While the world watched the opening of the Olympic Games, well prepared and armed Georgian troops invaded and shelled Tskhinvali, the capital of the tiny breakaway republic of South Ossetia, until there was little over 30% of the structures left standing. They executed what has to have been a premeditated attack to coincide with the games, hoping that the attention of the world would be focused elsewhere and calculating that Russia would not get involved.
They were very, very wrong.
Russia claims that at this time, Georgian peacekeepers also opened fire upon Russian peacekeeping forces in the capital killing an undisclosed number of Russian soldiers. Georgian troops then occupied most of Tskhinvali and declared that they had taken the city and by implication the territory of South Ossetia. Hundreds of civilians were reported killed by Georgian troops, many while fleeing the town and we will probably never know exactly what happened there.
Unfortunately for Georgia’s aspirations of a swift and mighty military victory to please its nationalist voters, Russia had been waiting for just such a clumsy and misguided action from their over-confidant little neighbours and sent in troops, tanks and air support to support battling South Ossetian soldiers and reclaimed the town without hesitation. Russia then proceeded to invade Georgia itself and establish a mounting troop presence there, engaging in fighting in various outlying towns, apparently in an effort to prevent any regrouping of Georgian forces.
Nicolas Sarkozy brokered a ceasefire that Georgia and international media claim was broken by Russia after the sinking of Georgian naval and coastguard vessels and further troop movements towards Tblisi. Russia claims they will continue to advance until the Georgian troops withdraw to barracks as per the ceasefire agreement. At the time of writing there seems to be a simmering, uneasy halt to the fighting.
While this is a somewhat simplified version of events, it highlights a great disparity being displayed between the truths of the situation in fact and the version that is frantically being hammered into shape by the US and to a lesser degree the UK and other European states.
When faced with the task of preparing a statement on the appalling events in South Ossetia, Condoleeza Rice managed this little pearler:
“This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten a neighbour, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it … Things have changed.” She could clearly find nothing to say about the open Georgian aggression that catalysed the entire war, choosing rather to chastise Russia for intervening. She also perhaps did not see the irony in that fact that things have indeed changed and Russia is not the Soviet Union and while the US has been deliriously invading and occupying capitals for the last decade in the Middle East and overthrowing their governments, drunk on its own power, Russia has done no such thing to date in Georgia or any other sovereign country.
George Bush in his usual limited Texan style went further and promised to “rally the free world in the defence of a free Georgia”, possibly thinking that the double use of the word “free” would somehow distract his adoring audience of Republican America from the stuttering stream of steaming bunk he was emitting. He too, chose to ignore that it was in fact his beloved ally and supposed bastion of democracy, Georgia, that openly and brazenly shelled and occupied Tskhinvali, causing the loss of approximately 2 000 civilian lives in what has been labelled as ethnic cleansing, genocide and all the other horrific terms that are now seemingly used at any opportunity. It would seem that to Bush, democracy trumps decency, a common theme in his own country’s international discourse.
Mikheil Saakashvili, the bungling leader of Georgia who came to power on promises of reclaiming South Ossetia and Abkhazia, came up with “If the whole world does not stop Russia today then Russian tanks will be able to reach any other European capital.” One could perhaps also presume that without Russia’s intervention, Georgian troops would almost certainly have encircled Moscow, which would have been quite equivalent in its absurdity and a worthy antidote to Saakashvili’s desperate scare-mongering bull.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy to the United Nations, stated that “The days of overthrowing leaders by military means in Europe is over”. Clearly in Iraq and Afghanistan it is still en vogue and something the US has no qualms about initiating. It must also be presumed that this is a fairly recent development, since the US-lead NATO coalition had an entirely different perspective when bombing Serbia into regime change in the 90s — a country that was securely plonked well within the borders of Europe.
During all of the emotional, grave and solemn speeches made by Bush, Rice, Khalilzad and the new nomination for clown of the decade in a pink shirt, Mikheil Saakashvili, not once was the most poignant point addressed: why did Georgia invade in the first place and how can they or their backers possibly try to occupy the moral high ground now that it has all backfired? For the US not to condemn the Georgian action shows a complicity that goes well beyond the depth of a casual, impartial observer.
