About a month ago, I noted in the Columbia Journalism Review that Georgia had devoted a rather significant amount of resources toward pressing its case—in English!—as a hapless victim of Russian aggression. To a large degree, the EU report on the Russo-Georgian War of last August pokes holes in the myth of Georgian victimization, mostly by noting just how thoroughly provocative Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was beforehand (but still nevertheless condemning Russia’s conduct as illegal and extreme).
I would call that a sober assessment of what happened: Georgia behaving like a petulant teenager, and Russia behaving like an unaccountable bully. James Joyner, however, calls it “bizarre“:
If sovereignty means anything, it means that leaders of a state have license to take actions within the confines of their borders as they see fit, so long as they don’t create adverse spillover effects for their neighbors. Saakashvili’s actions against internal groups conducting illegal activities within the borders of his country, while unwise and perhaps even provocative, are simply no justification for an illegal invasion of its sovereign territory by another member of the United Nations. Period. End of story.
Similarly, the United States, Israel, Ukraine, and Georgia are all member states of the United Nations. Georgia was not under any sort of UN Security Council sanction nor was it or is it now a threat to its neighbors. Why, then, are the first three not allowed to sell or give arms to Georgia as they please? Georgia is a staunch ally in the war on al Qaeda and were even participants in helping secure Iraq until illegal violation of its own territory forced them to bring troops home. The United States is particular, then, had every reason in the world to augment Georgia’s military power and none not to. Indeed, if their military were weaker, there’s plenty of reason to believe Russian forces would be even further into “Georgia Proper” now, perhaps even going so far as to remove the duly elected president by force.
There are several things to disagree with here. Let’s start with the “adverse spillover effects”—Russian media certainly portrays the events especially inside North Ossetia and to a lesser degree in Abkhazia as having negative spillover effects in its own conflicts in the Caucasus. Plus, Georgia has not exercised effective sovereignty over either territory for well-night fifteen years under the auspices of the UN, which to me at least makes me wonder just what exactly we are to mean by invoking sovereignty over the two breakaway provinces.
Secondly, I gotta raise a big red flag over the whole “Georgia helps us with al Qaeda and Iraq” thing. Georgia deployed its troops in a very obvious quid-pro-quo for substantial American technical and military training assistance—that is why there was such an enormous U.S. presence in the country during Russia’s advance. In 2006, Nathan Hodge even interviewed Georgian soldiers who viewed their arrangement with the U.S. as being preparation work for forcibly retaking their wayward territories, which would be a violation of the UN-brokered cease-fire.
Then there’s that al Qaeda bit. Unless James knows of something else, most of the concern about “al Qaeda in Georgia” really amounts to 2002-era concern-trolling over the Pankisi Gorge (this article in Time is a good representation). The thing is, until 9/11 the big concern in Pankisi was actually Chechen fighters using the area as a safe haven for their war with the Russian Army—which takes us back to that whole sovereignty bit (namely, just how tacit, from either party, was the approval for such groups for so long?). In other words, the United States has been inserting itself—indirectly, but not very subtly—into both Georgia’s conflict with Russia, and with Russia’s own internal conflicts. Which doesn’t really leave the United States as a neutral partner to the conflict, hence the limitations on its arms sales.
Bringing it all back around, it’s a tough sell to call the Russo-Georgian War a clear cut open-and-closed example of one country violating another’s sovereignty. Russia has staffed a UN peacekeeping force in both of Georgia’s breakaway territories for years, and lest we forget—Georgia started shelling Tskhinvali, which necessitated a Russian response of some sort.
When discussing the conflict’s ultimate blame, however, Georgia cannot be singled out. Russia has undoubtedly behaved provocatively as well, whether issuing Russian passports to Ossetians and Abkhazians, or through its outrageous and unjustifiable lightning thrust into the country. Realizing both countries bear substantial blame for the conflict does not require apologizing or moral equivalency for either side, but rather realizing the situation is both legally and ethically kind of murky, and that, in fact, both countries can be in the wrong. I mean, that isn’t so hard, is it?