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South Ossetia: More than a Caucasus matter August 11, 2008

Posted by Sverre in : World politics , trackback

The conflict in South Ossetia (and Abkhasia for that matter) drags on, and the Internet is crawling with different accounts. Most of which have very strong opinions of who has right on their side. As a political science student, I have been taught to take interest in moving one step back and look at the chessboard in large rather than the details of who shot first and how many troops and planes are coming from where.

The myriad of opinions of great strength are confusing, and tell little but that each side has a lot of patriots willing to characterize the other in very strong terms. This suggests that the picture is most likely not as black and white as either side claims. Finding good balanced reports is not as easy, see the bottom of this post links to some of the better sources I have found – both strongly biased and not.

As I have formerly commented, I believe this conflict is a test of the new world order, in a way quite different from Iraq. Previously we saw a defeated Russia at the end of the cold war, a Russia in tatters and under Yeltsin a Russia that was succumbing to corruption and organized crime. Russia made careful advances towards becoming a part of the European community of nations, with the the scars of the cold war not yet healed, Europe wasn’t prepared to accept them.

Under Putin, however, Russia slowly turned around. Helped by skyrocketing oil prices and a huge demand for natural gas in Europe that has been filling Mother Russia’s coffers with gold, the urge and drive to once again become a great power has grown. And an introduction into Europe on uneven terms no longer seems as attractive.

In the last couple of years, Russia has faced what it could only see as a long series of insults from the west, which it has become harder and harder for a nationalist leadership to ignore. The western powers have taken the side of Kosovo against Russia’s old ally Serbia. The US rocket shield program with its placement of defense missiles in Eastern Europe has been another provocation. In diplomatic conflicts such as those between USA and Iran, Iraq and North Korea, Russia has used its power in the UN Security Council to resist the foreign policy of the Bush administration. But threats of military opposition have so far been more subdued. Clearly, the new Russia is weary of ending up seen as the constant threat to Western Europe and the US that the Soviet Union was. For all his self confidence, Putin knows that Russia doesn’t have the muscle to win another arms race. With a hand on the valves to Europe’s gas pipelines, Putin has finally got less drastic weapons to threaten with.

The Caucasus region is quite literally Russia’s back yard. It is an area with a history of ethnic violence between groups locked inside borders set by the result of wars and power politics. With Russian influence in Europe having been rolled back since the fall of the iron curtain, Russia needs to show that it is able to master this region, perhaps not on the scale the US exercises force in the rest of the world, but at least enough to be allowed to play in the same league.

The grievances of the Ossetians against the Georgians may or may not be legitimate. I do not know the area well enough to judge. Russia may have a humanitarian motivation to protect the Ossetians, but in the greater scheme, but at least it has been a coincidence giving Russia ab excellent excuse to establish a presence of force. By sending in a peacekeeping force (not by any mandate but that of the Kremlin), they could keep a military presence without provoking the western powers too much.

Then the Georgian offensive against the separatist republic started. Some claim it was a countermove to aggression from the separatists, some claim it was an unprovoked attempt at genocide. Either way, why it was ordered is somewhat of a puzzle to me. What did Georgia stand to gain? Surely, with Russian troops already on the ground in South Ossetia, they weren’t expecting Russia to stand idly by? And surely Georgia didn’t think they had the power to stand against the forces of the Kremlin on their own?

Unless, of course, Saakashvili has been overestimating the willingness of the West to stand face to face with Russia with guns in hand. If we rule out pure irrationality, the only sensible explanation I’ve been able to think of on my own is that the Georgian president somehow thought the NATO they’d been courting were already willing to back him with arms if he could provoke a Russian attack.

It doesn’t appear that they are. At least not right away. While Russian soldiers and materials seem (at least according to some accounts) to be pouring into South Ossetia, possibly even crossing the borders into Georgia proper, the response from the rest of the world is the request for talks and ceasefires, not the threat to send in armed force of their own.

Moving into pure speculation, what do I think will happen? At least I hope Russia will accept a ceasefire as sure as it has become clear that they would be able to crush Georgia if they wanted to. I believe there will be a period of negotiations facilitated by the UN, OSCE or EU in which some accord will be found. Some sort of extended autonomy for South Ossetia and their sister separatist republic Abkhasia will be guaranteed, if not letting them become a part of the Russian federation. Russia will have the diplomatic victory and demonstration of force it needs. I think Washington and Brussels also realizes that they need to let Russia have a victory, and here they can have one not at their expense. However, in doing so, they will have gone a long way in opening up for the old doctrines of “Spheres of Influence” that categorizes much of Realist thinking. This again opens up to the self fulfilling prophecies of a new cold war. If we have a president in Washington convinced that a cold war is coming, that belief alone is enough to make one. Hopefully we have learned enough from the old cold war that it won’t be quite as damaging.

But just maybe we do have a new world order that can stand up to the test. Perhaps we have learned so much from the old cold war that the great powers are willing to stand off and resolve conflicts in a new way? I am sure Robert Kagan for one would scoff at my naive beliefs, but I haven’t given up hope just yet….

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