Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Russian Counterattack Ends as Quickly as Georgian Assault Began

The Russian counterattack is over (we hope), as quickly as the Georgian assault began. Dutifully fulfilling his role in the Russian good-cop/bad-cop routine (guess which), President Medvedev called a halt to the operations, stating according to BBC:
I’ve decided to finish the operation to force the Georgian authorities to peace. The safety of our peacekeeping forces and civilian population has been restored.

The aggressor has been punished, having sustained considerable losses. Its armed forces have been disorganized.

NATO membership is a lot like a nuclear weapons arsenal. It’s a terrific deterrent—once you have it, you’re safe. Ask India. North Korea. So much for your external threats. The difficult part is getting there. The more you want it, the more someone else doesn’t want you to have it. Your opponent will go all in to stop you. That is bad news when he has most of the chips.

You saw it happening in South Ossetia, between Georgia, the nominal sovereign, and Russia, protector of the ethnic Ossetians there. A regional specialist wrote that “[i]t is now important for western leaders to realize that their silence so far has only encouraged Moscow's aggressive behavior, and that they must now stand in solidarity with Georgia – in deeds, not only in words. Whether they do so will determine the future not only of the Caucasus, but also for Europe's security.” Of course they didn’t, which was good for Europe’s security.

So, is there a disturbing moral issue here in Russia’s actions towards Georgia? Of course. But there is also a thought experiment that deserves to be conducted. Namely: What if Georgia had never sought NATO membership? What if the NATO members never encouraged it if it did? After all, many former USSR republics feel perfectly safe without NATO membership. There’s no reason to believe that Georgia should have felt otherwise. NATO and the United States blindly pursued an agenda that they had dreamed up during Russia’s weakest moments, and President Saakashvili had underestimated the huge obstacle that had loomed over Georgia as it crept closer to the fairy cring that encircles NATO members.

What is also notable in all this is that Russia has not once supported independence for the South Ossetia, singly or as a member of the UN Security Council. Over the years it had sent in military forces (in the guise of volunteers and peacekeepers), and even given Russian passports to the Ossetians there. But even the latest counterattack, including the bombing of Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, has been described as a means to protect its passport holders and restore the status quo. Nothing President Medvedev said speaks to the contrary. (Although one of Prime Minister Putin’s statements suggest that Georgia is as likely to regain control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia as Japan is to regain sovereignty over the Northern Territories.)

There is nothing remarkable in this. Russia clearly respects the intra-USSR borders that existed before the breakup. It will not do anything to alter them to its momentary favor lest it lend legitimacy to any similar demands from its own ethnic minorities such as the Chechens. But any effort to change them against its favor meets with ferocious, unrelenting opposition. Likewise challenges to its influence over its near-abroad.

Russia is a revisionist, increasingly authoritarian, power. But President Saakashvili is obviously a foolhardy man. And the West did everything it can to encourage what turned out to be his fantasies. I wonder if anybody reminded Mr. Saakashvili of the 1991 uprising by Shiites in Iraq?

I think I’ve made it clear that the implication of all this for Japan is that Russia is not going to relinquish the four islands called the Northern Territories any time soon. Russia did agree in 1956 to return two very small islands out of the four as part of a comprehensive peace agreement and continue talking with Japan on the other two. But that was at most a Cold War ploy to drive a wedge between Japan and the United States. It is still more likely than not that Russia will settle for two if Japan relinquishes all claims to the rest. But it will not budge otherwise. The territorial ramifications for the last remaining 19th century empire are too serious to go any further than that.

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