Kosovo and Georgia, by Sir Ivor Roberts (extracts)

[Extracts from article in The Tablet, 16 August 2008]

Russia bites Back

Moscow has acted brutally in Georgia. But when the United States and Britain backed the independence of Kosovo without UN approval, they paved the way for Russia’s ‘defence’ of South Ossetia, and for the current Western humiliation

If April is the cruellest month, then August in modern historical times is the most dangerous. World wars break out, Soviet tanks go into Prague, Iraq invades Kuwait and now, when were supposed to be glimpsing the Olympics through Beijing’s heavily polluted atmosphere, hostilities break out in Europe in a place few have heard of. Yet it should not have come as a complete surprise. South Ossetia is one of those frozen conflicts which, Russia warned, we risked seeing thaw out with unforeseeable consequences if the West persisted in pushing for recognition of Kosovo’s independence. For the two are inextricably linked in Russian minds. What is sauce for the Kosovo goose is sauce for the South Ossetian gander. In other words, if the West is prepared to champion Kosovo’s secession from Serbia and disregard internationally recognised borders without the endorsement of the United Nations Security Council, it cannot be surprised if Russia does the same. Russia’s strategic aims are brutally clear: keep South Ossetia as a de facto independent buffer statelet and weaken any of its excessively pro-Western neighbours who belong, or aspire to belong, to a potentially adversarial military pact.

The Russians’ dislike of what they see as encirclement is deep-rooted. It goes back to Tsarist times and, more recently, to the “rush” to join Nato by the Baltic States and the ex- Warsaw Pact countries. It is this, taken together with Georgia and the Ukraine’s not-yet-realised applications for Nato membership, which has created an unreasonable but still real sense of unease in Moscow. Russia’s strategic aim to weaken Georgia benefits from the fact that South Ossetia was a pro-Russian Trojan horse, driven into Georgia by the latter’s most infamous son, Stalin (“the wonderful Georgian”, as Lenin called him), ….

As for the West, it seems to have sleep-walked into this mess. Since the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, evicted that wise old bird and former Soviet foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, from power in Tbilisi in 2004, he has talked the democratic pro-Western talk so beloved of Washington and built up some impressive supporters in the United States, including the Republican candidate for the presidency, John McCain. Some European leaders, however, take a more critical view of the Georgian President….

Mr Saakashvili visited President George W. Bush in the White House only a few months ago and, in what looks like a grisly repeat of the Bosnian imbroglio, when President Izetbegovic thought he had military backing in the event of his declaring Bosnian dependent, ,appears to have received some vague assurances of American support. It looks like a case of “all assistance short of actual help”, as nobody envisages Western military intervention to roll back the Russian forces that entered Georgia proper. What is puzzling is why Mr Saakashvili felt strong enough to tweak the Russian tail by looking forcibly to integrate South Ossetia without a guarantee of Western military support. Russian armed forces are more than 20 times the size of Georgia’s. Part of the answer may lie in Mr Saakashvili’s own personality, part neocon, part Georgian nationalist and part post-Communist party politician with a whiff of wilful rashness, even if the rhetoric seems impeccably that of a modern Western liberal leader.

The West is left looking weak and rudderless: President Bush described one of Russia’s unacceptable war aims as regime change in Russia when he meant Georgia. (Apparently only America is entitled to effect regime change without UN Security Council support.) The confusion is symptomatic of the muddled thinking that has characterised the West’s policies on seceding states since its support of Kosovo’s independence. It is no use the West arguing that Kosovo is unique. All potential breakaway states are sui generis. And most of them have had bloody pasts. To invoke the mantra of territorial integrity when the United States and the United Kingdom in particular have abandoned the notion so readily, in supporting Kosovo’s secession from Serbia, demonstrates a lack of intellectual coherence. And to insist that Kosovo had to be settled now, even unilaterally, was an invitation to Russia to hold up the mirror image in Georgia: the bombing of civilian targets in Georgia was a deliberate echo of Nato’s bombing of civilian targets in Belgrade. It was above all a demonstration that the long years of humiliation after the break-up of the Soviet Union are over.

The risks of humiliation lie now with the United States. The Georgian army, having been trained and reorganised by the American military, now sees itself being pushed back by the overwhelming power of the Russian army. Inevitably they ask where the United States and Nato are when they are needed. The sense of disappointment and betrayal is palpable. The days of wild support for George W. Bush when he visited Tbilisi (the road to the airport is named after him) in 2005 and was greeted by 150,000 people seem far distant. Senator McCain may paradoxically gain from the crisis. He has emerged with a stronger and more robust denunciation of Russia than either the present presidential incumbent or the Democratic contender Barack Obama, who was holidaying in Hawaii as the crisis broke and appeared slow off the mark to respond. Mr McCain will claim that he is the candidate with the gravitas to deal with these international crises. The reality could well be different: Mr McCain’s unqualified support in the past for Georgia may have emboldened Georgia to embark on a rash adventure which cooler heads in Europe and even in the American administration claim to have warned them against. On one point, though, Mr McCain seems to be absolutely right when he calls the Russians’ brutal and excessive reaction an attempt in part “to intimidate other neighbours such as Ukraine for choosing to associate with the West”. The message is clear: “get too closely into bed on the security front with the West at your peril and don’t even think of exporting your democratic rose or orange revolutions to Russia.” The West’s reaction will in the short term be rhetorically strong, but militarily Nato looks as impotent as Russia did over Kosovo’s declaration of independence. And, given Europe’s increasing dependence on Russia as an energy supplier, can it afford to keep Russia at too remote a distance? As the Bush presidency draws to its inglorious close, handling Russia remains one of the most difficult, intractable problems to hand over to the incoming president. And Kosovo isn’t settled either.

Sir Ivor Roberts is president of Trinity College, Oxford, and former British ambassador to Yugoslavia and to Italy.

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