Tag: Georgia (page 2 of 4)

Cold War III? The state of Russian-US relations

I received a very thoughtful email on the current chill in US-Russian relations:

The timing certainly makes a clear statement, but haven’t we basically told the Russians that we are deploying these systems whether they like it or not? At least in public statements, it hasn’t seemed like this was even remotely negotiable.

Given Lavrov’s comments Thursday about WTO membership, it seems like they are willing to write this stuff off–we weren’t going to budge anyway, so what’s the difference? The carrot can only be snatched out of reach so many times before the donkey decides he’s never going to get it so why budge another inch.

We can certainly argue that Russia is a bad actor (and I don’t disagree that they are often up to no good), but we haven’t treated them with much respect either. In a genuine partnership, there’s give and take, and mutual sacrifice. We seem to expect them to constantly fold to our policy goals whenever there is divergence. In other words, we had a big hand in creating this angry, bitter power with revisionist goals. When they were weak, we bossed them around and treated them like a Third World country (which, in 1992, they kind of were). They have always resented this tutelary relationship, and we seem to have done little in the last eight years to shift our attitude as conditions in Russia have changed.

Sure, we were all buddy-buddy after 9/11 on terrorism, but we are only interested in partnerships that serve our needs. Obviously, we shouldn’t accede to policies that are completely contrary to our interests, but “our way or the highway” seems to be our mantra.

So, if missile launchers in Poland seemed inevitable, what’s the big loss for Russia? The Poles seem like the big winners, as we folded on the Patriots. But as much as the Poles hate and fear the Russians, they aren’t totally stupid, and they ARE protected by Article V. Russia may monkey with their oil and gas supplies, but there will not be Russian tanks in Warsaw or Krakow, no matter how you slice it. I am very interested, though, to see how the Stans will react to all of this. The only thing I’ve seen so far is that the Kazakhs have been generally supportive of Russia.

Robery Farley has a nice preliminary analysis of the military dimensions of the conflict. And Donald Douglas thinks talk of a new Cold War is premature (I agree).

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Caucasians behaving badly: Saturday news aggregation

I have to say that the latest news is not encouraging. Forced labor in South Ossetia? The Georgians claiming, among other accusations that Abkhazians have seized 13 villages and a hydroelectric plant in Georgia proper?

In other words, it ain’t over until the Red Army Choir sings.

On a lighter note, Pravda reports that Saakashvili “clearly” had a nervous breakdown on TV because he “ate his tie.”

Ahh, the influence of YouTube.

(Video below the fold; warning, you may need to manually advance the time slider.)

Despite such efforts, as Vadim Nikitin writes at the Russian Foreign Policy Blog, the Russians clearly “lost” the public-relations war (via Global Voices Online).

Whitmore Brian sums up the case for Russian having planned the conflict. I still think we don’t have enough to evidence to say one way or another, but it is worth a read.

The larger theme for this week is clearly “the Return of Great Power Politics.” But most of the people pushing this line are thinking about the Cold War, not the Concert of Europe or even the old “Great Game.”


The video (he appears to briefly munch on his tie at 1:00)

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At last!

A major newspaper (other than the Christian Science Monitor) in the United States has published a sensible and relatively evenhanded OP-ED on Russia-Georgia. Michael Dobbs:

t didn’t take long for the “Putin is Hitler” analogies to start following the eruption of the ugly little war between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway Georgian province of South Ossetia. Neoconservative commentator Robert Kagan compared the Russian attack on Georgia with the Nazi grab of the Sudetenland in 1938. President Jimmy Carter’s former national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, said that the Russian leader was following a course “that is horrifyingly similar to that taken by Stalin and Hitler in the 1930s.”

Others invoked the infamous Brezhnev doctrine, under which Soviet leaders claimed the right to intervene militarily in Eastern Europe in order to prop up their crumbling imperium. “We’ve seen this movie before, in Prague and Budapest,” said John McCain, referring to the Soviet invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Hungary in 1956. According to the Republican presidential candidate,”today we are all Georgians.”

Actually, the events of the past week in Georgia have little in common with either Hitler’s dismemberment of Czechoslovakia on the eve of World War II or Soviet policies in Eastern Europe. They are better understood against the backdrop of the complicated ethnic politics of the Caucasus, a part of the world where historical grudges run deep and oppressed can become oppressors in the bat of an eye.”

And to think I had thought that the only people allowed to express their views in our influential media outlets were either (1) Neoconservatives or (2) Clinton-administration officials–all of whom have a very strong stake in a particular understanding of the conflict.

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Speaking of Genocide

At the Danger Room blog, Nick Thompson claims Russia may be right in calling Georgian behavior “genocide.”

Over at Complex Terrain Lab, Mike Innes pokes some useful holes in Thompson’s argument.

I would add to Mike’s points that the most important error made by Thompson is mistakenly conflating the intentional killing of civilians with genocide. The intentional killing of civilians in war is a war crime; if carried out en mass (even in peacetime) it’s a crime against humanity. Genocide is not a crime against civilians (as individuals) at all; it’s a crime against groups. To count, an atrocity has to be carried out with the intent of destroying a group. Russia has provided no evidence whatsoever to make this case: their rhetoric is also based on a misunderstanding of the term.

Naturally. Since it’s simply propaganda. As are Georgia’s counter-claims.

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I leave my office and come home to a signed ceasefire….

Earlier today, I wrote:

Before I leave the office, I just wanted to note that the dynamics between Georgia, Russia, and the United States are very bad right now. A small Russian force has apparently deployed fifteen miles outside of Tblisi, Rice is calling the Russians all sorts of names, and Moscow’s pissed about the US-Poland deal.

… oh, and on the analytic front: Rob Farley and Dan Drezner both have interesting things to say about NATO and the crisis. Needless to say, I agree with them on some points and disagree with them on others.

But anyway, let’s all keep our fingers crossed for an acceptable resolution soon.

And now…..

… Saakashvili, under pressure from Rice, signed the ceasefire agreement limiting Russian forces to the breakaway republics and their immediate vicinity–in Georgia proper. Rice is demanding that the Russians leave Georgia; they say they’ll comply with the ceasefire.

Damien McElroy of the Telegraph sums up the drama:

merica’s chief diplomat arrived in the Georgian capital Tblisi for talks with a deeply suspicious President Mikheil Saakashvili, who sought to strengthen guarantees of a complete Russian pullback. In the end, the pro-Western Georgian leader had little option but to accept the accord on a day that Russia threatened to target Poland with its full arsenal.

Before the arrival of international monitors, Russia troops retain the scope to take defensive forward positions in Georgian territory. Even as Miss Rice and President Saakashvili emerged from almost five hours of talks, Russian armoured personnel carriers had moved from the city of Gori to within 25 miles of the capital.

The French-drafted document left ambiguity over the sequencing of a Russian return to its battle lines before fighting broke out on August 8. America demanded that Russian pullback into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, where it has formal peacekeeping role, as soon as the Kremlin signs the document.

“Our most urgent task today is the immediate and orderly withdrawal of Russian armed forces and the return of those forces to Russia,” said Miss Rice. “With this signature by Georgia, this must take place – and take place now.”

As the Tbilisi talks began, President George W Bush called on Russia to back down and condemned Moscow’s expansionism. “Bullying and intimidation are not acceptable ways to conduct foreign policy in the 21st century,” he said. “Moscow must honour its commitment to withdraw its invading forces from all Georgian territory,” The Russian leadership remained defiant, declaring it would back a drive for independence by the two enclaves in the aftermath of the conflict.

“Russia, as guarantor of security in the Caucasus and the region, will make a decision that unambiguously supports the will of these two Caucasus peoples,” said President Dimitri Medvedev after a meeting with German Chancellor Ankela Merkel in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. “Unfortunately after what has happened it is unlikely Ossetians and Abkhaz can live in one state with Georgians.

