Monday, August 11, 2008

Georgia On My Mind Pt2.

The situation in the Caucuses just got a little grimmer. The Guardian reports of armed Cossacks pouring into the region to “take up arms and travel to defend their relatives across the border in South Ossetia.” Later on there will be an explanation of why this is not a good thing. For now just remember the last time armed Cossacks got their back up was way back in the “Great Patriotic War” (WWII) when they made life hell for Wehrmacht. The Cossacks are the sin qua non of irregular troops and asymmetrical warriors.

Another worrying tidbit of information is the AP story that Georgia has announced that it is withdrawing its 2,000 troops from Iraq. Those troops are slated to help Georgia’s battle with South Ossetia. The only thing holding back the transfer is the lack of transportation for those troops. It is an interesting quandary for the United States since we could easily ship those Georgian Service members back home if we so desired. Thanks to our pointless misadventure in Mesopotamia we now get to deal with the problems our one of our partners in “the coalition of the willing.” This is just one more bit of unintended consequence of George W. Bush jolly little war.

If one is not reaching for the Tums just yet the News released by the BBC will not only have one reaching for them but perhaps have one doubling-up on one’s usual dose. The sentences that will cause the gastric fires to go five alarm are “[e]arlier, Russian jets bombed a military airfield close to the Georgian capital.” and “[m]eanwhile Russian jets have bombed several towns, including the central Georgian city of Gori,” Russia has overflown Georgian airspace and bombed Georgian territory that is not part of South Ossetia. While Gori was a staging area for Georgian troops going into the conflict area and thus a legitimate military target the operative words are “Central Georgian City. ” Russia attacked the very heartland of its tiny neighbor.

To go with the actual war on the ground there has also been a war of words. The BBC has also reported on this aspect too. Putin accusations of Georgians performing genocide against the South Ossetians have been duly noted by the BBC as have the Georgian accusations of an "annihilation" of Georgian democracy by the Russians. There seems to be very little good will to go around and large supply of overheated rhetoric as a substitute.

There has been some movement in the world community to come to grips with the situation especially by the Europeans. Unfortunately as the BBC points out “But emissaries from the US and Europe who are NATO members may not be seen as honest brokers by the Kremlin when it comes to Georgia, BBC's diplomatic correspondent Bridget Kendall says.” This is the bitter fruit of the Kosovo independence decision back in February of this year. Russia and Serbia wanted to preserve the status quo of autonomy. Russia was trying to salvage a little dignity after NATO delivered a humiliating defeat to the Serbians. Instead Russia’s plea for a little consideration was brushed aside by the E.U., NATO, and the U.S. Granted we in the west got a warm and fuzzy feeling by granting the Kosovars “freedom” from the hated Serbs but after the flag waving and celebrations ended Kosovo was still a mess. The status of the new “nation” had not changed one wit- it was a ward of NATO. Kosovo is still more an idea than a full fledged nation. It is very much a work in progress; a work in progress whose very existence is an irritant to the Russians. The Europeans are now trying to build the very bridges that they burned down in February; bridges that the Russians may no longer be interested in.

There is a real need to find some sort of mechanism to calm this situation down. Both Russia and Georgia are acting in ways that can cause serious repercussions. Let us look at just one example namely the Cossacks. Historically Cossacks were escaped surfs who lived on the borderlands of Russia. They have a fierce martial tradition and are also very independent. While loyal to Russia, they have from time to time rebelled against Moscow. The Cossacks were deeply hostile to the Bolshevik state and were the lynchpins of the White Armies Resistance to the Commissars. By using the Cossacks to further Russian aims in Caucuses Putin is playing a very dangerous game. Once these particular dogs of war are let loose it will be very difficult to put them back on the leash.

What is the most disturbing is how the present situation in the Caucuses repeats the events just before the outbreak of WWI. The “War to end all Wars” began in August. As in 1914 the world is distracted by other events. The Beijing Olympics are the main distraction in 2008, back in 1914 it was the Summer Social Season. Pre WWI Europe spiraled so quickly out of control because many of the critical national leaders literally went on Vacation during key events. In Germany, in England, in France one reads about key figures being unreachable or disengaged because they were sailing a yacht or hunting at an out-of-the-way preserve. Today, key figures also seem more concerned with bike riding then getting the situation in Georgia resolved peacefully.

