by Seumas Milne
August 14 2008
The outcome of six grim days of bloodshed in the
Caucasus has triggered an outpouring of the most nauseating hypocrisy from
western politicians and their captive media.
As talking heads thundered against Russian
imperialism and brutal disproportionally, US vice-president Dick Cheney,
faithfully echoed by Gordon Brown and David Miliband, declared
that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered". George Bush
denounced Russia for having "invaded a sovereign neighbouring state" and
threatening "a democratic government".
Such an action, he insisted, "is unacceptable in
the 21st century".
Could these by any chance be the leaders of the same governments that in
2003 invaded and occupied - along with Georgia, as luck would have it - the
sovereign state of Iraq on a false pretext at the cost of hundreds of
thousands of lives? Or even the two governments that blocked a ceasefire in
the summer of 2006 as Israel pulverized Lebanon's infrastructure and killed
more than a thousand civilians in retaliation for the capture or killing of
You'd be hard put to recall after all the fury over Russian aggression that
it was actually Georgia that began the war last Thursday with an all-out
attack on South Ossetia to "restore constitutional order" - in other words,
rule over an area it has never controlled since the collapse of the Soviet
Union. Nor, amid the outrage at Russian bombardments, have there been much
more than the briefest references to the atrocities committed by Georgian
forces against citizens it claims as its own in South Ossetia's capital
Several hundred civilians were killed there by
Georgian troops last week, along with Russian soldiers operating under a
1990s peace agreement:
"I saw a Georgian soldier throw a grenade
into a basement full of women and children," one Tskhinvali resident,
Saramat Tskhovredov, told reporters on Tuesday.
Might it be because Georgia is what Jim
Murphy, Britain's minister for Europe, called a "small beautiful
Well it's certainly small and beautiful, but
both the current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and his predecessor
came to power in western-backed coups, the most recent prettified as a "Rose
revolution". Saakashvili was then initially rubber-stamped into office with
96% of the vote before establishing what the International Crisis Group
recently described as an "increasingly authoritarian" government, violently
cracking down on opposition dissent and independent media last November.
"Democratic" simply seems to mean "pro-western" in these cases.
The long-running dispute over South Ossetia - as well as Abkhazia, the other
contested region of Georgia - is the inevitable consequence of the breakup
of the Soviet Union. As in the case of Yugoslavia, minorities who were happy
enough to live on either side of an internal boundary that made little
difference to their lives feel quite differently when they find themselves
on the wrong side of an international state border.
Such problems would be hard enough to settle through negotiation in any
circumstances. But add in the tireless US promotion of Georgia as a
pro-western, anti-Russian forward base in the region, its efforts to bring
Georgia into NATO, the routing of a key Caspian oil pipeline through its
territory aimed at weakening Russia's control of energy supplies, and the
US-sponsored recognition of the independence of Kosovo - whose status Russia
had explicitly linked to that of South Ossetia and Abkhazia - and conflict
was only a matter of time.
The CIA has in fact been closely involved in Georgia since the Soviet
collapse. But under the Bush administration, Georgia has become a
fully fledged US satellite. Georgia's forces are armed and trained by the US
and Israel. It has the third-largest military contingent in Iraq - hence the
US need to airlift 800 of them back to fight the Russians at the weekend.
Saakashvili's links with the neoconservatives in
Washington are particularly close: the lobbying firm headed by US Republican
candidate John McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann,
has been paid nearly $900,000 by the Georgian government since 2004.
But underlying the conflict of the past week has also been the Bush
administration's wider, explicit determination to enforce US global hegemony
and prevent any regional challenge, particularly from a resurgent Russia.
That aim was first spelled out when Cheney was defense secretary under
Bush's father, but its full impact has only been felt as Russia has begun to
recover from the disintegration of the 1990s.
Over the past decade, NATO's relentless eastward expansion has brought the
western military alliance hard up against Russia's borders and deep into
former Soviet territory. American military bases have spread across eastern
Europe and central Asia, as the US has helped install one anti-Russian
client government after another through a series of color-coded revolutions.
Now the Bush administration is preparing to site a missile defense system in
eastern Europe transparently targeted at Russia.
By any sensible reckoning, this is not a story of Russian aggression,
but of US imperial expansion and ever tighter encirclement of Russia by a
potentially hostile power. That a stronger Russia has now used the South
Ossetian imbroglio to put a check on that expansion should hardly come as a
What is harder to work out is why Saakashvili
launched last week's attack and whether he was given any encouragement
by his friends in Washington.
If so, it has spectacularly backfired, at savage human cost.
And despite Bush's attempts to talk tough
yesterday, the war has also exposed the limits of US power in the region.
As long as Georgia proper's independence is respected - best protected by
opting for neutrality - that should be no bad thing. Unipolar domination of
the world has squeezed the space for genuine self-determination and the
return of some counterweight has to be welcome.
But the process of adjustment also brings huge
dangers. If Georgia had been a member of NATO, this week's conflict would
have risked a far sharper escalation. That would be even more obvious in the
case of Ukraine - which yesterday gave a warning of the potential for future
confrontation when its pro-western president threatened to restrict the
movement of Russian ships in and out of their Crimean base in Sevastopol.
As great power conflict returns, South Ossetia
is likely to be only a taste of things to come.