A clearly emotional President Saakashivili, who accused Russia of barbarism in its assault on Georgian troops, said the ceasefire terms would only bind Tbilisi to the terms of an armistice. He said Georgia would never recognise the division of its territory.

“Never, ever will Georgia reconcile itself with the occupation of even one square kilometre of its territory,” he said.

Which leaves me wondering:

What will it take for the Georgians to figure out that South Ossetia and Abkhazia…

Are gone.
They.
Are.
Never.
Coming.
Back.

Ever.

They weren’t before the war. If it weren’t a mathematical impossibility, I would say that the events of the last week reduced the chances of Georgia regaining the two territories from zero to an even smaller value of zero.

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A typical conversation in my house


– “Why didn’t the Georgians take out the Roki Tunnel?”

– “I dunno. Maybe they wanted to keep it open for their planned invasion of Russia…”

Image source: Wikipedia

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Looting and ethnic cleansing in comparative perspective

This morning the New York Times provides an interesting report on the Russian army and the lawlessness breaking out in the territory they control:

The identities of the attackers vary, but a pattern of violence by ethnic Ossetians against ethnic Georgians is emerging and has been confirmed by some Russian authorities. “Now Ossetians are running around and killing poor Georgians in their enclaves,” said Maj. Gen. Vyacheslav Nikolaevich Borisov, the commander in charge of the city of Gori, occupied by the Russians.

A lieutenant from an armored transport division that was previously in Chechnya said: “We have to be honest. The Ossetians are marauding.”

The hostilities between Russia and Georgia started last week when the Georgian military marched into the disputed territory of South Ossetia, and the Russians responded by sending troops into the pro-Russia, separatist enclave and then into Georgia proper.

Dozens of houses were on fire on Tuesday in the northern suburbs of Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. Reporters saw armed men moving on the streets, carting away electronics and other household items. It was not clear who the men were. They did not appear to be part of the Russian forces, but the Russians were not stopping them.

We’re not a police force, we’re a military force,” said a Russian lieutenant colonel in response to a reporter’s question. “It’s not our job to do police work.”

Still, there was some evidence that the Russian military might be making efforts in some places to stop the rampaging. A column of 12 men with their hands on their heads, several wearing uniforms, were marched into the Russian military base in Gori on Thursday afternoon. The identities of the men were unclear.

Kommersant, for its part, reports that the South Ossetians are now shooting “maurauders.”

As an emailer reminds me, it might be wise to compare the Russian lieutenant colonel’s comments (underlined above) to those of US officials after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. First, Donald Rumsfeld:

Declaring that freedom is “untidy,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Friday the looting in Iraq was a result of “pent-up feelings” of oppression and that it would subside as Iraqis adjusted to life without Saddam Hussein.

He also asserted the looting was not as bad as some television and newspaper reports have indicated and said there was no major crisis in Baghdad, the capital city, which lacks a central governing authority. The looting, he suggested, was “part of the price” for what the United States and Britain have called the liberation of Iraq.

“Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things,” Rumsfeld said. “They’re also free to live their lives and do wonderful things. And that’s what’s going to happen here.”

But much spookier are the quotations from a BBC report from back in May 2003:

Ali Thowani, 27, a pharmacist and former student of the institute, also tried reasoning with the Americans in English.

“I spoke to the Americans and they refused to protect the institution. ‘We’re not police and that’s not our job,’ they said.”

[…]

In a statement to BBC News Online, Centcom, the United States Central Command in Doha, Qatar, refused to accept responsibility for the event.

“The fact that the looting is happening in Nasiriya is a sad event. However, coalition forces are not a police force. Coalition forces have no orders to protect universities. They have orders to protect places of interest such as hospitals, museums and banks.

“Iraqis need to protect their own cities; coalition forces will help the Iraqi people police themselves. For example, in Al Kut – where people are cooperating with coalition forces – they have stood up a city police force. The coalition has even provided arms for the local police force. Iraqis will run Iraq and they will govern themselves.”

Now, none of this excuses the Russian if they’ve been actively supporting ethnic cleansing; nor does it mean that they don’t have a moral responsibility to stop acts of terror and violence perpetrated in areas they claim to be patrolling to “enforce” the peace treaty. In fact, what the US did or didn’t do in Iraq is pretty much irrelevant to whatever ethnic, legal, and moral obligations apply to Russian forces.

Still, anyone in the United States demanding an instant return to peacetime levels of security for individuals and their property should keep the US experience in Iraq in mind.

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The “lessons” of Kosovo?

Via email: according to Simon Saradzhyan of the Moscow Times, the Russia-Georgia War revealed the obsolescence of major aspects of the Russian military machine;

The technical sophistication of the Russian forces turned out to be inferior in comparison with the Georgian military. While Georgia’s armed forces operated Soviet-era T-72 tanks and Su-25 attack planes, both were upgraded with equipment such as night-vision systems to make them technologically superior to similar models operated by the Russian Ground Forces, said Konstantin Makiyenko, deputy director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

“The Russian forces had to operate in an environment of technical inferiority,” Makiyenko said.

Another area where the Russian military appeared to have lagged behind the Georgian armed forces was in electronic warfare, said Anatoly Tsyganok, a retired army commando and independent military expert.

The Georgian forces were also well-trained, with many of them drilled by U.S. and Israeli advisers.

These factors helped the Georgian military easily take the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, located in a basin, after more than 10 hours of intensive air strikes and artillery fire on Aug. 7. The shelling of the city was probably carried out with the use of unmanned aerial vehicles for targeting — a capability that Russia’s armed forces have yet to acquire.

This dovetails with other scattered reports of Russian officers warning against undue criticism of the Georgian military (but keep in mind that they don’t want to diminish their victory).

So why did the Russians prevail? Tsyganok agrees with many a puzzled blogger that the Georgians dropped the ball in not doing something to seal off the Roksky Tunnel, hut also lists a number of other reaons:

The Georgian attack failed because President Mikheil Saakashvili and the rest of Georgia’s leadership miscalculated the speed of Russia’s intervention, defense analysts said. Tbilisi also underestimated the South Ossetian paramilitary’s determination to resist the conquest and overestimated the Georgian forces’ resolve to fight in the face of fierce resistance. The Georgian military also failed to take advantage of the fact that Russian reinforcements had to arrive via the Roksky Tunnel and mountain passes, which are easier to block than roads on flat terrain.

Another reason the Georgians lost was because the Russian military used knowledge gleaned from past conflicts, including the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia and its own reconquest of Chechnya. “Russia has learned the lessons taught by NATO in Yugoslavia, immediately initiating a bombing campaign against Georgia’s air bases and other military facilities,” Tsyganok said

So now I’m paging Rob Farley for his expert opinion (I mostly do “soft” security rather than the “guns and bombs” stuff).

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Speaking of signals, mixed and otherwise – updated (yet again)

… Big news just came down the pike.

Courtesy of a friend, I learn that Poland has agreed to host US ballistic-missile defenses.

As geopolitical lines harden, the question becomes if Russia’s actions will drive a wedge between NATO members that embrace a harder or a softer line towards Russia. Or will balance-of-threat dynamics lead to renewed NATO cohesion? I suspect the answer is far from preordained: a great deal depends on how US and European diplomacy plays out.

Oh, and forget the G8/G7. This is the kind of thing the Russians might actually see as a significant negative consequence of the Georgia conflict.

Oops. I forgot to mention the Patriots the US is giving Poland. I guess the US decided to “pay” what Poland wanted. Still, the Russians might be more upset about the Patriots than the BMD ….

Via a different friend, two excerpts from news reports. The first from Reuters:

President George W. Bush’s pledge to send aid to Georgia means that theU.S. military will take control of the ex-Soviet state’s ports andairports, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili said on Wednesday.

But the Pentagon denied it planned any such action to proceed with deliveries of humanitarian aid.

