Russia and South Ossetia: A Reply 7

My previous post generated substantial reaction, as I expected, but not as much controversy as I hoped. Nevertheless, I thank all those who took time to express their views, and apologize for a belated reply. The main reason is that I was busy with the beginning of my teaching season. But here is a reply to the most important points that were raised, and also an update. In short, some challenged me to evaluate Russia's role in this conflict. Others pointed that Mr Saakashvili was repeatedly provoked by the Russians. Quite a few implicitly argued that they support Georgia because Russia is intrinsically an evil state.

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I stand by my earlier point that Mr Saakashvili personally is to blame for much of this conflict. On the other hand, I admire his efforts (and some achievements) to build a decent country in the Caucasus. All he had to do was to keep transforming the parts of the country that he controlled. A combination of higher living standards and prudent policy towards the breakaway regions would have eventually brought the breakaway regions back in Georgia’s fold. Of course, this would have taken time and patience. Yet Mr Saakashvili may have wanted to have his monument next to Stalin's (incidentally, why no-one is asking why his monument still appears to be standing in Gori?), and so preferred the language of Grad multiple rocket launchers. Some people say he was provoked by the Russians. Maybe. When I was in the kinder-garden, fights between boys were common. The fights were often preceded by a lot of provoking, usually from both sides. Yet teachers, when deciding on how to allocate the punishment, were only interested in knowing who threw the first punch. Back then I thought it was mightily unfair. Now I think there was a great wisdom to it. Attempting to untangle the complex web of "who really started it" is very hard and is best left to academics. What matters is who threw the first punch in this conflict. And there is no doubt that the 'honor' belongs to Mr Saakashvili. He ordered indiscriminate artillery barrage on a civilian city, followed by a full-scale military onslaught. "The Economist" writes that Tskhinvali city hospital registered 44 dead and 273 wounded. I am glad this is much less (but probably a lower bound) than the 2,000 figure provided by South Ossetian authorities, but I still regard it as unacceptably high civilian death toll.

Now as to what I think about Russia's role in this conflict. Suppose Russia confined itself to (i) interfering and driving Georgian troops from South Ossetia; (ii) using high-precision weapons to attack military targets on Georgian territory; and (iii) withdrawing its troops back to Russia after clearly defined military objectives were achieved. Then I would have said: "fine". It is important to understand that I would have supported this not because I am a "Russian", but because this is consistent with my notions of justice. An aggressor has to be stopped. It's as simple as that. But this was not the position taken by most people in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe. Most people simply took sides. This is summarized very well in one of the comments to my previous posting (my translation from Latvian): "In this Georgia-Russia conflict it does not matter to me who made the first shot and who invaded whose territory first." A typical Latvian (Estonian, Lithuanian, Pole, etc) took Georgia's side because Georgia is "just like us" and is "good", whereas Russia is "bad".

But the above "three points" is not what Russia or, to be more precise, 'Kremlin &Co' did. For example, it hasn't so far withdrawn its troops from Georgia. It produced some suspiciously obvious lies about what it did or did not do. I have to say I was first puzzled by this seeming 'irrationality'. But then I thought that maybe there is an altogether different explanation for all this. Lots of observers now say that 'Kremlin&Co' secured a "military victory" in Georgia but suffered a "propaganda defeat" in the West, where the public opinion has been so much anti-Russia during this whole conflict. I have a growing suspicion that 'Kremlin&Co' suffered no defeat at all. On the contrary - it won all the way. Why am I saying a strange thing like that?

I think that, from the viewpoint of 'Kremlin&Co' , this is not so much about 'Russia VS West' as it is about something much more important - the relationship between the rulers and those they rule. Throughout the history authoritarian rulers knew that the presence of enemies, real or imaginary, makes the job of ruling much easier. People ask fewer questions about their rulers if they are convinced of being encircled by the enemies. The Jews in Nazi Germany, "enemies of the state" in Soviet Union - the list of examples is endless. The "defeat" in the information war over South Ossetia, and the resulting anti-Russian sentiment around the world helped 'Kremlin & Co' convince Russian people that the West is Russia's real enemy. A recent survey by Levada-Center shows that 70% of Russians fully support their government's actions in the war with Georgia, and 49% blame the war on…. the United States. It appears that automatically taking Georgia’s side in this controversial conflict, and denying justice to the Russians, had the effect to increase suspicions of ordinary Russians towards the West and, ultimately, to strengthen 'Kremlin & Co' grip on their hearts and minds. Ironically, the Baltic States and other Eastern European nations were most instrumental in helping Kremlin achieve its goals within Russia.

