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Story Publication logo August 18, 2008

Georgia, Russia and the march to folly

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The war between Russia and Georgia caught most of the world by surprise but it is a conflict that...

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Thomas Goltz, special to the Pulitzer Center

That Mikhail Saakashvili's Georgia would eventually come into direct conflict with its huge neighbor to the north, the Russian Federation, was long a given.

The Columbia Law School graduate became the darling of US-styled 'regime-change' causes long before his accession to power via the Rose Revolution of 2003 which ousted Soviet era strong-man (and USSR
foreign minister) Eduard Shevardnadze, mainly because Georgians were just sick and tired of being stuck with 'the Silver Fox' for their entire lives. In contrast to Shevy, who was old, cagy and 'Soviet' (even though he was pals with the international Old Guard of people such as James Baker III, George H Bush, Helmut Kohl and Margaret Thatcher), Misha was young, brash and 'western' (even though he had served as Shevy's Minister of Justice in the late 1990s for a spell).

In any case, once ensconced in the presidential building in downtown Tbilisi, Misha and his team of radical reformers (to this day, most do not look older than thirty years of age) went about remaking Georgia. They overhauled the corrupt bureaucracy and the police, thus drawing in much needed foreign investment and thus began creating much-needed jobs. With the help of financier George Soros (who actually ponied up all state salaries for the first year or so, including Misha's), Misha and his team also made Tbilisi the center of NGO activity in the Caucasus region, ranging from institutes dealing with press freedom to the meeting place where Azerbaijanis and Armenians could come to try and sort out their problems stemming from the 'frozen' conflict over Mountainous Karabakh.

The city also served as what George W. Bush declared to be a 'beacon of democracy and hope' to be emulated in other post-Soviet states, and the Rose Revolution that was the vehicle of this change in Georgia soon became the model for the 'Orange Revolution' in Ukraine and then the 'Tulip Revolution' in Kyrghyzstan in Central Asia (where it was far less successful). It was also to have served for some sort of social revolution in Azerbaijan and then Armenia (where it failed) and eventually, one presumes, Russia itself.

Of greater concern for Moscow, however, was Saakashvili's push to make a final exit from being within the Russian sphere of influence, and irrevocably tie his tiny country to the west by achieving membership in the two institutions that would serve as a protective political and security umbrella: the European Union, and NATO. While this (or these) ideas had actually been initiated by Shevardnadze back in the late 1990s, it was Saakashivili who made them central to his internal and external policies—and it drove the Russians crazy.

I vaguely remember the first time I heard of the Georgia-in-NATO application; I believe it was at a conference on the Caucasus at Harvard, in 1997, and everyone in the room chuckled because the idea was so ludicrous. Georgia, in NATO? What could the economic basket-case and semi-occupied mini-state in the Caucasus offer in exchange for the NATO Article Five promise of Common Security, meaning an attack on one member is an attack on all? Of course the 'experts' also thought about Moscow's potential response to this most recent affront, but Russia itself was an economic basket-case at the time, and still reeling from its humiliating defeat in Chechnya. In retrospect, it is precisely because of Russia's perceived –and real—weakness at the time that certain parties in Brussels (and Washington) actually allowed the seed of Georgia's hope to join the alliance to germinate.

And Georgia began to push at this possibility every chance it got. Usually, these chances came in the form of participation in US-led international military peace-keeping operations, first in Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001) and then, most significantly, in Iraq (2003), where the Georgian contingent in the so-called Coalition of the Willing grew from a symbolic 200 soldiers to the 2,000 that were air-lifted back to Georgia last week aboard US military aircraft; at the time, they were the third largest contingent of foreign troops in the field, after the USA and Britain. Their mission, in addition to currying favor with the USA, was clearly also to receive specialized training in a real combat zone, and bring that newly acquired knowledge back to Georgia and apply it when and where needed.

It is necessary to note that Georgia was not alone among the south Caucasus states to dabble in this realm. Azerbaijan, too, sent troops to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq with the same aim of currying favor with the USA, and acquiring training, as did a more reluctant Armenia, whose presence in the American-led coalitions always seemed to have been made more out of a sense of not wanting to be left out (and possibly keeping a pair of Russia-friendly eyes and ears in the multinational operations) than based on any sort of strategic enthusiasm. But the main difference is that increasingly, and vocally, Georgia declared that its participation in these dangerous operations qualified it to eventually become a full member of NATO, a claim never made by Azerbaijan (or Armenia), where a greater sense of post-Soviet realism seemed to infuse the leadership, particularly after recovery of Russian self-assurance with the departure of Boris Yeltsin in early 2000 and his replacement by Vladimir Putin, as well as with Russia's changed military fortunes in Chechnya starting in 1999 and the explosion of new wealth in the formerly impoverished giant with the dramatic rise in income from oil and gas.

Armenia, completely bound to Russia economically and militarily, plays no role in the discussion, save as its use by Russia as a pressure point against both Georgia and Azerbaijan. What is instructive is a comparison between Baku's policies toward Moscow and those of Tbilisi, particularly after the arrival of Saakashvili to power in 2004. While Tbilisi embraced an openly anti-Russian policy in virtually all spheres—'baiting the bear' is one popular phrase to describe it---Baku was going out of its way to reassure Moscow of the long history that had bound the two fraternal peoples together as part of great tactical schmooze-job, and one that apparently has worked (at least so far). Vladimir Putin was invited to town to receive an Honorary Degree from the refurbished (with Russian money) Slavyan ('Slavic') University. Special 'Azerbaijan' evenings of traditional music and dance were exported to Moscow, almost in a revival of the famous 'Druzhba Narodov,' or 'Friendship of the Peoples' cultural fare that existed in the bad old days of the USSR. Although participating in diverse NATO-related events and even exercises, Azerbaijan went out of its way to make no attempt to 'standardize' its military equipment with that of NATO, and made sure that its large purchases of machines and ordinance in recent years had 'Made in Russia' stamped on a healthy proportion of all in-coming orders.

