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No Georgian Kekkonens In Sight

August 12, 2008

 `Poor Georgia, So Far From God, So Close To Russia?’

Finland is far afield from Georgia (the country with Tblisi as capitol, not the state where Atlanta and Savannah reside). But in the sense that it has had to deal with a powerful Russian neighbor, Helsinki – along with all of Russia’s smaller neighbors – shares a common dilemma: how to survive in the shadow of its more powerful and oft overbearing neighbor. Such dilemmas face many nations in different parts of the world. Many Caribbean and Central American countries face a similar predicament visa their neighbor to the north. And thus the wonderful quote by 19th century Mexican president Juarez that goes `Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States’. I wonder if there is a Georgian equivalent concerning Russia? And if not, there should be.

The problem that Georgia (or Finland or Estonia or Poland) face with Russia is not new: how to manage to maintain their independence in the shadow of `the giant’. The way it has often been done is to pit another giant against the Russian one – be it the UK, Germany or since World War II, the USA. During World War II, Finland, while not a fascist country at the time, first bet on Germany – Nazi Germany that is – to counter a genuine Soviet threat to their independence. Although the Finns don’t particularly like talking about it, even 65 years later, they were allied with the Nazis and participated with them in the siege of Leningrad that left a million and a half Russians dead of cold and starvation.

Then two (not so) little events transpired that gave the Finns pause to reconsider: the Soviet victory at Stalingrad and the greatest tank battle of all time at Kursk which the Soviets also won..

Understanding that their fate was in the balance – the Finnish leadership made a hasty but historic shift in policy. A delegation went to Moscow, it ate crow in front of Stalin himself who demanded many things, among them Finnish territory, reparations, post war Soviet military bases and the Finnish commitment to expel the Nazis from Finland north of the Arctic Circle. If you think that Finland got a raw deal, think again. Compare its fate with its neighbors across the Baltic – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -. Finland came out of World War II an independent country and one that greatly benefitted both politically and economically from its pledge of neutrality in the cold war.

Learning From Finland

The lesson – and the political strategy that ensued – was simple: that while remaining a western capitalist country Finland would not enter into any military or security alliances that could be considered anti-Soviet, that the country would not be used as a launching pad for anti-Soviet economic and political subversion. The architects of this policy were two politically conservative to-centrist Finns, Juho Kusti Paasakivi and Urho Kekkonen and their approach to the Cold War of active neutrality was referred to as the Paasakivi-Kekkonen line.

It worked to an extraordinary degree. From what I can tell, the line – now geared to Russia in the wake of the collapse of the USSR and Soviet communism – more or less continues. It has been nothing short of the political key to Finland’s security and economic success. Although a virtual unknown here in the United States, when Kekkonen died in December of 1986, by then already mentally decimated by Alzheimers’ or something akin to it, there was hardly a Finnish household – left, right or center – where the tears didn’t flow. And for good reason. An original political genius, he and Paasakivi before him had steered his country through some of the roughest political waters imaginable. And the result, with its security situation stabilized, Finland – where my family and I lived for nearly five years in the late 1980s – made impressive progress on the economic, political and human levels.

`A Parasite Country Look for A New Host Country To Bleed’

It seems that Georgia could learn a great deal from Finland’s example, but apparently it has not. In the past decade it has tied its fate economically and militarily to the United States – and its key Middle Eastern partner, Israel. A well connected friend of mine put Georgia’s post Soviet dilemma rather tartly referring to Russia’s southern neighbor in the Caucuses as `a parasite nation looking for a new host country to bleed’. With yet another one of these Harvard educated neoliberal-pickled presidents in Mikheil Saakashvili there should be no great surprise that Georgia cannot run fast enough into Bush’s embrace

Could it have been that Georgia was encouraged in this recent military adventure – there is no question that it is Georgia that started the fighting – by the United States? (for credible reinforcement of this hypothesis, click here) Not clear at this point although the facts are leaning in that direction. It is possible that Bush, and particularly Cheney, unable to attack Iran, were looking to provoke a war elsewhere in the region to strengthen McCain’s chances of winning the presidency? But our Vice President, with his stellar record on human rights and peace making wouldn’t do such a thing, would he? Keep in mind that the statements from his office as the war started were easily the most bellicose coming out of Washington, as if he wanted to see the war expanded behind its lilmited nature.

What is certain is that strong military ties between Tblisi, Washington and Tel Aviv exist. What would Washington get out of encouraging such a provocation? One thing, the Bush Administration could gauge just how far Russia could be pushed before it responded militarily and if it responded, to what extent. Georgia takes all the risks, the US and Israel gain strategic insights and lose little. (Actually the US did lose political ground as result of this spat).

