The five-day Russo-Georgian war in the Caucasus brought into sharp focus many conflicts rooted in the region’s history and in aggressive U.S.-NATO policies since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Notable among these were the military encirclement of Russia and attempts to control energy resources in areas long dominated by the Soviet Union. The net effect was to hasten a dangerous new era of rivalry between the world’s two most powerful nuclear states, one that will be shaped hereafter by the current global recession and the changes it is bringing about in the economic practices of all states.

President Bill Clinton’s resort to force in Kosovo in 1999 was crucial in precipitating this situation. At that moment, the United States moved to thrust aside international law and the primacy of the UN Security Council. Clinton justified war as a matter of establishing a more humane international order, and every civilian death that resulted from it became “unintentional collateral damage,” morally justifiable because the end was noble. By substituting a quasi-legal, moral right of humanitarian intervention for the long-established principles of national sovereignty and respect for territorial integrity, U.S.-NATO aggression against Serbia prepared the ground for Bush’s unilateral military interventions.

Now, bogged down in illegal, unjust wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. government suddenly appears to have rediscovered the usefulness of norms of international law it had denied in Kosovo. But it invoked the principle of state sovereignty selectively, attacking Russia for its intervention in Georgia while simultaneously sending its own armed forces and aircraft on cross-border raids into Pakistan.

Quest for Full Dominance

The search for causes of the Georgia conflict also brought to the fore the American quest for unchallengeable global military dominance, which requires the Pentagon to plant military bases at strategic places around the world and Congress to pass ever-larger military budgets. In 2002 President George W. Bush adopted the Pentagon strategy, first formulated a decade earlier by Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, of making the United States the sole superpower, deterring foes and allies alike from even aspiring to regional dominance. When, in pursuit of this ultimate goal, the United States pushed NATO further eastward toward the borders of Russia while pouring money and armaments into Georgia and training the Georgian army, it paved the way to the August war.

Or, more precisely: the Russo-Georgian war exhibited the features of a proxy war pitting U.S.-NATO imperialism against Russian nationalism. Russian forces thwarted Georgia’s armed provocations and issued a challenge to American and NATO policies in the borderlands.

Another disruptive trend highlighted by the war is the increasingly fierce competition between U.S. and Russian corporations for control of Caspian Sea and Central Asian oil and gas resources. Georgians, Ossetians, Azerbaijanis, Kazakhs, and other peoples in the eastern Caspian Sea basin are hapless pawns in this continuous struggle, affecting their territorial and ethnic conflicts in ways they cannot control. The struggle over oil and gas has led the U.S. Central Command, originally established to deal with Iran, to extend its operations from the Middle East to the oil-and-gas-rich Central Asian and Caspian Sea states of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, thus underlining the geopolitics that lay behind the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and now the Russo-Georgian War.

When Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dimitry Medvedev ordered Russian forces to move through South Ossetia and cross the border into Georgia, they violated the UN Charter. Their initial justification — defense of the Ossetians’ right of self-determination — was as arbitrary as the one the United States and NATO put forward for U.S.-NATO attacks on Kosovo and Serbia, where (unlike in Russia’s case) their own self-defense was never involved. So, in responding unilaterally to a very real threat that had actually materialized, did Russia commit an act of aggression? Neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly could make that legal determination. Even if they had, Russia wouldn’t have taken seriously a U.S.-NATO charge of aggression that served only to emphasize its accusers’ egregious double standards.

In the course of conducting the war, Georgian ground troops, tanks, and some South Ossetian militia deliberately targeted civilians, committed acts of ethnic cleansing, and wantonly destroyed civilian property in Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, and in villages along South Ossetia’s border with Georgia proper. The legal scholar Richard Falk argues that Russia too targeted “several villages in the region populated by Georgians.” If so, there is little evidence that Russia carried out anything like ethnic cleansing. If Russians committed war crimes, they pale in comparison to the crimes the United States and its allies perpetrate every day on Iraqi and Afghan civilians. But, as Falk says, all such charges should be investigated regardless of their magnitude.