Most notably, Baku also offered to lease the giant Russian radar station at Gabala to the United States as an alternative to the missile shield Washington wants to build in Poland and the Czech Republic to 'protect' western Europe from a sneak Iranian nuclear attack. The offer, no doubt made sincerely by the Azerbaijanis to enhance their status with Washington and get some legal American boots on the ground, could not possibly have been made without the direct acquiescence (or direction) from Moscow. In the event, the United States declined the missile shield and radar site citing 'technical reasons,' and went on pursuing the Polish/Czech site deal, which Russia for obvious reasons regarded being directed not against Iran, but Russia itself—and thus became another irritant in the growing pile of (sometimes paranoid) complaints against NATO, adding still more fuel to the fire of ire Moscow was feeling toward upstart Tbilisi.

Meanwhile, as Azerbaijan was hedging its bets, Georgia was taking its bid to join the Atlantic alliance very seriously, participating in any and all meetings and exercises it could get into, purchasing presumably more expensive NATO standard guns and boots and bullets and entertaining American military trainers and observers under a variety of different programs and guises. It also tried to prove its value to NATO training by building a 'NATO-spec' Special Mountain Forces school at a place called Sashkhere on the southern flanks of the Caucasus Mountains—and spitting distance of the Russian frontier-- which was opened to great fanfare last summer.

The crowning moment for Saakashvili came with an official, overnight visit by US President George W. Bush on May 7th and 8th 2005, just before the 60th year V.E. day celebrations in Moscow (which Saakashvili declined to attend), when Bush had a street named after him, symbolically cementing Georgia into the American sphere of influence in Russia's backyard forever. Finally, there was the application to the Membership Action Plan, or MAP, when Georgia formally notified NATO and the world (and thus Russia) that it, along with Ukraine, would follow other former Warsaw Pact states into the alliance as it crept ever closer to the actual frontiers of the Russian Federation. The meeting that would decide the issue was held in Bucharest, Romania in April of this year, and turned out to be a disappointment for Georgia. The fact that Germany and France scuttled the Georgian application as being 'premature' (over the protests of the United States) is almost of no note, aside from the finger-wagging today, with Saakashvili claiming (correctly, as it turns out) that without Georgia getting locked into NATO's collective security immediately, Russia was bound to attack.

And indeed, while it might have sounded like impatient howling from a distant up-start, Moscow had in fact gone beyond the fulcrum point, and decided that the time to permanently destroy Georgia's irritating pretensions and inability to understand its place in the 'world system' had come, and contingency plans started to become activated.

There is still a lot of fuzziness surrounding the operation that commenced on August 8th, 2008, but hindsight allows 20/20 vision on a number of things that now seem totally obvious.

Arguably, the most important of these was Moscow's unilateral 'humanitarian' decision to grant Russian citizenship to the citizens of the breakaway Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (the former was an 'autonomous republic,' while the latter was an 'autonomous district' within Georgia during Soviet times), allegedly to ease the burden of isolation. The impact of this became all too clear when the conflict exploded last week, when new Russian President Demitry Medvedev was able to look international cameras in the eye and announce to the world that Russia was merely using its Responsibility to Protect (R2P) for its citizens. The fact that these new 'citizens' happened to live outside the legal frontiers of the Russian Federation contained a truly ominous element—i.e., that Russia was claiming the R2P right to intervene anywhere in the world where its citizens, new or old, might reside—or at least in every one of the fifteen former Soviet Republics, including, most notably, Ukraine.

The second obvious signal of nefarious intent was the decision to send in railway workers to Abkhazia to upgrade the line leading down from the Russian border crossing point at Ptsou virtually down to the Georgian frontier at Gali/Zugdidi. This, too, was announced as a rational and indeed humanitarian gesture to help end the plight of the isolated Abkhaz. As it turned out, these upgraded railway tracks served the Russian military very nicely to transport masses of tanks and other equipment to 'the front' in a speedy manner.

The third element, observers suggest, was to hold military exercises in July in and around the future 'jump' point of North Ossetia, an autonomous republic inside the Russian federation that flanks South Ossetia in Georgia--and then leave those forces there in pre-position before the order to invade was given.

The fourth and last element is the fuzziest but arguably the most important: the placement of agents of influence (spies and disinformation specialists) in the region and—almost impossible to prove at this point—as close to Saakashvili's ear as possible, culminating in the almost un-provable and utterly cynical but extremely effective launch of the campaign on the very day the entire world was distracted by the Grand Opening of the Beijing Olympics, including the theatrics of a 'shocked' Vladimir Putin, with his staged finger-wagging at Georgia W. Bush for allowing his 'client,' Misha Saakashvili, to destroy the peace in the tinder-box of the Caucasus on such an auspicious occasion.

Thomas Goltz is a professor at Montana State University/Bozeman and author, most recently, of "Georgia Diary--A Chronicle of War and Political Chaos in the Post-Soviet Caucasus." He has specialized in reporting from the Caucasus for two decades, since his first trip there as a fellow at the Institute for Current World Affairs. What follows are excerpts from his most recent report from the region. See also his report last week for the Overseas Press Club and his audio report for IAGblog Podcasts. Goltz also recommends the excellent piece by Peter Spiegel and Borzou Daragahi in Sunday's Los Angeles Times. For a corrective on much of the superficial and ideologically slanted reporting that characterized the first days of the war, meanwhile, see Michael Dobbs's reconstruction of what went wrong in the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post. -- Jon Sawyer, Pulitzer Center.)

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