Blowback in South Ossetia

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.

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