Last, the crisis in the Caucasus highlighted the narrowly nationalist mindset of Western policymakers and many of their publics. Secessionist movements exist in many of the multiethnic satellite states of the former Soviet Union, where Russians are in the minority. American and NATO policymakers and neoconservatives have been only too eager to exploit them. But once Russian tanks and ground forces moved into Georgia, abruptly halted U.S.-NATO encirclement, and exposed the limits of American military power, the Western mass media immediately poured fiery scorn on “brutal Russia,” while ignoring, A, Georgia’s role in starting the conflict, and B, U.S. and Israeli military support for Georgia. Saakashvili made it easier for them to cover the war by hiring Aspect Consulting, a European PR firm that sent in a top executive to disseminate daily, sometimes hourly, falsehoods about rampaging Russians attacking Georgian civilians.

American journalists fostered Russophobic sentiment by disseminating completely one-sided war news, demonizing Russia as the evil aggressor, and championing “democratic,” peace-loving Georgia. The American business magazine Fortune decried the bear’s “brutishness” and its threat to an interdependent world; Forbes labeled Russia “a gangster state” ruled by a “kleptocracy.” TV newscasters likened the Russian Federation to Nazi Germany at the time of the 1938 Munich crisis. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice even asserted an American moral right to lecture Russia on how a “civilized country” should behave in the 21st century. All of which led Russia’s former President Vladimir Putin to comment sarcastically, “I was surprised by the power of the Western propaganda machine…I congratulate all who were involved in it. This was a wonderful job. But the result was bad and will always be bad because this was a dishonest and immoral work.”

The War

Virtually everything about the Russo-Georgian war is contested, especially the question of who started it. But an abundance of published evidence contradicts Georgian propaganda and indicates that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili provoked the war with encouragement and material support from the Bush administration. Years earlier, Saakashvili’s regime had drawn up plans for invading South Ossetia, which had been seeking independence from Georgia ever since 1920. He was emboldened to implement those plans (in the midst of the Beijing Summer Olympics) because he expected aid from American and NATO allies, whose Afghanistan and Iraq wars he was supporting with 2,000 Georgian troops.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe military observers stationed in landlocked South Ossetia reported that “shortly before midnight on August 7,” Georgian forces fired the first shots. Before that time Russian jets had occasionally entered Georgian airspace. There had been minor skirmishes between South Ossetians and Georgians, and Georgian spy drones had flown over Abkhazia, which has important ports on the Black Sea. These actions didn’t start the war. What did was the late-night bombardment and ground offensive, ordered by Saakashvili, in which U.S. and (to a lesser extent) Israeli-trained Georgian army units used rockets, heavy artillery, and Israeli-supplied cluster bombs to attack Tskhinvali and kill Russian soldiers.

It’s hard to gauge the resulting scale of death and physical destruction from the Georgian army’s bombardment and land assault, which targeted not only Russians and Ossetians but also fellow Georgians living in South Ossetia. Russian officials initially claimed that the Georgian attack killed an estimated 2,000 South Ossetians who were Russian citizens. Later underestimates in the Financial Times suggested the assault killed “at least 133 civilians” and 59 Russian peacekeeping forces. The same article estimated 146 Georgian soldiers and 69 civilians were killed in the subsequent Russian mass invasion and bombardment. Russia lost four planes and an unknown number of airmen in that attack. Some 30,000 South Ossetians who fled into North Ossetia, plus the Georgians living in Abkahzia and South Ossetia who were driven from their homes, must also be counted among the victims of the war.

On October 9, at the World Policy Conference in Evian, France, Medvedev announced that Russia had vacated the buffer zones in Georgia a day in advance of the deadline specified in the armistice agreement. For this he was commended by Sarkozy who, for the first time, publicly censured Georgia for its “aggression.” But tensions between Europe and Russia are certain to continue as long as the United States persists in using Georgia and Ukraine to advance its national policies, while tensions between Georgian forces, Ossetian soldiers, and Russian peacekeepers also remain undiminished.