For every Russian action, it seems, there is an equal and opposite Western reaction. It seems the details are not nearly as important as taking a contrary view. Not able to fault Russia in the greater balanced analysis of events, Western (predominantly US) leaders and media have bizarrely chosen to cherry-pick Russian actions and completely ignore those of Georgia as if they did not happen at all.
Russia has been sternly warned by the US to withdraw from Georgia with the rationale being that the South Ossetian territory has now been won back and Georgia should be left alone. Heated remarks have been made about the unlawful invasion of sovereign Georgian territory. A thinking person is, however, surely compelled to point out that the US is engaged in two major wars in the Middle East and seriously contemplating a third in Iran. Are those not sovereign territories? Should they not also withdraw and cease hostilities? What is the moral basis for their demands of Russia when they fail to meet these very same demands themselves? Do they honestly believe the world to be so blind as to miss this glaring hypocrisy, or do they simply not care what the world thinks any more?
In addition, one might be compelled to point to the precedent set by Kosovo in February this year, where a breakaway province unilaterally declared independence with much fanfare and blessing aplenty from the US and her many simpering allies. Russia was against this action and backed Serbia’s requests for multilateral negotiations and agreement on the issue. The roles now seem to have precisely reversed. The US is openly supporting a country that tried to violently reign in its breakaway republics and Russia now supports the breakaway.
At first, it would seem that both powers simply change their stances to suit their needs and are equally fickle in this instance. On closer scrutiny, however, it would appear that the Russian position is somewhat sounder, but Russian diplomats lack the oratorical polish and airtime to highlight this fact. Roughly put, Russia’s position is: “We said Kosovo was a bad precedent but you went ahead and set it. We are therefore taking the liberty of suggesting it now be applied in both South Ossetia and Abkhazia and have therefore responded to the aggression by Georgia and support this move for independence by the two states”.
The US, on the other hand, would be forced to concede that “independence was right for the majority of Albanians in Kosovo but it’s just not right for the majority of South Ossetians in South Ossetia. Furthermore, it’s ok to bomb the sovereign territory of Serbia to pieces, including the capital Belgrade, to ensure the cessation of aggression in Kosovo or Iraq or Afghanistan for that matter, but it’s just not okay to attack Georgia to halt its aggression in South Ossetia and we expressly forbid you to bomb Tblisi.” It’s a literal feast of double standards from the US while the Russians at least have a green twig of a leg to stand on … in this case.
So back to the original question of why the US, the UK and parts of the old Soviet block actively support Georgia when it is quite clearly the aggressor. Relations with Russia are poor at present and more mileage can be gained and more pressure can be brought to bear against Russia by taking Georgia’s side. That’s all. It’s just the contrary position and these states are happy to take it, broadly dismissing any guilt on Georgia’s side, of which there appears to be no shortage, in favour of rubbing Russia’s nose in it. The US is building influence in Eastern Europe and after the master stroke of securing Kosovo as a location for their largest military base in the region, are seeking influence further east and closer to Russia through Georgia. They are wooing Poland and the Czech Republic in order to build defensive missile shields and generally seem to be lurking under every Eastern European rock in some shadowy, crawly form or another. Influence and interest.
The EU, which is procures around 40% of its energy from Russia, a figure set to rise dramatically in the next decade, have taken a much more sensible and conciliatory position, condemning the violence in general and suggesting the deployment of EU “monitors” to keep the situation under control. Naturally, it is in their interest not to provoke the Russians into turning off the oil and gas taps. Influence and interest.
Russia by contrast can be accused of using the situation to its strategic advantage and perhaps could be accused of over-extending into Georgia in a show of military power when there was no actual need. This exuberance has led to the propaganda machines of Georgia and the US to draw parallels to the days of USSR in an effort to drum up anti-Russian sentiment in support of their cause. Russia seems relatively unfazed by the allegations and seems to be enjoying its moment in the spotlight, a power again, influencing the politics of the world at the highest level. Influence and interest.
The one thing none of these powerful nations can be accused of, however, is applying any kind of simple morality. Yes, the Russians flew in at great speed to protect the people of South Ossetia and the US is flying aid and Condoleeza Rice into Georgia’s capital, Tiblisi, but the former was to take a great strategic opportunity being offered by a silly president and the latter is a calculated show of force to keep Russia from contemplating a bombing campaign of the capital. The motives behind the speeches on both sides are one and the same: seek influence and protect interests and sugar coat that with moral icing for our public.