Archive for August, 2008

Recognition of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia

Wednesday, August 27th, 2008

I’m cognizant of the danger of sounding like a broken record, but Kosovo KEEPS COMING BACK.  It’s like the villain in a bad horror movie.

Two quick points on the recognition of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia.

First, is there a clear difference of principle between the recognition of Kosovo and the recognition of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia?  All are small, barely viable, land-locked (Kosovo and S. Ossetia at least), all have outstanding territorial and ethnic disputes, all have been the victims and the victimizers in those ethnic disputes, all have a great power patron, all have their independence opposed by a great power, all have terrible problems with organized crime linked to the state.

And all are seceding / seceded from an imperfect democracy.  Yeah, the Kosovo War happened with Milosevic in power, but when the US recognized Kosovo independence, Milosevic was dead and Serbia was a democracy.  Indeed, the declaration was postponed to avoid affecting the Serbian presidential election.

Is there something I’m missing?

Second, I’m disturbed by the poor quality of the thinking on the part of the Bush administration.  I’m loath to say this, because I do not want this to sound partisan, and I’ve been critical of Clinton administration actions as well.  Nonetheless, when Condoleezza Rice describes the Russian recognition as “dead on arrival in the Security Council” thanks to the American veto, my response is “No kidding.  Just like Kosovo independence was, thanks to the Russian veto.”  That’s empty posturing, devoid of content and devoid of any serious thinking about how to get out of this mess that Saakashvili, Putin, Medvedev, and, yes, the leadership of the West, have gotten us into.

Denial of Service

Tuesday, August 12th, 2008

Remember my speculation about cyberattacks on Georgia? Turns out it did in fact happen.

Ossetia: The Search for Analogies

Tuesday, August 12th, 2008

Mark Grimsley has a piece on his search for historical analogies to the war in Ossetia. I’ve been having trouble coming up with one, and I think one of the key facts about this conflict is the reason. The important point here, and the flaw with the Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan references, is that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili started this war. Sure, there were constant skirmishes and sniping and banditry, but this is the Caucasus. Saakashvili escalated the conflict by a major military effort to exert control over South Ossetia, and he knew he was escalating it–witness the Georgian references (before everything went south) to “restoring constitutional order in South Ossetia.” There have been references in the press coverage to the Bush administration having to dissuade Saakashvili from war previously–something clearly went wrong this time.

And that’s the reason why I have trouble coming up with analogies here. Great Powers smack around their smaller neighbors all the time, sometimes successfully, sometimes not (Soviets in Afghanistan, China in Vietnam) But smaller neighbors very seldom yank the chains of their Great Power neighbors, for the obvious reason that it’s world-record-class stupidity. The closest I can come, and I admit it’s not perfect, is Kosovo: Milosevic clearly believed he could act with impunity in Kosovo, despite a clearly stated American position that he needed to reach a political settlement there, and found out he was wrong. As a British commentator put it, Saakashvili is no Milosevic. Still, that’s as close as I can get.

Blowback in South Ossetia

Monday, August 11th, 2008

I’ve written a more formal version of my previous posting on South Ossetia for the History News Network, and I’ve copied it in below:

Roundup: Historians’ Take

David R. Stone: Blowback in South Ossetia

Source: Special to HNN (8-11-08)

[Dr. David R. Stone is a professor of history at Kansas State University.]

There is a great deal of blame to go around for the disastrous war over South Ossetia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili deserves the greatest share, for starting a war to reassert control over South Ossetia that Russia can now finish on its own terms. The Russian government, with former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the lead, has cynically taken the conflict Saakashvili began as a golden opportunity to flex its muscles, make Georgia an object lesson for the rest of Russia’s neighbors, rally Russian voters, and tighten its grip on Georgia’s breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

But in a classic example of blowback, past American policy also bears some responsibility for the mess in the Caucasus. While American training and equipment, intended to make Georgia a partner in the war on terror and future member of NATO, made Saakashvili overconfident in his ability to seize South Ossetia quickly and easily, the problem goes back further than that. However good American motivations were in Kosovo, the breakaway region of the former Yugoslavia, its actions there handed Russia what it needed to take full advantage of the crisis Georgia created. Violating Yugoslavia’s sovereignty—its right to be left alone—and its territorial integrity—its right to keep itself intact—has come back to breed war in Georgia.

The Clinton administration took a fateful step in March 1999 when it led NATO into war with Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia to protect the Albanians of Kosovo. Milosevic’s treatment of his Albanian minority in Kosovo was brutal, but the world is filled with brutal regimes. The Clinton administration justified interference against this particular brutal regime on the grounds that Milosevic’s policies were so murderous, and the flood of Albanian refugees fleeing state terror so overwhelming, that they negated Yugoslavia’s right to be left alone.

