10 August 2008

Russia has a point

The Russian invasion and bombardment of Georgia represents a dangerous escalation of Russia's years-long campaign of bullying and intimidation aimed at re-asserting influence over the former subject states which broke away from its control in 1989 and 1991. It's no surprise that others among those former subject states, such as Estonia, Ukraine, and Poland, have been among the most vocal in calling for support for Georgia. They know their giant neighbor very well, and fear that their own situation will become more dangerous if Russia gets away with its aggression in the Caucasus. Indeed, I have no doubt that the attack on Georgia is partly intended as a test of will similar to the remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 -- a move to see how far Russia can assert itself against international norms without provoking a serious response from the democracies.

All this being said, the fact remains that Russia has a legitimate point in this case.

The people of South Ossetia (and of Abkhazia, another breakway province in Georgia) are not ethnically Georgian, and they have never wanted to be part of Georgia. Soon after Georgia became independent in 1991, both South Ossetia and Abkhazia established de facto independent splinter states. Georgia's effort to regain control over the two territories is consistent with the general principle of the territorial integrity of sovereign states, but if a referendum were to be held in those provinces to let their people decide whether to live under Georgian or Russian rule, Russia would win, probably in a landslide. Russia is violating Georgia's territorial integrity, but it is on the side of the popular will in the territories under dispute.

This principle of popular will trumping territorial integrity is one which the United States itself has endorsed before, in a case which still deeply rankles Russians: Kosovo. Kosovo is, or rather was, a province of Serbia, and remained part of Serbia when Yugoslavia broke up. However, its population is about 90% ethnic Albanian (and Muslim), not Serb, and it has sustained a serious popular drive for independence from Serbia since the late 1980s. Over time the West came to support Kosovo's independence based on the fact that this was the clear will of most of its people, while Russia has strongly backed Serbia, its long-time ally and fellow Slavic-speaking country (Russia is by far the largest Slavic nation, and its self-image as the "big brother" of smaller Slavic countries such as Serbia looms very large in Russian consciousness). Earlier this year, Kosovo formally declared independence, and has been recognized by most Western countries including the US.

If you were to ask the typical person in the street in Russia about the war in Georgia, I can almost guarantee that his response would be to bring up Kosovo and accuse the US of hypocrisy. If the US could support the independence of Kosovo based on the will of its people and their ethnic distinctness from the larger state of which they were part, why can't Russia do the same with South Ossetia and Abkhazia?

True, this would be a dangerous precedent. If Russia's gambit in Georgia succeeds, the regime might even be tempted to challenge Ukraine for control of the strategically-important province of Crimea; Crimea's population is 54% ethnic Russian (as distinct from Ukrainians who merely speak Russian), and pro-Russian sentiment is vocal there.

But the fact is that there are issues Russia can cite to justify its actions, and the accusation of hypocrisy is not without merit.

7 Comments:

Blogger mendip said...

It is always a situation that involves dangers and hypocrisy - virtually every large to mid-sized country in Europe has ethnic groups with separtist tendencies, (as does the U.S. and Canada). And Russia is the worst of all. I think it all comes down to realpolitik, and damn any thoughts of consistency.

10 August, 2008 04:30  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Indeed, my first thought about this was that Georgia is just doing in South Ossetia the same thing that Russia has been doing (much more bloodily) in Chechnya. Hypocrisy is to be found on all sides. My point is that Russia isn't entirely in the wrong in this case as many Westerners seem to think.

10 August, 2008 04:49  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

The war is spreading to other parts of Georgia.

10 August, 2008 04:53  
Blogger Prash said...

I agree 100% to this point of view in this post. I was about to write a post on this issue in the same angle. I was even about to talk about Abkhazia including the issues of Kosovo and US & the rest of the western block's stand on this issue.

Thanks for this post !

10 August, 2008 23:51  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Thanks for reading!

11 August, 2008 01:41  
Anonymous Blurber said...

How come the cable and network "news" channels don't provide a clear and helpful analysis like this? From what I hear McCain and Obama say on the subject, it wouldn't hurt if they read this too. Bearing in mind what happened in Kosovo this is one of those situations where nobody is completely right or wrong. Luckily Bush in impotent in this situation so he can't do anything to screw this one up.

12 August, 2008 18:54  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Luckily Bush in impotent in this situation so he can't do anything to screw this one up.

This is an example of a very rare type of situation -- one in which the US is actually utterly incapable of influencing the outcome at all. Russia is simply too powerful, and too determined to get its own way in this case.

The more I think about this, the more incredible it seems that the Georgians miscalculated so badly. They indiscriminately shelled and bombarded a civilian population which held Russian citizenship, killing hundreds -- perhaps thousands. They killed and wounded Russian peacekeeping troops. Russia is a great power. How the hell did they think the Russians were going to react? If the Russian regime hadn't responded forcefully, it would probably be in serious trouble with its own people by now.

12 August, 2008 19:54  

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