Caucasian Roulette.

August 15, 2008

What the hell is going on in Georgia?
We know precious little, or rather we are being told precious little. There are two breakaway sections of Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia; the Russians seem interested in these two breakaway sections, in both of which civil wars were fought in the 1990s. Georgia borders on Chechnya, where the Russians continue to fight a dirty war against separatists, some of whom have Islamist connections. Apparently the Russians have now invaded South Ossetia, maybe with the permission of the locals, maybe not — and the Georgians are unhappy about this, or maybe they were unhappy about the situation before because the South Ossetians wanted to separate — or some of them did.
So far, so confusing. More to the point. Georgia has some interesting connections with the former Soviet Union, apart from having been the birthplace of Stalin. During the collapse of the USSR, Gorbachev’s Foreign Minister was the Georgian Shevardnadzhe; suddenly he nipped off and became President of Georgia. (Like everywhere else in Russia and the “independent republics” which spun off after the USSR fell to bits, the main beneficiaries were the ones with powerful state connections, the nomenklatura.) Shevardnadzhe ran Georgia like a Mafia fiefdom for a while, but was eventually chucked out and replaced by someone exactly like him.
A couple of years ago, however, the Americans organised one of their colour-coded revolutions to install a brand-new President who had spent a lot of time in the United States and presumably was more compliant to their wishes. They did this partly to annoy the Russians, which seems to be the chief goal of U.S. foreign policy anywhere near the Russian border, but partly because there’s an oil pipeline running from the Caspian oilfields to Turkey, which the Americans apparently want to control. You might ask why the Georgians wanted to do this.
The Caucasus is a complicated place (one which the Creator views with immense fondness). It’s a roiling mass of self-proclaimed ethnic groups who don’t much like each other. When the whole area was part of the USSR, Moscow played a simple balancing game between divide-and-conquer, and unite-under-the-Red Flag. It stirred up conflicts whenever one group seemed to grow overmighty, and then damped them down — sometimes by deporting whole populations to Central Asia, as happened to the Chechens. So long as Moscow had its boot on everybody’s neck, it could win friends and influence people by reducing the pressure of toe or heel. However, when the USSR disintegrated and Moscow’s boot rotted away, everybody in the Caucasus was free to do as they liked and exercise any resentments they felt. Hence the resentment felt by the Georgians towards the Russians, and the resentment felt by the South Ossetians and Abkhazians towards the Georgians.
Unfortunately, all this comes up against the problems which the Russians feel. The Russians spent a hundred and fifty years building themselves up as a serious European power. Then they had a revolution which knocked them to their knees, but at huge sacrifices and with immense ineptitude (a Russian speciality, sadly) they reconstructed their empire and managed to build a power-base greater than the Tsars had possessed; they dominated the Baltic and the Balkans and had a stronger presence than ever in Central Asia and the Black Sea-Caspian region. They dreamed of using this base to expand into a global status; for a few decades they were called a “superpower”, which didn’t mean anything but sounds well, and compared themselves with the global empire of the United States (although they possessed nothing of the sort).
But from the mid-1980s all this came tumbling down. The pressure of the cold war with the US empire proved too great; local nationalisms were too strong for the enfeebled Soviet Union to suppress, while its crumbling economy could no longer promise pie in the sky for everybody. Within a few short years Russia was flung back to its 1750 borders. Everywhere the Russians moved out, the Americans moved in — sometimes by proxies, sometimes by trade delegations, and sometimes, as in the Balkans and parts of Central Asia, with military occupation troops. Defeat in that war was real; Russia’s economy crumbled as its trading partners disappeared (or collapsed economically). Russians were temporarily so demoralised that they allowed the Americans to install their puppet, a corrupt drunk named Yeltsin, in the Kremlin.
Nobody could take Yeltsin seriously as a leader, and especially not as a Russian nationalist leader. He allowed almost everything in Russia to collapse — most particularly the military, to the extent that even the American-backed propagandist Anna Politkovskaya, recently murdered by the Mafiya which Yeltsin tolerated, was shocked. (Since she couldn’t alienate her Western backers, she blamed Yeltsin’s successor for everything that went wrong.) However, to get himself a boost in the polls, he sent his unpaid army into Chechnya when it tried to secede, so as to discourage the complete disintegration of what remained of Russia. Yeltsin’s war backfired disastrously; his ill-led, unmotivated, unequipped troops were massacred.
