Fueling a new cold war

They say that truth is the first casualty in war. But, I would think the further away you are, and the less involved your country is, the more objective the information available on a conflict. I have been sadly disillusioned on this with the coverage of the South Ossetian/Georgian/Russian war by our news services.  While there have been a few alternative reports on Radio New Zealand the coverage on New Zealand TV has been completely one sided. It seemed that Russia was the only aggressor and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and his fellow Georgians were the only victims.

Sadly, here is where one has to resort to the internet. Even so there can be problems. Georgia claims that some of their web sites had been disabled for a period because of DDoS attacks. Three Russian news services I consulted (Russia Today, The St. Petersburg Times and RIA Novosti were frequently down in the last week. Russia Today reported numerous DDoS attacks often made it unavailable.

No one innocent

It doesn’t take much searching to realise that no party to this conflict is innocent. They all have their own agendas and they have all participated in the skirmishing that has gone on for some time. However, their are a few important facts that news coverage in this country seem to gloss over.

1: The main victims by far are the South Ossetians. Russian news sources reported 1,600 civilians had been killed and more than 30,000 had fled South Ossetia during the Georgian offensive (although some of these appear to have returned to participate in the war).

2: The war was initiated by massive Georgian escalation of skirmishes into a rocket attack which was the main cause of civilian loss of life and destroyed much of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali .

3: Despite initial attempts to restrain Georgian President  Mikheil Saakashvili the US did play a role in the war (transporting almost 1000 Georgian troops from Iraq directly to the battle front). US spokespeople are now glossing over the Georgian aggression and  have launched a strong anti-Russia propaganda campaign. Georgian military capability had previously been built up from US and Israeli arms supplies and training.

American in South Ossetia. Civilian casualties.

Saakashvili’s motives?

One wonders at Saakashvili’s motives for the attack. He seems to have a desire to embroil the US in this regional conflict and US neo-conservatives seem willing to go part way in this. I can’t help speculating that the impending change of guard in the White House may be encouraging some sort of last ditch stand on their part. The propaganda offensive and US actions barring cooperation with Russia display a willingness to stoke the flames of a new Cold War.

And this is what concerns me. Russia is big enough to look after itself. There are many conflicts in the region and, despite the different agendas, they can be managed without threatening the security of the rest of the world. But this is not helped when an external nuclear super-power declares interests extending to the Russian border – as they appear to have in the case of South Ossetia. Given their role in this conflict it’s understandable that Russia will see US military presence on their borders, incorporation of neighbouring states into NATO and the establishment of a missile defense system in neighbouring countries as hostile acts. The Cuban missile crisis comes to mind as an analogy.

Most people welcome the end of the cold war at the beginning of the 1990s. This enabled lifting of many restrictions on politics and information in both east and west. Contact between people has flourished. And this is important if humanity is to solve the global economic, environmental and climatic problems it faces.

A new cold war is not in our interests. The biased reporting of the South Ossetian conflict is just one example of what could happen. Let’s not go there.

See also:
Media war against Russia
Common enemy lifts Saakashvili, but his support base remains fragile
Sabre-rattling S Ossetia defiant
When Mikhail Saakashvili’s plans misfired
South Ossetia war
Timeline of the 2008 South Ossetia war
The war is over
We had no choice – Mikhail Gorbachev
Ossetian Appeal
Georgia loses the fight with Russia, but manages to win the PR war

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11 responses to “Fueling a new cold war

  1. My take on the situation is different.

    The Russian media has always been of interest to me.
    Yet I would be the first to dispute that checking out the Russian media is going to give somebody ‘balance’.

    The Russian media is muzzled. Hog-tied. Bound in chains.
    Has been for many years now.

    The process started under Yeltsin but was put into full gear by Putin.
    In principle (hat-tip to Bnonn) it’s a free press.
    In practice, it’s under defacto control of the Kremlin.
    They’re not very subtle about it.

    As for Georgia, well, according to the UN they own South Ossetia.
    It’s within their borders.
    They get to do with it what they want.

    If the South Ossetians want independence, then…go for it.
    Let the best team win in the time-honoured manner.

    Losers get to be called traitors and shot.
    Winners get to be called founding fathers and have babies named after them.

    For Georgia to try and finally bring South Ossetia to heel is legitimate.
    For the South Ossetians to call themselves independent and resist is illegitimate.
    It becomes legitimate ONLY when they actually win. :)
    May the best team win.
    So far, that hasn’t happened yet.