“You have heard the statement by the U.S. president that the United States is starting a military-humanitarian operation in Georgia,” Saakashvili said in a television address.

“It means that Georgian ports and airports will be taken under the control of the U.S. defence ministry in order to conduct humanitarian and other missions. This is a very important statement for easing
tension.”

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said: “We are not looking to, not do we need to, take control of any air or seaports to conduct this mission.

In his White House remarks, Bush said he had ordered the U.S. military to deliver humanitarian aid. A C-17 aircraft with supplies was on its way to Georgia and in the days to come Washington would use military aircraft and naval forces to make deliveries.

And, from the Washington Post:

Lavrov, in remarks broadcast on Russian radio, sounded unconcerned about White House threats that Russia could suffer a chill in relations with the West because of its incursion into Georgia.

“I don’t know how they are going to isolate us,” Lavrov said during an interview on radio station Echo Moskvy. “I have heard threats that we are not going to be admitted to the [World Trade Organization], but we see clearly that nobody is going to admit us there anyway,” he said. His remarks were translated by the Interfax news service. “Excuse my language, but they’re just stringing us along.”

I have a paper to finish, so analysis from me will be sparse for a bit. Maybe some of our readers can provide their own in comments?

… Itar-Tass reports that the South Ossetian and Abkhazian “foreign ministers” will soon be traveling to Moscow to discuss recognition of their independence (or, perhaps, their status as “republics” within Russia?).

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Georgia stll on my mind – updated

Despite some noises to the contrary, the Russians remain in control of Gori and Poti. Tony Halpin reports in the Times that Russian and Georgian forces almost exchanged fire in Gori, but that on-the-ground negotiations continue:

Russian and Georgian troops came close to a fire-fight today as a tense stand-off developed over the continued occupation of the strategic city of Gori.

As the first US humanitarian aid arrived in Georgia, Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, met President Sarkozy of France in his summer residence on the Riviera to launch her diplomatic mission. She is due to fly into Tbilisi tomorrow, spearheading a high-profile US campaign designed to underline US support for Georgia.

On the ground, Russian tanks and troops remained at checkpoints blocking the road into Gori and showed no sign of handing it back to the Georgian authorities despite an earlier pledge to do so. Georgian police had been reported as taking back responsibility for patrolling Gori, but this has proved to be premature.

Alexander Lomaia, secretary of Georgia’s National Security Commission, said that the Russian troops were refusing to leave today, despite a previous agreement to do so, and said that they would not withdraw from Gori until at least tomorrow.

“We have to agree on the gradual deployment of troops and police in Gori. But there are mutual suspicions,” Mr Lomaia said before entering Gori with a Russian commander to continue negotiations.

Finally, Tom Lasseter and Jonathan S. Landay (reporter for the excellent McClatchy Newspapers) confirm what has become pretty obvious: “Russian troops, in seeming violation of a cease-fire agreement set only on Tuesday, embarked Wednesday on what Georgian officials called a deliberate and systematic attempt to demolish what remains of the Georgian military.”

… More from the Guardian on Russia’s mopping-up of Georgia’s military infrastructure.

… And, has been widely reported, Medvedev says that Georgia can “forget about” its territorial integrity. Of course, this amounts to a ratification of the situation on the ground before the latest war, but with less territory for Georgia and new headaches about what the Russians will do to “guarantee” autonomy for Abkhazia and South Ossetia. As noted in the article I linked to, the Russians are also expressing concern about the US military’s role in relief operations.

… Maura Reynolds, of the LA Times, talks to a number of experts who echo not only what we’ve written recently about the US-Russian context of the war, but also what we’ve been warning about for quite some time now (!!).

… A very interesting OP-ED by Anatol Lieven in the Financial Times. Go read.

Charli’s excellent post on atrocity allegations reminds me of the importance of everyone–including myself–to show restraint before writing as if any particular allegations are actually accurate.

… FWIW, the Jamestown Foundation’s Pavel Felgenhauer insists the Russians “pre-planned” the whole thing. Remember that the Jamestown Foundation should be taken with large quantities of rough-ground salt.

Moscow declared that it was forced to go to battle by the initial Georgian attack in South Ossetia (RIA-Novosti, August 8). But there is sufficient evidence that this massive invasion was preplanned beforehand for August (see EDM, June 12). The swiftness with which large Russian contingents were moved into Georgia, the rapid deployment of a Black Sea naval task force, the fact that large contingents of troops were sent to Abkhazia where there was no Georgian attack all seem to indicate a rigidly prepared battle plan. This war was not an improvised reaction to a sudden Georgian military offensive in South Ossetia, since masses of troops cannot be held for long in 24-hour battle readiness. The invasion was inevitable, no matter what the Georgians did.

It seems the main drive of the Russian invasion was Georgia’s aspiration to join NATO, while the separatist problem was only a pretext. Georgia occupies a key geopolitical position, and Moscow is afraid that if George joins NATO, Russia will be flushed out of Transcaucasia. The NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, last April, where Ukraine and Georgia did not get the so-called Membership Action Plan or MAP to join the Alliance but were promised eventual membership, seems to have prompted a decision to go to war (Interfax, April 3).

Before using arms, Moscow issued ominous threats. Russia unilaterally rebuked CIS sanctions against Abkhazia (RIA-Novosti, March 6). The Kremlin-controlled State Duma passed a resolution calling for recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian sovereignty (RIA-Novosti, March 21). Vladimir Putin promised Abkhazia and South Ossetia “not declarative, but material support” and announced that Georgian aspirations for “speedy Atlantic integration” endangered security (www.mid.ru, April 3). Russia’s top military commander Yuri Baluyevsky threatened “military action to defend our interests near our borders,” if Georgia and Ukraine joined NATO (RIA-Novosti, April 11). In apparently the last warning, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Georgia of failing to pass a law forbidding foreign military bases after Russia moved its bases out last November. Lavrov linked Georgian intransigence with “Western plans to pull it into NATO” (ITAR-TASS, May 5).

Material military preparations were made. On May 31, Railroad troops were moved to repair the tracks south of Sokhumi to prepare the infrastructure for the invasion. On July 30, they completed their work and all was set for major combat in August, since later bad weather would impede an invasion (see EDM, June 12, July 30 [I think he means July 31]). The West seems to have dismissed the Russian warnings and preparations as bluff until it was too late. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza stated in Tbilisi, “Now we know” the true mission of the Railroad troops in Abkhazia (Interfax, August 11). He would have done better to subscribe to EDM.

The main task of the Russian invasion–to cause a total state failure and fully destroy the reformed Georgian army, making NATO membership impossible–has not yet been achieved, despite all the havoc. More attacks and devastation may be planned. Ballistic Tochka-U missiles with a range of 110 km have been deployed in Abkhazia and South Ossetia from which they could reach Tbilisi. Two seem to have already been fired at Western Georgia, according to statements from Abkhaz separatists (Novaya Gazeta, August 14). A missile attack, officially attributed to separatists, could kill hundreds, creating a devastating panic and possible regime collapse.

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International Justice: Miscarriages and Misconstruals

The latest on atrocity allegations between the parties to the smoldering conflict in the Caucasus, from the New York Times:

In South Ossetia, investigators began to look into accusations of atrocities. Human Rights Watch reported that researchers witnessed “terrifying scenes of destruction” in four ethnic Georgian villages, and said the villages had been looted and burned by South Ossetian militias.

Some thoughts: I’m happy to see a joint like Human Rights Watch has got boots on the ground, but surprised it’s allowing its researchers to issue subjective statements like this, which have very little value other than for propaganda. How terrifiying a scene of destruction may be is probably as much a product of how inexperienced or, on the other hand, jaded, a particular HRW researcher is as of any objective facts. Come on, how about some specific evidence to help us sort out competing claims of atrocity? That’s your comparative advantage, eh?

