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Intellectual Dishonesty and the Culpability of All

Wednesday 13 August 2008 by James Nixey, Head, Russia and Eurasia Programme
   

At the time of writing, as they say, the ceasefire between Russia and Georgia is precarious at best and not worth the paper it is written on at worst. We might almost be back to the stage of 'frozen conflict' except, as we turn to reassess what has happened, we find the pieces on the chessboard have been rearranged. The status quo ante has gone forever. What will replace it?

But first, let us backtrack and be clear: there is culpability on both sides.

Georgia's large-scale use of force and taking of human life on 7-8 August was disastrous and disproportionate. Moreover, it is vital to understand the basic fact, though South Ossetia is legally Georgian territory (a point Russia has never contested), the majority of South Ossetians do not wish to be a part of Georgia. Now, after the devastation of Tskhinvali, that majority is even greater. So, a strategic miscalculation as well, but moral culpability first and foremost.

But Georgia's actions were far from unprovoked. There was prior force directed against Georgian forces and settlements by South Ossetian separatists both long before and on 7 August itself. The Russians, who have backed them militarily and economically, cannot avoid responsibility for this and the role of Russian 'peacekeepers' on 7 August is still murky.

Russia's claim of a humanitarian operation rings absurdly hollow. By extending military action into 'Georgia proper', particularly the devastation wrecked on Gori, Russia knows full well it cannot avoid the charge of being an aggressive bully with little regard for the value of human life.

But it doesn't care. Russia seeks respect (in the sense of acknowledgement of great power status), not approval. But stopping when it did (if it has), Russia, disgraceful as it may seem, may nonetheless receive plaudits from some European countries whose principles are locked away when dealing with Russia. Morally bankrupt, Russia has played this game beautifully. Being told by UK foreign Secretary David Miliband that Russia is returning to its Soviet past, is hardly going to hurt a man [like Putin] who has said that the collapse of the USSR was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the twentieth century. Indeed, Putin may take it as a compliment.

Meanwhile, Dmitri Medvedev (who, to many westerners now looks even more like the puppet many have always thought him to be) is also fast losing the 'liberal lawyer' image which many in the West were desperate to pin on him. On strings or not, he is learning fast…and probably the wrong lessons. But he is also learning he is not in charge - if he ever doubted it.

So, ceasefire or continued fighting (reports are contradictory), with the Georgians humiliated and forcibly removed from South Ossetia and Abkhazia and themselves installed, Russia wins hands down. Except, perhaps, for one thing. Russia may have won the battle yet end up losing the war. Even if the West does nothing concrete in the short term (ejecting Russia from G8 is not yet seriously being considered), then more people than ever will at least come to the conclusion that Russia is a danger and a threat to the region and to Europe. This, surely, cannot be in Russia's long-term interests. But Russia often acts against its own interests and a 'rational actor' model cannot be applied when guessing its next step, nor its interpretation of anyone else's.

The West must bear some blame for this too. The fudge at the Bucharest NATO summit in April - to give Georgia (and Ukraine) the guarantee of eventual membership, but not to grant it the Membership Action Plan (MAP) looked clever at the time, trying to please everyone, but it now appears to have backfired. Georgia has not been given clear enough signals as to what it must do to join and no less important, what it must not do. Had it received them, this may have prevented Mr Saakashvili from taking the reckless action he did on 8 August. Now the hard and admirable work that Georgia has put into meeting the criteria for NATO entry seems to be in vain. Russia will not (because it cannot) be directly punished for these events, at least in the short term. Not so Georgia: its NATO ambitions now look more distant than ever, in spite of good progress on corruption and defence reform. But more distant prospects may also be firmer prospects, especially if the map of Georgia has changed. If a more stable Georgia one day emerges from this crisis, it will be more attractive to NATO.

Aside from the avoidable loss of innocent life, one the most depressing things about the past few days is the lack of intellectual honesty on display. Rather than examine motive and facts on the ground, both Russians and Georgians have chosen to extract what they wish from the overall picture and used it to fit their pre-existing nationalist ideologies. Russia apologists and Russophobes everywhere have all weighed in over the last few days, conveniently ignoring atrocities committed by the 'other side'. Hypocrisy is prevalent on both sides too and worse still, the outrageous use of the word 'genocide' - not even remotely applicable to this dirty little war.

But whatever happens now in the Caucasus, relations between Russia and the West (and Russia's westward-inclined neighbours) must surely, from this moment on, be re-evaluated by all.

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Intellectual Dishonesty and the Culpability of All
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Wednesday 13 August 2008
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