This article first appeared in Haaretz on August 11, 2008.
In one scenario presented in a 2001 video game, U.S. Special Forces are inserted into the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia to help counter a Russian invasion. This might have been just a game, but it eerily presaged a Russian nationalist government flexing its muscles in the Caucasus in 2008. However, it is highly unlikely that in real life, American, or for that matter any Western troops will be brought in to help the Georgians in stemming the Russian onslaught.
The fog of war and information is still thick, but the first impression is that the youthful, pro-Western Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, miscalculated badly when he ordered his forces into the breakaway region of South Ossetia. But analysts had expressed worry in the past that Saakashvili was impetuous and prone to overreact, as he did during a November 2007 crackdown against protesters. And there are signs that the Russians may have laid a trap in South Ossetia, gradually exacerbating the situation, leading the Georgians to make a play for a blitz operation aimed at restoring Tbilisi's sovereignty over the territory. It seems that the words of an expert on the region, Dr. Dimitris Triantaphyllou, were prophetic when he warned at a conference on regional security last summer that, "The Georgians have a mistaken notion that the Americans will come in to save them." Indeed, the West had been doing its best to avoid getting sucked into a conflict in the Caucasus in any real way, and in retrospect the decision to refuse Georgia NATO membership at the Bucharest summit in April was correct.
A showdown between the Medvedev/Putin regime and the Rose Revolution Georgians, who took over following the resignation of former Soviet leader Edward Shevardnadze in 2003, had been building up for some time. Some dire scenarios have the Russians wanting to push Saakashvili to the brink, replacing him with a more pliable government in Tbilisi and restoring Russian predominance - and near-complete control over the energy pipelines - in the Caucasus. The bid by the Saakashvili government for both NATO and future European Union membership is perceived by Russia as a direct threat to its "natural" sphere of influence and a challenge to the fundamentals of Vladimir Putin's strategy for restoring Moscow's status as a major power through command of energy supplies to Europe.
As the UN Security Council haggles and maneuvers toward agreement on a resolution that Moscow will surely insist is lacking in meaning, the immediate question is whether the conflict will escalate. There are fears that in spite of the Georgian call for a cease-fire, the clashes will turn into an all-out Russian ground offensive, perhaps sparked by "volunteer" forces flowing into South Ossetia from another Moscow-backed breakaway region, Abkhazia, and even from Chechnya. Clearly, rhetoric and emotions are running high, with hyperbolic language and terms that are so familiar from recent conflicts, like "ethnic conflict" and "genocide." But it is also clear that a long-lasting conflict would not favor either side.
The Georgians can certainly not carry on the fight against the Russian mass for much longer, and unless Moscow makes a move against Tbilisi, it is unlikely that the Western powers will offer more than words of support to Saakashvili. For its part, Russia has already achieved two main objectives: It has established the status quo ante in the breakaway territories even more firmly than before; and has shown its power on the ground, reaffirming its sphere of influence in the Caucasus and possibly other areas on its borders (Ukraine, for example). Will it now seek Saakashvili's head?
Besides its local and immediate implications, this recent flare-up in the Caucasus raises a much broader question about the nature of world order, the place of small countries, like Georgia, in the international system, and the question of sovereignty. For all their mistakes, the Georgians are right when they point out that the fighting in their country is about the fundamentals of international law, that their sovereignty has been violated by Russia and that without Moscow, Abkhazian and South Ossetian separatists would be unable to challenge the central government in Tbilisi.
It is hard for any citizen of a small country not to feel sympathy for the Georgians who, unlike the Serbians, do not have the likes of Slobodan Milosevic and the massacre at Srebrenica to contend with as they seek international sympathy. It is no wonder that the Russian government spokesmen have gone so far as to raise the possibility that Saakashvili should be taken to The Hague as a war criminal, in a blatant effort to defuse the David vs. Goliath imagery.
But public sympathy will do little for Georgia, just as it does for Tibet and Darfur, and as it did in Chechnya and the former Yugoslavia. In the international chess game, small actors like Georgia have little choice but to play by the rules dictated by the behemoths on their borders - until the tables are turned and new opportunities for genuine independence are created.
August 10, 2008