Anna Neistat, one of the researchers, said by telephone from Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia, that they had found no evidence to substantiate Russian assertions of widespread brutality by Georgian troops. Human Rights Watch has been able to confirm fewer than 100 deaths.

Now, that’s very interesting. Doesn’t mean, of course, that there weren’t plenty more deaths… HRW errs on the side of conservative estimates, and deaths are often hard to confirm in these cases. But bear in mind that civilian dead doesn’t necessarily mean war crimes, since it’s perfectly legitimate under international law to kill innocent people as long as you don’t mean to. In other words, the equation of civilian body counts with “war crimes” is problematic. What matters is whether you can reasonably infer from the evidence of targeting decisions that the belligerents did not make attempts to minimize civilian casualties. Judging by the liberal body counts put forth by both sides, I’d say the evidence is scant so far… even 2,000 civilian dead sounds low to me if a military like Russia’s is hell bent on mowing down the innocent… what seems to have happened here was well-intentioned efforts to evacuate civilians from besieged areas, followed by attacks on infrastructure that caught some of the remaining civilians in the cross-fire.

Then there’s the looting that BBC reported in Gori:

“Russian tanks were in the streets as their South Ossetian separatist allies seized Georgian cars, looted Georgian homes and then set some homes ablaze.”

But again, let’s be careful not to infer a systematic Russian plan to commit atrocity from some random acts by victorious soldiers: this is quite typical in areas taken by siege (not excusable, of course, but typical): what we should watch for is how Russia reacts and whether there materializes any evidence that troops were instructed to behave this way. Only then can you claim that this constitutes evidence of a policy of anything like “ethnic cleansing.”

This is a term, by the way, of which we increasingly hear both parties accused. Before we toss it around too loosely, it’s useful to reflect on its history. Ethnic cleansing was a euphemism for forced displacement, originally developed by the Bosnian Serb Army drawing on Nazi discourse, and signifying the “pollution” of territory by the wrong ethnic group. It was ironically appropriated by Western powers during the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia as a way to avoid calling the killing “genocide” and invoking the responsibility to intervene. Conceptually, it best describes efforts to move people off disputed land in order to create a one-to-one relationship between nation (as a people) and state (as in territorialized political entity). In short, it’s both broader than “killing of civilians” (because it involves a concerted strategy to clear land, not simply to kill) and narrower (because it can involve merely displacement, not killing). As far as I know, however, ethnic cleansing is not a legal term reflected in any international treaty. Forced displacement, however, is a war crime – if indeed it’s occurring, rather than simply regrettable but unavoidable collateral damage.

Finally, returning to the New York Times:

Russian leaders have said they would like to bring Mr. Saakashvili to face war crimes charges in The Hague. Meanwhile, Georgia has filed a lawsuit against Russia at the International Court of Justice in The Hague for its actions on and around Georgia from 1991 to 2008, the court said in a statement.

This characterization would seem a little more accurate than the Georgian Deputy Interior Minister, who was quoted as claiming that:

“Georgian government is going to lodge a suit against Russia at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, said Eka Zguladze, Georgia’s Deputy Interior Minister… Zguladze said that the suit contains facts of genocide against Georgians in Abkhazia in 1992, current developments and Russia’s acts in Georgia. Earlier, Russia announced it intended to file claims against Georgia at the ICC and the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for the Georgian attack on South Ossetia. Russian prosecutors are now collecting evidence of genocide in South Ossetia.”

Georgia of course cannot “file suit” at the ICC in the Hague, since only the International Court of Justice functions like a civil court in which countries can sue one another: the ICC is a criminal court in which individuals are tried by an international institution, not by states.

Russia’s request that the ICC investigate war crimes and “genocide” make more procedural sense… but Russia will have to come up with more than 100 civilian dead to support an indictment like that, and also perhaps read up on the definition of genocide, which isn’t based simply on the killing of civilians but rather on the intent to wipe out a specific national, ethnic, racial or religious group – so far their version of events hasn’t really supported such a claim, just a claim of “war crimes” at best. But it’s cool to see them get behind the idea of international justice: so far they’ve refused to ratify the ICC statute, and Sudan was so confident of their anti-ICC stance that it recently asked Russia to block the indictment of Bashir in the Security Council. Perhaps the quest for the moral high ground will have a healthy socializing effect on Russia; one can only hope.

As for Saakashvili’s lawsuit at the ICJ, good luck: that court has less authority than Judge Judy. However I hope the case goes forward because it will contribute to clarifying some of the fascinating legal questions brought to the fore by these events, such as: is S. Ossetia a state? To what extent is sovereignty dependent on “the will of the people” in international law? How might nations understand the threshold requirements for the Responsibility to Protect? Excellent coverage of legal issues pertaining to this conflict here and here.

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Russia-Georgia conflict: what the current evidence suggests

Now that a number of media outlets and independent groups have gained access to key locations in Georgia and South Ossetia, some aspects of the last few days, as well as the current situation, are starting to come into focus.

Steven Lee Myers’ report in the International Herald Tribute, for example, suggests strongly that: (1) Russian accusations of Georgian atrocities were greatly exaggerated; (2) the Russians–or at least their South Ossetian allies–have engaged in ethnic cleansing of Georgian towns in South Ossetia; and (3) that Moscow is justifying their current military operations–although the term “displays of dominance” seems more appropriate–based on ambiguous language in the Sarkozy-brokered agreement.

According to Kommersant, Russian General Staff Deputy Chief Anatoly Nogovitsyn is claiming that the Russian military “saved Abkhazia from [a] Georgian invasion.”

I’ve been rather charitable towards the Russians, but the last twenty-four hours have, in my view, changed the landscape considerably. The Georgian attack on South Ossetia was not only a blunder, but an underhanded one at that.

The Russian refusal to abide by the spirit, if not the letter, of the ceasefire agreement, however smells very bad. The realist in me appreciates why the Russians would use the Georgian offensive as a pretext to settle, once and for all, the unstable security situation faced by their client-enclaves. But, as of yesterday, all indications pointed to a political settlement favoring Russia and its allies–rendering their current acts of violence and vandalism gross and superfluous.

In his latest remarks, Bush has also made clear that his decision use the US military to provide emergency assistance in Georgia is (as I initially thought) an effort to make it more difficult for the Russians to violate the ceasefire agreement. The Russians, predictably, aren’t pleased, either with the incoming US personnel or US threats to, in effect, freeze them out of many of the key institutions of the current global order.

Finally, the Abkhazians aren’t the only ones saying “Dmitry Medvedev’s decrees have no power…” That seems to be Putin’s general sentiment as well.

At this point, I can’t offer a great deal of analysis of any significance. Unfortunately, the crisis isn’t over. Indeed, it could get much worse very quickly. Let’s hope for the best.

I do want to note that there’s a certain irony here, insofar as a majority of international-relations observers have focused on China as the most significant threat to US influence. Only a small minority have been warning about the dangers posed by deteriorating US-Russian relations, as well as the potential collision course between US and Russian policy goals in the latter’s near abroad, particularly with respect to the dynamics of patron-client relations[*] And most of them see the future as a great conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, which, I submit, is not the wisest way to approach the shifting landscape of power politics (nor of this conflict).

*I don’t mean to sound obnoxious, but over the last year or so I’ve not only been blogging about this, but I’ve also been writing things like:

In particular, [the debate over American Empire] calls our attention to the way in which contemporary geopolitical concerns involve patterns of domination and control that penetrate into the domestic politics of states. These patterns call into question the utility of the states-under-anarchy framework for understanding power-political dynamics. They suggest the crucial importance of patron-client relations, struggles over the legitimacy of external influence, the interplay of international inequality with domestic—as well as transnational—movements and coalitions, and other dynamics often found in imperial cases.