    “The main victims by far are the South Ossetians.”

    Yes. The South Ossetians.
    Otherwise know as “the rebels”, “the seperatists” or perhaps “those people who carry Russian passports”.

    “…the US did play a role in the war (transporting almost 1000 Georgian troops from Iraq directly to the battle front).”

    The US had no say in this. The Gerogians sent their troops to Iraq on the condition that if things got tough at home, then the US would provide immediate transport home, no questions asked.

    “…US spokespeople are now glossing over the Georgian aggression and have launched a strong anti-Russia propaganda campaign.”

    Well, yes but to be fair it’s not a hard thing to do.
    The Georgian military is small.
    Even with the best “ill-will” in the world, it’s not going to do as much damage as the Russian military.
    The Russian tanks and planes are going the get the media focus.
    They are going to automatically overshadow the Georgians.

    Also, the Georgian military went from Georgia to a disputed part of Georgia. Whereas the Russian military went from Russia, through the disputed Georgian territory and then on into undisputed Georgian territory.
    So once again, any Georgian military action is going to be overshadowed by Russian military action.

    Fairly easy sell for any propogandist.

    “One wonders at Saakashvili’s motives for the attack.”

    Maybe he was trying to further erode rebel territory with the long-term view of eliminating them all together?
    Territorial sovereignty?

    (Probably he’d have liked to launch a real invasion but…Georgia is a small country and they can only try to do this step-by-step. Besides, Russia has no problem with aiding and abetting the potential founding fathers with weapons, fuel, etc.)

    “A new cold war is not in our interests.”

    No doubt. Yet people like Putin want to see a “strong Russia”.
    Part of that image is to have a finger in the pie of neighbouring countries. They don’t see the rise of democratic nations on their border as a good thing.
    Democratic nations near Russia don’t seem to like Russia very much.

    By promoting democratic institutions, free press, open trade, human rights and all the rest of it, the West is aggressively surrounding Russia. If this keeps up, Russia won’t have any friends left.

    If, for example, all of the former Warsaw Pact nations suddenly adopted Lukashenko clones as leaders and left the European Union, Russia wouldn’t shed a tear.

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  2. In my own opinion something of a return to cold war status has been around for a long time. I’ve got a little interest in the region, but more further east in the Central Asian Republics, Siberia (both of which I’ve travelled briefly to) and the Russian Far East, which I haven’t yet visited.

    One of the tell-tale signs to me was that when I visited Russia a few years ago, I had to name the cities I was to visit ahead of time, etc. My understanding was that for a time this had been lifted, but was put back in place after Putin came into power. Just a small sign of things changing backwards.

    Similarly, a tiny group of Taleban who sneaked in to cause mischief in Uzbekistan’s Anniversary Day, saw the Russian Fed. more-or-less “invite” themselves to present a ridiculously large army presence there. Even the local English-language papers weren’t too happy about it.

    Likewise, there was what I interpret as a disgusting attempt by the Bush war machine to blackmail Uzbekistan and Kyrygzstan, presuambly to give the USA access to their airfields to bomb Afghanistan, by naming them on the “Axis of Evil”. I’m under the impression both countries aren’t especially happy stuck as “piggy-in-the-middle”. As I’ve already mentioned Uzbekistan fights the Taleban in a snamm-scale way pretty much every year and has for years, and Kyrygzstan is a democracy–the only republic on being “released” from the Russian Fed. to install a democracy on its own, for the first government. Both countries have their issue (Uzbek., esp.), but neither as far game for the “Axis of Evil” label. So far, that’s not about the Russian Fed., but what is, is that to my understanding the USA has never left these air bases. (To be fair, I’ve lot the story over the year or so.) They’re very strategic military bases in that part of the world.

    Maybe I read too much into things… but it is a crazily political part of the world.

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  3. No doubt. Yet people like Putin want to see a “strong Russia”.
    Part of that image is to have a finger in the pie of neighbouring countries. They don’t see the rise of democratic nations on their border as a good thing.
    Democratic nations near Russia don’t seem to like Russia very much.

    I suspect that they don’t care so much about neighbouring countries being democratic. They care more that these countries are aligning themselves with a global military superpower to the extent of wanting to join their military alliances and even base strategic weapon systems on their territory. Russians seem to be happy with a somewhat more authoritarian form of democracy.

