Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

Hypocrisy or Unknown Principles

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]Hostilities between a small government on the border of a regional power turn into full-fledged war after the smaller power lobs a few military weapons endangering civilians and escalating the conflict into open warfare and violations of territorial sovereignty by the regional power. Both sides are generally considered responsible for increasing tensions with proactive actions in the extensive lead-up to the war. Both sides are accused of committing atrocities and killing or harming civilians during the war.

This description in broad strokes describes both the most recent flare-up of the Israeli-Hamas conflict and August war between Russia and Georgia.

Yet those on the left have tended to favor the regional power in the case of the Russian-Georgian conflict and to oppose the regional power in the Israeli-Hamas conflict. My impression is that while a majority of those on the left have no strong opinion on these issues, seeing each as complicated and unfortunate, a very prominent minority on the left have strongly favored Russia and opposed Israel. Looking at the conflicts and the issues themselves, it’s hard for me to find a single convincing reason that is not America-centric.

The American political establishment has tended to favor Georgia – as it is a liberal democracy on the border of a major competing power. Similarly, the American political establishment has tended to favor Israel as it is a liberal democracy in the midst of a region full of autocracies (as well as for domestic political reasons.) Both countries have been considered strong allies of America and have strong military support from America.

Yet aside from these facts, the circumstances surrounding their most recent wars and their history with their neighbors are very different:

Few would dispute that Hamas is a terrorist organization with a political branch that was elected in a relatively free election. Hamas refuses to recognize the right of it’s neighboring state to exist, accusing the Israel of driving it’s people from their homes over fifty years ago in the mass migration that resulted from the 1948 war for Palestine in which nearly 950 thousand Jews were expelled from or fled neighboring Arab countries and in which 750 thousand Palestinians were pushed out of areas controlled by Israel.

The United National Movement Party is a somewhat nationalist political party elected in a free election which refused to recognize the right of nearby disputed territories to be independent or to join neighboring Russia.  Many ethnic Georgians were driven from their homes in Abhkazia and South Ossetia nearly twenty years ago in ethnic hostilities. For example less than twenty years ago, nearly half of the residents of Abhkazia were ethnic Georgians. Over 80% of that population was driven out of Abhkazia or killed in ethnic hostilities in the early 1990s. After this ethnic cleansing of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – and ethnic Georgians were not blameless in this – a majority of the remaining inhabitants of these two traditional parts of Georgia sought protection from an international peacekeeping force and eventually, to ally themselves with and perhaps join the Russian Federation.

Israel is the strongest single power in the region but has been attacked by many of it’s neighbors since it’s existence. It is a democracy in an autocratic region. The descendants of  the former occupants of Israel’s land demand the right to return to the homeland of their parents or grandparents, and the official government of the Palestinians has often embraced suicide terrorism and attacks on civilians in order to achieve it’s goals. Israel has been granting the Palestinians some measures of autonomy but is still very wary of the security threat that exists.

Russia is a regional power with great power aspirations that has turned away from an open democracy in recent years in favor of some form of either tyranny or oligopoly. It has long supported the separatists in the disputed regions of Georgia in their bid to win independence. There has been growing concern in Russia that America’s support for Georgia was an attempt to check Russia’s regional influence. Georgia’s push to join NATO only deepened their concern – especially as Abhkazia has strategic importance to Russia due to an oil pipeline being constructed there.

So what am I missing here? Both Russia’s and Israel’s offenses hurt civilians as well as more legitimate targets. Both over-matched their opponents significantly. Both were in measure provoked (although both Georgians and Hamas believe they were the ones provoked.)

If anything, Hamas’ explicit embrace of terrorism should count against it. The fact that Israel is a democracy that faces an imminent security threat from the Palestinians – and especially Hamas, which is officially dedicated to Israel’s destruction – and has been attacked by Hamas and other Palestinian forces in the recent past would seem to partially explicate Israel’s actions, even if one considers them overreactions.

At the same time, Russia violated an international boundary when it was not facing an imminent threat. It has not been attacked by Georgia in the recent past if ever.

I think it’s probably true that most political convictions are based more on intuition than reason – but can anyone enlighten me as to a good reason to oppose Israel’s attacks on Hamas and to support Russia’s attacks on Georgia?

A Timeline of the Russian-Georgian War

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]I’ve refrained from writing about the Georgia crisis until now, because although I have had an interest in Russia, and had been sensing a growing wariness about Russia among the rarified field of foreign policy experts, I did not have an immediate sense of what was going on in that conflict.

Although it was clear that Russia was increasingly attempting to dominate it’s near-abroad, the timing of the conflict seemed to indicate that it was Georgian President Saakashvili who had most to gain.