Aspects of what we might term the micropolitics of international hierarchy play out in the context of, for example, American basing and access agreements, alliance politics, and use of proxies to combat Islamicist movements. The rise of Chinese influence, Russian re-assertiveness, and other trends which we traditionally interrogate through the states-under-anarchy framework also intersect in important ways with dynamics of international hierarchy. Indeed, many of our debates about American grand strategy—with their focus on broad questions of “unilateralism versus multilateralism,” “restraint versus preemption,” “hard versus soft balancing,” and so forth—remain fatally detached from a proper appreciation of the decisive importance of the micropolitics of asymmetric influence.

I know that’s opaque academic speak, but it basically means “stop arguing about really abstract high-level questions and start focusing on things like the degree of influence stronger powers have over weaker allies, how the domestic politics of those weaker allies impact that influence, and the intersection of those kinds of dynamics with great-power competition, energy, and the war on terror.” There’s a reason we’d been talking about Georgia on the Duck for a while.

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Memo to Ross Douthat

Douthat comments on Max Boot’s call for the US to, if necessary, turn Georgia into the next Afghanistan (circa 1984).

Now these arguments have a certain surface plausibility, but I would find them much more convincing if Boot were not simultaneously arguing that Russia’s ambitions (and capabilities) run as follows: “Today, Georgia; tomorrow, Ukraine; the day after, Estonia?” It’s hard for me to believe that Putin’s Russia is both an aggressive, expansive power poised to rebuild the Soviet Empire at tank-point and that the Russians would be more or less helpless to retaliate against us in their own neighborhood if we decided to start a proxy war with them in the Caucuses.

Jack Snyder described this very phenomenon in Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and Imperial Ambition

The “myth of the paper tiger,” as Snyder explains in his National Interest article “Imperial Temptations,” holds that enemies are:

capable of becoming fiercely threatening if appeased, but easily crumpled by a resolute attack. These images are often not only wrong, but self-contradictory. For example, Japanese militarists saw the United States as so strong and insatiably aggressive that Japan would have to conquer a huge, self-sufficient empire to get the resources to defend itself; yet at the same time, the Japanese regime saw the United States as so vulnerable and irresolute that a sharp rap against Pearl Harbor would discourage it from fighting back.

Snyder goes on to discuss the “Bush Administration’s argument for preventive war against Iraq” as an example of this line of reasoning, but it clearly remains a mainstay in foreign-policy arguments of all types.

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Georgia: retaliatory violence confirmed, US sends military forces as part of relief effort (and as a signal of US commitment) – updated

I ended my last post with the words:

While I think it is far too soon for those of us reading media accounts to pass judgment, many of these accusations are extremely troubling. The Europeans and the US need to continue to make clear that both Russia and Georgia must immediately comply with the letter and spirit of the truce.

President Bush, in fact, made a very strong statement earlier today:

President Bush said Wednesday he is skeptical that Moscow is honoring a cease-fire in neighboring Georgia, demanding that Russia end all military activities in the former Soviet republic and withdraw all its forces.

“The United States stands with the democratically elected government of Georgia and insists that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia be respected,” Bush said sternly during brief remarks in the White House Rose Garden.

“To demonstrate our solidarity with the Georgian people,” the president announced that he was sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Paris to assist the West’s diplomatic efforts on the crisis, and then to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi.

He also announced that a massive U.S. humanitarian effort was already in progress, and would involve U.S. aircraft as well as naval forces. A U.S. C-17 military cargo plane loaded with supplies is already on the way, and Bush said that Russia must ensure that “all lines of communication and transport, including seaports, roads and airports,” remain open to let deliveries and civilians through.

“To begin to repair the damage to its relations with the United States, Europe and other nations and to begin restoring its place in the world, Russia must keep its word and act to end this crisis,” Bush said.

The decision to send military forces into Georgia as the main element of the reconstruction efforts definitely sends a strong signal that the US is willing to assume some risks in order to end the violence. My initial impression is that this is a smart move, despite the lingering dangers involved [except it turns out to be less than “token” so far… largely in-and-out flights and a hospital ship].

And it is becoming all too clear that the Russians and their irregular allies have been engaging in some last-chance retaliation for the Georgian offensive.

The BBC confirms that Ossetian irregulars are looting and pillaging in Gori, as Russian troops look on. While Al Jazeera reports that the Russians have, indeed. sunk several Georgian vessels in Poti.

“We have seen more and more Russian troops coming into the area all day – a continuous build up of forces including columns of tanks and truck all along the roads here.

“They came into this area and destroyed six Georgian vessels.

“From what we understand, they came with the specific task of destroying all the military facilities of the Georgians,” she said.

But this final push to humiliate and cripple the Georgians even further may be ending, at least according to Georgian officials who report that the Russians are now pulling back from Zugdidi and will leave Gori soon. The Russians, for their part, describe their actions as “enforcing” the cease fire.

Russia said its forces had dismantled and destroyed military hardware and ammunition at an undefended Georgian military base near Gori on Wednesday.

A Russian military statement said the action was taken in the interest of demilitarising the conflict zone.

… On a different note: John Roberts, writing for the BBC, paints an interesting picture of the effect of the conflict on future investment in Georgia.

… Saakashvili, shockingly enough, says that Georgia will leave the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS).

… EU member-states agree to play a role in monitoring the peace agreement.

… The Russians are claiming violations of the ceasefire agreement by the Georgians. They say they’ve shot down two drones in the last day or so and that Georgian forces have not actually withdrawn from the area around South Ossetia.

… Rob Farley has a nice piece with preliminary thoughts about comparative military effectiveness in the conflict.

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Georgia epiologue: premature – updated

Many reports indicate that Russian forces are headed toward Tblisi:

A Russian military convoy thrust deep into Georgia on Wednesday and Georgian officials said Russian troops bombed and looted the crossroads city of Gori, violating a freshly brokered truce intended to end the conflict. In the west, Georgia’s weakened military acknowledged its soldiers had pulled out entirely from Abkhazia, leaving both breakaway regions at the heart of the fighting in the hands of Russian-backed separatists.

… By now, I’m sure that many of our readers are totally confused.

In a widely reported interview with CBS news, Saakashvili claimed that the Russians–and pro-Russian irregulars–are engaged in significant military operations within Georgia, ethnic cleansing in the Kordi gorge, and generally engaging in what he called a “full-scale invasion” of Georgia. US officials say that some of the reports of ethnic cleansing are “credible.” The AFP appears to confirm some of these reports as well, although it doesn’t specify its sourcing.

Georgia’s deputy interior minister, however, said “I’d like to calm everybody down. The Russian military is not advancing towards the capital.” And that’s what independent reports indicate: there is no invasion of Tblisi coming; the Russians claim they moved into Gori in an attempt to implement the truce:

A Russian general says the Russians went into the city to try to implement the truce with local Georgian officials but couldn’t find any.

An AP reporter saw several dozen Russian military trucks and armored vehicles speeding out of Gori and heading south, in the direction of Georgia’s capital, Tbilisi….

Soldiers waved at journalists. One shouted to a photographer taking shots of the convoy: “Come with us, beauty, we’re going to Tbilisi.” But the convoy later turned off the highway onto a small road leading to a village. One Georgian official says the convoy appeared headed toward a Georgia military base.

As we watch events unfold, here are a few things to keep in mind.

• Neither Russian nor Georgian officials are reliable sources of information. While there’s been plenty of proper skepticism about Russian accounts, the western media has been generally skirting how unreliable Georgian information has been over the last week or so.

• As of yesterday it seemed very likely that Abkhazians–with either direct or indirect Russian military support–were using the conflict to push the Georgians completely out of the Kordi gorge (and the Georgian army admits they were forced to pull completely out). I certainly find it possible to believe that they have expanded their operations to create a larger territorial perimeter of control.

• The Georgians reportedly agreed to very “humiliating” terms in the Sarkozy-brokered agreement:

Mr Sarkozy met Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow, after which Mr Medvedev proposed a six-part peace deal that called for Georgia to return its troops to the positions they occupied before fighting broke out over South Ossetia. It called for Georgia’s leader to sign a “legally binding document” vowing not to use force and to agree to talks about the future status of South Ossetia and a second secessionist region, Abkhazia, in north-western Georgia.

