From the August 12, 2008 National Review Online
August 12, 2008
by Zeyno Baran , Emmet C. Tuohy
By the sounds of artillery, tanks, and strategic bombers on August 8, world attention was suddenly wrenched away from the brightly elaborate Olympic spectacle in China to the obscure mountain valleys of Georgia. Yet despite the considerable resources immediately brought to bear by governments and media organizations alike on trying to figure out what became revealed by the scale of those explosions to be the largest interstate conflict to reach Europe since World War II, the basic facts of the conflict — to say nothing about questions of extent, fault, or potential consequences — have remained masked by what has been described as a “cloud of war” hanging over the Caucasus.
Of course, in our globalized age of information, there was never any possibility of an information blackout — on the contrary, seemingly credible news reports came out of Georgia on an hourly basis claiming that, for example, Tbilisi International Airport has been bombed, or that Georgian troops in the breakaway South Ossetian republic's “capital” of South Ossetia have ignored several ceasefires announced by their president. Yet the chaos of the war is obscuring the nature of the conflict not due to a lack of reporting, but paradoxically to an overabundance of it — for on every key diplomatic or military move, news reports have been directly and mutually contradictory. From Georgian sources and reporters based in Georgian-controlled territory, the story of a relentlessly vicious Russian attack against an isolated government emerged, only to be matched by a story emerging on the other side of the front line of a steady campaign against a barbaric, genocidal regime hoping to quietly get away with ethnic cleansing during the world's sporting holiday. Without any real experience with the region with which to evaluate two claims that together simply cannot be true, most well-intentioned states had no ability to act — they simply issued statements urging an end to the violence, and hoped that peace would return so that a clearer factual picture could emerge.
As dedicated analysts of the southern corners of the former Soviet Union and its turbulent international relations, we reacted to the first shots of the Russo-Georgian War on that day not with bewilderment or surprise, but with frustration. Frustration because our own experiences — borne not just of research or of analysis but of having personally lived through tribulations of the Rose and Orange revolutions (respectively) and the many hopeful and pessimistic moments in between — have given us the experience to discern that this was no accidental escalation for which two sides bear equal responsibility.
But who are we, as non-governmental outsiders, to make such an immediate judgment? It's simple: because we were watching Georgiabefore the fog of war descended on the Caucasus. And for the last three years, president — now technically prime minister — Putin and the Russian government have telegraphed amply their intentions not just for Georgia, but for the whole “lost” region of the Near Abroad. We knew that no statements of hope for peace would end this conflict.
On our first point of frustration, the fact that this was seen as a conflict over a particular region rather than a full-scale war between states, the evens since April 10 have proved to be somewhat revealing, as no observer with pretenses of neutrality can understand the bombings of civilian targets and of economic and transport infrastructure located in places with no relation whatsoever to South Ossetia. While Russia and its sources still claim that “no bombs have been dropped” on non-military targets, and that its moves to quadruple its presence along a second front in Abkhazia are “purely to ensure the safety of South Ossetia,” the fact that Western camera crews have recorded these attacks in detail — and that Russia's own foreign minister has baldly admitted its desire to get rid of the “obstructive” Georgian government — has made this hard to sustain.
Yet, even while denouncing Russia's invasion of Georgia itself, global leaders continue to give Russia the benefit of the doubt, and have arranged numerous cease-fire agreements that provide a full Georgian withdrawal — precisely the status quo ante that Russia has demanded. Even while decrying the damage to the world economy caused by the interruption in energy supplies due to Russian bomb attacks on the key Baku-Supsa and Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipelines, the international community is still giving Russia the benefit of the doubt.
It has long been time for the international community — the West in particular — to stop giving Russia the benefit of the doubt before it shows serious willingness of deserving it. As the Georgians and Ossetians have learned to great sadness, Russia is willing use any instrument of foreign policy — from the energy blockades, infrastructure bombings, and incitement of rebellions that it has used in Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova, to the “coalitions of the unwilling” that it has formed in the United Nations and other international organizations to thwart any progress on issues of stability that it distrusts. Whether in protecting the cruelly dictatorial regime of Zimbabwe from sanctions, or in delaying any serious international mission to end the genocide in Sudan, or in stalling the Iranian nuclear issue to the point that Ahmedinejad may not be able to be stopped from acquiring the bomb, Russia has thwarted the naïve hopes of Americans and Europeans alike that it can play a benevolently constructive role in foreign affairs.
Russia has gathered strength during this period of naïve trust, building its military capacity to the point where an army that once was easily defeated by Chechen rebels and renowned only for its decrepitude can now easily overcome a modern Georgian force trained to American standards. And there is no reason whatsoever to suspect that it won't continue to use this tool now that it has been demonstrated. By constantly pointing out the false parallel to Kosovo, Russia is asserting its new strength very plainly, sending a message that while it was once too weak to save its traditional ally Serbia from losing its territory, it is now the West that is too weak to make its preferences felt in foreign policy.
Certainly, there is no way short of going to war that Russia will cease its invasion of Georgia before it attains its own objectives. For in its ability to impose its will by force on a neighboring state, Russia has shown that the rhetoric of the postwar international system is ultimately empty, and that statements of disapproval carry no weight at all without actions that back them up.
Even though the U.S. may not be able to stop the annihilation of Georgia, this does not mean that the disappearance of a state President Bush once called a “beacon” and a “closest ally” should be marked solely with another set of press releases. If the U.S. and its Western allies worthy of that name begin according Russia the pariah status its behavior has warranted, and accept the fact that not every conflict can be resolved through diplomacy alone, then perhaps the next time a neighbor of Russia is reported to have committed “genocide,” we will be wise enough to categorize Russian propaganda as the flimsy smokescreen it is while simultaneously being prepared to respond in whatever way is necessary to maintain our peaceful international system.
Zeyno Baran is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute.
Emmet Tuohy is the Assistant Director of the Center on Eurasian Policy at Hudson Institute.
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