Russia: what peace looks like

Boris Dolgin
22 August 2008

Each fresh war in which the army of the new Russia takes part provokes an increasingly mixed public reaction inside the country.

Most socially active citizens did not support the first Chechen War. But they were far more accepting of the government's action when it came to the second Chechen War. This is explained by changes that were taking place within Russian society. The authorities were starting to exert more control over television, for a start, although at that time not all of it. People were also more worried by what they had seen of the activities of Chechen separatists in Chechnya, and the significance of this for neighbouring territories.

Today, further changes on the domestic front, and the fact that the mass media has been brought under complete control has resulted in attitudes to the present war being still more complicated, even among those who were concerned by the second Chechen war.

Competing conspiracy theories

Those with a one-sided view, for or against, mirror one another in the way they substitute hysterics for discussion. They have fallen prey to one of the worst intellectual sins - simplification. Two conspiracy theories are doing the rounds at the moment. The first has it that Georgia is being manipulated by the Americans (or more broadly, by the West), and that recent events amount to a declaration of war by the USA against Russia. According to the other, no less paranoid, Georgia is being manipulated by Russia, and was  provoked into military engagement, either by shootings, or by being misinformed that Russia would not respond to an attack, while in fact our country was preparing for war.

Both theories have some foundations, and they are well known. On the one hand, there were the supplies of weapons, training, and the not entirely impartial position of the USA etc. On the other hand, there was the relatively fast deployment of the 58th army, the provocations which really did take place etc.

But neither theory quite adds up. The USA has nothing to gain from a conflict in the South Caucasus. Saakashvili's actions did not accord with the recommendations he was given. And if the Americans had been looking for ways of escalating the conflict, they would not have weakened contact with Tbilisi at the vital moment.

From an emotional point of view, the US reaction is understandable: not long before the election, one of the few seemingly successful foreign projects of the administration has been tarnished. Because of the destruction of infrastructure, malfunction of weapons etc., American tax payers have lost money. And the training which the Georgian army underwent did not prepare it to survive the kind of engagement which took place. None of this was meant to happen.

But the theory of Russian provocation does not add up either. What exactly was so suspicious? Was it the fact that Vladimir Putin went to Beijing, while Dmitry Medvedev went on holiday to the Volga? Saakashvili was also planning to go to Beijing. Was it the shootings in South Ossetia? No, there had been intense shooting in the days running up to the events, and sporadic shooting for years. Was it the fact that the Russian army was better prepared for the operation than many expected? Yes, although not everything went smoothly.

There were grounds, too, for that  ‘peace enforcement' training that was recently conducted to the north of the Roki tunnel. There was nothing secret about it, any more than there was about the Georgian-American training, it was all there in the press. But what's more, the Russian military and some politicians had kept saying that Georgia was planning a military operations. We did not put much credence in these reports, believing not just that the Georgian leadership speaks with many tongues, but that they must realise all too clearly that they stood to gain nothing by war. Again, we know too that their advice from overseas was to keep even the provocative rhetoric down. 

Both the Russian and the Georgian sides are not homogenous, and ‘war parties' exist in both camps. There have been ongoing provocations from both the Ossetian and the Georgian side. But until recently there was a safety lock on the trigger. Then the Georgians took off that safety lock. Why? There have not yet been any sensible explanations. And if the absence from Moscow of both heads of state did play some role in this decision, we should also take into account that the American advisor was not there. Nor should we forget that in the battle for the Georgian leadership (and the Russian too) both sides had something to gain from a possible deterioration of relations between Russia and the West.

Beginning of the end

Even before the active phase of operations was declared over last Tuesday, shootings on both sides already seem to have dropped to a minimum. But this declaration did not lead to an immediate ceasefire, or to the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from the territory of Georgia.

The Abkhaz exploited the situation and its allied obligations and, with the clear connivance of Russian peacekeepers, established military control over the entire former Soviet territory of Abkhazia. In the process they forced out the Georgian forces which had established themselves there, as also the police, the Abkhaz government in exile, and local Svani residents.

In South Ossetia, local Georgian residents also seem to have been forced out. Furthermore, judging by the comments of the leaders of this unrecognised entity, this was deliberate. It seems that the other side had similar plans, judging by the name given to the operation they began on the night of 8 August: Operation Clean Land.

We should remember that back in the early 1990s, both sides threatened to take each other to court (Russia was not involved at the time), but that this did not result in any action being taken. Perhaps this was because, beyond the political rhetoric, they both appreciated that such accusations were double-edged.

What next?

Even before the documents were signed, things started happening. The Russian president promised to begin the withdrawal of troops on Monday. On the same day, an attempt will be made to put all this through a resolution of the UN Security Council.

At that forum, the agreed principles will probably be differently interpreted. The Russian leadership will probably read them like this:

§  Russian peacekes will remain in both unrecognised republics,

§  Georgians will not return to South Ossetia,

§  the contingent of observers from the OSCE in South Ossetia will increase (remember that Georgia has pushed for this for a long time, but the authorities of the self-proclaimed formation hindered this, and are now against international observers) and perhaps from the UN in Abkhazia,

§  the appearance of any other peacekeepers in conflict zones is only possible with the agreement of the de facto authorities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

They will understand this to mean that Georgia does not have the right to vote on peacekeepers in these regions - and so its uncompleted withdrawal from the Dagomyss agreements on South Ossetia should be discounted from these negotiations. The same will go for the withdrawal of peacekeeping agreements on Abkhazia and the withdrawal from the CIS, under whose the aegis the operation is being carried out. A swift withdrawal from the CIS is anyway impossible.