This meant Georgia would give up claims to the two Russian-backed separatist regions that were still in Georgia’s internationally recognised border, analysts said.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said the Russian “peacekeeping contingent” had accomplished its goal, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency. “The aggressor has been punished, and its armed forces have been disorganised.”

One Georgian analyst called the Russian conditions humiliating because they did not mention Georgia’s territorial integrity. “We have no other choice because no other country came to our aid,” Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies president Alexander Rondeli said.

This is pure speculation, but I wonder if the Russians intend some of these moves to pressure Georgia to unambiguously implement the terms of the agreement.

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The US and Georgia

Two good articles on the US role in Georgia. The first, by Helene Cooper and Thom Shanker of the New York Times: “After Mixed U.S. Messages, a War Erupted in Georgia.”

One month ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Tbilisi, Georgia, for a high-profile visit that was planned to accomplish two very different goals.

During a private dinner on July 9, Ms. Rice’s aides say, she warned President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia not to get into a military conflict with Russia that Georgia could not win. “She told him, in no uncertain terms, that he had to put a non-use of force pledge on the table,” according to a senior administration official who accompanied Ms. Rice to the Georgian capital.

But publicly, Ms. Rice struck a different tone, one of defiant support for Georgia in the face of Russian pressure. “I’m going to visit a friend and I don’t expect much comment about the United States going to visit a friend,” she told reporters just before arriving in Tbilisi, even as Russian jets were conducting intimidating maneuvers over South Ossetia.

In the five days since the simmering conflict between Russia and Georgia erupted into war, Bush administration officials have been adamant in asserting that they warned the government in Tbilisi not to let Moscow provoke it into a fight — and that they were surprised when their advice went unheeded. Right up until the hours before Georgia launched its attack late last week in South Ossetia, Washington’s top envoy for the region, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried, and other administration officials were warning the Georgians not to allow the conflict to escalate.

But as Ms. Rice’s two-pronged visit to Tbilisi demonstrates, the accumulation of years of mixed messages may have made the American warnings fall on deaf ears.

The United States took a series of steps that emboldened Georgia: sending advisers to build up the Georgian military, including an exercise last month with more than 1,000 American troops; pressing hard to bring Georgia into the NATO orbit; championing Georgia’s fledgling democracy along Russia’s southern border; and loudly proclaiming its support for Georgia’s territorial integrity in the battle with Russia over Georgia’s separatist enclaves.

But interviews with officials at the State Department, Pentagon and the White House show that the Bush administration was never going to back Georgia militarily in a fight with Russia.

In recent years, the United States has also taken a series of steps that have alienated Russia — including recognizing an independent Kosovo and going ahead with efforts to construct a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. By last Thursday, when the years of simmering conflict exploded into war, Russia had a point to prove to the world, even some administration officials acknowledge, while Georgia may have been under the mistaken impression that in a one-on-one fight with Russia, Georgia would have more concrete American support.

The story dovetails with both Rob’s and my suspicions about how to understand the different evidence floating around in recent coverage. To the extent that Tblisi focused on signals that we would back them, and ignored explicit signals that we wouldn’t, this would seem to justify some NATO members’ reluctance to embrace Georgia. On the other hand, I expect Tblisi has figured out the extent and nature of western backing by now.

The second story, by Matthew Mosk and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum, appears in The Washington Post: “While Aide Advised McCain, His Firm Lobbied for Georgia.” Give it a read and make up your own mind.

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Georgia: Thoughts on what it might mean

With the Confrontation in the Caucasus seemingly over, I wanted to try to think through some of the implications for US foreign policy. Although it was a short conflagration, these past 5 days have the feeling of an important turning point. I don’t think that the Confrontation itself has fundamentally altered the nature of International Politics, but rather it seems endemic of a slow shift that had been underway for some time. Though the past order may have eroded gradually, Russia’s stark exploitation of the situation reveals the full extent of the shift.

First, US credibility and influence has taken a severe blow. Georgia had been a “darling” of the US, sending troops to Iraq, a model of democracy and liberalism in the Caucasus, and potential NATO member. There are clearly mixed signals as to who knew what when. Georgia seems to think that it had either implicit US backing for its moves in South Ossetia or a tacit promise of support should Russia retaliate. Russia seems to have at least thought it had a free hand to intervene within South Ossetia. Its possible the US signaled all of this, just as its possible that the US didn’t intend to signal any of this. As Rob points out, mixed signals happen all the time in IR and we have no shortage of theories to explain it. (Update: The NYT does some reporting on the mixed messages sent by the US).

Regardless of who may have said what to whom, what matters now is who is affixing what meaning to who’s actions. Importantly, Russia’s ability to escalate with relative impunity against a Western ally coupled with such a tepid US, European, NATO, and Western response certainly sends a message. First and foremost: Sending troops to Iraq doesn’t buy you much, get the Article V guarantee first. In other words, aligning with the US doesn’t buy you much in terms of real security because there really isn’t much the US can do in a situation like this. No one (rather I should say no credible and sane person) has suggested that the US intervene to support Georgia and take in Russia.

In a sense, it sounds like the opening chapter of some of the novels on my table for beach reading on my upcoming vacation: A set of covert and suspicious circumstances halfway around the world from two leaders determined to advance their own power agendas leads to a conflict that soon spirals out of control. Pressure builds, and the US is on the verge of intervention, which would mean war between nuclear superpowers, the nightmare of nuclear World War III everyone thought had died in 1991. Only Jack Ryan / Mitch Rapp / Austin Powers can stop nuclear Armageddon…

That’s fiction. The reality is that the limits of US influence have been exposed. Russia had a relatively free hand to do what it did in Georgia and there was nothing that the US (or anyone else for that matter) was going to do about it. If you’re Poland, do you think twice about hosting a missile defense site? If you’re Estonia, do you think twice about your statues? Now, these are NATO allies, but they will now require reassurance, a complex intra-Alliance game. More to the point, what of the rest of the Caucuses and central Asia? What does China think about Taiwan or Mongolia?

It also forces a re-thinking of Bush’s foreign policy legacy. Now, the Administration itself has already completed this process, moving far away from its first term international activism to a more traditional second term pragmatism. The greatest element of Bush’s policy was its promotion of democracy. The multi-colored revolutions, including the Rose in Georgia, were seen, in part, as a successful demonstration effect of Bush’s democratization agenda. This agenda was threatening to Russia and China (and Iran…), where democracy promotion is seen as a form of US imperialism. From a US perspective, the success of Democracy in the Ukraine, Georgia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and such pressures Russia, China, Iran, and such. Putin’s increasingly authoritarian Russia was able to spank Georgia’s Rose Revolution, again setting a marker limiting the influence of US-backed democratization movements.

While democracy promotion may be a normatively preferred plank in US strategy, it suffered a blow here. The pleadings of neoconservatives, still committed to the original Bush project, for intervention on behalf of Georgia drives the agenda to its logical end, a reduction-ad-absurdum that somehow bolsters the appeal of a more traditional realpolitik.

Finally, it shows the end of the unipolar moment. While the US may still enjoy its position of hegemony (and probably will for some time), the end of US Unipolarity has come. Dan’s insight here is prescient and bears repeating:

Russia wants status, wealth, and predominance in what it considers its sphere of influence. Only the last goal brings it into conflict with the US, and perhaps it is time that a less subtle, and more credible, discussion of precisely what that sphere of influence entails needs to happen. It obviously cannot include the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania–and this is one reason why NATO cohesion must be at the top of the US agenda. But there’s something odd in claims that “sphere of influence” are somehow inherently immoral; the real issue seems to be that, in a “unipolar world,” a bid for a sphere of influence means relatively less influence for the US.

