Monday, August 11, 2008

That didn't take long

Inevitably, someone accuses me of wanting to knuckle under to Russian hegemony. Brilliant.

Look, I have no desire to see Georgia occupied or attacked at all, nor do I think Putin's on the side of the angels here. But this is pretty much the sequence of relevant events and impressions that I can discern:

1) The USSR breaks up, with a whole fucking mess of ethnic and political disputes that continue to linger. Among these are Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgia legitimately claims them within it's borders, the people of Abkhazia and S.O. disagree, and have the Russians on their side.

2) The west pursues a number of different policies to roll back Russian influence, some of them successful, some of them not, all of them provocative -- most importantly, rolling NATO's borders a few hundred miles closer to Russia. To be clear, this is wildly popular in places like Poland and Prague, not so much in Moscow -- I don't weep for the Russians on this count, because who cares if they think Poland is theirs?

3) At the same time, western powers basically announce (via the Kosovo precedent) that territorial integrity is no longer an absolute guarantee in international politics. This becomes clear earlier this year, but remember that Kosovo's been on a rolling boil for about a decade, while Russia (see #1) has been dealing with a passel of it's own breakaway provinces (Chechnya, anyone?) If you think this didn't freak Moscow's leadership right the fuck out, you haven't been paying attention.

4) After recent elections, the Georgian government takes a decidedly pro-western, anti-Russian turn. Yay for us, right? The US starts loudly advocating in favour of Georgian membership in NATO, and providing oodles of military aid for the country.

5) With all the love from Washington and Brussels, Saakashvili decides to make a grab for his country's (legitimate) territory. He thinks he'll have Washington behind him.

6) The US hangs him out to dry. I hope he can get a plane out of Tblisi in time, because I think that's where this is heading.

None of this stuff exonerates the Russians, and none of it makes the Georgian people in any way responsible for their plight. Nor does it make Washington responsible for Moscow's choices, anymore than Paris was to blame for Berlin's, circa 1939. This is the game of empires -- the little people, and little countries, always get smashed. What this does mean is that the Georgians are, in a very real way, paying the price for Kosovo, and for a number of other policies we've pursued. Maybe you think it's worth it -- indeed, I think the unification of Europe (economically with the EU, defensively with NATO) is worth quite a lot.

But -- and this is the lesson the west refuses to learn -- international politics isn't cheap, and it isn't free. Russia should play nice? Why? Because we said so? Can we make them? What is inherent in our positions that makes them superior? Most importantly of all, why should Russia view our actions as anything other than a long series of threats against them? And can you convince Russians of that? Do you even believe it yourself? (An anti-ballistic missile system in Poland, but the real target is Iran? Are you fucking kidding me?)

George Bush is responsible for the immediate problem of implicitly and explicitly giving Saakashvili the belief that the US would back him up, but not for Moscow's ambitions or for the problems of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and certainly not for the problem in opaque intentions in international politics. A wiser man would have never let Georgia think they had a superpower behind them, but we've always known George Bush isn't a wise man.

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