The Ossetia Matter

by Nathan Hamm on 8/18/2004 · 2 comments

Alexei quotes a comment he left here a short while ago. I think I made it clear yesterday that I don’t want to do a blow-by-blow on the facts of the case (though I did take issue with the Almond article that Alexei called “illuminating”).

I certainly will not take issue with Alexei like I did with Mark Irkali. He is, after all, actually Russian and not at all shrill.

What I will say though is that what I see as missing from the discussion of the conflict among my opponents is an honest accounting of Russia’s complicity in prolonging it, interest in prolonging it, and centrality to the whole matter. Instead, we get shades of “America’s to blame” from “the US is encircling Russia” to “Bush is trying to destroy Russia.” To his credit, Alexei does talk about Russia’s role, but there are a few points I feel must be made.

1) The “New Great Game” is a figment of the sweaty nightmares of Russia’s chattering class. It is most definitely a holdover from the Cold War with a dash of 19th century history thrown in. I feel that the hand-wringing over US plans to encircle and weaken Russia (don’t flatter yourself, honey) reveals more about Russian fears of their own weakness than US plans to conquer them. Unfortunately, this is not something I can disprove as it’s often a belief held on mere faith or entirely materialistic analyses of the United States. US officials have said time and time again that we do not see ourselves as in any kind of competition with Russia and that our goals (promoting free societies and markets) are not designed to exclude or harm the Russians in any way. We are also resigned to the fact that we cannot compete economically in the region. We can buy resources and set up the occasionaly joint venture, but it is Russia that stands to gain most from the realization of US goals.

I should throw in here a comment about the “materialistic analyses.” I suppose many of you will understand that I mean Marxist, neo-Marxist, or in some way inspired by Karl Marx. This, of course, has been in vogue in the academy for quite some time and is appealing for how easy the Lenin/Dude version (see the mention in this post) of it. People who rely on it, especially foreign policy-makers, are running grave risk when thinking about the United States. We are a people who often will go to great great lengths of expense and effort for little things like ideals. I recently met a Belgian who said that he is scared that the United States will try to conquer Europe during his lifetime. Why? “Because,” he said, “you will do anything to stop us from being richer than you.” And he’s normal. He’s a techie for HP.

So, Alexei et al., the US isn’t out to hurt Russia, we’re doing what we think is right.

2) “Russia is protecting ethnic minorities.” Give me a freakin’ break. Alexei’s admission that it’s done out of self-interest is as close to it comes in truth-telling on this point. And, when a country de facto annexes territory out of self interest, it’s a little hard to believe that it really has any humanitarian motivations. Given Russia’s historical track record and recent history in the Caucasus, I have a hard time believing that the Russian government gives a damn about Ossetians or Abkhazians.

3) You don’t have to believe Saakashvili is a saint to know that the JCC’s a devil. Those who rail against Georgia seek to preserve the status quo. The JCC is a tool for creeping Russian irredentism and arming its clients, not a conflic-resolution body. Imagine if the US offered citizenship to all Cubans and then used Guantanamo as a launching point for operations to “protect our citizens.”

Yes, Saakashvili is using inflammatory rhetoric. But, it’s gotten people off their asses. Russia is, to put it bluntly, being facetious about its interest in being an honest broker. And, Alexei, yes, Russia should deal with the US on this. It seems that they only pay attention when we are involved. That is precisely what Saakashvili wants to happen. Despite accusations of him being a little Milosevic (wait, Irkali, didn’t Russia dig him?), Saakashvili has been stepping back from the brink despite the best efforts of South Ossetia, or, er, um, third forces. Perhaps it’s especially maddening to those on the Russian side that the leader of a small mountain republic occasionally is such an able politician. I’m not sure.

4) And, finally, a little bit of what I hope to see. I think the ideal situation would be a Russian-midwifed and gradual reintegration of Abhkazia and South Ossetia would be best. Let those who have Russian citizenship keep it if they want, but begin treating an international border like an international border. The situation needs to be normalized in some way because Russia and Georgia certainly can be great economic partners, but I fear they absolutely will not so long as these situations remain unresolved.