In my discussions with others about the matter, there seems to be a great deal of confusion – and narratives and counter-narratives driven by propaganda have dominated these discussions.  So, as a preliminary step, and for backwards refences, I am constructing here a timeline of events and a list of the players.

try here The Players

order proscar Georgia has been part of various Russian empires since the 1800s. After Communists took over in 1917, Georgia declared independence. By 1921, the Soviet Union had attacked and subjugated it again. As the Soviet Union began to crumble in 1989, Georgia again began to push for independence. This led to the massacre of Georgian citizens by the Soviet army at an unauthorized but peaceful demonstration. By 1991, Georgia was again independent. But ethnic tensions soon led to two civil wars taking place – with Russians supporting the forces that opposed the central Georgian government in both places.

One of the civil wars took place in Abkhazia, where Russian supported the minority Abhkaz who sought to ethnically cleanse their part of the country. A 1989 census reveals that just under half of the country’s population was ethnically Georgian (239,872) and under 20% was Abkhaz (93,267). Fourteen years later, The Abkhaz made up over 40% of the population with only a small rise in total population (94,606) while ethnic Georgians now accounted for just over 20% of the population (45,952). The Georgian population in Abkazia decreased by almost 200,000 over this time. Of course, these statistics do not tell the entire story. The Abkhaz minority had opposed the Georgian attempt to achieve indedependence from Russia and both sides had used ethnicly directed violence in the civil war in the early 1990s. See the Human Rights Watch report on the conflict. (PDF). Russian peacekeepers have been deployed in Abkhazia since the end of the violence.

The other Georgian civil war took place in South Ossetia. South Ossetia has been considered part of Georgia for some time – and was incorporated into the Russian empire as part of Georgia in 1801, and was part of Georgia when it declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1917 and 1991. However, in both instances, the South Ossetians opposed breaking from the Soviet Union – and took up arms with the support of the Russians against the central Georgian government.  The Soviet Union’s most prominent leader, Josef Stalin, was, in fact, from the country of Georgia, and an ethnic Ossetian. When Georgia declared independence, the South Ossetians opposed this and boycotted elections. After Georgia established it’s independence, a civil war broke out with some 25,000 ethnic Georgians fleeing the region with ethnic violence being used by both sides. By 1992, a peacekeeping force led by the Russians, but including both Ossetians and Georgians was able to enforce a peace agreement. There was relative peace in South Ossetia until 2004 when tensions began to mount. The Russians had continued to build up their peacekeeping force in the region, and had been supplying the South Ossetian army with large caches of weapons. They had allowed free reign to various criminal gangs operating out of South Ossetia (including one that attempted to sell nuclear materials to a joint US/Georgian sting operation.)

Russia considered the American alliance with Georgia (as well as American alliances with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuiania, Ukraine, Poland, Kazakhstan, and other former Soviet colonies) to be a regional challenge to Russian dominance. When America and Europe recognized the independence of Kosovo (a part of Serbia, a traditional ally of Russia), Putin declared that he would begin to push for independence for the two disputed regions in Georgia. Russia – with it’s peacekeepers in each region and supply of arms to local militias and militaries – already exercised de facto control over these regions. Moreover, inundated with a mountain of cash from it’s sale of oil and natural gas, Russia has begun to act more assertively in international affairs.

America saw the small democracy of Georgia as a natural ally. America supplied arms and training to the Georgia military. Since the Rose Revolution of 2003 in which the current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, took power, America has grown closer to Georgia and recently pushed it’s membership in NATO. Aside from it’s democracy, Georgia is also seen as useful from the American perspective because it can be used as a counter to increasing Russian influence in the region.

A Timeline

From 2004 to 2008, tensions between Russia and Georgia mount.

  • The Ukranian Orange Revolution and the Georgian Rose Revolution, both of which involved attempts to steal elections by the more pro-Russian force being turned back by peaceful and mass demonstrations of the public, take place. Russia is not happy.
  • The Russian government accused the Georgians of supporting rebel Chechens in the Second Chechen war, though the evidence is inconclusive.
  • Russia also opposed Saakashvili’s efforts to crack down on seperatism in Georgia. Shortly after taking power in the Rose Revolution, Saakashvili began to pressure the autocratic leader of the independent region of Adjara to resign and allow the central government a greater role in the region. Under great pressure from internal demonstrations and international pressure, Adjara’s leader resigned and fled to Moscow before he was indicted on various charges of embezzlement, misuse of office, and murder. Adjara maintains it’s autonomous status, but is becoming further integrated into the Georgian polity. Russia had sided with Adjara’s leader during the conflict and had wanted to maintain a military base in the region. So this further escalated tensions. Russia is not happy.
  • Georgia began a military build-up in the regions outside of Abhkaz and South Ossetia. Russia continues to increase it’s peacekeeping force and to arm those opposed to the central Georgian government. Neither side is happy.
  • Georgia pushed for and America supported Georgia’s bid to become a member of NATO, a military alliance originally created to oppose the Soviet Union.  Russia is not happy.
  • Russia’s power and wealth is increasing as it has become Europe’s main source of natural gas and a major exporter of oil. Russia is happy and more powerful.