After NATO’s bombing campaign won automony for Kosovo, the Kosovar Albanians ran their own government under NATO protection, and lacked only formal legal status as an independent state. They achieved that in February 2008, when Kosovo’s parliament formally declared its independence, and was quickly recognized by the Bush administration, the United Kingdom, Germany, and a host of other Western nations. Though the population of Serbia—what is left of the former Yugoslavia—was overwhelmingly opposed to Kosovo’s formal separation, the United States came down firmly in favor of an embittered ethnic minority’s right to break free.

Kosovo established two precedents. First, governments violating norms of civilized conduct can find themselves under military attack. Second, ethnic minorities can claim and win independence, even if ethnic majorities want to keep them under control. Both those principles sound right and just. Who could be against them?

But we now see the consequences of those principles. Russia has long been furious over the West’s backing of Kosovo’s Albanians against first Yugoslavia and now Serbia. Too weak to do anything about NATO’s war in 1999, a much stronger Russia is now delighted to turn these arguments around against an American ally. The leadership of South Ossetia has appealed specifically to the precedent of Kosovo. Sergei Shamba, Foreign Minister of Georgia’s other breakaway region of Abkhazia, uses Kosovo to justify his own government’s ongoing preparations for military action.

The Russian government has taken the precise arguments America used for defending Kosovo against the Serbs and is now employing them to justify defending South Ossetia against the Georgians. The Clinton administration held that Slobodan Milosevic’s policies of ethnic cleansing and the humanitarian crisis they created meant that war was necessary, including bombing of Milosevic’s military machine and infrastructure far outside Kosovo itself. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accuses Georgia of ethnic cleansing, while Vladimir Putin describes Georgia’s actions as genocide, and repeatedly referred to tens of thousands of Ossetian refugees fleeing into Russia.

Whether Russian accusations are accurate is impossible to tell, given how hard it is to get objective information from a war zone. But true or not, while the fighting rages the precedent America set in Kosovo gives Putin and the Russian government a wonderful tool to mobilize Russian public opinion behind this war. It allows Russia to accuse the United States of hypocrisy, especially effective when American credibility is already in question in much of the world.

The collapse of communism created dozens of Kosovos and Ossetias, where boundaries on the map don’t match ethnic identities. Trying to fix that by redrawing borders as the United States did in Kosovo, however well-intended, only opens to the door to a host of conflicts elsewhere. Russian-American relations are at a low not seen since the end of the Cold War. Changing that will require both sides to recognize that ethnic separatism is too dangerous a game for anyone to play.

What was Saakashvili thinking? Perhaps Croatia . . .

Saturday, August 9th, 2008

Many precedents have been invoked over South Ossetia: I’ve noted the pernicious influence of Kosovo; others have raised Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan.

I’d like to look instead at the precedent for what Georgian President Saakashvili wanted to happen, not what he’s ended up with: Croatia’s August 1995 Operation Storm.

Using military forces trained and supplied by the West, the Croats attacked the Serbian Krajina, a non-recognized, ethnic-separatist pseudo-state on Croatia’s sovereign territory. In two days, the Croats ended all resistance and reincorporated the Krajina into Croatia. Along the way, a big chunk of the Serbs of the Krajina fled.

This is pretty clearly what the Georgian government intended, as witnessed by the proclaimed goal of restoring “constitutional order” in South Ossetia. The difference, of course, is that Croatia succeeded where Georgia, barring a radical change in circumstances on the ground, failed. We’ll have to wait to get a sense of why that failure took place on tactical and operational grounds, but the overarching reason is Russia. In 1995, Russia was in no position, politically, militarily, or even geographically, to bring pressure to bear to protect the Serbs. In 2008, everything is different–the price of oil and America’s overcommitment elsewhere, to name two.

The result for Saakashvili is utter disaster. It’s tough for me to imagine circumstances under which the Russian troops now in South Ossetia will ever leave, and certainly not under any terms that Saakashvili would find acceptable.

As for that operational and tactical question–why Georgia wasn’t able to take South Ossetia despite the much vaunted American effort to build up the Georgian military–I don’t think we have anywhere near enough information to get a definitive answer. In my last post, I mentioned how the Chechen wars revealed the vulnerability of armored vehicles in urban environments to even irregular forces with rocket-propelled grenades. That seems to have happened here. In Croatia, however, the Serbian Krajina was mostly rural, avoiding much of the problem, and the Russian Army in Chechnya went through much of the Chechen countryside without a problem until running into a buzzsaw in the city of Groznyi. It looks here like the Georgians went straight for Tskhinvali, and that may have been the problem. They didn’t much choice–the geography of South Ossetia, with Tskhinvali on its very southern border, doesn’t present a lot of other options.