Georgia and Russia: delusions and realities

J. and I visited the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, and the Georgian town of Gori, in the early 1970s, a decade and a half after Khrushchev's "secret speech" denouncing Stalin and the cult of personality.  Gori was one of the very few places in the then Soviet Union where a huge statue of Stalin dominated the town square, as it still does today:  the Stalin cult was still in full swing, for Gori is where the great leader, dictator, mass murderer and general monster was born.  We visited the birthplace itself, then as now a Stalin museum, full of framed photographs of the great man in his early days, often in groups of co-conspirators from which Trotsky and other non-persons had been amateurishly air-brushed out.  With a few creditable exceptions, UK media comments on the current conflict in Georgia, with all the references to Russian tanks in Gori, have failed to make the connection with Stalin, even though there can be very few Russians or Georgians who read and hear the name Gori without Stalin's name coming instantly to mind.  In a recent Russian poll in which people have been voting for the greatest ever Russian, Stalin has so far led the field;  and he wasn't even a Russian. 

This all helps to illustrate the strong Russian feeling that Georgia, whatever its current legal status as a sovereign independent state since 1991, just before the break-up of the USSR, is an intrinsic part of Russia's long and turbulent history.  Georgia was not forced into the Russian orbit by the Bolsheviks' incorporation of the country into the Soviet Union after 1918:  it was incorporated into the Russian Empire in December 1800, having been under formal Russian protection since 1783, 225 years ago.  Perhaps this helps to explain Russia's reactions to the strident efforts by NATO and the EU to sign up Georgia as a member of these two western alliances and thus to place it under western, meaning in effect American, German, French and British protection — all part of the expansion of both NATO and the EU to Russia's own borders, removing its one-time defensive cordon sanitaire and inevitably feeding traditional Russian paranoia about its traditional enemies to the west.

None of this is meant to condone the brutality of Russia's incursion into the breakaway statelet of South Ossetia, still less into Georgia proper;  nor does it excuse the way the leaders of the Soviet Union, including Stalin, held the constituent republics, including Georgia, as virtual colonies for the mere 73 years in which the USSR existed.  But in judging the rights and wrongs of the current conflict, we do well to remember the salient facts of the history of the Caucasus and its implications for the way that the people most closely concerned see each other and themselves.  

As so often, Simon Jenkins has written the definitive analysis of the conflict in his Guardian column of 13 August 2008.  It's well worth reading in full.  Here are some of his principal points:

This week's operation in Georgia has displayed the failure of the west's policy of belligerence towards Vladimir Putin's Russia. The policy was meant to weaken Russia, and has strengthened it. The policy was meant to humiliate Russia with Nato encirclement, and has merely fed its neo-imperialism. The policy was meant to show that Russia "understands only firmness" and instead has shown the west as a bunch of tough-talking windbags….

Bush says that great powers should not go about "toppling governments in the 21st century", as if he had never done such a thing. Cheney says that the invasion has "damaged Russia's standing in the world", as if Cheney gave a damn. The lobby for sanctions against Russia is reduced to threatening to boycott the winter Olympics. Big deal….

In South Ossetia both sides appear to have committed appalling atrocities, and can thus generate a sense of outrage in front of whatever camera is pointed at them. Georgia's government claimed the right to assert military control over its two dissident provinces, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, even if they were openly in league with Russia. Equally, Russia felt justified in stopping the consequent evictions and killings of its nationals in these provinces, in which it had a humanitarian locus as "peacekeeper".  The difficulty is that entitlement and good sense are rarely in accord. Georgia may have been entitled to act, but was clearly unwise to do so. Russia may have been entitled to aid its people against an oppressor, but that is different from unleashing its notoriously inept and ruthless army, let alone bombing Georgia's capital and demanding a change in its government….

