should we deny it to Abkhazia and South Ossetia?” then-president Vladimir Putin asked, referring to the two breakaway regions of Georgia now occupied by Russian troops after a week of fighting. Few paid much attention to Putin’s threat at the time. Oil and gas prices, the foundation of Russia’s economy, were high, but not astronomically so, and the bloodless Rose Revolution had swept pro-Russian strongman Eduard Shevardnadze from power, replacing him with the American-educated Mikheil

Saakashvili. When Maclean’s visited Georgia in 2006, signs of the country’s Western aspirations were everywhere. The highway from the airport to the capital, Tbilisi, was named after George W. Bush, a fact celebrated by a large billboard of the smiling American President. European Union flags dotted the capital.

Georgia aspired to “come back to Europe, to come back to our European roots, and become politically and economically part of the Euro-Atlantic area,” George Manjgaladze, Georgia’s deputy foreign minister, told Maclean’s at the time. He rejected any suggestion that Georgia’s geographic location, east of Turkey, made joining the Euro-Atlantic world difficult. “The globe is endless,” he said. “This matter of East and West, I don’t believe it. It’s a matter of democracy.” Russia protested Georgia’s pro-Western tilt and tried to flex its muscles by restricting or cutting off gas supplies and banning the import of Georgian wine and mineral water. But it seemed implausible that Russia would use military force to redraw the borders of Georgia, a NATO ally that is desperate to join the alliance.

It is now clear that Russia wasn’t bluffing, and is unlikely to do so in future standoffs. Less than two decades after losing its Soviet

empire, Russia is ready to re-establish control over independent states in its backyard, regardless of who their allies are. “With regard to the former Soviet republics it means that the competition for influence between the West and Russia has revived,” Jeffrey Mankoff, associate director of international security studies at Yale University, said in an interview with Maclean’s. “It never really went away, but what this means is that Russia is making a more assertive claim to have a say in their affairs and to want to bring them over to its side.”

Georgia is the latest country to face a renewed fight for its autonomy. But other conflicts—not necessarily military—will likely follow in places such as Ukraine, eastern Europe, and the Baltic states. Moscow has emerged from this altercation victorious on all fronts. It has shown that it has the will to crush—all too easily—a small neighbour, and it has sent a collective shudder through the other countries along its borders, all in the face of hollow denunciations from the outside world—and not much more. The West—specifically the United States, the European Union, and NATO, the latter two having opened their doors to countries that

are also in Moscow’s sights—needs to decide exactly what it is willing to do in the face of the growing Russian threat.

Georgia’s initiation as a stage for Russian expansionist chest-thumping was triggered by President Saakashvili’s imprudent miscalculation. In the early 1990s, Russian-backed separatist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two regions abutting Georgia’s border with Russia, launched rebellions against Georgian rule that led to civil war, more than 1,000 deaths, and the widespread expulsion of ethnic Georgians from these territories.

Georgia lost control of both regions, which became de facto Russian republics and redoubts of organized criminals and strongmen linked to the Russian secret service.

Their autonomous status has been a festering sore for Georgians ever since the war.

Hundreds of ethnically cleansed Georgians now live in grubby, rundown apartment buildings built on barren, windswept hills surrounding Tbilisi. Their flats are dilapidated and overcrowded, and they cook over portable gas stoves set up in the apartment blocks’ shared hallways. Maclean’s visited several of these families in 2006. Like refugees everywhere, they pine for their lost homes. “Of course I want to go. My house is burnt down, but I would still rather live in a burnt house,” one woman, Manana Pruidze, said. “Even though the Russians caused all

our suffering, if we can go back to our homes, we’ll forgive them.”

Like those of many refugees everywhere, Pruidze’s dreams were unlikely ever to be realized. But Saakashvili promised her, and thousands like her, that one day she could go home. He said he would bring both breakaway republics back into the Georgian fold, offering substantial autonomy if they would agree to do so. He was not successful, and last week he changed strategies. Provoked, he says, by attacks on Georgian territory by South Ossetian rebels, he sent Georgian troops into the region to reassert government control.