What are the predictions of my little conspiracy theory? Clearly, 'Kremlin&Co' is likely to be interested in making the most of this conflict, i.e. scaring the Russians into being encircled by the enemies. Thus, a 'Cold War lite' may well be in the interests of Russia's rulers. The Cold War kept Soviet Union going for quite some time, and the old trick can be used again. In the end, "bad Russia" may well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Some Latvian observers accused Western Europe of "not seeing the forest behind the trees", that is, Russia's true 'evil' nature. Yet the opposite is true. I think many in Western Europe see the forest very well, but too many in the Baltic States are lost in the few trees of historical bad feelings toward Russia. Russia's rulers are likely to have an interest in confrontation with the West because it will help them to hold on to power at home. Thus, this is precisely what the West should not do because nothing will serve the interests of 'Kremlin&Co' better than a new Cold War.

In latvian here

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Komentāri (7) secība: augoša / dilstoša

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williams 21.12.2011 16:04
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Me 18.09.2008 18:42
I would suggest the author to do what he actually understands (and does very good both as lecturer and researcher) and avoid topics like the one he wrote this blog on- simply too many weak arguments lacking appropriate background, emotional conclusions, etc..

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V Dombrovskis 04.09.2008 14:19

Thanks for such a long post. There is much that I disagree with but it will take us forever to sort all of those things out. Therefore, one at a time. And my most important message for you is this. You seem to be living in the world in which there are clear good guys and bad guys. No matter what bad guys do, they're still bad guys, right? And yet this is not how it works. To understand how it works you should sort things out one thing at a time, and then trying to see what is the big picture coming out of it. It's not as easy as living in your world, but it's much closer to what the world is really like.

You're confusing lots of things here. Analogies should not be taken too far, beyond the point they're designed to illustrate. Adult (and armed) Georgians attacked adult South Ossetians (also unarmed civilians). They didn't exactly attack the Russians (your 30 yrs old, right?).
But if you insist on your analogy, I'd think that a 6 year old attacking a 30 yrs old is strange and dangerous (to 6 year old) and something should be done about it. I mean, when I was a kid, I've never seen another kid doing something like this.

To anyone who will want to accuse me of writing about 2,000 dead, then 44, etc. I hope you understand that I am not the one who is counting them. But I do always show my sources. If you have a problem with numbers, complain to the source, not to me. When I wrote the first entry, the 2,000 figure was the only figure available.

You seriously misundertand my argument. I never wrote that Russia "is entitled" to accupation or being a teacher, whatever. I can only ask you to re-read my post more carefully.

sick and tired:


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sick and tired 03.09.2008 13:46
Actually, I think the comments so far confirm the opinion the author of this blog had voiced: no matter what arguments one offers, one will be criticised if one does not provide a full-scale, hunred-percent criticism of Russia. It is like a pass to the field of legitimate argumentation: first admit that Russia is evil, then you are free to argue anything else.

Meanwhile, in this particular case (Georgia)there is more real basis for blaming Russia than there has been since the 1960ies. A military aggression is obvious, and so is Kremlin's xenophobic rhetoric. But instead of arguing intelligently (researching and presenting more facts, pointing out deep causes and consequences), all too many Balts are doing the same old, sad thing - simply nodding and saying 'We have always known, Russia is evil.'

This is not about Russia, really. But when shall we stop behaving like traumatised teenagers and start behaving like the wise, old, cynical Europeans? That is a much more certain way to getting our interests first.