Saakashvili thought he could call on the support of his neoconservative allies in Washington… It turned out that such "support" was mere words. America is otherwise engaged in wars that bear a marked resemblance to those waged by Putin. It defended the Kurdish enclaves against Saddam Hussein. It sought regime change in Serbia and Afghanistan. As Putin's troops in South Ossetia were staging a passable imitation of the US 101st Airborne entering Iraq, Bush was studiously watching beach volleyball in Beijing….

Once such conflicts could be quarantined by the United Nations' requirement to respect national sovereignty. That has been shot to pieces by the liberal interventionism of George Bush and Tony Blair. The result has reinvigorated separatist movements across the world….

The west's eagerness to intervene in favour of partition, manifest in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Sudan, is more than meddling. It encouraged every oppressed people and province on earth to be "the mouse that roared", to think it could ensnare a great power in its cause.

The parallels are glaring. If we backed Kosovo against the Serbs, why not back South Ossetia against the Georgians? But if we backed the Kurds against the Iraqis, why not the Georgians against Russia? Indeed, had Nato admitted Georgia to full membership, there is no knowing what Caucasian horror might have ensued from the resulting treaty obligation. Decisions which in Washington and London may seem casual gestures of ideological solidarity can mean peace and war on the ground….

The west has done everything to isolate Putin, as he rides the tiger of Russian emergence from everlasting dictatorship. This has encouraged him to care not a fig for world opinion. Equally the west has encouraged Saakashvili to taunt Putin beyond endurance. The policy has led to war. If ever there were a place just to leave alone, it is surely the Caucasus.

In this tragic melée there are no good guys and bad guys, only bad guys — leaving aside the innocent civilians of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Georgia who are its victims.  Until just a few days ago the Georgian President Saakashvili seemed to be groping for a peaceful resolution  of the quarrels besetting the region.  In the words of Thomas de Waal in an essential account of these events,

On 7 August, after days of shooting incidents in the South Ossetian conflict-zone, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia made a speech in which he said that he had given the Georgian villagers orders not to fire, that he wanted to offer South Ossetia "unlimited autonomy" within the Georgian state, with Russia to be a guarantor of the arrangement.

Both sides said they were discussing a meeting the next day to discuss how to defuse the clashes. That evening, however, Saakashvili went for the military option. The Georgian military launched a massive artillery attack on Tskhinvali, followed the next day by a ground assault involving tanks. This against a city with no pure military targets, full of civilians who had been given no warning and were expecting peace talks at any moment.

This sudden abandonment of his peace initiative and recourse to military force against the South Ossetians seems to have been intended to provoke the inevitable Russian military intervention which Saakashvili apparently believed would bring his American friends and their NATO allies riding over the hill to his support.  A moment's thought would have convinced him that even George W Bush was unlikely to walk into yet another war on behalf of distant Georgia, especially a war against a still formidable and nuclear-armed Russia.  The Iraqi army of Saddam Hussein (and its successor Iraqi nationalists) and the Taliban in Afghanistan are a quite different order of enemy for the American neo-cons to take on, and even they are currently keeping the Americans fully occupied.  So the Georgian attack gave Putin a golden and virtually risk-free opportunity to send his tanks and artillery into South Ossetia and beyond, nominally to defend the substantial numbers of Russian citizens there from the Georgian assault, but actually to reassert Russia's military and other dominance in the area, to warn Saakashvili and the west against any idea of bringing Georgia into the west's sphere of influence and to punish the Georgian régime for its impertinent challenge to Russia's superior might.  He has demonstrated the powerlessness of the west, when the Russian chips were down, to protect Georgia against its powerful neighbour.  We can all shout as loudly as we like that the Russian response has been unforgivably violent and excessive;  Putin is unlikely to take any notice.  He has achieved everything that he set out to achieve;  Georgia has achieved nothing apart from the loss, probably now irretrievable, of any hope of reincorporating South Ossetia (or by analogy Abkhazia either) even loosely into Georgia.   