August 8, 2007: Georgia claimed that a Russian jet violated it’s airspace and fired a missile, which did not explode. American and European countries urged both countries to ratchet down the rhetoric.

In March 2008, things began to escalate. America recognized Kosovo as an independent nation. Kosovo was part of Serbia, a traditional Russian ally, and the Russian opposed the independence of Kosovo. Russia threatened to take steps to escalate the situation in South Ossetia and Abhkazia.

Later in March, Russia took diplomatic steps to further the process of recognizing these two regions as independent states.

In April 2008, the Georgian government accused the Russians of shooting down an unmanned drone in Georgian airspace. Russia denied this. A United Nations report later backs up the Georgian version of events. The rhetoric escalates on both sides as they both accuse the other of attempting to escalate the conflict.

May 2008 sees Russia inceasing it’s peacekeeping force in Abhkazia. Seperatists in Abhkazia claim to have shot down Georgian drones operating over Abhkazia. Georgia denied having any drones operating there. (The Georgians are probably lying about this.)

In July 2008, Russian fighter jets flew over South Ossetia, into Georgian airspace. Moscow claimed it violated Georgia’s territory in order to “cool heads” in Georgia’s capitol. Georgia withdrew it’s ambassador to Moscow in protest.

Meanwhile, mixed messages are being sent. The United States continued to express strong support of Georgia and Saakashvili in public and to caution him in private to avoid taking any steps to escalate the situation. At the same time, Russia’s peacekeepers are allowing various criminal gangs to operate out of South Ossetia, and periodic attacks by Ossetian seperatists into Georgia are overlooked.

August 1, 2008: Fighting between Georgian and South Ossetian forces breaks out. Georgia accuses the South Ossetians of shelling nearby Georgian villages. The seperatists deny this.

August 5, 2008: As ethnic South Ossetians begin to evacuate into Russia, the Russian ambassador declares that Russia will defend South Ossetia against Georgia.

August 7, 2008: Georgian President Saakashvili orders a ceasefire, but fighting still intensifies. Later in the day, in a televised address, he orders Georgian forces to remove what he calls the “criminal regime” in South Ossetia.

August 8, 2008: Russian troops storm South Ossetia with massive force pushing back the Georgians, and launching attacks deep into Georgia to entirely destroy it’s military infrastructure. Russia claims that Georgia had killed thousands of Ossetians in an effort to ethnically cleanse the region. Human Righs Watch is unable to find any evidence of this, finding only 45 civilian deaths in South Ossetia. However, they find massive evidence of ethnically motivated attacks on ethnic Georgian villages in South Ossetia and widespread looting by seperatists.

August 9, 2008: Russian-backed seperatists in Abkhazia launch an attack on the region still controlled by ethnic Georgians who wish to remain part of Georgia.

August 10, 2008: The Russians move SS-21 medium-range ballistic missile launchers into South Ossetia, weapons which could potentially be nuclear.

August 11, 2008: Russians deploy paratroopers in Abhkazia to raid Georgia proper.

August 13, 2008: Georgia withdraws all of it’s forces from the disputed territories. Despite a ceasefire order by the Kremlin, Russian forces occupy the country’s main highway and attacks the city of Gori, splitting the nation in two.

Human Rights Watch issues a report documenting the burning and looting of ethnic Georgian villages as well as the restraint of the Georgian army in South Ossetia.

August 15, 2008: Human Rights Watch reports that Russia used cluster bombs on the civilian population of Georgia.

August 16, 2008: Russians occupy the Georgian port city of Poti and several other strategic positions within the nation and advance within 34 miles of the Georgian capitol of Tblisi. The Associated Press reports that ethnic Georgians in South Ossetia have been drafted as forced laborers under guard by Russian and South Ossetian troops.

August 17, 2008: The Russian President Medvedev announces that Russian troops will begin to pull out of the undisputed territory of Georgia on Monday.