This was almost certainly a key factor in Vladimir Putin’s success. Putin might have been a sonofabitch, but nobody denied that he was a serious man and his agenda was a Russian agenda. Within a decade he reshaped Russia as an oil giant, beefed up the military and used it to stomp Chechnya flat, and even did a little fiddling of his own in the Balkans during the Kosovar crisis. The Americans hated him, and all their puppets in the Western media obligingly joined in — but interestingly, the Bush administration hated Putin less than the Clinton administration had done; the Clintonites felt that they had created Yeltsin, and that his defeat in a democratic election was a personal defeat for themselves. However, the Bushites hated the Russians on principle, as they hate all foreigners, but especially foreigners who have ever embarrassed the power of the United States to do whatever it pleases wherever it wishes to.
And that introduces the additional source of problems in the Caucasus. The US and its allies have attempted to surround Russia with a mighty military alliance, which is a bit bizarre considering that Russia is a capitalist state which appears to pose no threat to any of its neighbours. There are US armed forces scattered all around the Russian border, many of them leftovers from the Cold War, some of them brand new, like the planned missile bases in the Ukraine (balancing the existing ones in Alaska) and the air bases in Dagestan. The US has installed friendly governments in the Ukraine and Georgia and has tried to do the same in Belarus. These friendly governments replaced corrupt and incompetent ones, so they were welcomed by the populace, but in both countries the end product was a system which was at least as bad as the old; promises of American aid and Coca-Cola for all failed to materialise. However, the new governments are doing very nicely, thank you, and their politicians get favourable mentions in Time, which is more than Putin ever gets; the elite in those countries is doing better than ever. Hence they will do whatever Washington tells them — effectively, Washington is doing exactly the same as Moscow was doing before.
But — belatedly the Creator gets to the point — not exactly the same, because differently motivated. The Russians established their empire out of a sense of insecurity. Muscovy was founded as a satellite-state of the fourteenth-century Central Asian empires — just as the eleventh-century Black Sea states were dominated by Scandinavian occupiers. Russia faced invasion from the West under Peter, and again under Alexander, and again under Nicholas II. No wonder, threatened from east and west, it built a ring of satellites around it. No wonder, threatened by the global reach of American imperialism, the USSR tried to expand those satellites. Russian and Soviet rule was cruel and incompetent, but it was also purposeful; it needed to legitimate itself in the eyes of the locals, if only it could, because it needed the locals as a buffer between Moscow and any potential threat. When the USSR was stripped of its satellites and then disintegrated, Russia lost its skin.
But the United States has no experience of this. It was last invaded in 1812, and that was in a war which it started (unwisely thinking that the British Empire would be an easy conquest). On the other hand, the United States definitely doesn’t like disintegration; in 1832 General Jackson nearly declared war on South Carolina when that state threatened to secede, and in 1860-5 a million Americans died to prevent 11 states from seceding. Even the Puerto Rican separatist movement is treated as a terrorist organisation. No, the Americans don’t like being broken up — but it is delighted when other countries break up. Hence its meddling in the Caucasus is not motivated by any concern for the locals — it is just a game played on the other side of the world. If Georgia thrives or becomes a wasteland, nobody in the United States will suffer a noticeable loss — whereas Russia is right next door.
So what’s going on in Georgia is a bizarre gamble in which one side has no stake but is playing for fun, while the other side thinks — rightly or wrongly — that its survival depends on the outcome. The dour attitude of the Russians — all fur hats and sour faces wielding iron fists ultimately backed by nuclear weapons — contrasts with the mindless babbling of the Americans which seems to have no connection with their covert operations or their own well-hidden iron fists. (Georgia was taking part in the occupation of Iraq, as part of the famous “coalition of the willing”, to prove its status as an American satellite.) Meanwhile, of course, the locals die, or lose their rights, but that hardly matters to Russians who are frantic to survive against a terrible enemy which brought them low once and might do so again. Nor do the Americans care very much; the woman in charge of their foreign affairs, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, made her name as a Sovietologist under Bush I — that is, as a person who endlessly repeated right-wing slogans to support the American arms industry and was too incompetent an evaluator to notice that the Soviet Union was about to collapse. Now, less than ever, Americans need a blindly anti-Russian xenophobe in charge of their diplomacy, but they seem extraordinarily proud to have one.
Oh — that oil thing. Many people say that America is desperately struggling to control the world’s oil, and therefore America has a strategic stake and this explains its military brinkmanship in the Caucasus. Hold on a moment. Who’s that oil going to be sold to, if not America? The oil can only be sold if it passes through Turkey, whose military is America’s second-best ally in the world. America, therefore, already controls that oil; it doesn’t need to control Georgia. If Georgia were to run a pipeline to Batum, it would need to send the tankers through the Dardanelles, which the Americans control with the Sixth Fleet. Sorry, folks. There is no strategic rationale for what America is doing in the Caucasus. This is the politics of a small child who has been given a fragile toy and is throwing it against a wall to see if it breaks.
Unfortunately, that toy is the planet on which all of us have to live.