GEORGIA’S FOLLY & THE RAGE OF THE BEAR
by Michael Hammerschlag
Kiev: Mikheil Saakashvili’s reckless invasion of South Ossetia was an act of a politically embattled leader seeking to rally his nation in a military adventure to regain a long separated ethnic enclave. Instead the predictable, even inevitable, Russian counterattack has finalized the departure of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia, destroyed the incipient Georgian military, occupied Georgian territory, and probably ensured the US-sponsored President’s days are numbered. Russia doesn’t have to do a thing- his countrymen will reject him for his fatal hubris in his unwinnable invasion (see Falklands War- the Galtieri Effect). Why Russia’s ferocious reaction was a surprise to many is mystifying- it has been itching to assert it’s new power, infuriated over NATO overtures to Georgia and Ukraine, obsessed with the supposed humiliation of Russians in the FSU, paranoid over the useless US antimissile systems in Czechia and Poland, and livid over the recognition of Kosovo (birthplace of Slavic little brother Serbia). Once Russian “peacekeepers” had been killed, nothing could have stopped their overwhelming response.
Western reaction has been truly hyperbolic- acting as if it was the Czech invasion, and threatens to become a self-fulfilling notion- the Cold War is back, full bore. Bush and his administration have been near hysterical (angry “at the collapse of his project” in Georgia, Russian FM Lavrov says acidly), issuing threats and unenforceable ultimatums that only accentuate America’s complete impotence. Even Democrats like Strobe Talbot are talking of “Russia sucker-punching Georgia into a war”, and the excitable Baltic, Ukrainian, and Polish leaders, who’ve all suffered from Russia’s endless enemy of the month club bullying, rallied in Tbilisi in Georgia’s defense. Indeed, Putin’s thuggish crackdown on the media, foreign organizations and corporations, nationalist incitements against foreigners (“blacks” and Asians), and mindless nonsense Soviet-style propaganda against the West (which tripled in the year I was just there), made one wonder when they would again become a threat to the world.
But this is not it- it is not Prague or Budapest - it is Russia reacting to an overreach by a hotheaded Caucasian leader against a 16 year status quo and a people (70% of whom hold Russian passports); a leader who has his own litany of undemocratic actions.
Unspoken in the world’s condemnation of Russia’s heavy-handed response and the complete ignoral of the initial brutal Georgian invasion, is the paramount question of whether the Bushie neo-cons encouraged Saakashvili in his delusions (“the American military will control our ports and airport”). A national security assistant to Cheney was in Georgia just before the invasion. It plays right into the US Presidential race where the worn out bugaboo of terrorism wasn’t getting any traction in slandering Obama as weak on defense. A new enemy was needed to scare the citizenry, dumb down the debate, and distract the people from McCain’s manifest incompetence and doddering gaffes- The Bear Was Back, and baaaader than ever, playing at every cable channel from now till election day.
The Republicans are desperate, sensing the Democratic tsunami that is about to sweep them and their catastrophically failed agenda into the sewer of history. Bush’s popularity is now lowest of any President in history. Most alarming, John McCain’s foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann was a director of The Project for a New American Century, the charter neo-con conspiracy which planned to invade Iraq all the way back to back to ’94 (other members- Cheney, Rummy, Wolfowitz), and a long time lobbyist for Georgia, who has ensured intimate contacts between Mikheil and McCain. Did he or Administration figures encourage an attack? ADDENUM 8-30 (Putin has now made these same charges in an extended CNN interview.)
Democrats have been falling right into the trap- endorsing the view that this has been entirely a Russian transgression; and competing who can promise the likeable Saakashvili more and sound more virulent towards Russia; rather than emphasizing our Iraq-crippled military and the real dangerous flashpoints in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and our interdependence with Russia on huge international problems.
Threats to punish Russia are so much hot air- Russia is an energy, resource, and nuclear superpower with the most oil + gas production, metals, timber, diamonds - and the world needs that much more than Russian needs the WTO, or Group of 8. It has a half trillion dollars in cash reserves and is increasing that by billions a week, as the US borrows $8 billion a week. And do we really want to further isolate the only country with a nuclear arsenal that could destroy the West? Imagine the horror if Georgia was part of NATO, as hard-liners are immediately advocating. Would, should, or could the West really go to battle against Russia on it’s southern flank? No way, and Europe will probably back far away from offering NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine, the historic heart of Russia. NATO was and still is a military alliance against Russia, but the horrendous reality of actually fighting it has virtually been forgotten. The Russians haven’t forgotten.
America even took overt sides by sending home the 2000 Georgian troops in Iraq- infuriating the Russians, who have a legitimate grievance at being surrounded by NATO against express promises and having missiles placed near their borders. Imagine America's reaction if the Warsaw Pact had added Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean- we almost destroyed the world over missiles in Cuba (audio-Mcnamara). The more America and Europe screams and rants against Russia, the more slowly Russia withdraws- the lesson of the Cold War was that calm firm pressure was the way to get Russia to do anything. This is an extremely dangerous situation because both countries have forgotten the proper kibuki dance of adversaries and are liable to make some blunder... as America sends warships to supply Georgians relief into the Black Sea. Ukraine, or at least Yushchenko, have ginned up more bad feelings by siding completely with Georgia and issueing completely impotent orders against the Russian Black Sea Fleet- that they couldn't return to their base in Sevastapol after destroying the Georgian navy. The Russians' reaction- pasholty. Syria has offered Russia use of a Med navy base- a result of repeated threats from the Bush Administration.
On the other hand, Georgia was doing exactly what Russia did in Chechnya, trying to enforce central authority on a separatist ethnically different province (that lies near it’s center), also clumsily and brutally. Doubtless Russia can't see the parallels; blinded by the nationalistic poison Putin has been steeping them in. Putin has used this obsession with imaginary persecution* to divert attention from the tens of billions being looted by the oligarchs in the Kremlin and the pitiful state of his one-party "democracy". There is little question that S. Ossettians shelled Georgian villages first, repeatedly provoked the Georgians, and that Russians had prepared for an invasion. Even China has refused to support Russia in their occupation. They can’t resist grinding Georgia’s face in the dirt in their destruction of military bases and glacial withdrawal from central cities (they are vandalizing Stalin’s home town), a useful object lesson to Ukraine, Estonia, and Poland… lest they think that having Western friends makes you immune to the rage of the bear.
* though in South Ossetia it wasn’t imaginary when the Georgians were in charge, but were Osettians Russians? After this… probably.
Michael Hammerschlag (HAMMERNEWS) has spent 3 years in Russia, toured Europe + Africa for the last 8 months, and is now based in Kiev. His articles have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Seattle Times, Providence Journal, Columbia Journalism Review, Honolulu Advertiser, Capital Times, Media Channel, Scoop; and Moscow News, Tribune, Guardian, and Times.