The world held its breath last week as Russia and America exchanged increasingly belligerent rhetoric over the crisis in South Ossetia, the worst we have heard since the end of the Cold War. Moscow has even hinted at possible nuclear retaliation for the siting of American missiles in Poland. Some see in the crisis in the Caucasus shades of Sarajevo in August 1914, when the world stumbled into war almost accidentally after the assassination of the Arch Duke, Franz Ferdinand (no relation). While there is little risk of South Ossetia igniting world war three, there is a risk of international relations becoming soured, not least by the intensely anti-Russian rhetoric of some in the West.
Russia has been accused by America of aggression against Georgia and of violating international law by interfering in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. We hold no brief for Vladimir Putin, the hard man prime minister of Russia who has undermined free speech in his own country and manipulated the democratic system to ensure his continued rule. We are alarmed at the continued presence of Russian tanks deep inside Georgia and we urge Moscow to withdraw.
However, we are also appalled at the hypocrisy of the charges of from the Americans who so recently invaded the sovereignty of Iraq, with British help, killing tens of thousands of civilians in the process. The Russians claim their intervention was humanitarian, so did we. This looks like a story of one law for America, another for the rest of the world. The Russian defence of the citizens of South Ossetia was strikingly similar to the actions of western countries in 1999 when we bombed Serbian army positions to protect the people of the breakaway province of Kosovo.
The Russians did not start the war in the Caucasus – it was the Georgian leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, who launched a cowardly and bloody assault on the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali on August 7th under cover of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympic games. There is evidence that multiple rocket launchers were used against a civilian population. This was a shocking act of war, and while the Russian claims of ‘genocide’ against the people of South Ossetia may be exaggerated, there is no doubt that the Georgian action killed many civilians and displaced thousands.
Russia has been accused of having territorial ambitions in Georgia and of wanting regime change in Tblisi, but we could have been accused of exactly the same thing when we bombed Belgrade and sought the removal from power of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. In fact, it is far from clear that the Russians do intend to annex Georgia, and act which Georgians would fiercely resist.
The Russians have largely kept their word on the ceasefire and have limited military action to the disputed provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Comparisons with the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 are wide of the mark. This has not been an attempt to overthrow the legitimate government of Georgia or impose a communist system of government. As the former president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachov has pointed out, the roots of the Caucasus tragedy lie in the repeated attempts by Georgia since 1991 to extinguish South Ossetian autonomy. The solution should be to establish some form of federal arrangement that gives the disparate communities of the Caucasus control of their own destinies, free from interference from ‘great powers’. Gorbachov has been a calm voice of reason amid the cacophony of recrimination and veiled threats.
There can be no question of South Ossetia simply being handed back to Georgia after what has happened. The population of the two dispute regions of Georgia have an inalienable right to self-determination. It is up to the people to decide their fate, not Washington or Moscow. In the meantime, could everyone please just ratchet down the rhetoric and stop playing cold war games.