The Georgia-Russia Conflict and the Ostrich Syndrome

Melik Kaylan, writing on

We can ask the world to give Obama breathing space to get his thoughts in order before, as Joe Biden had it, other countries “test” him with all manner of impossible crises. Not as preposterous as it sounds, this notion of asking the world to hold off, considering Obama generates so much genuine goodwill abroad and, after all, his decisions will shape other countries’ futures significantly.

Any countries found to be misbehaving prematurely will instantly get the dog-in-a-manger treatment, for with George Bush gone, whose fault could it be but their own? But no, the Taliban won’t stay their barbarism an extra hour for popularity’s sake.

Perhaps we can adjust our view of the world, instead, so crises just don’t seem as imminent or morally exigent. The latter approach seems to be prevailing. Witness the recent sudden uptick in media noise about the Russia-Georgia conflict.

On Nov. 6, in a long expository article, The New York Times informed us that, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Tbilisi had (a) initiated the hostilities and (b) done so with indiscriminate bombing of the South Ossetian capital without regard to civilian casualties–despite Georgian claims to the contrary. All sides consider the OSCE to be a highly dependable, impartial, monitoring body with long experience in the region.

On Nov. 8, the BBC Web site carried an oddly inchoate report that the OSCE had failed to warn member countries of the impending conflict. It quoted a senior OSCE official, who has since resigned, as saying he had “warned of Georgia’s military activity before its move into the South Ossetia region” and his bosses failed to pass it on. His bosses deny his claims.

Whatever the BBC is pretending to report there, their subtext sneaks through loud and clear–Georgia invaded first. If Georgia invaded first, Russia was provoked, Russia could not but respond, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is a trigger-happy maniac, we should back off from confrontation with Moscow, this is no incipient or even full-fledged Cold War casus belli to test Obama, he can press the refresh button and the new world will pop up as a tabula rasa.

In the G.W. era this would fall under “faith-based” as opposed to “reality-based” reasoning. The Times and BBC can lay out their dream narrative all they want, but it’s unlikely that Obama–as sober and intentional a politician as it’s possible to wake up to with a hangover–will buy into it. Biden certainly won’t.

Either way, they won’t have a choice as Ex-President Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev ply their brutalist imperial course. Medvedev made his sentiments clear when he delivered his Moscow State of the Union speech sans any single reference to the U.S. election results. Meaning: Russia acts unilaterally no matter what happens elsewhere.

And Georgia? I have publicly defended Georgia’s actions in this space, and others and I count Georgian President Saakashvili as a personal friend. Nothing has changed. Here’s the real continuum of events, as I can best decipher them, that led to Aug. 7 and Aug. 8 when the hostilities escalated into full blown conflict.

First off, I cannot dispute the OSCE and the Times reports that the Georgian attack resulted in civilian casualties. I certainly never thought the Georgians carried out precise bombardments and I don’t think they’re capable of it. Neither are the Russkies.

I also believe the Georgians radically upped the confrontation–in effect, they attacked first. But they did so because they knew about the column of Russian tanks coming in through the Roki Tunnel that connects North and South Ossetia, that is, connects Russian territory to the breakaway region. A Russian invasion was in progress. The Times report addresses this glancingly toward the end:

“Neither Georgia nor its Western allies have as yet provided conclusive evidence that Russia was invading the country or that the situation for Georgians in the Ossetian zone was so dire that a large-scale military attack was necessary, as Mr. Saakashvili insists.

“Georgia has released telephone intercepts indicating that a Russian armored column apparently entered the enclave from Russia early on the Aug. 7, which would be a violation of the peacekeeping rules. Georgia said the column marked the beginning of an invasion. But the intercepts did not show the column’s size, composition or mission, and there has not been evidence that it was engaged with Georgian forces until many hours after the Georgian bombardment; Russia insists it was simply a routine logistics train or troop rotation.”

This is disingenuous. It makes no sense that the Russkies had some 200 fully armed, fueled tanks halfway into Georgia within two days, as a spontaneous and unplanned response to aggression. They’re not that efficient. Both sides knew what was going down.

There is an argument that in shooting first, Saakashvili lost the moral propaganda advantage. It instantly looked like he had provoked a reaction. The other option was to let the Russkies invade and complain later from atop the moral high ground. He decided to fight first. He knew he wasn’t going to win. The Russians owned the air. But worse, he knew that his allies were going to do nothing either way.

My bet is, he contacted the White House and they told him, as they’d done consistently up to then, that he was on his own. Think of the timing–Bush is in Beijing, the U.S. has an election coming, Saakashvili is abroad, everyone is on vacation–including all his allies. So the Georgians decide to attack South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali? No, I don’t think so.

There is an additional misconception that underlies much of the programmatic left/right, Democrat/GOP, détente/Cold War binary thinking on the matter: that the Bush administration encouraged Saakashvili to confront the Russians or at least bolstered his sense of allied support.

This is manifestly untrue. Tbilisi insiders told me that Georgia had been asking the Bushies for anti-aircraft missiles for some years. The Bushies consistently refused. Georgia had managed to acquire some from Israel, but the supply abruptly stopped in early summer this year–nobody knows why but it’s likely that the Russians had a conclusive word with Israel. The Russkies regularly overflew Georgian territory as constant provocation, dropping a stray bomb here and a missile there, by mistake, in open countryside.

Furthermore, the Bush administration had no practical measures in train for interceding Moscow’s invasion. It wasn’t until the scathing Wall Street Journal editorial of Aug. 12–“so far the administration has been missing in action”–that Washington was stung into taking practical measures. The White House even issued a press release specifically citing the Journal’s editorial claims as inaccurate. But it followed the Journal’s menu of suggestions precisely: send in Condi, supplies, boatlift and the like.

We probably have the Journal’s editorial board to thank for Condi’s hurried departure to Tbilisi at a time when Russian warplanes were still flying overhead–and with her arrival, perhaps even the halting of Russkie tanks short of Tbilisi.

The Georgians were always way down on the list of priorities for a fumble-prone White House. Saakashvili was never Washington’s irreplaceable ally, at any rate never enough to keep the Russians at bay. Putin knew it. It may be a brave new post-Bush world, but he still knows it.

2 responses to “The Georgia-Russia Conflict and the Ostrich Syndrome

  1. One important point, It is not OSCE which is referred to in those articles but a Former OSCE member Ryan Grist in all those articles.
    He became a Former member shortly after the events.
    He insisted that there was no shelling and no fighting by Ossetians until the night of 7th in order to support his argument that Georgians started the battle, preventing evacuation.
    in those scary days.

    Now he claims that he was warning that the war was starting and was ignored, contradicting himself.

    And, go to the OSCE website for the Oficial comments, not the former fishy members which do not represent the OSCE.

  2. If Obama does choose Clinton and Clinton accpets the Secretary of State position, then I know I’ll sleep a little better at night.

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