A new chapter in the conflict between NATO and Russia, however, has definitely opened, signaled by Mevedev’s speech to Europe’s leaders. He reiterated that Russia was “absolutely not interested in confrontation” and called on them to forge “a new global security framework that would challenge the United States’ ‘determination to enforce its global dominance.'”

Meanwhile, the Russian people have lost their remaining illusions about “the West,” and Russia’s leaders must now worry about zones of ethnic conflict spreading from the North Caucasus through the Black Sea region to Central Asia and beyond, returning to the limelight other potential flashpoints like Afghanistan’s Nagorno-Karabakh and Yakutia in the Far East.

Behind the War

Russia’s conflicts with the non-Russian peoples of the Caucasus go back centuries, but the developments that led directly to the Russo-Georgian war start with the breakup of the Soviet Union. The Soviet collapse ignited euphoria among American and European elites. Many felt they would now be able to redesign Europe without having to take into account the preferences of the Russian giant on their doorstep. While admitting Russia to full membership in the IMF and the World Bank, and making hard currency loans to it, they quickly began to chart a new offensive mission for NATO.

Russia plunged into a protracted, multi-sided decline. It abandoned its dominant position on both the Baltic and Black Seas coasts. Azerbaijan, Armenia, and the five ex-Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan emerged as independent states, eager to attract Western investment, and some even receptive to hosting American military bases. Ukraine, which owns the Crimea where Russia bases its Black Sea fleet, proclaimed its independence in 1991 and soon thereafter expressed a desire to join NATO. Poland joined both NATO and the EU in 1996. Once Eastern Europe became wide open to Western economic intervention, Russia could do little to prevent the region’s elites from gravitating to full incorporation in the U.S. empire.

Economically, Russia was sorely beset. Under Boris Yeltsin it had chosen to transit rapidly from over-relying on central planning to embracing capitalist markets. Its huge economy contracted. Its armed forces and navy decayed. Social pathologies of every kind deepened. Many Russians experienced acute economic hardship while a handful seized opportunities to purchase state-owned enterprises, enrich themselves overnight, and enter the class of Russia’s new elites.

This era of rapid economic redistribution, national humiliation, and social disintegration lasted for about eight years. By 1999 expectations began to rise, driven by rapid economic growth. Russia soon paid off its debts. It didn’t, however, recover from its enormous demographic decline. No longer a military superpower, its leaders saw themselves as a nation-state faced with special security concerns because it spanned Eurasia from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific coast, shared borders with 14 other states, and had nuclear weapons capability. Over the next few years Russia’s self-confidence grew and its booming market economy allowed it to reappear on the world stage as a major energy exporter to Europe.

Popular protests in Georgia led to the toppling of its government in 2004. Dubbed the “Rose Revolution,” this political change was funded partly by the State Department, the National Endowment for Democracy (a semi-official nongovernmental organization and Cold War relic from the Reagan era), and the billionaire investor George Soros. Overnight American propaganda turned the autocratic state of Georgia into a “beacon of liberty,” a “democracy” with a “free-market economy,” deserving to be supported for NATO membership despite its ongoing ethnic conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Americans, through their “democracy-promoting” organizations, played a similar role in funding the peaceful “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine. First, they helped the anti-Russian Viktor Yushchenko rise to power in a politically divided country, less than half of which leaned toward the West; then, they supported Ukraine’s right to apply for NATO membership.

For more than a decade, Russian leaders had repeatedly objected to U.S. efforts to turn its neighboring states into U.S. clients. But recognizing their own national weakness and the growing interdependence of nations, Russian leaders knew their options were limited. They had to work with Washington and, in principle, were committed to doing so. However, as American leaders pursued their quest for global military dominance, and as they and EU leaders pushed NATO ever closer to Russia’s borders, the leadership in Moscow came to believe they had made too many compromises on vital security interests to stay in Washington’s good graces. Just how far could statesmanship and international law go in safeguarding Russia’s borders? Or in preventing Georgia from being turned into the “Israel of the Caucasus”?


