Michael Phelps has won yet another gold medal. He broke another world record. He and his team, by a virtual millisecond, pounced on the nasty French who had vowed to “smash” the Americans, and made away with the gold. Triumph. All American gold medalists on the dais with the national anthem blaring.
Cut to a half world away where a different kind of smashing was taking place. In Georgia –not the US state, for the geographically-impaired— a former Soviet republic a fierce air, ground and sea war was being waged at the hands of a fierce and angry bear, the Russians. Hey, wait, isn’t the purpose behind the Olympics to avoid armed conflict between nations? Let’s take our battles on to the soccer or track field, and all that. Well, that longstanding belief didn’t seem to faze Moscow. Nor Georgia, for that matter, because while all the hoopla in Beijing was getting underway last weekend, it was being pummeled mercilessly in what may be considered the opening salvo in the Second Cold War.
According to the latest developments, the 5-day conflict appears to have ended, with the typical uncertainty that surrounds these kinds of skirmishes. A diplomatic team composed of French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and EU officials have been in Georgia since last weekend and then in Moscow to try to bring about a diplomatic solution as soon as possible. Overnight, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made an emergency visit to Moscow to personally persuade Russian leaders to have a ceasefire and end what has been an attack that has killed probably 2000 people already –although even that figure is almost impossible to confirm. This morning, Moscow announced a ceasefire, though not necessarily a peace deal since that takes both sides to agree to certain sensitive terms. A five-day war you say? How did we get there in the first place?
Georgia has never been a friend of Russia, especially since it became independent from the Soviet Union in 1991. The roots of its submission to a superior Russian military power date back at least to the 18th Persian empire. As a member of the Soviet Union, they had to comply politically even though ethnically they were different from the Russians themselves. Georgia was somehow different –in James Traub’s words, a “romantic, exotic frontier”, birthplace of Josef Stalin, and the country once “served as Russia’s Italy—a warm, lotus-eating sanctuary of singers and poets and swashbuckling gangsters”. Moreover, the Georgians “never accepted their Soviet identity, and preserved their language, culture, religious practice and sense of national identity, as they had under the czars”. In short, this latest battle was a long time coming. Georgia, if it didn’t see it coming, also should not be too surprised.
What was surprising, in almost a retro, 19th century balance-of-power kind of way, was Russia’s mighty entrance into Georgian territory –a breach of sovereignty, yes, but that’s what the empire did—on all levels. By rolling tanks into the angry border between Russia and South Ossetia initially and sending six navy ships into the Black Sea over the weekend to impose a blockade, Russia showed how flustered a bear can become. The swiftness of the air attacks and almost total demolition of military targets and munitions centers, and finally, crossing into and overtaking of the central city of Gori yesterday proved that Russia meant business. Taking control of this city, some 25 miles to the west of the capital, Tblisi, was noteworthy if for nothing else it divided the country in two, with Georgian forces surrounded on both sides by Russian forces. Don’t piss off the bear! The crocodile does not need very much prodding and the history of the Cold War tells us that Moscow can unleash its mighty tanks rather easily. Moreover, it didn’t just take the separatist battles of Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia states –who have long wanted to secede—to bring Moscow to act as they did. After all, it is in Russia’s best interests to preserve the territorial integrity of such a strategically and geographically important state –independence and sovereignty be damned. Russia rolls in because it can. Want a little action to go along with all your daily Olympic coverage and all those jingoistic hugs and kisses each morning on the Today show with Matt, Meredith, Ann (“I am on speed!”) and Al? Then remind yourself of how raw and naked war can be.
Let’s see –what else could make Russia angry and seemingly willing to go against the international community and invade a neighboring country? How about the fact that there are approximately 150 NATO advisers, many from the US, there in Georgia providing military training and arming of Georgian forces? This is what it gets for its loyalty to the West and to America, which has endorsed Georgia’s desire to one day enter NATO, something that is an utter affront to the Russians. Georgia has also been a supporter of the War on Terror, and there is even a street named after President Bush, who has hailed its brave independence efforts. Not to be outdone, President Saakashvili has made rather wild appeals to the West, as if this situation had been brought on completely out of a vacuum. With an American President who was too busy huddling with the US Olympic basketball team and utterly weak in his influence, and able to simply claim official protests, and a Secretary of State, who, despite her own experience in Russian affairs, could do very little, it is the international community and especially the Europeans who have come to contain the bear diplomatically.
Now the immediate question is whether Russia will be contained, and whether their attacks will truly end; war termination is a messy and imperfect business. Reports of ethnic cleansing have emerged too. Ossetians are being accused of massacring ethnic Georgians. Russia may or may not be respecting its own imposed peacekeeping duties (well, obviously not!) along the Abkhazian and Ossetian borders. Finally, we are left with the bad blood between Prime Minister Putin and President-cum-figurehead Dmitri Medvedev of Russia clearly has the upper hand in all of this, despite the purported ceasefire. It has the domestic political support of its nationalists, who agree with Putin’s vision of a restored Russian glory, and this most brazen display of good old fashioned military might proves this. It’s not just that Russia is bellicose. We all know this. It’s that it (and I mean Putin) wants to re-conduct the Cold War again in a world that is no longer bipolar—one in which it is not the US, which is now weakened economically and oversubscribed elsewhere militarily. Like Iran to the south, and North Korea to the east, Russia simply wants to be recognized as the formidable power it has been in the past. These disputes have deep historical roots.
Believe it: the bear has been angered and we have seen what it is capable of. Now, let’s get back to the 100 meter men’s breaststroke.
UPDATE: Georgia and Russia have agreed to a peace plan, thus going beyond a call for a ceasefire. This as a result of shuttle diplomacy by President Sarkozy of France. Go Sarko!
[Via The New York Times]