Edit: August 18, 2008: In a report meant to sum up the human rights violations in this conflict to date, Human Rights Watch reports that the Georgians’ used “indiscriminate force during their assault on Tskhinvali and neighboring villages on August 7-8, [caused] numerous civilian casualties and extensive destruction.” The report mainly describes:

Russian military’s use of indiscriminate force and its seemingly targeted attacks on civilians, including on a civilian convoy. The deliberate use of force against civilians or civilian objects is a war crime. Human Rights Watch has also confirmed the Russian military’s use of cluster bombs in two towns in Georgia.

Ian Traynor of Britain’s The Guardian and Michael Dobbs in the Washington Post each had insightful columns this weekend analyzing the conflict with clarity.

Dobbs summarizes the war:

Saakashvili’s decision to gamble everything on a lightning grab for Tskhinvali brings to mind the comment of the 19th-century French statesman Talleyrand: “It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake.”

Michael Walzer in the liberal Dissent magazine also has a good piece.

But the single most important insight came in a column by this blog’s nemesis, Paul Krugman, last Friday:

By itself, as I said, the war in Georgia isn’t that big a deal economically. But it does mark the end of the Pax Americana — the era in which the United States more or less maintained a monopoly on the use of military force. And that raises some real questions about the future of globalization. [My emphasis.]

A President for Our Dangerous Times

Monday, August 11th, 2008

[digg-reddit-me]In dangerous times, we cannot let the larger issues out of sight:

The day to day grind of this campaign – months and months of fights over demographics, over gaffes, over lobbyists, over media bias – has distracted most of us from the essential issues at stake.

The essential choice we face is whether or not our country is going in the right direction.

There is an economic component to this – which will rightfully take up much of the country’s attention in the next few months, and between McCain and Obama, the economic differences are stark.

Perhaps more important is the question of whether or not America should embrace it’s current role as an imperial power, as a neo-empire. McCain clearly accepts this view. One of his foreign policy advisors has explicitly accepted the American empire. Another McCain advisor explained how McCain is planning on creating a League of Democracies to destroy the United Nations and marginalize Russia, quite possibly provoking a new Cold War1 . McCain has said that withdrawing from Iraq – which is what the Iraqi prime minister is requesting of us – would be a surrender to our enemies. (He still doesn’t seem to have noticed that many of our enemies are warring amongst themselves – Sunni extremists, Shia extremists, Al Qaeda, Iranian factions.) At the same time, he has threatened war with Iran while claiming it is naive to consider meeting with any Iranian leaders. (McCain never mentions the candlelight vigils in Tehran after September 11 or Iran’s efforts to come to a comprehensive settlement of all issues between America and Iran immediatly afterwards that were ignored using the same justification McCain now uses to avoid dealing with Iran.) Instead, he jokes “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran…)

As Andrew Sullivan wrote:

After the last eight years, we simply cannot risk a continuation of the same reckless, belligerent, argument-losing, ideological and deceptive foreign policy of [the Bush administration.] From his knee-jerk Cold War posture over Georgia to his Rovian campaign tactics, McCain is simply too close to this disastrous record to contemplate… McCain’s trigger-happy temperament, shallow understanding of the complexities and passion for military force as the answer to everything is the bigger risk. He is a recipe for more, wider and far more destructive warfare.

As the conservative curmudgeon George Will explained, invoking Barack Obama’s historic candidacy as a marker:

[I]t illustrates history’s essential promise, which is not serenity – that progress is inevitable – but possibility, which is enough: Things have not always been as they are.

In other words, we can change. We were not always an empire, and we need not always be an empire. We were not always at war, and we do not need to remain at war. Barack Obama will not change anything overnight (we will not all be given bicycles) – because that is not the type of leader he is. He is not a revolutionary urging us to storm the barricades. He is an imperfect leader. He is a sensible pragmatist who believes we are in a unique moment in history in which we have an opportunity to establish meaningful changes by reforming our political, economic, and governmental processes.

The alternative is stark. While I have long been an admirer of John McCain – because he stood up to the President on torture, tax cuts, swiftboating, and global warming – he lost my vote some time ago. He has fought this campaign without honor – ever since his campaign went bankrupt and he began to repudiate every stand he took that hurt him with the Republican base (including on torture, tax cuts, and now apparently, swiftboating.)

In the end, as dire as our economic strength is, this election will be remembered as the the moment when America decided if it was going to remain an empire, or if instead we would return to the best of our traditions, and take our place as a leader in the world community.

In these dangerous times, one candidate poses too great of a risk, and the American people cannot afford to allow a party which has undermined our national security at every turn to remain in power.

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  1. N. B. Fareed Zakaria is not an Obama surrogate as this YouTube video claims but a journalist for Newsweek with his own show in PBS. []
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