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Bezvārdis 03.09.2008 09:30
Attacking a state's own citizens is not a very good grounds for invasion. You happen to mention that "Tskhinvali city hospital registered 44 dead and 273 wounded.[..] But I still regard it as unacceptably high civilian death toll". Previously you stood by the 1000 or so figure. Now, I remember that some years ago not that far away - in Northern Ossetia Russian authorities killed off 334 innocent Russian citizens, including 186 children. A reason was similar - criminal disturbance which the authorities could not tolerate. So they decided to deal with a handful of criminals, ignoring the civilian death toll. Ok. But curiously there was no 'teacher' which would come and punish Russian authorities. Not to mention Chechen wars which were all lead by Russian state against Russian citizens. The problem with your argumentation in short is that you suppose that Russia legitimately can have the role of such a teacher. But I guess the numbers are not important for you. Because even if none had been killed, the Georgian shells still were fired and this counts as the 'first blow' after which Russia is entitled to occupy half the territory of Georgia etc etc, because the teachers are obliged to punish the naughty boys for their own sake, right?

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- 03.09.2008 08:31
ok, you convinced me ;) A nation of 4.6 million threw the first punch at a land populated by citizens of a nuclear nation of 140 million. Sure, there is no doubt that the 'first punch' belongs to ‘Saakashvili, the tiny Hitler’. Thanks for convincingly clarifying this and then building a bunch of arguments on this ‘truth’. Using your analogy, an insane 6-year old attacks a well-built 30-year old. What’s the best response from the kinder garden teacher? Don’t try to figure out why the kid behaves so crazily. Just punish the 6 year old!!! Otherwise, god forbid, the next day all 6-year olds will be attacking adults indiscriminately. lol... I do agree with almost all of your thoughts with economic content.

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Gatis 02.09.2008 15:09
I agree that most of people can't look at the conflikt within its full complexity. There are more than just 2 sides. Every side has its own mission and goals in this conflict.

1) Western countries have dilemma: support the democracy principles versus economic interests.

2) Russia just takes land of the Georgia, gets greater support from its citizens, shows the muscle to Western countries and scare away global investors and monopolists from Caucasus region. There is some drawback from its politics but apparently it's not that unbearable, because there are still Western countries quietly striving for better cooperation with Russia.

3) East Europian countries ar splited in native and russian supporters. Native citizens know the history and know that in past Russia allways strived to find any reason to initiate the war and take away the land of other countries. It's simple as it's. And it would be pretty strange if Latvians, Polands, Lithuanians, Estonians supported Russia. So the Russia is still a threat for little countries and still a good business partner for big and middle sized Western countries.

4) Georgia just wants its land and its land must free of Russian militarists. And it does not matter that South Ossetia in fact is populated by russian citizens. If they are russian citizens, their homeland must be Russia.
It's as simple as it's.
It's very easy to understand Georgia as well, because Abkhazia and South Ossetia together takes pretty large area of Georgia. That's why it's reasonable argument to get support from West, fight back Russian militarists to get back their land. Georgian president is ready to collaborate with everyone, who can make his land free of russian forces. Even if it takes another foreign forces to invade Georgia.

5) U.S. - from their point of view Georgia is very good and strategic place for new military bases in Caucasus region. There is oil as well. Unlike EU, for U.S. there is no principles and no friends, just interests. This war was not that beneficient for U.S. leaders in comparision with Russian leaders, because still many U.S. citizens don't want to support Georgia. It remainds them of bad previous experience in middle east and they think that Americans have nothing to do with Russia and Georgia. Other part of U.S just support EU principles or just simply see Russia as old good Cold War enemy.

My opinion: It does not matter whe threw many small stones (suppose Russia) and who responded with biger stone (suppose Georgia) which ended by Russians who responded with grindstone (again Russia).
Considering all the nation interests, I think the best that Europian Union can do, is to forget about short term economical benefit from Russia and actively support Georgia, and not to stand aside looking at U.S. while they do its job in Georgia.
I think EU must become the real super police instead of U.S. because Russia trusts much more EU than U.S.
So it's time for EU to act now and stand for its unity and principles.

Citi autora darbi