Michael Trapido
Michael Trapido

South Ossetia: How close is World War III?

The clash between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia, as disturbing as it may be, could have been far worse if Georgia was a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. In that instance the Russian attacks on Georgian cities, as part of its retaliation for the invasion, would be considered an assault on a member of Nato requiring mutual defence.

As things stand and despite all the verbiage and current escalation of the conflict, it remains localised and fighting will be confined to that region — although we are hearing Georgians complaining about the West’s failure to assist them despite their helping out in Iraq.

Abkhazia and South Ossetia — formerly part of Georgia — broke away in 1992, occasioning enormous anger and resentment in Tbilisi. Despite Russian protection the breakaway territories borders do not enjoy international recognition.

If United States President George Bush had had his way, Georgia, one of the most progressive former Soviet republics, might well have had its Nato membership even now. In terms of the current circumstances, that would have been untenable.

Would this membership have deterred the Russians from getting involved in this conflict or stopped Georgia from intervening in South Ossetia — that is, on Nato’s orders not to do so? We can only speculate.

What if Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, who made reclaiming Abkhazia and South Ossetia part of his election campaign, came under intense domestic pressure to carry out his promise and intervene?

In 1992 his predecessor, Eduard Shevardnadze, had tried reasserting Georgian control over the breakaway territories with disastrous results for Georgians living in those areas and his military.

As things stand now, Georgia already commits 70% of its entire budget to the military. The defeat that was suffered in 1992 is still a source of ongoing humiliation for its population with many refugees from the previous conflict still displaced.

What if the domestic internal pressure on Saakashvili to intervene exceeded any sense of loyalty or obligation to Nato? If resigning his post (heaven forbid a politician should do the right thing), rather than launching what would then be a strategic attack in global terms, was not an idea he would even contemplate?

The United Nations has already shown us how powerless its Security Council is in addressing matters when Russia, China and the US and its allies are in conflict. In the case of Zimbabwe, China’s economic interests in our neighbour coupled with Russia’s anger at the missile shield going up in the Czech Republic meant that a resolution considered vital to the US and Britain was always going to suffer.

As a result, five million people close to starving to death were considered irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. The US and European Union were left to contemplate increasing sanctions that could only put pressure on Mugabe, who would happily watch his people succumb while the West waits him out.

Now consider Iraq. The UN weapons inspector returned from Iraq and said that if there were weapons of mass destruction, he couldn’t find them. Regardless, Bush and Blair were relentless in pressing for the invasion and nothing was going to stop them — certainly not the UN. Was the invasion illegal? Is it relevant? The fact is that they went ahead regardless of the basis for the invasion and with scant consideration of what they would do once the war had been won or what their exit strategy involved.

Imagine then if Georgia, a member of Nato for the purpose hereof, launched an attack on South Ossetia. Then Russia, the South Ossetian protector and guardian against genocide (funny how it was happy to see five million Zimbabweans die), hits back with attacks on the Georgian military. But it doesn’t leave it there; it continues its attacks on Georgian cities as well — exactly the case here.

Nato, unaware an unauthorised attack on South Ossetia was going to take place, would then be in the invidious position of having to defend Georgia against Russia’s retaliation. If it disowned Georgia, where would that leave the alliance?

Should Nato not intervene and call Russia’s “bluff”, where does that leave its mutual defence theory? If Russia backed down to Nato, where would that leave its claims of being a world power and how would that affect its status in the region?

As we saw with Iraq, when the big kids want to fight they are going to fight.

Interestingly, Poland demanded an emergency session of the EU in respect of South Ossetia. It is the champion of the Georgian cause in respect of joining the EU and Nato. Poland, like Georgia, has an axe to grind with Russia.

What if Georgia were a member of the EU as well? Where would that leave the EU and Nato with their member at war with Russia? At war with Russia themselves?

A World War III scenario or just tonnes of hot air and handbags at 10 paces?

Whichever way you look at it, I believe that the UN is powerless to stop Nato, the US, the EU, Russia or China if they decide to go to war, just as it was useless in helping the poor Zimbabweans.

These huge power blocs, as we have seen, are quite capable of ignoring the world body and starting what could develop into World War III.

Mutually assured destruction as a deterrent?

What’s the price of petrol today — anyone know?