Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Russian government is in the ascendant now - but it should remember it may need to build up good will for when the wheel of fortune turns again

It seems now that Russian regulars and Ossetian and Abkhaz militias are burning Georgian villages on the road to Tbilisi.

Ideally the soveriegnty of democratic states should be upheld unless their governments have started killing instead of protecting their own citizens. The UN's Responsibility to Protect report called this 'conditional sovereignty' - meaning that a government's sovereignty is not absolute but conditional on it carrying out its responsibility to protect the lives of its own citizens.

The report laid out a duty to intervene militarily if necessary to prevent other governments killing civilians - but also made it clear that this should only be done if widespread massacres or genocide were taking place, since otherwise military intervention would be likely to kill more people than it saved. Since in every conflict around half the casualties are civilians this is a wise provision.

The west is not prepared to go to war over Georgia - a country which is not an EU or NATO member and whose government's democratic and human rights record is almost as bad as Russia's and includes ethnic cleansing of Ossetians in the 1992 civil war just as Ossetian separatists and Russian forces seem to be forcing out Georgians. Russia is prepared to go to war to re-establish it's influence over a former client state of the Soviet Union and a part of the Russian Empire before that.

In these circumstances any NATO military intervention would only change who was ethnically cleansing or massacring who - and probably expand the war into other countries and lead to a huge rise in casualties. Without clear evidence of one side committing large scale massacres against the other's civilians it would also be likely to end up killing more people - and more civilians - than it saved.

Russia's claim that it's motives are humanitarian - to prevent the massacre of Ossetian civilians in South Ossetia by Georgian forces - is dubious. There is no doubt that in the civil war of the early 1990s Georgian forces targeted Ossetian civilians and vice-versa - and the same has probably happened again now, but Human Rights Watch reports that Russian claims of 1,500 to 2,000 civilians killed by Georgian rocket attacks are exaggerations - and are causing revenge attacks on Georgian civilians by Ossetian militias.

Russian public opinion may have been brought behind military action by the argument that Russia must protect Ossetians with Russian citizenship, but Putin has never shown any concern for the lives or human rights of Chechen - or Georgian - civilians so the humanitarian war claim is weak.

Control of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline and preventing Georgia joining NATO or the EU are probably his main motives.

The option of economic sanctions on Russia or expelling it from the G8 have also been raised, but Russia would almost certainly respond by cutting off gas supplies to the EU, leading to, at the least, black outs across much of Europe. So this is unlikely.

So the options are limited to putting some troops into Tbilisi - which Bush is already doing by sending them to For once this seems like a well judged move by Washington, making it clear that it will not stand for Russian troops entering Tbilisi and overthrowing its government, but without threatening Russia.

The only other thing we can do is warn the Russians that the wheel will keep turning.
The Russian government were enraged by NATO's similar campaign in Kosovo and Serbia in 1999 and by Kosovo's declaration of independence under the protection of NATO peacekeepers. Their proposal now for referenda on independence and joining the Russian federation in the South Ossetian and Abkhazian regions of what Georgia claims is its territory may be revenge for Kosovo.

The US has lost a lot of respect and influence internationally and made many enemies through its ruthless invasion of Iraq. The US is undoubtedly the world's strongest power but as it's power wanes it will have to rely more and more on the good-will which it's current administration has squandered through ruthless brutality. Even Clinton's decision to allow a third phase of bombing of civilian targets in Kosovo and Serbia had a similar effect.

Russia's government should consider whether it's now about to make the same mistake - and remember that the wheel of fortune will turn again. With new technologies, such as a breakthrough in solar power's use to fuel hydrogen cells, Russian oil and gas may one day not be so vital to the EU - so in the present Russia would be wise to build up good-will with other states that it may well need in future rather than squander it through reliance on force alone.

Apart from that it should consider whether it is now aiding or committing exactly the same crimes it accuses Saakashvili and his forces of.

1 comment:

Scott said...

Great post - stumbled.