In a unipolar world, there is only one sphere of influence—the whole world is the US’s sphere of influence. Russia’s ability to carve any sphere of influence effectively ends Unipolarity (if there ever was such a moment).

The significance of the Confrontation in the Caucasus is not that it ended the Unipolar moment, but that it signaled the end of a unipolar order. Russia has taken an aggressive step in the art of the possible, pushing the boundaries of what a great power can do in this new age of multipolar / non-polar US hegemony.

Edited to correct my spelling mistakes.

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Lines in the sand – updated

[updates after the fold]

Recent developments should give everyone their first major reasons for optimism concerning the Russia-Georgia front (and basically bear out Charles Kings’ analysis). TimesOnline:

President Dmitry Medvedev of Russia today ordered a halt to the invasion of Georgia, minutes before Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Moscow to try to negotiate a ceasefire. No one has demobilized, and the Georgians suspicious. If a cease-fire is negotiated, the Europeans, and possibly the US, will do most of the work.

Mr Medvedev said that Georgia had been punished enough for its attack last week on South Ossetia, a separatist Georgian province which has close ties to Russia.

“The security of our peacekeepers and civilians has been restored,” said Mr Medvedev, in a Kremlin meeting that was screened on Russian national television. “The aggressor has been punished and suffered very significant losses. Its military has been disorganised.”

The French President hailed Russia’s move as good news, and a first step in gaining agreement between the warring sides.

“A ceasefire now has to take shape,” said Mr Sarkozy said, who aims to persuade Mr Medvedev to accept a Europe-backed blueprint for peace. “We must draw up a rapid calendar so that each side can go back to the positions of before the crisis.”

French officials travelling with Mr Sarkozy privately gave their opinion that Moscow had cleanly outmanoeuvered and outfought Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian President, after his ill-advised gambit to retake South Ossetia.

Negotiators now aim to limit the human and diplomatic damage caused by five days of fighting, and to find a structure for keeping the peace in the breakaway provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The most recent reports indicate continued, but sporadic, fighting–as well as a push by separatists to drive Georgian forces completely out of Abkhazia.

Thus, it isn’t surprising that the Georgians remain suspicious in their official statements. The Europeans, and possibly the United States, will likely do much of the work in negotiating what happens next.

I want to call attention to a very clever aspect of Bush’s strongly worded statement on the conflict. Bush drew a very clear line between Russia’s broader attacks–and any attempt at “regime change” in Georgia–and the defense of South Ossetia (a distinction also drawn in a number of other western statements). AFP:

“Russia’s government must respect Georgia’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. The Russian government must reverse the course it appears to be on and accept this peace agreement as a first step toward resolving this conflict,” he said.

“Russia’s actions this week have raised serious questions about its intentions in Georgia and the region. These actions have substantially damaged Russia’s standing in the world. And these actions jeopardize Russia’s relations with the United States and Europe,” Bush warned.

“I am deeply concerned by reports that Russian troops have moved beyond the zone of conflict, attacked the Georgian town of Gori and are threatening Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi. There’s evidence that Russian forces may soon begin bombing the civilian airport in the capital city,” said Bush.

Everyone should recognize the subtext: “you can do what you want in South Ossetia, but keep your hands off of Tblisi” (cf. my comments below on “spheres of influence”).

The statement also left room for ambiguity concerning Abkhazia, as Bush makes no mention of operations there. Which is wise. Georgia wasn’t going to get it back before, and they’re certainly not getting in back now.

While some pundits, if they take their own analogies to their logical conclusion, will be comparing South Ossetia and Abkhazia to the Sudetenland (or, more likely, they’ll be too busy praising Bush to worry about consistency), the fact is that this concession draws a pretty reasonable line in the sand.

Unfortunately for Saakashvili, it also signals just how badly his offensive failed.

For the US and Europe, there’s at least one “silver lining” to all of this: a chance to rebuild transatlantic cooperation, not least because one of the key bones of contention is now pretty clearly off the table.

… Rob Farley links to Jonathan Landay piece contradicting reports that the Bush Administration encouraged the Georgians to move on South Ossetia. Rob notes that, although the administration is likely in CYA mode right now, Landay’s piece seems pretty plausible. As I noted when I linked to the earlier report, the nature of the claim was pretty ambiguous.

Rob also makes an important point: the Georgians might have believed that the US would support them even though US officials intended to warn them off of engaging in overly provocative behavior.

… Well, this isn’t shocking.

… And neither is this.

… And other recent developments in the “quelle surprise” category… Tblisi and Moscow trade words over whether the Russians have ceased attacks; a number of reports indicate the offensive to clear Georgian forces from the Kodori Gorge (and hence from all of Abkhazia) continue. Georgians rally in support of their country and leadership while Medvedev calls Saakashvilli a “lunatic” and denounces the South Ossetian offensive as “genocide.” Tblisi, for its part, claims it will sue Russia for “ethnic cleansing” in the ICJ.

The “six principles” agreed to by Sarkozy and Medvedev reportedly amount to:

“The first is not to resort to the use of force. The second is to halt all military action. The third is free access to humanitarian aid. The fourth is that Georgian Armed Forces should return to their bases. The fifth is that Russian Armed Forces should pull back to their positions prior to combat,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a news conference with his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy.

“The sixth is the beginning of international discussions on the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and on ways to ensure their security,” he added.

Matthew Lee of the AP reports that McCain may actually get his wish: the west is contemplating “punishing” Russia by, among other things, turning the G-8 back into the G-7. Guess who won’t be coming to dinner?

This strikes me as a relatively meaningless, and probably counterproductive, gesture. If the goal is to prevent Russia from intervening in the remaining western-oriented “near abroad” states, there are a number of more concrete steps available that don’t involve freezing Russia out of a diplomatic club.

And because it’s never too early for premature attempts to assess ultimate “strategic meanings,” or just to keep score, Ian Traynor and Ian Black argue that the Russian Bear is back, and Putin’s shown that he’s a master of realpolitik:

In the tussle for supremacy in a vital strategic region, the balance has tilted. Russia has successfully deployed its firepower in another country with impunity for the first time since communism’s collapse.

“This is not the Russia of 93 or 94, a terribly weakened Russia,” said a European official. “The Russians are now negotiating from a position of strength.”

The impact of Mikheil Saakashvili’s rash gamble storming South Ossetia last week and of Vladimir Putin’s comprehensive rout of the Georgians will ripple in many directions.

In less than a week, Putin has redrawn the geopolitical map of the contested region between Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

“We don’t look very good,” said a former Pentagon official long involved in Georgia. “We’ve been working on [Georgia] for four years and we’ve failed. Everyone’s guilty. But Putin is playing his cards brilliantly. He knows exactly what he’s doing and the consequences are all negative.”

While Russia walks tall, Saakashvili will struggle to survive as one of the world’s youngest presidents. The Europeans are already divided and vulnerable to charges of indecision and impotence. Nato splits over Georgia and Ukraine will widen. American policies in the region have been severely set back. Western energy policy is looking flaky.

“This was a proxy war, not about South Ossetia, but about Moscow drawing a red line for the west,” said Alexander Rahr, Russia expert at Germany’s Council on Foreign Relations and a biographer of Putin. “They marched into Georgia to challenge the west. And the west was powerless. We’re dealing with a new Russia.”

It isn’t that I disagree with Traynor or Black. Rather, I think that most analysts understood the shifts in power prior to the last week. The conflict, if it continues to unfold as we expect, simply demonstrates pre-existing “facts on the ground.”

• Russia’s military still can’t challenge NATO, but it remains more than a match for potential adversaries in its “near abroad,” including Georgia.

• If Russia wants to pursue military action against said countries, there’s not much the US and Europe can do about it. The west has little economic leverage (in fact, interdependence influence favors Moscow right now), and no one seriously expects the US or the Europeans to risk a great-power war, let alone one with a nuclear power, over Georgia or similarly situated states.