    In my opinion, this is the fundamental disconnect here. Democracy is a form of government. It is not some sort of perfect and pure state of grace that grants to the user the right to do whatever they please. It appears that their constitutional setup has not stopped Georgia from engaging in some atrocious behaviour of their own.

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  4. Cedric, I think I may have deleted a comment from you which was in my spam list. If I have, sorry, and could you repost it

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  5. Heraclides, I agree that “something like a cold war has been around for a long time.” It seems to me that this has escalated in recent years for two reasons:
    1. Since Yeltsin’s days there has been a reassertion by the Russians of their national and geopolitical interests (the collapse of the USSR had lead to one of the biggests geopolitical retreats in history).
    2. The ascendancy of the neo-conservatvies (broadly clustered around the Project for a New American Century) in the US. This does envisage very extensive US geopolitical interests

    Unfortunately, a cold war atmosphere is never good for presentation of truth in our media. Nor is it good for individuals who effectively get programmed to select information according to the prevailing prejudice.

    And this is my point, Cedric. Checking out the Russian media in not going to give balance (mind you I have been surprised how some of it, particularly opinion pieces, are surprisingly critical of the Russia. But, on this issue, checking out the New Zealand media won’t either.

    My concern is that the New Zealand media is not giving anything like balance (in fact sometimes outright distortions) and that reduces my freedom. It also raises the possibility of New Zealand’s involvement in international actions which really have no justification. (I am of the generation who faced the possibility of being sent to fight against the Vietnamese).

    Cedric – your approach to solving ethnic differences is, on the one hand surprisingly cynical. But on the other hand – isn’t this very approach that has caused the ethnic cleansing the world is so critical off?

    Unfortunately the decision of the Georgian government in 1990 to remove the autonomous status from regions like South Ossetia and Abkhazia seems to have been leading in that direction. The peace agreement between the Georgians, Russians and Ossetians provided a regime where peace keepers from these three forces were stationed to prevent ethic hostilities. Hardly an ideal solution (as we can now see). But the alternative of withdrawal and “may the best team win” is hardly humane.

    It seems to me that the international community needs to broker some real negotiations to reach a solution preserving the real interests of all party’s. The best solution may well be Georgian acceptance of autonomy for South Ossetia and Abkhazia and more freedom for other ethnic groups.

    Franky, I am heartened by the news that the Russians appear to have largely limited their activity to defense of South Ossetia. Yes, they have been clearing up some military supplies and bases which threaten South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and there are some problems arising from uncontrolled areas due to the retreat of Georgian forces from their own territory. But I am sure that many Russians would have liked to “press on” and depose Saakashvili militarily.

    Perhaps this shows a bit of unexpected political sophistication on the Russians part that they realise that Saakashvili’s days are numbered – his extremely silly gamble means that he is likely to be removed by his own people. Maybe that will enable a better resolution of Georgia’s ethnic problems – and, in the end, better serve Russia’s geopolitical interests.

    Cedric, you see the promotion of “democratic institutions, free press” etc in Russia’s neighbours as a good Thing. I do too – if it is genuine.

    But – I also want New Zealand to have a free press and democratic institutions. These are threated by a cold war atmosphere. And coverage of this issue by our media has been promoting that. Our media has not been providing the information on this conflict that we have the right to demand.

    As I said, let’s not go there.

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  6. Juan Cole has what I think is the best analysis of the situation in Georgia. His article has appeared in Salon.com at http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2008/08/14/bush_putin/

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  7. Nick said…”It appears that their constitutional setup has not stopped Georgia from engaging in some atrocious behaviour of their own.”

    Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting for a second that democratic nations can’t do unpleasant things. Nor would I be willing to whitewash anything the Georgians did because they are the “good guys”.

    “I suspect that they don’t care so much about neighbouring countries being democratic. They care more that these countries are aligning themselves with a global military superpower to the extent of wanting to join their military alliances and even base strategic weapon systems on their territory.”

    The first step though is always democracy and the package deal of Western values and aspirations that traditionally go with it.

    While it may seem ridiculous to us, there is this line of thinking that the West is promoting democracy as the “thin edge of the wedge”. A couple of years ago, there was a bit of a stink about the Americans supposedly supporting NGO’s in Russia that promoted grass-roots level political development and public awareness of a free press.