It is difficult to understand the thinking behind Saakashvili’s decision. He might have calculated that Russia would not respond militarily; perhaps he hoped that the United States would, on Georgia’s side. Because of the difficult terrain along South Ossetia’s border with Russia, it was just possible that a lightning-fast, brilliantly executed Georgian attack might have cut South Ossetia off from reinforcements before Russia could properly respond.

But none of these things happened. Judging by the number of refugees who fled the Georgian advance on Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, and the ruined state of the city itself, Georgia’s military operation was clumsy and possibly indiscriminate. Russia, which offers citizenship to residents of South Ossetia, claimed it had an obliga-


tion to protect its citizens, and sent tanks and thousands of troops to reinforce its “peacekeepers” already in the region. It is virtually certain that Russia would have attacked regardless of whether Kosovo had achieved independence, but the Balkan precedent was a public relations gift for Russia. The West’s support for Kosovo’s independence and opposition to Russia’s intervention in South Ossetia is frequently cited in Russian media as an example of Western hypocrisy.

Russia’s attack was swift and decisive. Its armed forces had clearly planned such an operation for months or longer. They quickly routed Georgian forces in South Ossetia. Tbilisi offered numerous ceasefires; Russia rejected all of them. It threw away its stated pretext of protecting civilians in South Ossetia when it sent its soldiers into Abkhazia, another breakaway region, and then invaded Georgia proper.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has now declared an end to the “Georgian operation.” Tens of thousands of Georgian civilians who fled their homes are now displaced. Most left towns and villages, although they were not guaranteed safety even on the roads. A BBC television crew filmed a Russian fighter jet attacking their car, clearly a non-military target.

In what can only be described as black irony, the Russians repeatedly bombed the town of Gori, hitting several apartment blocks and killing civilians sheltering inside. A list of dead posted outside the hospital numbered

close to 100. The town is the birthplace of Iosif Dzhugashvili, better known as Joseph Stalin, and hosts what must be one of the only statues of the former Soviet dictator outside of Russia.

The stakes in this war—and it is not over, even though the Russian assault has stopped—are high. They involve much more than the fate of Georgia, a brave and democratic country, which—lest America forget—sent 2,000 of its soldiers to fight in Iraq. What’s unfolding in Georgia today is an emblematic battle in a much larger conflict between Russia and the democratic West that has been simmering since the supposed end of the Cold War, and especially since Putin became president in 1999. There have been other, less violent, contests for influence in Russia’s “near abroad”—first in the Baltic States and eastern Europe, more recently in Ukraine and Georgia itself. But, by and large, the West won those match-ups. It expanded NATO eastward to include Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic and Hungary, as well as Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia—all of them now also EU members—and generally spread its influence and democracy into the former Soviet sphere. NATO at its heart is a mutual defence treaty. The new member states wanted the safety this doctrine guaranteed.

Now things are different. For the first time since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the West has


lost a proxy battle with Russia. Russia’s foreign minister reportedly told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Saakashvili “must go,” prompting the American ambassador to the United Nations to suggest that Russia is seeking “regime change” in Georgia. So far the West’s response has been limited to condemnatory statements. Put simply, Russia is willing to go to war where the United States and other Western allies are not.

Countries that were once part of the Soviet Union or its empire are agitated. Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland issued a joint statement saying that as “once-captive nations of Eastern Europe,” they share a “deep concern” about Russia’s actions. “All too familiar with the sight of Russian tanks, the Baltic countries are terrified of what they face in the long run, and they should be,” reports Stratfor, a private intelligence agency. “This is the first major Russian intervention since the fall of the Soviet Union. Yes, Russia has been involved elsewhere. Yes, Russia has fought. But this is on a new order of confidence and indifference to world opinion.”