A slight hint of the US role has already surfaced – Russian criticism of U.S. transport planes moving Georgian troops from Iraq to Tblisi to participate in the fighting. In so doing the U.S. was not exactly playing a neutral role. There is other information for anyone serious enough to check it out. Officially, on the military front, according to the Pentagon there are 127 U.S. military `consultants’ training the Georgian army, among them about 35 who are civilian `Blackwater’ type contractors.

According to Shagra Elam `in addition to the trainers, 1000 (US) soldiers from Vicenza, the Italy-based Southern European Task Force along with US Marine reservists from the 25th Marine Battalion out of Ohio and elements of the Georgia National Guard recently participated in what was called `Immediate Response 2008′ near Tblisi. `Operation Immediate Response’ was held from July 15-30 with U.S personnel training about 600 troops at a former Soviet base. The goal of this operation was allegedly teaching combat skills for Georgian missions in Iraq.

Then there are hundreds of Israeli military advisors in the country as well. Again, according to Shraga, an Israeli website known for its publication of conspiracy theories, DebkaFile, believes that over 1000 Israelis were involved in the Georgian military action which provoked the pronounced Russian response. As Shraga notes `this conclusion [that Israel was intimately involved in the Georgian military action] sounds plausible. Other sources point to similar links between the United States and Israel militaries and the current Georgian administration. Furthermore keep in mind that in the age of George Bush II that the US military (and intelligence agencies) often acts without the knowledge or premission of the State Department.

At US Bidding (?) Georgia Jabs, Russia Strikes Back Harder

Although it appears that the fighting between Russian and Georgian troops over South Ossetia and Abkhazia has died down after 4-5 days, it was not before several thousand people lost their lives, and a number of Georgian cities and towns were bombed from the air by Russian jets, causing a national and human panic.

An email from a former Georgian student to friends at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies where I teach, gives a glimpse of the horror of war of a small country like Georgia having to stand up to its more powerful neighbor and often colonizer.

“They are putting bases mainly at Georgian military and police stations. Streets of captured towns (especially in conflict zones) are full with Russian tanks. At this moment they are not attacking population directly. Though the clashes and air bombing of previous days caused significant civilian and well as military casualties. The numbers are difficult to verify so far. ”

“What can I say… it is terrible! No one would imagine Russia going so far in its aggressive politics on Caucasus. International community’s incapability to stop Russian aggression is just astonishing and frustrating. It is just blatant invasion in sovereign country far from any logic and morale. We’ve suffered the same from Russians already in 1921 and after collapse of USSR in 90ies. This has been a second war in my country affecting me personally as some of you know (I’m an international displaced person from from Abkhazia A/R). I’m just feeling frustration and anger and can’t help it.”

Washington and Tel Aviv Should Have Known Better…

While there is some truth to the picture painted above, unfortunately, there is much left out as well.

The biggest gap in the scenario is – once again – the U.S. media’s failure to point out that Russian troops entered Southern Ossetia in response to a major Georgian military invasion of the region. Hoping to use the Peking Olympics as a diversion of the world’s attention, Georgian President Saakashvili ordered a major offensive to reclaim Southern Ossetia, which has been since 1992 in a special situation in which formal Georgian sovereignty is acknowledged but with Russian military forces in place as peace keepers.

Saakashvili ordered nothing short of a full scale invasion of the region and Georgian military marched on the S. Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. There were reports of outright massacres of Ossetians by the Georgian forces with the number of civilian dead exceeding 2000 by some reports. The impression the media gives is that these are mostly Russians living in S. Ossetia. In fact there are very few Russians living in this area, most of the victims being of Ossetian (it is a separate ethnic group with its own history) ethnic origin. The Russians intervened – certainly for strategic reasons – but also to stop this bloodbath. Even the Financial Times (8/12, 8/13, 2008) admits that this description of the evolution of events is accurate (although the number of civilian victims remains unclear). So it wasn’t the Russians slaughtering Georgians that precipitated the crisis but the US-Israeli trained Georgian military that provoked the violence and engaged in what amounts to wholesale massacres.

Not that any of what follows can justify the Russian military offensive given Russian history as a colonial power in the region, but it is simply not accurate that Georgia was an innocent victim in all this. At the time of the Russian offensive, Georgian troops had initiated series of military forays into South Ossetia and Abkhazia – both formally a part of Georgia, but both with sizable Russian populations with secessionist movements.

Further, given the sizeable US (and Israeli) military missions in Georgia, it is highly unlikely that the attempted Georgian military offensive to which the Russians responded (even the Financial Times admits the Russians were provoked) which such force and brutality undertook these actions without the knowledge and approval of both Washington and Tel Aviv.

It is not only unlikely but virtually impossible that the United States and Israel were not involved in the Georgian military offensive against Russian positions in South Ossetia. Such things – taking military action against Russia – simply do not happen `by themselves’. It does not ring true that a country as small and fragile as Georgia would take such dramatic military action without first `consulting’ and `getting permission’.