In many respects, though, Russia remains a decidedly second-tier great power. It can’t seriously threaten (in conventional terms) the United States, or even, when it comes down to it, most of the EU countries.

We’re in for a lot of hand-wringing about divisions within Europe and between some of the major European powers and the United States. But many of these divisions can be resolved by patience and a willingness to compromise.

Between “Cold Warriors” and “Appeasers” lies a number of reasonable positions on Russia, including one that focuses on reinforcing–mostly in political but perhaps even in military terms–the existing contours of the NATO alliance while engaging Russia as a great power that–despite the still-unfolding conflict over Georgia–still shares many common interests with the US and its allies. Contemporary Russia is neither the Soviet Union nor Nazi Germany; a better analogy, perhaps, is with the old Russian Empire. Russia wants status, wealth, and predominance in what it considers its sphere of influence.

Only the last goal brings it into conflict with the US, and perhaps it is time that a less subtle, and more credible, discussion of precisely what that sphere of influence entails needs to happen. It obviously cannot include the Baltic States, Poland, and Romania–and this is one reason why NATO cohesion must be at the top of the US agenda. But there’s something odd in claims that “sphere of influence” are somehow inherently immoral; the real issue seems to be that, in a “unipolar world,” a bid for a sphere of influence means relatively less influence for the US.

The US needs to recognize, I might add, that Georgian membership in NATO is dead for the forseeable future, and, more importantly, that pushing the issue does little good for the larger goals of the alliance.

But that doesn’t preclude a renewed US bilateral commitment to reconstruction and economic reform in Georgia, and otherwise making more palliative what seems basically inevitable: that South Ossetia and Abkhazia will never reintegrate with Georgia on Tblisi’s terms.

What all of this means for Ukraine, however, remains uncertain.

There are some reasons for optimism. The Russians are already building a new naval base at Novorossiisk, which is probably a long-term positive for pro-western factions in Ukraine, insomuch as it reduces the strategic importance of Sevastopol.

However, given the current uncertainty surrounding Ukrainian domestic politics, as well as the current lack of any conflict equivalent to the recently thawed ones in the Caucasus, there’s little pressure on either the west or the Russians to take decisive action. And that’s almost certainly a very good thing, if everyone’s goal is, as it ought to be, long-term accommodation without appeasement.

… For more on the return of great-power politics, see Peter Grier’s piece at CSM.

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Update: Caucasus Humanitarian Sit-Rep

Latest numbers on humanitarian needs in the region. International Medical Corps is now echoing the 30,000 estimate of refugees fleeing north to Russia from S. Ossetia, UNHCR’s estimates remain more conservative but have risen from 5,000 Saturday to between 10,000-20,000 today.

Like other agencies IMC is emphasizing its assistance efforts for “women and children.” This is troubling given what it suggests about a) the number of elderly who likely weren’t as easily able to flee urban areas before bombardment and b) the possibility that large numbers of adult civilian men are either missing from these populations or are simply being denied aid in a misplaced bid to protect the appearance of humanitarian “neutrality.”

Reliefweb is reporting that the International Committee of the Red Cross is emerging as the lead agency in the region, but their zone of access has been limited to N. Ossetia. Given that Russia now controls both North and South Ossetia, this raises questions about how serious Russia is about the “humanitarian” dimensions of the conflict for their own sake.

You can’t infer humanitarian ideals from their efforts north of the border: the “humanitarian catastrophe” (i.e. refugee crisis) there is propaganda fodder for Russia so it coincides with their interests. The litmus test is whether they will allow aid agencies access to civilians fleeing in the opposite direction or remaining in S. Ossetia even though

a) it may implicate them in war crimes if the ICRC determines that they’ve targeted civilians directly as they entered Georgia and

b) it means that Georgian civilians will receive the aid they need from the outside, rather than by putting pressure on Georgia’s own resources.

Under international humanitarian law, Russia is obligated to provide access to neutral agencies to all civilians in areas under their control.

The ICRC is also “working to gain access to people detained in connection with the conflict, including two Russian pilots who were wounded and are being held by the Georgian authorities.” No mention by the ICRC of allegations that the Russians have captured any Americans in connection with the fighting.

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A plea for sanity and perspective


I’ve spent the last few days recoiling at the excesses of the Russian propaganda machine. I still believe that the constant refrains of “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing” are absurd, and I’m frustrated by out-and-out falsehoods such as the claim that the western media didn’t cover the developing crisis prior to the Russian intervention a few days ago.

But I think that this annoyance, in conjunction with my fundamental sympathy for the Georgian project, has clouded my judgment. The fact is that it is extremely difficult to know what is going on in the conflict. The Georgians have made a number of claims that have turned out not to be true, most recently that the Russians had taken Gori.

It is quite true that the Russians were bombing Gori, and that the Georgians suddenly fled the city, but it was also a staging ground for the Georgian offensive that started the conflict. As someone emailed me earlier today:

Strange things are afoot. Georgia is now claiming that Russia is preparing to assault Tblisi, and that Russia has taken Gori. But Russia is denying this; Reuters is reporting no signs of Russian troops in Gori. Russia is also claiming to have pulled back from one of the towns [Senaki] they seized earlier near Abkhazia. Are the Georgians trying for a western sympathy play? At this point you’d think that the ground attack on Tblisi would be well underway, but it’s not (just aerial bombardment).

Reading the op-eds is super annoying. Notice how Anne Applebaum, Richard Holbrook, etc., claim that “who started it” is unclear. All clear-eyed commentators, even those critical of Russia, at least admit that Georgia (foolishly) started this one. Why do they feel like they need to make factually ridiculous statements in order to criticize Russia? All it does it cement the perception that the West is unabashedly anti-Russian. Stupid.

Right. Let’s keep something clear. While we don’t know who started the low-level shooting between South Ossetia and Georgia, we do know that the Georgians launched a massive attack against South Ossetia. We also know that they did this not long after calling for a cease-fire, and signaling that they were going to work with the Russians to de-escalate the situation.

So although I wouldn’t characterize myself as pro-anyone in this conflict, I think that, given the wave of western pundits comparing the Russians to the Nazis, it might be useful to consider things from the the Russian perspective.

• The Russians think of themselves as intervening to protect the South Ossetians against a hot-headed leader who has repeatedly talked of taking the territory back by any means possible, including force.

• Saakashvili launched an offensive after claiming to want negotiations to stop the escalating crisis. He did so less than twenty-four hours after calling for cease-fire negotiations, in an operation that looks like it wasn’t dreamed up overnight (but, given some of its tactical mistakes, it might as well have been).

• The Russians respond with overwhelming force but limit their ground operations (so far) to the break away republics and adjacent staging grounds for Georgian actual or potential military operations. They initiate a naval blockade and commence bombing runs inside of Georgia. The west accused them of “dangerous escalation.”

• But if this were a United States operation you can bet that the US navy would be blockading the country and the USAF would be taking out every piece of military hardware or key transportation hub they could find. Indeed, the US would be actively aiming at regime change. The United States did all of these things in the Kosovo campaign.

• And the US might also be disinclined to trust subsequent cease-fire requests.

Now, I’m not saying that Russian intentions are benign, or that they didn’t escalate the conflict into clearly unprovoked “territory,” or that the deaths of anyone in this conflict are “justified.” I also can’t blame the Georgians for continuing attacks given Russian encroachment on their (unambiguous) territory–encroachment linked to Russian support for an enclave under their de jure sovereignty.

I am saying that a number of western politicians, and their pundit enablers, should take a long hard look in the mirror; they also need to consider that a lot of the information coming from Tblisi has an agenda behind it, and not all of it is true.

UPDATE: via Rob Farley, a Mikhail Gorbachev OP-ED expressing some of these points.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Smaug does an excellent job of laying out the reasons why one might take a more charitable line toward Tblisi and one less so toward Mosvow.

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