Ukraine, which cast off Russian influence in the 2004-2005 “Orange Revolution,” also hardened its rhetoric last weekend, insisting that any Russian naval ships used in an attack against Georgia would be refused entry at the Crimean port of Sevastopol, which Ukraine leases to Russia as a base for its Black Sea fleet. Russia, in turn, has accused Ukraine of selling weapons to Georgia that have been used to kill Russian soldiers.

According to Aurel Braun, a professor of international relations at the University of Toronto, Ukraine’s defence of Georgia is motivated by self-interest. It feels threatened, and other nations once controlled by the Soviet Union should as well. Russian actions in Georgia were directed as much against them as Tbilisi. “Russia is establishing a very dangerous precedent,” Braun told Maclean’s. “And unless Russia pays a cost for this, unless we really think of this as a very major event and an extraordinary set of moves by Russia, then further down the

line we will be paying collectively in the West a really heavy price.”

With Georgia and Ukraine having applied for NATO membership, Braun says that “Russia is basically saying to NATO, ‘We will exercise a veto on NATO enlargement. We are going to punish Georgia in such a way that it sends a message to Ukraine.’ This is a really powerful message. In Ukraine, you have an actual Russian population, not a pretend Russian population. There are several million actual ethnic Russians. And they’re sending a message to Poland and the Czech Republic. They’re saying, ‘If you dare allow the Americans to set up anti-ballistic missile defence systems, we are going to punish you. If you try to encourage Ukrainian aspirations for membership in NATO or the EU’—as Poland has been—‘we are going to punish you.’ ”

It is unlikely that Russia would use such naked force elsewhere, but its vast reserves of oil and gas give it substantial leverage, including in western Europe. Indeed, destabilizing Georgia has only increased Russia’s energy clout. Several oil and gas pipelines traverse Georgia, and links are planned to Europe, bypassing Russia. But if Georgia is too fragile to safely transport oil and gas, Europe will have little choice other than continuing its reliance on Russia. On Tuesday, energy giant BP said it shut down two oil and gas pipelines running through Georgia “as a precaution.”

In Russia itself, most people are supportive of the invasion, says Andrei Soldatov, a journalist and director of the Agentura think tank in Moscow. Russian media have been

full of stories about alleged Georgian atrocities against South Ossetians, although Soldatov told Maclean’s he struggled to find any mention of Russia bombing Gori.

Russia’s intervention in Georgia has so far been a success for Vladimir Putin and the country’s hardline nationalist siloviki, a Russian term for former secret service bureaucrats who now make up much of the country’s political and business elites. Russia has punished one pro-Western neighbour and indirectly threatened several others.

Georgia’s future as a transit point for oil and gas is in jeopardy. And it can no longer consider itself safe or protected because of its friendship with the West.

According to Braun, it is not in the West’s interests to allow this situation to stand. And in the long run it will also hurt Russia by undermining what’s left of the liberal opposition and strengthening the siloviki’s argument that the West can be bullied, and Russia can grow stronger without democracy.

Other analysts, such as Jeff Mankoff at Yale, reason that the West’s options for pressuring Russia are limited and even risky, given both Russia’s energy reserves and the co-operation the United States is seeking from Russia over

its standoff with Iran. Braun counters that Russia’s co-operation on Iran has been minimal to begin with. He points to reports of Russia’s recent sale to Iran of the sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missile defence system, which will greatly enhance Iran’s ability to repel an American or Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities.

Reconsidering Russia’s membership in the G8 would be an appropriately robust response to the attack on Georgia, Braun says. He also stresses the importance of supporting Georgia and the democratically elected Saakashvili government in the months ahead. Finally, he says, a truly international peacekeeping force should be sent to Abkhazia and South Ossetia to replace the Russian soldiers stationed there now.

“This is a huge victory for Vladimir Putin and his cohort,” Braun says. “The question is, will he solidify this victory by basically intimidating NATO countries into silence, into acquiescence, which will mean that Russia will be further emboldened and we will pay an ever higher price? We may think that Georgia is a faraway country of which we don’t know much. We could, six months or a year from now, be facing a situation in Ukraine which would be much more difficult to ignore.” M