Russia and South Ossetia: A Reply

02. September, 2008

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.

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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