    The Russian government got very hot under the collar over this.
    They regarded it as an effort to destablise Russia and help subversives.
    They were correct, … in a twisted sort of way.
    The concept of a “loyal opposition” or of investigative journalism “keeping the bastards honest” never really took off in Russia.
    You sneak in the back door with democracy and the next thing you know there’s military bases on your doorstep.

    Ken said…”Cedric – your approach to solving ethnic differences is, on the one hand surprisingly cynical. But on the other hand – isn’t this very approach that has caused the ethnic cleansing the world is so critical off?”

    Who are you calling cynical, hippie? ;)

    (But seriously, folks…)

    I would argue that there are many possible approaches to ethnic differences, most of them thankfully peaceful.

    Further, I would argue that Georgian military action does not equal ethnic cleansing.

    I can understand why people would be eager to label Georgian military action as ethnic cleansing yet, to me, that’s either a case of jumping the gun or using a highly-charged emotive label for propaganda purposes.

    For me, the term ethnic cleansing evokes images of thousand of men and boys being rounded up into camps and “disappearing”, only to have their bodies found by NATO forces and having to use DNA testing to identify them.
    It’s a powerful term.
    It’s something that happens in history.
    It’s not something that I approve of.

    Yet because I believe this, I am very, VERY cautious about using the term “ethnic cleansing”.
    I don’t want to use it for propaganda purposes. I don’t want to use it to smear people I don’t happen to like.
    I want to use it only when no other term will do.
    I want to use it when it’s the only term that can honestly describe the situation on the ground.

    If we start throwing the label around casually, then “the other side” will start using the term in the same cynical manner in the next war. Eventually, the term “ethic cleansing” will lose it’s impact and be functionally useless.

    The Georgians are trying to establish the territorial integrity of their nation.
    They don’t have much to begin with so they are understandably antsy about losing even a “small” amount more.

    They do have the option of warfare. Blowing things up. Shooting people.
    It’s not pretty but it’s their choice and all nations retain the right to defend their borders through force of arms. Georgia is no different.

    Killing rebels, crushing an illegitimate government or locking up the “potential founding fathers” does not equal ethnic cleansing.

    Attempts to make “disputed territory” undisputed territory by fighting over it is well…warfare.
    Now it’s ok to deplore warfare.
    It’s ok to pick a side and blame the other guy.
    I’d just ask that people be REALLY careful before they start invoking the term “ethnic cleansing”.
    ……………………………………………………………………..

    Ken, thanks for letting me know what happened to my other post.
    You mentioned in passing about DDoS attacks.

    Just by chance, I stumbled across an article that I thought would prove interesting to the people here. No idea how true it is but…

    Before the Gunfire, Cyberattacks

    http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/13/technology/13cyber.html

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  8. Re “ethnic cleansing”. I agree it’s easy to overuse this term. All sides have used it in this conflict – the Georgians and Russians making official complaints to international bodies. I have seen the Georgian list and can’t see that most of it applies. Haven’t been able to find the Russian list. No doubt human rights investigators will eventually sift through the evidence. And surely the destruction of Tskhinvali will be a prominent part of that evidence).

    There is no doubt, though, that the Russian, Georgian and South Ossetian military peace keepers controlling South Ossetia before the Georgian attack were preventing otherwise inevitable ethnic cleansing – given the hatred that exists in the population there.

    It seems to me, though, that the brutal approach taken by Saakashvili could easily have lead to an ethnic cleansing situation. After all – forcing such a large proportion of the population to flee (and lets not forget this was accompanied by a large number of civilian deaths caused by rocket attack) can be seen as the start of an ethnic cleansing programme. (Ethnic cleansing means removing an ethnic group from an area – not necessarily by killing them). No doubt some Georgians (and perhaps Saakashvili himself) see one “solution” the forced transfer of ethnic Ossetians across the border to settle in North Ossetia.

    Surely the Georgians can “establish the territorial integrity of their nation” without forcing out ethnic minorities. In fact, they can not rightfully claim to be democratic if they refuse to recognise the rights of those minorities.

    I guess “democracy” is an overused word – often used dishonestly. Especially in this particular situation.

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  9. “…I agree it’s easy to overuse this term. All sides have used it in this conflict – the Georgians and Russians making official complaints to international bodies.”

    Indeed, there have been media reports that have used the word genocide repeatedly! If people want to throw around “ethnic cleansing” willy-nilly then there’s no reason why they shouldn’t go for gold and call it genocide.

