There are no saints and even fewer geniuses in the conflict between Russia and Georgia over Ossetia. However, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, clearly the real power in Moscow, has certain proven himself even less saintly than other parties – and in the long term, less clever. Albeit with serious input from American miscalculations and atavistic politics and with the help of the hapless Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili, Putin has made both Russia, and the world, a more dangerous place.

That is not because of any great conspiracy, but rather a concatenation of expedient stupidities on all sides, exacerbated by the tendency of all American administrations since Reagan to treat Russia as a defeated power rather than a partner. Russian leaders began the elder George Bush’s New World Order with unprecedented gestures of cooperation, around the first Gulf War, for example. Washington’s triumphalist approach since would have provoked any regime in Moscow, let alone one led by a KGB/Mafia consortium, to nationalist reaction.

Some conspiracy theorists see a pipeline beneath every recent front line. In Georgia, a real one runs from Baku to Ceyhan in Turkey, whose sole and explicitly announced purpose was to get oil from the Caspian that did not have to go through Russian territory. Of course, it also made Turkey and its Israeli friends very happy. But alienating even a faded nuclear superpower to make two dependent states happy is not a statesmanlike thing to do.

The United Nations has largely been absent from the conflict between Russia and Georgia. There were Russian and not UN peacekeepers deployed in South Ossetia, and there was little discussion in the Security Council about either Georgia’s attack on the enclave or Russia’s response. Any durable peace in the region, however, will require some role for the UN. There is some real potential. The United States under Bush, while paying lip disservice to the organization, has been using it tacitly and widely. Russia, as one would expect from a weaker power, often invokes the organization, even if its adherence to UN principles has been as much, if not even more, expedient than Washington’s.

Unfinished Business

As an organization of sovereign states, albeit committed to over-arching humanitarian principles, the UN is confronted with “Uncle Joe’s Jigsaw.” The ex-Soviet republics were born with often calculatedly capricious boundaries that Stalin had established. As Boris Yeltsin took over after the Soviet Union’s official dissolution, he doubtless expected to reconstitute the union under some form or other. Polls across the former Soviet Union showed quite strong support for maintaining the union in some form. It would have helped defuse the economic and political shock of the Soviet Union’s collapse if Russia had promoted dual or multiple nationalities, freedom of movement and employment, a common currency, a free trade area, and the maintenance of joint enterprises across state boundaries. None of that happened. Instead, most of the new states had independence – and authoritarian regimes – thrust upon them. What had been administrative boundaries became concrete and barbed wire, regardless of economic and ethnic realities.

Putin’s rhetorical and military over-reaction to events in Georgia has scuppered any likelihood of reconstruction of the defunct Commonwealth of Independent States on the lines of the European Union. Russia’s attack has made NATO expansion all the more likely, and leaders of the ex-Soviet states immediately showed their colors by making solidarity visits to Tbilisi.

The Kremlin’s strategy in Georgia is likely to come back to haunt it. If there is one country that has much to fear from unbridled secessionism it is the Russian Federation, where Russians are a rapidly decreasing majority. Legitimizing the secession of Abkhazia and Ossetia strengthens the case of the Chechens and numerous other claimants to independence or simply greater autonomy. And challenging the former Soviet boundaries opens the way to future conflicts, not just between Russia and its neighbors, but among the neighbors themselves.

Quite apart from any suspicions of Moscow’s ulterior motives, the undisciplined behavior of Russian troops in Georgia, as documented by human rights workers and the journalists who witnessed the Russian assault, did not win hearts and minds in their field of operations. It certainly belies Moscow’s weasel words about humanitarian interests.

Humanitarian Intervention

The Canadian-convened Commission on the Responsibility to Protect, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention adopted at the 60th anniversary summit of the United Nations, was quite clear about how dangerous a concept it could be when used expediently. When the doctrine was first raised in modern times in response to Saddam Hussein’s brutal assault on the Kurds, international lawyers at the UN quietly mentioned that one of the precedents was Adolf Hitler’s invocation of humanitarian intervention to “save” the Sudeten Germans and justify the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

Sadly, there were shades of that expediency in Moscow’s declaration that it was intervening on humanitarian grounds. Handing out Russian passports to the Ossetian citizens of Georgia could be taken as a humanitarian gesture – unless one takes into account the difficulties encountered by ethnic Russians and other Soviet citizens marooned in other ex-Soviet Republics in getting the same documents. As for coming to the rescue of their Ossetian brethren, Human Rights Watch and journalists on the ground have cast considerable doubt on whether nearly so many people as Russia claimed were killed in Georgia’s initial, unjustifiable attack.

