Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Post-U.S. election Georgia myths

In Forbes magazine, Georgian-American writer Melik Kaylan looks at the recent post-US election "media noise" on the Georgia conflict, prominent examples of which include the curiously belated November 6 New York Times article by C.J. Chivers and Ellen Barry, and the BBC's November 8 report, both of which sought to propagate the message that Georgia had invaded first. As Moscow continues its expensive media campaign aimed at undermining Georgia's international reputation, Kaylan pours some much-needed cold water on some of the wilder speculations that are currently doing the rounds as a result:

If Georgia invaded first, Russia was provoked, Russia could not but respond, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is a trigger-happy maniac, we should back off from confrontation with Moscow, this is no incipient or even full-fledged Cold War casus belli to test Obama, he can press the refresh button and the new world will pop up as a tabula rasa.

In the G.W. era this would fall under "faith-based" as opposed to "reality-based" reasoning. The Times and BBC can lay out their dream narrative all they want, but it's unlikely that Obama--as sober and intentional a politician as it's possible to wake up to with a hangover--will buy into it. Biden certainly won't.

Either way, they won't have a choice as Ex-President Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev ply their brutalist imperial course. Medvedev made his sentiments clear when he delivered his Moscow State of the Union speech sans any single reference to the U.S. election results. Meaning: Russia acts unilaterally no matter what happens elsewhere.

And Georgia? I have publicly defended Georgia's actions in this space, and others and I count Georgian President Saakashvili as a personal friend. Nothing has changed. Here's the real continuum of events, as I can best decipher them, that led to Aug. 7 and Aug. 8 when the hostilities escalated into full blown conflict.

First off, I cannot dispute the OSCE and the Times reports that the Georgian attack resulted in civilian casualties. I certainly never thought the Georgians carried out precise bombardments and I don't think they're capable of it. Neither are the Russkies.

I also believe the Georgians radically upped the confrontation--in effect, they attacked first. But they did so because they knew about the column of Russian tanks coming in through the Roki Tunnel that connects North and South Ossetia, that is, connects Russian territory to the breakaway region. A Russian invasion was in progress. The Times report addresses this glancingly toward the end:

"Neither Georgia nor its Western allies have as yet provided conclusive evidence that Russia was invading the country or that the situation for Georgians in the Ossetian zone was so dire that a large-scale military attack was necessary, as Mr. Saakashvili insists.

"Georgia has released telephone intercepts indicating that a Russian armored column apparently entered the enclave from Russia early on the Aug. 7, which would be a violation of the peacekeeping rules. Georgia said the column marked the beginning of an invasion. But the intercepts did not show the column's size, composition or mission, and there has not been evidence that it was engaged with Georgian forces until many hours after the Georgian bombardment; Russia insists it was simply a routine logistics train or troop rotation."

This is disingenuous. It makes no sense that the Russkies had some 200 fully armed, fueled tanks halfway into Georgia within two days, as a spontaneous and unplanned response to aggression. They're not that efficient. Both sides knew what was going down.  

In addition, Kaylan notes:
The Georgians were always way down on the list of priorities for a fumble-prone White House. Saakashvili was never Washington's irreplaceable ally, at any rate never enough to keep the Russians at bay. Putin knew it. It may be a brave new post-Bush world, but he still knows it.
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