    “…preventing otherwise inevitable ethnic cleansing – given the hatred that exists in the population there.”

    Inevitable? Inevitable resumption of warfare I can accept.
    But ethnic cleansing?

    “It seems to me, though, that the brutal approach taken by Saakashvili could easily have lead to an ethnic cleansing situation.”

    Oh, I agree.
    Given the right circumstances, it could develop into an ethnic cleansing situation quite easily.
    There is an ethnic foundation to the conflict.
    I’m not denying that.
    However, I would say that we’re dealing with a garden-variety small war.
    A depressingly mundane one.
    Ugly, messy, bloody, probably useless…but routine.

    “After all – forcing such a large proportion of the population to flee (and lets not forget this was accompanied by a large number of civilian deaths caused by rocket attack) can be seen as the start of an ethnic cleansing programme.”

    Once again, I agree.
    Yet civilian casualties, civilians fleeing a war-zone en masse, rocket attacks etc. are the sort of thing you’d expect in warfare. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine a war where that wouldn’t happen!

    “Surely the Georgians can “establish the territorial integrity of their nation” without forcing out ethnic minorities.”

    Here you are assuming that the Georgian government wants to force out the ethnic minorities and that this equates with establishing territorial integrity. I don’t see this.

    The Georgians want to control South Ossetia.
    They are prepared to enforce that control by force of arms.
    However, there is an illegitimate government controlling armed militas that stands in their way.

    If the Georgians can take out the government and the militas, then…they’ve won the war. The show’s over.
    The local population could stay on.
    There’s no need for ethnic cleansing or genocide or anything like that.
    Sure it could happen, but for now (shrug) …..

    “In fact, they can not rightfully claim to be democratic if they refuse to recognise the rights of those minorities.”

    Jefferson Davis, I presume?
    Are we talking about rights of a minority or are we talking about secession? Loss of territory? Armed rebellion?

    (Let’s not even mention Russia’s involvement or ambitions.)

    …………………………………………..

    Ken, I’ve said my piece. I don’t really have a dog in this hunt but I do find the issue interesting.
    It’s your blog so I’ll leave you to have the last word.

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  10. Cedric – “If the Georgians can take out the government and the militias, then…they’ve won the war. The show’s over.” This is what the Georgians attempted in 1990 when they removed the autonomous status for South Ossetia and Abkaasia. It didn’t work and they were forced to recognise a status quo of de-facto independence.

    The Georgians attempted this again and failed again. Russian involvement was inevitable considering they had a peacekeeping role in the area. Saakashvili made a huge blunder and will probably pay the political price for it. I can’t help thinking that his mistake was caused by misinterpretation of messages he was getting from some of his “cold war” mates.

    However, even if he his gamble had paid off I don’t see that it would have solved the ethnic problems. There would probably still have been a need for international peacekeeping forces to monitor the situation and prevent hostilities. Surely modern history shows that ethnic differences cannot be ignored by simple military or political actions.

    Actually, I don’t see that the Russian will necessarily benefit from the situation either (although Saakashvili’s eventual political removal will please them). Any South Ossetian independence will, in the short term, be a military and economic drain on them. In the longer term it will probably mean the formation of an independent Ossetian republic incorporating the more populous North Ossetia (currently an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation). Loss of territory like this (even if done by international agreement) will set a dangerous precedent given the huge ethnic diversity of Russia.

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  11. The population of South Ossetia is 75 thousand. Putin could not care less about them and, if it were politically expedient, he would be happy to have them all die. The reasons he ordered the attack on Georgia were most probably: 1) he does not wish to have a NATO ally on his southern border, 2) he would like to control all of the pipelines going from the central Asian fields so as to maintain a controlling stake in Europe’s energy market, 3) this was a good opportunity to reassert Russia’s control over the region. In doing this Putin is merely continuing with the policies and methods Russia has pursued since the time of the Tzars. The Caucasus, for centuries, has been seen by the Russians as part of their sphere of influence. An independent Georgia was a thorn they had sought to eliminate and were doing everything to provoke the Georgians into doing something that would give them the excuse to attack – this was why South Ossetia was useful to Putin. The Russian methods have also traditionally included blatantly disingenous efforts to blame the country being attacked while treating it with particular brutality. Little wonder Bush liked him.

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