Blogs > Liberty and Power > How the War in Georgia Started

Aug 16, 2008 4:00 pm


How the War in Georgia Started



For a break from the non-stop"Georgia as innocent victim" marathon at CNN and Fox, check out this story from the BBC:

The Bush administration appears to be trying to turn a failed military operation by Georgia into a successful diplomatic operation against Russia. It is doing so by presenting the Russian actions as aggression and playing down the Georgian attack into South Ossetia on 7 August, which triggered the Russian operation.

Yet the evidence from South Ossetia about that attack indicates that it was extensive and damaging.

The BBC's Sarah Rainsford has reported:"Many Ossetians I met both in Tskhinvali and in the main refugee camp in Russia are furious about what has happened to their city.

"They are very clear who they blame: Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, who sent troops to re-take control of this breakaway region."

... Human Rights Watch concluded after an on-the-ground inspection:"Witness accounts and the timing of the damage would point to Georgian fire accounting for much of the damage described [in Tskhinvali]."


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Bogdan Enache - 8/29/2008

I can understand why the overly emphatic attitude towards Georgia on FOX News or CNN or elsewhere might irritate you, but a scholar or someone who claims a modestly informed opinion is obliged to check other, more satisfactory, sources of information and for a broader timeline in order to get an idea of what's really going on.

I do appreciate, anyway, that you don't seem to think, like other "libertarians" I've read, that Putin and the capitalists in Moscow, (who happened to have an army corps stand by the Georgian border ready to invade in a matter of hours)actually liberated the country; or that the constant - tacitly backed by the Russian forces on the ground - harassment from the Ossetian side (which received increased autonomy) and attempts to ethically cleans Georgian villages might counted when the Georgians started their offensive; or that the KGB, mafia, Russian-puppet leaders of these secessionist regions will actually lead these country towards the libertarian utopia; or that the CIA actually set-up Saakashvili's regime (as well as Yushchenko's etc...in fact, why not? don't we all know that the CIA planned the Velvet revolution, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Prague Spring and whatever else one can think of ?!); or that the Georgian government is actually a tyranny, when it actually implemented probably the most drastic libertarian oriented reforms any government has since 1989; or that being in a politically unstable region and facing an impending threat from mighty Russia, a country left with no heavy armour or air force or navy after the dismantle of the USSR, might actually think of buying some automatic guns, armored carriers radar equipment and so on...

As libertarians should know, good intentions don't necessarily lead to good policy, neither - it seems - to good analysis in some cases.

P.S. Read also the Russian press, maybe they can shed more light into the matter: http://www.themoscowtimes.com/article/1016/42/369764.htm


Richard Loren Vogt - 8/26/2008

Great analogy. I just finished Hopkirk's book and see so many parallels between British-Russia in the 19th century and USA-Russia in the 20th (and now 21st) century. Now, American warships are showing up (wasn't there a similar incident in the early 19th century with a British warship sent to the Caucasus region?) Anyway, American power will be no more successful than British power 150 years ago...but not doubt that won't keep the US from making the same mistakes.


Dr. James Ottavio Castagnera - 8/23/2008

The Russians have romped through Georgia. When taken to task, they asked rhetorically, if Uncle Sam can invade Baghdad, why can’t the Bear invade Tbilisi. Secretary of State Rice retorted that this was not Czechoslovakia in 1968. With all due respect, Dr. Rice drew the wrong analogy. Cold War thinking isn’t helpful here.
To find an accurate historical analogy to today’s situation, she would do better to hark back to 1885. For decades British India and Tsarist Russia had been playing a chess game in Central Asia. The Russians had designs on a vast region, which they considered a natural part of their sphere of influence. Victorian Brits feared that Russian aspirations extended beyond the Caucasus and the Steppes. In their minds, India, the jewel in their queen’s crown, was the ultimate stake in the game.
Early in the game, Britain tried to control Afghanistan as a buffer to perceived Russian lust for the Indian subcontinent. The first Anglo-Afghan War (`1838-42) ended in an English disaster. From a column of some 16,000 British troops retreating out of Kabul, only one survivor emerged to tell the grizzly tale. The Brits later took their revenge, razing Kabul. The second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-81) was a win for the Lion.
Four years later, the Empire was ill prepared to counter Russian incursions in Central Asia. In 1884 General Sir Peter Lumsden, a member of the Joint Afghan Boundary Commission formed by the two “super-powers,” warned that the Russian Bear was stirring in the region once more. Then, in January 1885, came the news from a relief force sent south along the Nile from Egypt that Khartoum, capital of the Sudan, had fallen to a self-proclaimed Islamic Mahdi. Worse, the British icon, General Charles “Chinese” Gordon, who had organized the defense of Khartoum, had been killed. Although the British, who effectively ruled Egypt, had planned to abandon the Sudan in the face of the fanatical Islamic forces, Gordon’s death left them honor-bound to avenge him. Lumsden’s warning, that the Russians would be on the move “as soon as a large portion of our forces are locked up in Egypt and the Sudan,” proved itself prophetic.
The Russians seized some additional Central Asian territory, the British issued diplomatic warnings and marshaled troops along India’s northern border, and in the words of historian Peter Hopkirk, “the tremors of the crisis were being felt throughout the rest of the world.” He adds, “In America, where the news had rocked Wall Street, all talk was of the coming struggle between the two imperial giants.” However, no repeat of the 1854-56 Crimean War occurred.
In his 1992 book, The Great Game, Hopkirk --- a London Times reporter who traveled extensively in Central Asia --- referred to the 1979-89 Russian debacle in Afghanistan, when he introduced his account of the 19th century: “If [my] narrative tells us nothing else, it at least shows that not much has changed in the last hundred years. The storming of embassies by frenzied mobs, the murder of diplomats, and the dispatch of warships to the Persian Gulf --- all these were only too familiar to our Victorian forebears. Indeed, the headlines of today are often indistinguishable from those of a century or more ago.”
Now, some 20 years after the Soviet Bear departed Afghanistan, tail between its legs, we are hearing the same echoes reverberate down the long corridors of history from those distant days when Great Britain --- our only staunch ally today in Afghanistan and Iraq --- fought a sometimes-cold, occasionally-hot, war for control of the vast land of the “Stans.” As in 1885, and in 1979-89, Western and Russian forces will not clash directly with one another. Rather, we will work to outmaneuver the Bear. Russo-Ursus will work just as hard to regain its earlier influence in those oil-rich lands, which broke free in 1989-1990, when the USSR crumbled like the Berlin Wall. The Great Game will go on, the 21st century continuing the patterns of geopolitical power struggle that characterized Central Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries.
--- Jim Castagnera, castagne@rider.edu