Another parallel with the pre WWI situation is the lack of institutions that can broker a resolution. There is the U.N. and its blue-helmeted peacekeepers but it is a very blunt instrument. It is a long, drawn out process getting those blue-helmeted troops in place. What is required is an institution much more nimble than the U.N. What is also required is an institution with more authority than the U.N. Bush and company have done major damage to that authority. They ran rough-shod over the U.N. The war and occupation of Iraq has laid bare the U.N. central weakness. Cheney and crew brazenly ignored the rules and Charter of the U.N. They mocked its very existence by making Josh Bolton in as Ambassador. This was akin to nominating Ted Nugent to head PETA. For seven long years Bush and Cheney plus their minions have beavered away to undermine the U.N. -- only now does it possible dawn on them why the U.N. might be useful.

We can not be sure that said light-bulb has gone off in either Bush’s or Cheney’s head. This is yet another parallel with Europe just before the break out of “The Great War.” Simply put you have a man in a position of great power who has absolutely no business being there. Kaiser Wilhelm III meet George W. Bush; you have a lot in common. The Kaiser was overcompensating man-child constantly trying to prove how tough he was. The Kaiser was not a detail person in any way, shape or form. The Kaiser was a not a great thinker, he never thought trough his actions. The Kaiser loved the pomp and circumstance of his office. He deeply loved playing soldier but never really served in any real military capacity. He was profoundly incompetent in running a nation. He had no clue as how real diplomacy worked. He seriously thought a letter to his good cousin “Niki” (Nicholas II, last Tsar of Russia) would clear up the entire Balkan mess and prevent a war. The Kaiser was easily maneuvered by smarter, sharper men. The Austrians especially played the boy-king like a fiddle.

If US foreign policy lacks adult supervision, Russian foreign policy is too clever by a half. Simply put Russia wants Georgia to cease existing. The Russian hostility to Georgia is an echo of Austro-Hungarian Empire’s hostility to Serbia just prior to WWI. Georgia’s action in South Ossetia provided the Russians a perfect pretext for invasion. Russia can now use its military might to engage in regime change. After all what can Bush and Cheney really say in opposition that would not sound wholly hypocritical? Dick Cheney is going to lecture Putin about respecting the sovereignty of minor powers?

The real question is what happens if Putin does attempt to achieve his maximalist goals. Once Georgia is back in the loving arms of Mother Russia then what? Other than a salve to National pride what does Russia get out of the deal? There is no oil resources in the mountains of Georgia, there is some copper and manganese. There are also some good agricultural products made by the Georgians.

However, Russia already has plenty of Real estate in the area as it is. They already have North Ossetia plus her neighbors the Chechens. The whole area is filled with ethnic minorities and various mountain peoples. Each of those peoples have lived in the area for millennia and have traditions and cultures spanning for millennia. Sometimes they have gotten along well enough; most other times not. Russia is still trying to settle down the restive Chechens. They have their man in a leadership position. Still the last pro-Russian leader in Chechnya was assassinated by pro-independence rebels. The calm in Chechnya is more a tale of exhaustion rather of peace. To regain Georgia is Russia will to do to Tbilisi what it did to Grozny? Are the Russians willing to burn Georgia down to the ground to save it? Can NATO really afford to sit on its hands while Russia again obliterates a weaker neighbor? Will Iran be happy to have the Russians back on their doorstep?

Just like back in 1914 there is a way for this minor conflict to start drawing in larger players. Iran has already been mentioned; and with Iran in the picture can the US and Israel be far behind? The Russian may think they are cleverly pushing their pawns on the board but some of those “pawns” have ideas of their own. The other concern is that once some pieces are moved the game acquires a certain inevitable logic. In 1914 army mobilizations lead to other army mobilizations and those mobilization lead to full out attack. In 1914 Europe sleep walked into one of the most disastrous wars in history. For the European powers WWI was a loose-loose proposition. The conflict in the Caucuses could easily follow the same pattern.

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