Fallout from the war was felt first in the Caspian Sea and Black Sea regions. Azerbaijan, which since 1994 had allowed Western companies to develop its gas and oil resources, decided to lower its reliance on the trans-Caucasus oil pipeline from its port of Baku to Georgia, and make a small but permanent increase in oil shipments to Russia and Iran. “We don’t want to insult anyone…but it’s not good to have all your eggs in one basket, especially when the basket is very fragile,” said the vice president of Azerbaijan’s state oil company. Kazakhstan’s reaction was to enter into talks with Moscow on “new export pipelines to Russia” now that their Georgia route had become less secure.

Georgia, which the United States valued primarily to control gas and oil pipelines to Azerbaijan and Central Asia, and which Israel supported as a market for arms sales and in hope of obtaining use of airbases from which to attack Iran, has been shorn of its small autonomous enclaves. Although its impetuous strongman, Saakashvili, has redoubled his efforts to secure membership in NATO and military-economic assistance from the West, neither the EU nor NATO is likely to admit Georgia in the near future, let alone allow Saakashvili to manipulate them. Georgia’s resounding defeat has diminished the importance of its pipelines.

Russia showed the world that it would shed blood to prevent further security threats from developing on its own borders, though it would not wage war on a genocidal scale for the sake of controlling foreign oil, as the United States has done in Iraq. Russia also demonstrated that it could at any time end Georgia’s role as a secure energy corridor through which gas and oil was piped, via Turkey, to the West. At the same time, Putin took pains to reiterate points he and other Russian leaders had been making to Washington for years: namely, there was no need for confrontation and certainly “no basis for a Cold War” “or “for mutual animosity.” Putin insisted that “Russia has no imperialist ambitions.”

Indeed, Russia’s aims were very limited. For nearly two decades it had tried unsuccessfully to get the United States and EU to recognize its national security needs and build a real partnership. South Ossetia, which had long been pro-Moscow, didn’t want to become part of Russia, though Abkhazia did. But Russia had no intention of annexing either region and exposing itself to the charge of territorial expansionism. Russia’s answer to the Kosovo precedent was to grant formal recognition of their de facto independence and to sign friendship treaties with South Ossetia’s leader, Eduard Kokoity, and Abkhazia’s Sergei Bagapsh. The treaties included pledges to defend them by stationing troops in each region and building military bases. At the signing, Medvedev reiterated that “We cannot view steps to intensify relations between the [NATO] alliance and Georgia any other way than as an encouragement for new adventures.”

But did the Georgian military campaign make Russia more secure from the threat of a nuclear attack? Did it shatter the curve of encirclement the United States and NATO were constructing around it? The Georgian aggressor was easily “punch[ed] in the face” (Putin’s stern words). Yet when looking at U.S.-NATO policy, Russia’s leaders see that they have not stopped NATO’s eastward drive and the American implantation of ABM missiles in Poland. The danger remains of the United States spreading an arms race through the Caucasus and in Europe generally. NATO defense ministers, coming at this from a confrontational angle, recently reviewed plans to establish a “rapid-response” military force to fight Russia’s future military actions. Medvedev’s September 26 announcement that Russia would build a “guaranteed nuclear deterrent system” and a new “aerospace defense system” — and have it in place by 2020 — should be read as a response to the Georgian war and Western encirclement, even though the planning preceded the crisis. Just when Russian leaders need to invest more in modernizing infrastructure and improving the lives of the Russian people, they’re forced to cope with the determined efforts of the top U.S. and EU leaders to surround them with military bases and nuclear missiles.

