HEAD TO HEAD

 

Is the conflict in Georgia a sign of renewed Russian aggression? Daragh McDowellagrees with the motion, but Seamus Martindisagrees

Russia deliberately provoked the war in Georgia as part of a wider strategy of bringing ex-Soviet states to heel, writes  Daragh McDowell 

YES:THE GEORGIAN attack on Tskhinvali, the "capital" of the self-declared republic of South Ossetia on the night of August 7th, was the trigger for the horrifying events we are witnessing in the Caucasus. It also marked the beginning of serious coverage of the conflict in the western media. Its previous neglect has meant that the full story of the run-up to this war has been obscured.

After the Soviet Union's collapse, the newly independent state of Georgia began to chart a foreign policy course towards the West. It refused to join the new Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) that Russia hoped to use to maintain its glavniy (primacy) in the post-Soviet "near abroad" (to use the Russian terminology). Moscow refused to accept Georgia's right to remain outside the CIS, and began arming and supporting separatist groupings in South Ossetia and Abkhazia as a means of destabilising the Tbilisi government and forcing it into compliance.

The plan worked, creating two so-called "frozen conflicts" on Georgian territory. Russia used these to place military forces on Georgian territory under the guise of "peacekeepers", to extend its influence. Since then, Russia has made little secret of its desire to annex the two breakaway regions, dismembering Georgia and undermining its independence. This strategy of "armed suasion" as the Russian defence establishment called it, was also used in the Transdniestrian region of Moldova, and Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan - two countries that showed unwillingness to bend to Moscow's will once they achieved independence.

This situation has become increasingly intolerable for Georgia over the past few years. In the Rose Revolution of 2003, its people removed the discredited Eduard Shevardnadze from power and replaced him with Mikheil Saakashvili. They gave him a mandate to reunify the country and to reorient its foreign policy away from Russia. Putin and his cabal of siloviki (former security-service apparatchiks) despise Saakashvili and, as a result, have spent the last five years attempting to secure his downfall, and to end Georgian defiance.

The recognition of Kosovan independence by the West earlier this year convinced the Kremlin to increase the tempo of its plans for Georgia. The Russians began taking steps towards recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence as well as increasing economic and military aid. It issued Russian passports and citizenship in both regions in preparation for formal annexation and, as we now know, as a cynical means of manufacturing a casus belli. Over the past few months, Russian fighters have invaded Georgian airspace, destroyed Georgian reconnaissance drones and dropped dummy bombs in an attempt to provoke a Georgian response.

In the week leading up the invasion, South Ossetian forces, backed by Russia, initiated a "sniper war" against Georgia, firing on its towns with mortars and small arms. A unilateral ceasefire declared by Saakashvili on the night of August 7th was ignored by the other side. Faced with few other options to defend his country and its citizens, Saakashvili made the fateful decision to invade. He was foolish to walk into an obvious Russian trap. This raises questions about his leadership, but he faced a Russian act of aggression.

If all this was not enough to serve as proof of Russia's intentions, the conduct of the war should be. Russian forces have moved well beyond the original conflict zone, opening a second front in Abkhazia and moving into Georgia proper. They have initiated a de facto naval blockade and invaded the strategic towns of Poti and Gori. They have demanded effective annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as the price of peace. They plan to remove Georgia's legitimate government and again make it a vassal state. While Russia has made bloodcurdling claims of Georgian war crimes, the only independent investigation at time of writing (by Human Rights Watch) has found evidence only of ethnic cleansing of Georgian villages in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and of Russian use of cluster munitions against Georgian civilians. Russia has poured hundreds, if not thousands, of irregulars, modern-day Black and Tans, into Georgia to spread terror and chaos.

Finally, Russia has inserted into Georgian territory two SS-21 "Scarab" short-range missile launchers. The only possible use for these in a conflict of this type is for delivery of tactical nuclear weapons. They are Russia's insurance policy, deterring those who would come to Georgia's aid to prevent it being torn asunder by the Kremlin's war machine.

This was a calculated, deliberate war of aggression initiated by Moscow. Russia's actions over the past week were designed to demonstrate to its other former dominions that dissent will not be tolerated, that those who do not accept Russian glavniy (such as Ukraine or the Baltic states) will suffer a similar fate. While formulating its response, Europe would do well to remember that.