There are some salutary lessons to be learned from all this, many of them eloquently spelled out by Simon Jenkins:

  • The eastward expansion of NATO has aggravated Russian paranoia to a dangerous degree, and any further expansion would risk further destabilising the whole anyway perennially unstable region.
  • If NATO had yielded to the temptation, and to Georgian blandishments, to admit Georgia as a NATO member at its meeting in Bucharest earlier this year, Saakashvili would have been encouraged to use his army against South Ossetia even earlier than he did, and Russia is unlikely to have been deterred from sending in its tanks in response.  The whole of NATO would then have been committed by treaty to come to Georgia's defence against Russia.  Averting a third world war would have been a test for western statesmanship that the west might well have failed.
  • The west's attitudes to small secessionist movements within sovereign states have been disastrously confused, inconsistent  and unprincipled.  We intervened illegally and violently in support of Kosovo's terrorist movement for secession from Serbia and actively helped to bring it about, while stridently denouncing Russia's much less violent support for the South Ossetians against Georgia;  and we seem to regard Russia's insoluble problem with secessionist Chechnya as just another excuse for criticising the Russian government.  With a serious and unsolved secessionist problem of our own (Scotland), it's about time that we stopped telling others how to cope with theirs.
  • The illegal attack by NATO on Yugoslavia in 1999, and by the US, UK and a few others on Iraq in 2003, have disqualified the leading countries of the west from holding up their hands in mock horror when Russia uses its army, some of it already there in an accepted peace-keeping capacity, to retaliate, however excessively, against Georgian military intervention in South Ossetia — that disqualification being another malign consequence of the Iraq misadventure.
  • For oil and many other reasons, it's time we learned to live with the reality of Russia, however much we may dislike much of what goes on there since its conversion to raw capitalism.  We could start by terminating our pointless demands for the extradition of a Russian citizen to Britain when such extradition is expressly forbidden by the Russian constitution (a pity we don't have a similar provision in ours).
  • Above all, we should recognise the reality that a country like Russia is going to maximise its influence and power in neighbouring countries, being as much entitled in realpolitik terms to a sphere of influence as any other — including the United States.   Western attempts to create a sphere of influence in Russia's back yard are bound to lead to instability, conflict and ultimately bloodshed;  no Russian government could acquiesce in them.  We should stop misrepresenting Russian resistance to such western expansionism as if it was Russia that was reverting to some kind of imperialism.  Russia's neighbours are condemned by geography to accommodate Russian interests and security requirements, just as Ireland, Mexico and Canada, and much of Latin America have had to do in respect of their bigger or more powerful neighbours.  Get used to it!

Update (13 Aug 08):  Another brilliant commentary on this affair — as brilliant, I mean, as Simon Jenkins's — appeared in today's TimesMichael Binyon's column provides a comprehensive catalogue of all the ways in which western policy since the collapse of the Soviet Union has failed to accommodate itself to the realities of the new Russia, and has thereby walked into this week's trap so patiently and lethally prepared for it by Mr Putin.  Obligatory reading.


7 Responses

  1. Tony says:

    Much as I've tried, I cannot find anything in this post I can disagree with. Both you and Simon Jenkins point out the dangers of allowing Georgia (or Ukraine for that matter) inside  NATO or EU. I've  blogged about the UK's   attitude towards Israel entering  its neighbour Lebanon in 2006, based on nearly as spurious a premise as the Russians entering South Ossetia.


    Brian writes:  I'm glad to know that you failed in your efforts to find something to disagree with!  Others, of course, may have better luck….

  2. Tony says:


    Not sure it’s a matter of luck!

  3. Patrick says:


    An excellent exposition on the current situation and the realities to be faced with a resurgent Russia.

    I have just listened to an interview with an American diplomat on the Today programme who stated that diplomacy brought an end to the conflict.  I suspect the conflict ended when the immediate, military, Russian goals were achieved.