What I think is unacceptable under any circumstance is the annexation of these territories into Russia. I’m not one of those people who are married to preserving borders, but I don’t believe that they should be changed to reward bad behavior or to avoid dealing with a difficult issue. Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence would be a better alternative in my book.

I’m an unabashed Georgian cheerleader. A lack of perfection on Saakashvili’s part is no reason for me to gnash my teeth, beat my breast, tear my hair, and call him a thuggish tyrant when there are legitimate thugs in the neighborhood.

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– author of 2991 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Nathan is the founder and Principal Analyst for Registan, which he launched in 2003. He was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan 2000-2001 and received his MA in Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2007. Since 2007, he has worked full-time as an analyst, consulting with private and government clients on Central Asian affairs, specializing in how socio-cultural and political factors shape risks and opportunities and how organizations can adjust their strategic and operational plans to account for these variables. More information on Registan's services can be found here, and Nathan can be contacted via Twitter or email.

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Alexei August 19, 2004 at 2:54 am

Nathan, I have difficulty believing ideals matter much in political decision making anywhere. Even if they do, certainly less so than idealistic common Americans would prefer. Practically speaking, the US has a right to defend and secure its borders, which means it is natural for the US to interfere, within certain limits of course, into Cuban and Mexican affairs. It is equally natural for Russia to care about Georgian developments.

We shouldn’t confuse motives with outcomes. I do not quite understand Russia’s motives in the conflict, but I can see that the practical outcome of its involvement is peace, or a reasonable approximation thereto. Similarly, Imperial Russia’s record in Transcaucasia (as opposed to Northern Caucasus) was quite decent whatever its intentions–decent in comparison with Britain’s record in its colonies and the alternative Georgia and Armenia faced: Ottoman or Persian rule. Sometimes when I hear or read news from Georgia or the Russian North Caucasus, I wish Russian troops and residents moved out of the area for good and left all those peace- and independence-loving people of the mountains to slit each other’s throats. (I only feel sorry for the traditionally merchant-minded, unwarlike Ossetes.) Then I remind myself that no matter how immoral Russia’s motives are, its presence is a stabilizing factor. If Russia pulls out, who’s going to fill the power vacuum? Remember how Britain pulled out of India–a much less violence-prone country for sure?

To be honest, I wouldn’t mind if Americans were both capable of turning Georgia (as well as Azerbaijan) into a stable state and willing to commit resources, including military force, to do that. I just don’t believe it will work out. Nowhere have Americans excelled at nation-building.

Nathan August 19, 2004 at 10:26 pm

Practically speaking, the US has a right to defend and secure its borders, which means it is natural for the US to interfere, within certain limits of course, into Cuban and Mexican affairs. It is equally natural for Russia to care about Georgian developments.

What, pray tell, would you think if the United States armed Quebecois separatists who decided to force separation rather than wait for it at the ballot box. Then, in the midst of the violence, the US moves in as “peacekeepers.” A decade passes and little has changed. The US offers citizenship to the Quebecois and when Canada tries to press the issue of Quebec’s re-integration, the US says it must take into account the interests of its citizens.

Not a likely scenario, but analogous to how Russia “cares” about Georgia.

And, like I said, I can’t convince you that Americans, even the most jaded and bureaucratic amongst us, are ridiculously idealistic. To be sure, yes, the United States has interests, but the promotion and spread of our ideals is one of them. We are a missionary people.

I don’t value stability for its own sake, Alexei. Maintaining the status quo is not worth it if the status quo can be improved. It certainly can in the Caucasus and war doesn’t have to be the path to that improvement. The ball is in Russia’s court.

I think that Georgia will improve through US & EU assistance, but it would be nice if Russia would help us out. You can accomplish more than us. I don’t know what there is to be afraid of. There is no empire waiting to gobble up the Caucasus and the case for Saakashvili being a genocidal monster is, I’m sorry to say, weaker than the case is for the same being said of Putin.

And as for the nation-building point, please. I assume you have a better knowledge of the post-WWII years than my Uzbek students, so you’d know you’re being hyperbolic. Also, the situation in Georgia is not anything like a nation-building situation. The US and EU are providing technical assistance, not occupying, annexing, and lifting an entire people out of a feudal morass.

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