Daragh McDowell is a doctoral student researching post-Soviet foreign policy at the University of Oxford. He blogs at www.armthepeasants.blogspot.com

Georgia launched a sneak attack on South Ossetia while the world watched the Olympics opening ceremony, writes Seamus Martin

NO:THE PEOPLE who gave you "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction" now want you to believe in "Russia's invasion of Georgia" and "Moscow's disregard of the ceasefire agreement". It has emerged, however, that Russian troops are patrolling parts of Georgia proper as part of the six-point agreement brokered by France.

Having let down its Georgian friends in the real war, the US and its Nato allies have now offered the Georgians the silver medal of a propaganda victory. The Russians have already taken gold.

Let's look at some facts. Georgia, under the presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili, launched a sneak attack on the disputed region of South Ossetia while the attention of the world was on the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing. The western media woke up later that day and reported the Russian response but ignored the initial massive escalation from the Georgian side.

Russia replied vigorously in the way the United States would if its citizens and soldiers had come under the same sort of aggression. The Georgians were routed. The propaganda war began shortly after Georgia lost the real war. On Monday, August 11th, we were bombarded with official statements from Tbilisi, all of which were untrue.

The most serious was that Russia had deliberately targeted civilians in the town of Gori. Just a few kilometres from South Ossetia, Gori had been the main staging point for the Georgian attack. Russia targeted military positions there using conventional means and a small number of cruise missiles. Some apartment buildings were accidentally hit and civilians were killed. In war, terrible things such as this can happen. Ask the staff of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade or the surviving journalists from the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad.

We are now being told that Russia is breaking the ceasefire agreement by posting troops outside South Ossetia. If you read the agreement, you will see that this too is open to question.

Point number five of the six-point agreement brokered by France, while calling on Russia to "withdraw to the lines prior to the start of hostilities" also allowed Russia, "while awaiting an international mechanism", to "implement additional security measures".

On seeing this proposal, the Georgians immediately recognised it as allowing Russia to patrol the main highway from Tbilisi to the west. Negotiating from a position of weakness due to the calamitous and botched intervention by Mr Saakashvili, they tried to limit Russian activity to a six-month period. They failed. Full details of this can be found in the New York Times of August 13th under the headline "Peace Plan Offers Russia Rationale to Advance".

Until the Georgian attack of August 8th, despite constant skirmishing over the years, the South Ossetia question had settled into what is known in diplomatic circles as a "frozen conflict". With the full-scale Georgian attack, a very delicate equilibrium was upset. The frozen conflict became a hot war. The indigenous people of North and South Ossetia who had suffered the massacre of their schoolchildren in Beslan now saw their southern regional capital in ruins.

I hold no brief for Russia or its leaders. In my time as a staff correspondent for this newspaper in the countries of the former Soviet Union, I have been critical of many of Russia's actions, including conduct of the two wars in Chechnya. I have been in the Caucasus on numerous occasions, in Georgia itself and in its other "frozen conflict" area of Abkhazia. I know the place I am writing about and I like the warm, friendly Georgian people. They deserve better than this.

My most recent visit to Georgia earlier this year was as an international observer at the presidential elections. I am not permitted to write about my own experiences in that election. I can, however, quote from the report on the election by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. It is in the public domain for anyone who wants to study it in full at www.osce.org/odihr-elections/14207.html

I raise this to bring some clarity to the suggestions that Mr Saakashvili is totally committed to western-style democracy. The report verifies instances of intimidation of members of the public service and the democratic opposition, suggests that Mr Saakashvili used state resources in his election campaign and is critical of vote-count and tabulation procedures, as well as the complaints and appeals process. The election was forced by the country's democratic opposition following demonstrations on the streets of Tbilisi that were brutally put down by Mr Saakashvili's special police.

Nato should be wary of admitting a country that has not completely committed itself to democracy and is prone to military adventures. The Atlantic Alliance is well equipped with lethal weaponry. The last thing it needs is a loose cannon.

Séamus Martin is the retired International editor of The Irish Times. His memoir Good Times and Bad was published earlier this year