Craig J Bolton - 8/18/2008

Somehow this response doesn't seem to be very coherent to me, for a couple of reasons.
First of all, "the logic of nation states" implies that there is something like a single will making decisions for a nation state. Typically, there isn't. Whether one is looking a Czarist Russia or Switzerland, there are many deciders interacting with one another in complex patterns. Further, as just noted, nation states aren't homogeneous, and there is, thus, unlikely to be ONE "logic" for all of them.

After relying on a mechanic explanation for what happens in international affairs, a model like a "logic of nation states," you then turn to the "Platonic advisor" role where you want to tell us what would be the best policies for the U.S. It doesn't work that way. If institutional structure determines outcomes, then it determines outcomes. What would be "best," or "better" or is "desirable" doesn't matter. The institutional structure grinds out the results, and does so whether those within the structure have good will or ill will, are saints or devils. That is the whole point of such models.


David T. Beito - 8/16/2008

I don't claim the Russians are innocent. To the contrary. There is plenty of blame on both sides for some of the reasons you outlined. Russia should have stayed out or, at the very least, showed more restraint. The attack was also clearly planned in anticipation (after a long history of Georgian attacks).

At the same time, IMHO, Russia's actions were logical given the nature of nation states. To a great extent, it was the culmination of events over the last two decades. During that time, it was gradually encircled by the admission of ex-Soviet satellites republics into NATO, efforts have been made (now successful) to station Patriot Missiles in Poland directly on its boarder.

Given the nature of nation states, it would be foolhardy to expect Russia to let this continue without taking action.

How would the United States have reacted if the Russians had put missiles in Mexico and was gradually encircling the U.S. with a pro-Russian alliance system? I am not excusing Russia's behavior only pointing out that it was entirely predictable given this pattern of events.

Instead of addressing these genuine Russian concerns and fears, Bush and Rice have only upped the ante to a dangerous new level by demanding that it recognize Georgia's authority over unwilling South Ossetians. If the Bush policy continues, it will push Russia more into the arms of the Iranians and motivate it to retaliate by making trouble in Pakistan and Iraq. Do we really want to go do that road?

A better policy for the U.S. would be to do the following:

1. Quit expanding NATO eastward and encourage a neutral free-trading buffer zone.

2. Give the Russians a piece of the action on the pipeline. This could have been done by adding an extra spur to the pipeline to accomodate their oil. Why did we needlessly antagonize them in the first place by not giving them a cut? Even the Godfather would have recognized that kind of basic logic.

3. Don't put Patriot missiles on Russia's border.

4. Settle the dispute in Georgia by holding plebisites so the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia can decide whether they want to remain in Georgia.


Stephen Smith - 8/16/2008

A few things:

1. The war was not about Russia saving the South Ossetians. It was about Russia raising the risk premium to Western investors looking to run pipelines through Georgia (now that Iran and Armenia are gone to the Russians, Georgia is the only hope for Europe to avoid Russia/its allies in moving oil and gas from east to west).
2. Russia had this war planned long in advance.
3. The article quoted HRW as saying that the Georgians were responsible for what happened in Tskhinvali, but failed to quote them when they mentioned that the death toll in Tskhinvali was less than 5% of what Putin claimed it was, and even then, there's no mention of whether the 40-something dead were civilians or combatants.
4. They failed to mention, also in that same HRW report that I quoted above, that the Russians killed about the same amount of people in Gori.
5. While the Russians' exaggerated claims of the dead in South Ossetia may seem to be just the usual exaggeration, it had deadly consequences. According to the Guardian (a left-leaning British publication that, unlike Fox and CNN, wouldn't seem to have an obvious pro-Georgia stance), the exaggerations were meant to inflame ethnic tension between the South Ossetians and the minority Georgians in the area (I think something like 20% of those in South Ossetia are Georgians) – the Russians wanted South Ossetian civilians to attack Georgian civilians.