    Brian writes:  Thanks for this, Patrick.  I agree with you — on the assumption that the conflict has actually ended, although with President Bush recklessly sending in US troops on a self-proclaimed 'humanitarian mission', anything can happen and probably will.  What if one of the GIs is killed by an unidentified sniper's bullet, the bullet then identified as of Russian origin?  Another American diplomat (retired) was saying on (I think) Newsnight the other evening that the lesson to be learned from this crisis was that both Georgia and Ukraine should have been allowed to join NATO back in April at the time of the NATO Bucharest meeting, and that since that didn't happen, they must be admitted to NATO now and as soon as possible.  I fear that the British government's attitude is liable to support this reckless prescription.  If Georgia had been a member of NATO when Saakashvili launched his deliberate provocation in South Ossetia, we might well be in World War Three by now.   Angela Merkel certainly won't want Georgia or Ukraine in NATO, and I hope Sarkozy won't either.  Comment on US television seems to be violently anti-Russian, with all sorts of old cold war sentiments rising to the surface.  Even the normally sober and liberal New York Times is banging the anti-Russian drum — see this.   I'm afraid it's all bad news for the Obama campaign:  if there's going to be a punch-up with the Russian commies, they'll want an experienced warrior like McCain in the driving seat.  All deeply depressing.

  4. Patrick says:


    I’m always gratified when a professional agrees with my amateurish opinions.

    I’ve always thought it rank hypocrisy when America seems to operate a de facto Monroe Doctrine and yet complains when Russia does the same.

    The bellicose sentiments uttered by Western politicians look to be little more than a face-saving mechanism – when the conflict was being fought the West could do nothing.  Shouting after the fact does little and is probably a mechanism to cover the West’s embarrassment and impotence.

    I hope NATO and the EU stay well clear of this little mess and let things settle.  Tough for Georgia, I agree, but I can’t see Georgia being worth WWIII.

  5. Richard T says:

    There is a wider dimension to Georgia's aspirations to join NATO.  In the Caucasus area there are the two other republics which I imagine stand in much the same relatonship to Russia as Georgia. 

    The fact that, as far as I know, neither has intimated any wish to follow Georgia is significant.  In the case of Azerbijan it borders Iran, its population is largely moslem, there are a number of  Azeris across that border and it is on good terms with Iran; it doesn't take much intelligence to surmise that an application to link with NATO is unlikely.   The reaction of Armenia to the arrival of NATO in the area might be interesting.  The nearest NATO member with a very large army is Turkey and as the Turkish attempts at the genocide of Armenians remains a live issue, I cannot see the Armenian government welcoming any Turkish involvement; indeed it is more likely to provoke a firm friendship with Russia.    

    I can only echo the words of the previous post that NATO and the EU should stay well clear.  I further trust that Gordon Brown will not wish to follow his predecessor and carry the USA's bags in any intervention.

    Brian writes: Thanks for this interesting contribution.  I agree that Russian and western policies on Georgia will be heavily influenced by the implications of events in Georgia for other regional countries, including (as you say) Armenia, but also of course Ukraine, perhaps above all Ukraine with its large Russian population (not much short of 20%, compared with less than 1% in Armenia and a mere 1.5% in Georgia) and role as host to the Russian Black Sea fleet.  Armenia's position is, I think, dominated by the long-running and infinitely complex issue of Nagorno-Karabakh, subject of a bitter and often violent dispute with Azerbaijan;  and as you rightly say, Armenia's difficult relationship with Turkey is another part of the equation. Chechnya is another ingredient in the toxic brew.  All these interwoven and ultra-sensitive themes provide additional arguments for NATO to keep out, not trying crudely to muscle in to weaken Russian influence and to meddle in matters which it barely understands.  Russia is unavoidably the dominant power in the region, with a centuries-long history of involvement in it, and is bound to have the principal responsibility for trying to sort out the various conflicts arising there, often with some success.  Ignorant and simple-minded NATO (or EU) expansionism at the expense of Russian influence is almost certain to end in tears.

  6. writeon says:

    More insightful and solid analysis, well done, keep up the good work! I’ve been wondering if I shouldn’t have had a full-frontal lobotomy about forty years ago, as I would now know so much less and find living in our increasingly insane world so much easier and more pleasant.