What Bush and Olmert did not anticipate was the powerful Russian military response.

But they should have.

It has been quite clear for some time now that the Georgian government of Mikheil Saakashvili has been moving as far away from Russia and as close to the United States as possible. Georgia has opened itself up to a significant US military and economic penetration that sooner or later was bound to provoke a strong Russian reaction. In a way, Georgia finds itself in the same situation as many other Russian neighbors – fearing Russian territorial desires and looking for some kind of international lever that might be used to counter Russian influence.

The tensions between Russia and Georgia are also geo-political in nature involving the United States which has set up a ring of military bases around Russia, not unlike that which existed during the Cold War, except now the bases are even closer to the Russian heartland than during the Soviet era. To no avail, Russia has been warning Europe and the United States for some time, that the Western military perimeter surrounding Russia had been pushed to the limit.

NATO Goes Over The Edge

The turning point for the Russians appears to have been the April, 2008 NATO meeting where it was decided that sooner or later, Georgia would be let into the US dominated Cold War dinosaur.

Many question why it is that in the post Cold War era, such an alliance – which obviously targets Russia despite claims to the contrary – is necessary. With the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact alliance in Eastern Europe, the rationale for NATO’s existence – other than to enhance US political leverage in Central Europe – has evaporated. And from the outset of the post Cold War era, Russia has repeated asked, `why NATO’ and has hardly gotten satisfactory responses. The dismantling of Yugoslavia and the more recent recognition of Kosovo independence – which Russian concerns were simply brushed aside – only strengthened Russian suspicions And so Moscow `drew the line’ in Southern Ossetia.

To heap on the insults, now the United States is planning to put anti-ballistic missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic, arguing unconvincingly that it is to defend those countries from a possible Iranian attack. Imagine! The Russians do not feel any safer having US missiles closer to their borders. The U.S. insists – but no one in the region believes – that the missiles are not targeting Russia. The US efforts to build an oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea to Turkey, though Georgia bypassing Russian territory only added to Russia suspicions.

As a number of commentators suggest, the Russian military offensive was essentially a warning shot not only to Georgia but also to the Ukraine who would also like to join the alliance. The promise of Georgian NATO member comes late in the game as many other Eastern European countries have joined the alliance. Russia has looked nervously on as a slew of its former allies or – or member nations of the now defunct USSR – have joined NATO, among them Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Russian Claims, Russian Gains

Russian claims that its show of force in Georgia was necessary to restore order and defend Ossetian locals are hard to take serious as are the assertions that the military offensive was essentially a humanitarian mission aimed at preventing ethnic cleansing (of ethnic Russians) and even `genocide’. Please. It rings as hollow as Bush talking about invading Iraq to install democracy.

What is at play instead is the battle of the two doctrines pushing against each other like tectonic plates – the Brezhnev Doctrine as it was called, in which first the USSR and now Russia give themselves the right to intervene militarily in countries beyond their borders when they see their interests threatened, and the Carter-Reagan-Bush Doctrines which give the United States the right to declare any piece of property anywhere in the world as a strategic asset that the US has the right to defend by pre-emptive war.

While I don’t think that World War III will start over the crisis in Georgia – this conflict, combined with usual jingoistic stupidities coming out of Washington both from Cheney and McCain – raise the specter of a much larger confrontation. It’s one thing to `bring on Al Qaeda’ quite another to challenge the Russians – in their own back yard so to speak – in the same reckless manner.

My initial sense is that Russia soundly won this round – at the price of a lot of innocent lives. It’s military penetration was short and devastating, setting in motion a whole series of political consequences all of which are not entirely clear but which include the following:
This military offensive `sends a message’. Actually it sends a slew of messages at once. Among them that
– it is an attempt to re-establish Russia’s political authority in the Caucasus after nearly two decades of slippage, especially to the United States
– it is a Russian attempt to implement Bush Administration policies of `regime change’ in Georgia. Moscow wants Saakashvili out and a more Moscow friendly leadership to emerge in Georgia
– it sends a clear message to the Ukraine that it should not consider joining NATO.
– Russia will not hesitate to use force to reverse what it considers to be the strategic strangulation by the United States and Europe, even if it means a military confrontation with the United States. They have had enough shoved down their throats.
– it exposes the Bush Administration as incapable of controlling or saving its allies..
– and it just might be a warning to the United States and its European allies whose naval armada continues to grow in the Persian Gulf that a US and or Israeli attack on Iran might not be taken lightly. The ante for such a plan has just been upped considerably.

The pre-emptive bobsy twins can no longer make their military plans in the Middle East region with impunity. Russia has – in its own cruel way – made it clear that it too is a player.

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