Russia has followed the Kosovo script, almost recycling the same rhetoric the United States used to justify the 1999 intervention. However while Putin did not succeed in getting UN authorization for military intervention,– there are no records of any CIS meeting to consider the reaction of the Russian peacekeepers it nominally controls, unlike the long discussions Blair and Clinton had that won round NATO members. By going beyond Ossetian boundaries and papering over the brutalities of Ossetian militia, Moscow has seriously compromised its case, quite apart from the implicit doublethink of advocating in Ossetia the principles it repudiates in Kosovo.

Russia has claimed that its forces in Abkhazia, Ossetia, and Transdneister are the equivalent of UN peacekeepers. The first has a UN blue fig leaf, the other two have none. Of course the Russians are not alone in their expediency. The UN resolutions that mandated Russian presence in Georgia were the price Bill Clinton paid to acquire UN support for U.S. intervention in Haiti.

It would be simplistic to see Ossetia as payback for Kosovo, but it was certainly one element. Russia was clearly humiliated that it could not deliver for Serbia, one of the few countries left with any respect for the Kremlin. Even though Moscow has often been in the wrong, Washington has not seriously tried to engage the Kremlin, and its snubs have provoked understandable, if not always justifiable reactions. And the United States has often been in the wrong as well.

The Russian veto at the UN, less frequent but often as unprincipled as America’s, has been a demand for respect as well as a serious political gambit. Neither the French nor the British feel the need to use theirs, since they are treated as partners by Washington (albeit very junior ones). Russia has not even been given this junior status.

Although Russians have sent an effective message to their neighbors that neither NATO nor the USA can guarantee their safety, the strategy is all stick and no carrot. The response of the leaders of other ex-Soviet states and the immediate Polish-American agreement on missile bases demonstrates how counter-productive the Russian action has been. Add to that events in Ukraine, where the former Russian anti-missile system is on offer to NATO and the Sevastapol Russian Navy base has been called in question, and Moscow has actually consolidated an anti-Russian alliance.

Was this the covert plan of the United States: to provoke Georgia to attack South Ossetia, knowing that Russia would respond, and thereby create anti-Russian solidarity among its neighbors? When April Glaspie passed on Washington’s advice to Saddam Hussein that the United States did not take sides in the dispute, she did not expect him to invade Kuwait. It seems equally unlikely that the White House support for their latest man in Tbilisi was intended to encourage him to respond so vigorously. Some people in the Bush administration may have encouraged Saakashvili in his impetuousness. There are neocons around who are detached enough from reality to think that the United States could face Russia down and welcome the chance to humiliate the old enemy – but they are clearly not in the State Department at the moment.

Conversely, the readiness of Russian troops and the reported provocation by Ossetian militias could have been a trap sprung on the hapless Saakashvili. On the other hand Moscow’s calling of an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council and its seemingly exaggerated casualty figures could have been the result of credulity on its part in the face of manipulation by the KGB/Mafia figures who control South Ossetia.

It would be marginally more reassuring if the conflict had been caused by the irrationalities of local leaders on both sides, rather than by cold war calculations in either Moscow or Washington. That would at least imply that there was a basis for getting the parties to the negotiating table before matters escalate.

The Future

With even Germany now supporting extension of NATO to include countries with unresolved issues such as the enclaves in Georgia and even the Crimea, an action replay of 1939 threatens. Just as a bedrock principle of the African Union was acceptance of existing colonial boundaries, there were good reasons not to open the Pandora’s box of redrawing Stalin’s cartographic caprice.

Even so, however, there is room for legitimate mutually agreed boundary revisions, for example between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Russians do have a point that self-determination is an important principle, even if they tend to ignore the detail that Abkhaz self-determination was a case of a minority expelling the majority.

Any U.S. administration that can restrain its scruples enough to deal with the House of Saud, or Pervez Musharraf can do business with Putin, or maybe even with Medvedev when we have sorted out if he is more than a ventriloquist’s dummy. Europe, despite its frequent diplomatic paraplegia can play a constructive role, and in fact already has done so by inhibiting NATO’s pull to the west.

Washington should begin by taking its declared European allies such as Germany and France seriously to work out a shared approach, and then jointly talking with Russia to build a framework to handle problems in the region. But any accommodation to the Russians (or indeed the Georgians) has to preclude the use of military force. In the Georgian enclaves, the Russian military are clearly part of the problem, not the solution. They need to be replaced with real peacekeepers who can guarantee the return of refugees and replace the KGB/Mafia rule in the enclaves. Certainly Russian monitors should be part of the force, but the substantial elements should come from elsewhere and be under actual UN auspices.

Ban Ki Moon is not the type to use a bully pulpit, which is a shame since all sides deserve a hard talking to. However, Moon’s customary low profile does allow some possibilities for his “good offices.”Some form of UN mission could allow both sides to descend with dignity from the poles they have climbed. A good example would be the brokering role the UN played in ending the Iran-Iraq war. Such quiet diplomacy, in concert with UN monitors and peacekeepers, could produce a durable settlement without asking any of the parties to eat humble pie.

Ian Williams is a senior analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus ( More of his work is available on

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