    I think we are gearing-up for many more wars, or democratic imperialism, designed primarily to secure what’s left of the world’s bounty of raw materials for ourselves. A new Great Game is being played and I and most of the rest of us are merely pawns, only I’ve the distinct disadvantage of having been cursed with a brain far beyond my humble role in this sport of devils. Actually I’m an author, but it didn’t quite fit!

  7. Oliver Miles says:

    I have been wondering when a Western statesman will go to Moscow to talk to the Russians. I suppose they are all deterred by the thought that they would be accused of carrying an umbrella and proclaiming peace in our time. In the absence of top level visitors, wouldn't it be wonderful to think that the British and other embassies are being used for quiet top level diplomacy? Fat chance.

    That maverick son of a maverick father Saif al-Islam Qadhafi sometimes seems to me to have inherited the knack of speaking for the "Arab street", and indeed for others who are not Arabs, even if he speaks for the id rather than the super-ego. Here is what Kommersant reported him as saying on 14 August in a question and answer interview on the theme 'why the Arab world is behind Russia'.

    Why has Libya decided to support Russia in the situation with Georgia ?

    . . . All Arabs are mad at Georgia because it sent its troops to Iraq and took part in the occupation of that Arab land. Therefore, now people in all the Arab countries are glad that Georgia has had to withdraw its forces from Iraq. We understand that it wouldn’t have happened without Russia. If it weren’t for Russia, Georgian forces would still be in Iraq.

    What happened in Georgia is a good signal. It means that America is no longer the only country in the world that can make the rules of the game. Now, not only America, but Russia, is a great power. Now there is balance in the world. Russia is being reborn, and we value that. It is very good for us, for all of the Middle East.

    We understand, of course, that Georgia started the war first. The Georgian simply thought that the Americans would stand up for them, come and help them, fight along with them. And that is a signal to all countries that rely on America alone, thinking that closeness to the United States will allow them to do anything they want. It’s not so. . .

    Is that the position only of the Libyan leadership, or have you discussed it with your partners in other Arab countries?

    Well, it is Libya’s opinion, of course. But believe me, all Arabs are glad Georgia has withdrawn its troops from Iraq. . .

    Libya has exerted a lot of effort recently to restore relations with the U.S. and Europe. Aren’t you risking damaging those relations now with strong statements?

    No. Not at all. We have good relations with the West and with Russia. But Libya chose Russia as its strategic partner. Of course, Russia is our strategic partner, and we cannot compare it with any other country for closeness. That’s obvious. . .

    Libya was a pariah state. Now many are calling for Russia’s isolation. Do you think it is a real threat for Russia?

    No, I don’t think so. The whole world needs Russian gas, Russian oil. It is not expedient for Europe to let relations with Russia worsen. . . Because Russia is a great country.

    Brian writes:  Thanks for this, Oliver.  I too would like to think that western (perhaps British?) diplomats somewhere are talking privately at suitably high levels to the Russians about Georgia (and even more importantly) about Ukraine, NATO, etc.  But so long as NATO remains formally committed to the eventual admission of both countries at some unspecified time in the future, it's hard to imagine what they would be able to say that could lead to an eventual modus vivendi.  It seems to me that the Russians are no more likely to acquiesce, ever, in NATO membership for two countries like these, which are in Russia's DNA, than any US government would have agreed to Cuban membership of the Warsaw Pact (when there was such a thing).   The only solution that comes to mind, apart from NATO backing down and agreeing that NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine would not after all be appropriate, is for Russia, Georgia and Ukraine all to join NATO together.  NATO has no perceptible raison d'être as it is: why not have everyone in who wants to join?  Russia applied to join when the USSR collapsed, I believe:  it's never too late…

    But I assume that Russia's aim is to behave in Georgia in a way that will eventually force Saakashvili to resign, to be replaced by a more malleable leader who will seek a more accommodating relationship with Russia and will withdraw Georgia's application to NATO.  Probably the best outcome for the west, too.

    Qadhafi jnr. seems to be pretty shrewd.