The fog of war
Aug 13th 2009
Unravelling the Ossetia conflict, one year later
ONE year after the Georgian war, its outcome is as debatable as the cause. Depending on where you stand, the war can be seen as the sinister culmination of a systematic provocation by a neo-imperialist Russia or as a murderously aggressive gambit by a Caucasian strongman wrongheadedly backed by the West.
The truth is somewhere in between. Russia did systematically provoke Georgia in the months leading up to the war. Its military counter-attack was disproportionate. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that President Mikheil Saakashvili’s inner circle was badly penetrated by Russia, that decision-making processes were chaotic and amateurish, and that the move to retake the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali (pictured), played into his enemy’s hands.
Whose fault was it?
With a detailed chronology of who did and decided what in the days and hours leading up to the war still (oddly) unavailable, an accurate assessment of the causes of war is still impossible.
Depending on where you stand, what happened next is similarly foggy. One variant is that Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France, intervened with panache and elan to prevent catastrophe, brokering a ceasefire deal in a way that only a big European country could have done. From another viewpoint, Mr Sarkozy was a meddling egomaniac whose amateurism and self-importance gravely impeded the EU’s ability to intervene. People familiar with ceasefires in the Yugoslav wars certainly thought the documents he brought away from the talks with Vladimir Putin (and his sidekick-boss Dmitri Medvedev) were remarkably vague.
From another point of view, the EU and NATO reaped the harvest of their neglect of Georgia in previous months. The agreed sanctions after the fighting stopped were feeble. Suspending the NATO-Russia council, or the putative Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and Russia, was not even turning a cold shoulder (more a soggy one) to the Kremlin. The outside world showed it would sacrifice principle for profit. It just requires a decent interval.
Lenin’s famous dictum “Kto kovo” (“who did what to whom”) is the best way of clearing the fog. Georgia is weakened, but not destroyed. Its economy has not collapsed. Political pluralism survives. War-weariness has not brought a pro-Moscow regime to power. Even Mr Saakashvili’s erstwhile friends are heartily fed-up with his presidency, but Georgian politics is still commendably open and contestable.
That cannot be said of Russia. The war has made apparent to outsiders some of the worst features of Russian politics. The Kremlin propaganda machine has used it to stoke xenophobia: Saakashvili is a monster, it says, so the West is monstrously cynical in backing him. Yet Russia has not pursued military aggression elsewhere. Fears for the future of Crimea and the Baltic states, vivid a year ago, now seem overblown. The military adventure in Georgia was bad, but it was a one-off. If it will be repeated anywhere, it will be once more in Georgia. And confident predictions of that, earlier this year, have come to nothing.
One reason for that is that the West has not abandoned Georgia. For all the frustration with the administration’s autocratic tendencies, and despite all the pressing priorities elsewhere, the core commitment to Georgia is intact. America’s “reset” of relations with Russia did not uninstall the program “Georgia 1.0”. Partly because of the principle of defending sovereignty, partly out of enthusiasm for Georgia’s political and economic achievements, and partly because of energy politics (remember the pipelines), America and Europe are staying engaged.
Not that anybody has worked out what to do. Not giving up is a good start, but only that.
Friday, September 04, 2009