By Ramzy Baroud
Just as the world’s attention was focussed on China’s Beijing Olympics, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, on 7 August, invaded the tiny breakaway province of South Ossetia. The initial attack on the South Ossetian capital, Tskninvali, soon extended to an all out war, which eventually invited Russia’s wrath, and the death of thousands of innocent civilians on both sides.
Prior to Saakashvili’s war, little was known about the political specifics of that area and the brewing decades-long territorial disputes which date back to the early 20th century, highlighted during an intense civil war that followed the break-up of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Georgia’s successful secession from the Soviet grip, understandably, inspired independence fervour in ethnic regions within Georgia. The small region of South Ossetia — majority ethnic Russians and minority Georgians — sought to join the North Ossetian province, which remained part of Russia. Another region was Abkhazia, whose protracted fight with the central Georgian government has also provoked much violence.
The fact that South Ossetia belongs to Georgia was hardly contested. Even Russia has long recognised Georgian sovereignty in that region. Russia, nonetheless, remained largely involved in South Ossetia — mostly as a "peacekeeping force", rationalising such involvement as essential for the national security of the country and the safety of its citizens. Most South Ossentians — like Abkhazians — hold Russian citizenship.
But setting such rationale aside, the fact is that South Ossetia is an important component in Russian foreign policy, and particularly its policy and attitude towards former Soviet republics and satellite states in Eastern Europe. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cold War was transformed into a political scramble: the US and NATO expanded their boundaries of influence and territorial outreach, while Russia struggled to maintain a level of influence and halt the encroachment of the US-led NATO.
Georgia, situated strategically between Russia, the Black Sea, Turkey and Iran, deserved due attention. The US became keenly interested in ensuring the inclusion of Georgia into its sphere of influence. Through dedicated efforts, a pro-Western leader, Saakashvili, came to power through a highly televised "Rose Revolution". While the integrity of the elections that followed and the role of the CIA in concocting and ensuring the success of the "revolution" are still intensely debated, the fact is Georgia fell into a new sphere of influence. Saakashvili is a man desperate for European-US validation. He too sought NATO membership and heedlessly invited Israeli military "specialists" to modernise his country’s armed forces in anticipation of a battle with Russia.
Evidently, Georgia’s leader knew well that a victory against Russia was unattainable. By embarking on a war against a tiny province, because, as he claimed, he ran out of patience, Saakashvili was following a script that was hardly of his own writing. The logic behind the war was to test Russia’s resolve, and the readiness of its newest president, Dmitri Medvedev. A hesitant Russian response would be taken as another sign of weakness or lack of political and military decisiveness in Moscow, which might also inspire more such experiments. Too harsh a response could also be decried as "genocide" and war crimes and could be exploited to compel Russia’s weaker neighbours to seek the protection of NATO.
This is what indeed transpired since Russia called off military actions 13 August.
First, leaders of pro-US countries in the region — namely, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia — attended a rally in support of Georgia’s Saakashvili on 14 August in Tbilisi. The televised event was accompanied by a flood of experts pedalling Russia’s evil intents to the world media while promoting a larger US role to ensure the independence of these nations and to preserve their fragile democracies. "They’re all seriously worried that it’s Georgia today and one of them tomorrow," surmised Krzysztof Bobinski, director of the Warsaw-based Unia & Polska Foundation.
Second, the Russian response to Georgia’s war in South Ossetia has resulted in a remarkable breakthrough in negotiations between the US and East European countries regarding the Bush administration’s plans for a new missile defence shield. On 14 August, "Poland and the US signed a deal to build a controversial missile defence shield in Eastern Europe," reported the British Telegraph newspaper. "The agreement highlights how Russia’s invasion of Georgia has prompted a swift reappraisal of the region’s security and alliances. The US and Poland have been talking about the missile shield for a year but rushed to cement their alliance in the wake of this week’s conflict."
It’s rather interesting how a controversial and unpopular plan that has raised the ire of the Polish people — 70 per cent of the country is against it — was overcome within days of war and is now embraced as a necessary deterrent. One cannot help but question the relationship between the decision to invade South Ossetia, which was certain to compel some Russian response, and the rush to embrace Bush’s military designs in that region. The plan to place missiles in Poland seemed like a resounding failure as late as last month when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "tried and failed just before leaving for Europe on Monday [7 July] to seal a deal to place missiles in Poland, the State Department said," according to CNN. Now Poland is all for it. It return, Poland would receive US assistance in overhauling its military, reminiscent of the Israeli-US efforts in aiding Georgia’s military, which emboldened the latter to pursue war with Russia.
While Russia’s decisive response to Saakashvili’s war may have temporarily reaffirmed Russia’s military readiness, it has already provided the needed justification for greater US-NATO intervention in Georgia, Poland, the Czech Republic and elsewhere. That US presence might be welcomed by the unnerved "democratic" leaders of these states but it will pique the fury of Russia, whose political radars are intercepting the Bush administration’s every move in the region with great alarm.
The ceasefire between Russia and Georgia, achieved through French mediation, will hardly be the end of the new Cold War underway in an area too accustomed to cold wars. The fact is that Russia will fight to break away from the pro- US ring of former Soviet states that promise to undermine its influence in a Eurasia, and the US will do its utmost to maintain a level of tension, if not hostilities in the region, for without it neither a missile shield nor the 270 billion barrels of oil in the Caspian basin can be brought within Washington’s reach.
-Ramzy Baroud (www.ramzybaroud.net) is an author and editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His work has been published in many newspapers and journals worldwide. His latest book is The Second Palestinian Intifada: A Chronicle of a People’s Struggle (Pluto Press, London).