This interpretation is unlikely to be acceptable to other major players, since Russia is more than ever now a party in the conflict. Nor will the interpretation of the governments of the unrecognised states within Georgia be acceptable. If Russia, rather than agreeing to compromise, insists on running the peacekeeping, this will lead to the stationing on Georgian territory of some kind of buffer force, either from NATO or some ‘coalition of the willing'.

The best that can be hoped is that Russia will be prepared to return as soon as possible to something like the role of an intermediary, though this is hardly likely to happen quickly. Our government will have to recognise the need to reach compromise by accepting, for example,  a contingent under the aegis of the UN from countries to which neither Russia nor Georgia feels particularly hostile.

Managing South Ossetia

The de facto leadership of South Ossetia is another issue which needs resolving, along with that of all armed groupings, including the so-called peacekeepers.

Fortunately, one area where the neutrality of Russian armed forces was demonstrated was in putting a halt to the looting of Georgian villages in South Ossetia from which Georgian forces had withdrawn, as well as Ossetian villages. It is a pity that the need for this was not recognised and undertaken earlier. That it was at all is probably partly thanks to reports and appeals by Human Rights Watch

Clearly, any actions by people in the territories controlled by Russian troops (peacekeepers and the additional contingent) are our responsibility. We are responsible simply by dint of having sent troops into these areas, as also because large numbers of the people in these territories have crossed the Russian border to get there. Where they were going was well known. The decision about whom to let through and whom not could only have been political.

The withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory cannot be carried out until all these parties are removed. And when they return to Russia, they should be greeted not with lavish receptions but with investigations into the crimes committed against individuals, property etc. In general, the actions of the republic's de facto leadership needs to be carefully analysed. Here, as in most of the unrecognised states on the territory of the CIS, the relationship between the criminal world and government is even closer than in the recognised countries of the CIS. One partial exception is Negron Karabakh, which is too closely tied with Armenia. Certain steps towards redressing this situation have also been made in Abkhazia since the presidential elections.

If we are going to call for the Georgian president to be tried for war crimes, it will be hard for us at the same time to be embracing the South Ossetian leadership, which welcomed the ethnic cleansing of their territory.

We will also need to sort out which channels for distributing humanitarian aid to South Ossetia are more or less reliable, and which are not.

Unclear military aims

The delay in the withdrawal of Russian troops caused noticeable irritation even among Western leaders whose relationship with Russia is good. This is understandable. The longer these events went on, the more doubtful the presence and strange manoeuvres of Russian troops in Georgia appeared. No one explained to the world clearly what was happening, and they should have done. Was it about dealing with looters? Then they should have been removed. Were they protecting stockpiles of abandoned weapons? If so, why were these weapons abandoned? Was it because Georgian troops retreated, in order to avoid a clash with Russian troops. If so, why did Russian troops need to advance outside South Ossetia? Were they required to dismantle firing positions aimed at South Ossetia? This would be a very sensible explanation. But if this were the case what needed to be done? Destroy military positions? Remove weapons? If so, then this should have been explained. And these explanations should have been made by an international lawyer, not a spokesman from the army's General Staff.  What is at issue here is the very justification for our actions in depriving Georgia of the means with which to fight.

However, some of our actions do not quite fit into this reasoning. You get the feeling that the military aims were not only not formulated openly. They were not formulated at all.

Building our collective security

On Tuesday the heads of NATO's foreign ministries will hold an emergency meeting about the situation in Georgia. The meeting was called by the USA. You get the feeling that if part of Russia's political elite, and its most popular media are trying to portray the West as an enemy, something similar has happened in the West. Leaders in the USA and several other NATO countries, finding themselves unable to prevent the idiocy committed by the Georgian leadership, faced with the somewhat delayed response of Russia, appear to have come up with no better option than to force a confrontation.

The reaction of Poland and those countries which have historical grounds to fear a possible danger from Russia is understandable. Although we have no empire now, and the Soviet Union is no more, our country has to some extent carried on in the same tradition. What's more, it has just shown that it is prepared to use force against one of its neighbours. Where the fault lies is beside the point: whether it stole or was stolen from, it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. Goodness knows, Russia is large enough,  and if it allows itself to attack others... But modern politics should be more rational. It should pay attention to the reason and circumstances for the attack. Only then can we start talking about the ‘limits of self-defense.'

Here too, we have leapt to the wrong conclusions, as we did in our attempts at communicating Russia's point of view to our western partners. Rather than launching more channels, hiring PR people and activating some media provocateurs we need to learn to speak the same language. We need to decide to communicate and work together more, rather than less. The work of joint institutions is not a present from Russia, or from the West. It is a means of cooperation beneficial to both parties.

We need to reach a formula which will bind both sides, NATO and Russia, not to engage in activities that cause anxiety to the other party. We should not be thinking about cutting back on our collective security, but how to consolidate it into a system of written agreements, a system of effective international response.

Where was the international body that could effectively have stopped Georgia's aggression against part of its territory where its sovereignty was limited, according to international agreements? To whom was Russia supposed to transfer the care of its peacekeepers and civilians in a zone where it is responsible for them? What matters is that any delays do not lead to a situation where the territory of South Ossetia is purged of Ossetians. A South Ossetia without either Georgians or Ossetians would be unacceptable. And any attempt to talk about collective ethnic responsibility would amount to fascism. Whatever is required must be done to ensure that these scenarios do not take place.  

The call for Russia to be isolated is a call for Russia to isolate itself - and vice versa. Here our isolationists are close allies of western supporters of containment. Their joint efforts will bring the world to a cold war, if not to full-blown war. To ensure that this does not happen, some topics should be forbidden, including proud statements that there will be no compromise (Saakashvili). Everything should be discussed. Politicians are distinguished from demagogues by their readiness to reach a sensible compromise.

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