COMMENT Punishing Russia could prove costly
By Mikhail Molchanov
On the eve of his visit to Ukraine, David Miliband, Britain's foreign
secretary, said he wanted to forge "the widest possible coalition against
Russian aggression in Georgia". The next day, he warned that Russia must not
start a new cold war.
Russians reacted defensively, saying a cold war is not what they want, yet
arguing it is better to lose so-called friends in the West than lose national
The row that has started over Russia's using force to rebuff a Georgian
military attack on a separatist minority is now continuing over Moscow's
decision to recognize the de-facto
independence of the two pariah statelets that have been effectively
self-governed for the last 16 years.
Russia's decision to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia should
come at no surprise to those who know the region. South Ossetia had never been
a part of Georgia until Joseph Stalin separated the Ossetian homeland into two
parts and attached the northern part to Russia, while giving the South to
Stalin's native Georgia.
Stalin's plan included a measure of autonomy for Abkhazia and the two Ossetias.
However, yet another Georgian dictator, Zviad Gamsakhurdia (1939 - 1993),
abolished South Ossetian autonomy and liquidated the autonomous status of the
Abkhazian Republic even before the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist in
1991. At about the same time, when Georgians proclaimed their independence from
Moscow, the parliamentary assembly of the Republic of Abkhazia reasserted its
sovereignty and announced separation from Georgia. Tbilisi responded by sending
bands of looters to both breakaway regions.
Gamsakhurdia's officially chauvinist policy of "Georgia for the Georgians"
encouraged the ethnic cleansing that followed. When South Ossetians and
Abkhazians tried to throw the rascals out with the help of popular militias
specifically assembled for that purpose, Georgia sent in police forces and
regular troops. This started an armed conflict which lasted until a 1992
ceasefire agreement brokered by the Russians. All sides agreed to accept
Russian troops as peacekeepers.
For the last 16 years, Moscow had staunchly refused to heed numerous requests
of the separatist leaders to acknowledge their de-facto independence from
Georgia. Even so, the one and only channel of material aid reaching breakaway
enclaves was coming from Russia. Tbilisi has not contributed a penny to help
restore cities and villages ravaged by the Georgian fire. As time went by, more
and more Georgians left for Georgia proper. Abkhazian and South Ossetian
economies lost all connections to Georgia and became fully oriented toward
Georgia's claims of sovereignty over the separatist republics are based on the
Soviet precedent and the Western desire to "discipline" Russia, while rewarding
the US-propped regime of Mikheil Saakashvili. The idea of North Ossetia and
South Ossetia reuniting as a new republic of the Russian Federation is simply
unpalatable to the West, no matter how many referendums would prove the
people's will and how genuinely democratic those referendums would be. After
all, as former US national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued, Russia
was too big even in its curtailed post-Soviet form; would it not be great to
tear apart Siberia and the Far East?
Interestingly, some people among the Russian so-called "liberal" elite met the
idea with sympathetic understanding. Indeed, if your personal fortune is based
on an indiscriminate sell-off of the country's natural riches, central
oversight is not the first thing on your mind.
During the whole Boris Yeltsin decade, Russia's foreign policy did not
significantly deviate from the master plan devised in Washington. The country
was ruled by the oligarchs, not by the elected government. The West has called
this "democracy". While the two small Caucasian nations were clamoring for
protection, Moscow's hands were tied by the fear of Western disapproval.
The slightest sign of independent orientation in foreign policy was cited as a
proof of Russian "imperialism". Never mind that thousands in both
unacknowledged republics were carrying Russian passports. Russia was forced to
turn a blind eye to the continuing misery of the people that could not live as
a part of Georgia - and were not allowed to exist independently.
In the meantime, humanitarian reasons worked well for East Timorese, Kosovars,
and factually independent Kurds in Iraq. Not so for Abkhazians and South
Ossetians. On August 8, the Georgian army was given a command to "retake" South
Ossetia, and launched a barrage of GRAD rockets against the civilian population
of Tskhinvali. Close to 2,000 Ossetians were soon dead, and 30, 000, or one
quarter of the total population, fled their destroyed homes, many ending up on
the Russian side of the border. A dozen Russian peacekeepers were killed in the
attack. The UN was "concerned", yet nobody among the Western leaders indicated
even a slightest displeasure.
However, the displeasure became pronounced when Russian troops moved in to
protect the threatened minority and stop the conflict. The Russian offensive
accomplished these tasks in five days and with minimal bloodshed.
Western displeasure grew into a universal chorus of condemnation when President
Dmitry Medvedev, acting on a direct and unanimous mandate of both chambers of
the Federal Assembly, decided to extend Russia's recognition of independence to
the two nations that have been factually independent since 1992, and paid in
blood for that privilege.
Rather than seeing Russia's actions as dictated by considerations of humanity,
or, at the very minimum, sheer political realism (can anyone in their right
mind believe that fiercely proud North Caucasian nations would voluntarily
accept the rule by those who deny their very right of existence as separate
ethnicities?), the Western press is chanting cold war.
Moscow's position is, if friendship with the West can only be bought by
standing idly by and ignoring desperate pleas for help from a kindred,
ethically affiliated nation, Russia cannot afford such a friendship. Cold war
or not, the time of a politically correct, US-style Russia is now over.
Instead, it is the time of a Russia that has restored the dignity of its
elected government offices; a Russia that owes nothing to the world financial
institutions, and itself holds near US$100 billion in US agencies' debt; and a
Russia that supplies one-third of Europe's total gas. This is a country whose
army is, once again, capable of procuring world-class armaments and training
soldiers in their proper use.
This Russia is prepared to beef up its military collaboration with China,
ensuring comprehensive modernization of the Asian giant's forces. This new
Russia has re-established its diplomatic and economic presence world-wide, has
friends and partners in both hemispheres, and is capable of influencing
geopolitical situations in the areas much further distanced than the
Attempting to punish this new Russia, one way or another, may be a rather
costly adventure. Is the West prepared to bear those costs - just to show
Russia "who is the boss here", while denying two smaller nations that very same
right of self-determination that Georgians now enjoy?
Mikhail A Molchanov is a professor of political science at St Thomas
University, Canada. He has published several books and articles on Russia's
post-communist transition and foreign policy, Russian-Ukrainian relations and
international problems of Eurasia.