Russia can’t ignore the threat of economic and diplomatic isolation for the South Ossetians and Abkhazians. Their inability to secure international recognition will make it harder for them to prosper, whereas Georgia is already the recipient of a large IMF loan and new promises of EU and American aid. To see Georgia made into a Western showcase state while Ossetia and Abkhazia languished would further harm Russia’s image in the West.

In the process of defending its borders from a real security threat Russia, partly through its own actions, has suffered a setback in the court of world opinion. Only tiny Nicaragua joined it in formally recognizing the two breakaway republics. The major Western powers refused to accept the validity of the border changes that the war had brought about. South Ossetia and Abkhazia met the factual criteria for statehood, but not the European and American political criteria for recognition. The consensus of U.S. and NATO leaders was that they lacked real independence from Russian control and didn’t respect the rights of their minorities, as if the Kosovar Albanians in Europe’s new colony respected the rights of their Serb and Roma minorities. One cannot fail to see the blatant hypocrisy of this stance given U.S.-NATO practice with respect to the successor states of the former Yugoslavia.

On the other hand Russia’s position, which holds that Georgia forfeited its claim to these territories by its abuse of the Ossetians and Abkhazians, is equally hypocritical in the light of Putin’s brutal suppression of Chechnya’s secession movement. It also looks two-faced to Serb eyes, especially because recognition of the new Caucasus states appears to violate the principle of territorial integrity, thus undermining Russia’s previous moral opposition to the Kosovo precedent.

Confrontational Response

What may be one of the most dangerous outcomes of the Georgia-Russian war is the hectoring, confrontational way the Bush administration and American politicians have responded to it. While locked into a self-defeating “global war on terrorism,” overstretched militarily, and weakened by the deepening global economic crisis, the United States persists in extending its sphere of influence into the Black Sea region. The Bush administration wants to hold on to Georgia as a “transportation route for energy” and a staging base from which to pursue U.S. interests in the Eurasian region. It refuses to see the Georgian war as a historically rooted territorial dispute and continues to encourage Georgia and Ukraine in their bid for eventual NATO membership.

Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama have publicly endorsed the Bush confrontation with Russia, and neither offers any principled critique of U.S. foreign policy. In fact, they seem as willing as Bush to take virtually any action that will keep “Russia bogged down in the Caucasus if it saps Russia’s capacity to play an effective role on the world stage.”

The major European governments, on the other hand, pursue a slightly saner approach only because they depend on energy supplied by Russia and are less unified in their foreign and domestic policies. But they are deeply divided on how to treat Moscow, with Germany apparently eager to continue deepening amicable relations.

Ironically, Russia remains for the time being a U.S. “strategic partner.” The United States needs its continued cooperation in Afghanistan, and in dealing with Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. Putin and Medvedev are not denying the U.S. military the right to ship non-military supplies though Russian territory to NATO forces in Afghanistan, though that option is available to them. But they have weakened U.S. and UN sanctions on Iran, against whom the Bush administration is waging economic and covert war. Russia also sells weapons to Iran and is completing construction of Iran’s Bushehr atomic reactor complex. In July 2008, Russia strengthened oil ties with Iran with a cooperation agreement the giant state corporation Gazprom signed to develop Iran’s oil and gas fields. It recently concluded similar deals with Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

In short, when it comes to dealing with hostile U.S.-NATO actions in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and especially in its “near abroad,” Russia has on its side geography as well as many diplomatic options.

America’s future leaders need a new approach to Russia and to the rest of the world. As they consider how to rebuild at home and regain trust abroad, they should work with Moscow on all aspects of their relationship. The next president should strive to build a new global security system and to move in the direction of nuclear disarmament. This will require, however, the repudiation of all past U.S. national security strategies, predicated on the idea that America has a God-given duty to police the world and meddle in the affairs of other nations.

Herbert Bix, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, is the author of Hirohito and the Making of Modern Japan (HarperCollins), which won the Pulitzer Prize. He teaches at Binghamton University, New York, and writes on issues of war and empire.

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