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Talkin’ Third World War

Great international conflicts have a habit of starting in ‘far away places of which we know nothing’: Sarajevo, Poland, Pearl Harbour, and now South Ossetia. The escalation of the conflict in the Caucasus into a kind of post-modern Cold War has been breathtaking. One minute, you are looking for South Ossetia on the map; the next people are talking of nuclear retaliation.

Fortunately, our diplomatic mechanisms are rather better at handling international crisis than they were in 1914. But that doesn’t mean we are out of the woods yet in the Caucasus. It’s a sobering thought that if George W, Bush had had his way and Georgia had been a member of Nato, we would now be at war with Russia. Nato is an alliance which, in theory at least, commits its signatories to react collectively to a military threat to any one of its members.

Would we really have been prepared to lay waste to Europe in support of the unstable and unreliable Georgian leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, who launched cowardly and brutal assault on the South Ossetian town of Tskhinvali under the cover of the opening night of the Olympic Games? I hope not, but we can’t be sure. With someone like George W. Bush supposed leading ‘free world’, we can’t be sure of anything, except that it will be a mess.

The war in South Ossetia has been a huge error of judgement by the West, and further confirmation of the imponderable stupidity of the Bush administration. It was a gamble which should never have been made, on a conflict nobody wanted, and in the interests of a political leader who has no right respect or support. David Cameron will regret hot-headed dash to Tblisi to be photographed with Saakashvili once once it becomes widely known what actually happened in South Ossetia, where the Georgians used Grad missiles against apartment blocs and hospitals.

Now, I know that we are supposed to see South Ossetia as a brutal land grab but the Russian Bear, crushing gallant little Georgia under the Moscow boot etc.. The Western media has largely accepted the line put out by America that this was a brutal annexation of a sovereign country by an imperialist Russia – repeat of the Hungarian invasion of 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. But as always in war, truth is the first casualty.

The Caucasian war was launched by Georgia on August 7th in an attempt to crush the separatist movement of South Ossetia. While there was provocation on both sides, this was an act of bloody madness. It was like England launching a war against Scotland for wanting to leave the UK. I’m not saying that Russia did not have an interest in supporting a breakaway – it had been handing out Russian passports to Ossetians – or that Putin wasn’t playing politics in the region. But that did not justify an all-out military attack by Georgia.

The west – by which we mean essentially America – massively miscalculated in Georgia, supplying military hardware and expertise to Saakashvili without ensuring that he would behave responsibly. The Georgian leader thought would force the Americans to intervene militarily in support of his attempt to crush Ossetian nationalism. It did not, of course. Not even George W. Bush is stupid enough to launch a land war in the Caucasus. There is no evidence that the Russians plan to annex South Ossetia still less to invade Georgia with a view to forcing it into the Russian federation. The Russian military have been in no hurry to withdraw, but the evidence is clear that they are now preparing to do so. They don’t have the will or the means to occupy a country like Georgia.

Not only has Russia now restored its military self-confidence and credibility, it has exposed the West’s weakness, already evident in Iraq. But what is much worse is that America has handed the moral high ground to someone who certainly doesn’t deserve it: the Russian Prime Minister. Vladimir Putin. This authoritarian hard man, who has suppressed free speech in Russia and subborned its democratic system to ensure his continued rule, can now stand as a champion of the rights of the oppressed people of Ossetia. Protector of the weak against military aggression.

He can, with some legitimacy, compare his “humanitarian” intervention in Georgia with that of the West in Kosovo. And the truth is that his call for south Ossetians to be allowed self-determination like the former Yugoslavian province, is the only defensible one in the Caucasian context. The only solution to the confrontation there is for the people of South Ossetia to be consulted and allowed to chose their own destiny, under the inalienable right of all peoples’ to self-determination.

What must not happen is for the West, led by fools in the White House, is to compound this misjudgement by seeking to crush the independence movement in South Ossetia. Yet, by promising to defend the territorial integrity of Georgia, we are coming dangerously close to doing precisely that. We have no right to tell the South Ossetians which country they wish to live in, and after the brutal behaviour of Georgian troops in Tskinvali, it would be grotesque to try to force the South Ossetians to bend to the will of Saakashvili.

Putin played his hand very astutely, limiting his military action to destroying Georgian military positions around South Ossetia, agreeing to a ceasefire and abiding by it, and now by gradually pulling its military forces out of greater Georgia. Of course, there will be reprisals, communal violence, and stories of atrocities both by South Ossetians and Georgians. But eventually the West will have to recognise, when we see the pictures of the devastation in Tskhinvali (you can see them already on he internet) that Russia had – as the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachov has said – very little alternative but to intervene in South Ossetia.

But perhaps the greatest mistake of all by the West was – as President Bush might put it- “misunderestimating” Putin and the Russians. Calling Russia “Saudi Arabia with trees” was more revealing of the decline of American diplomatic ….. Could you have imagined John F Kennedy calling Russia names? Placing missiles in Poland and arming Saakashvili were acts of provocation which no country could have ignored. Imagine if Russia had placed “defensive” missiles in Mexico and sent arms to Cuba? Well, it did of course, back in 1962 when Russia was the Soviet Union and Nikita Khrushchev was arming Castro. The American response then, quite rightly, was to demand the withdrawal of Soviet arms from its sphere of influence. The roles are reversed today, and we have Bush rather than Khrushchev gambling with world security. The world nearly went to war over Cuba – let’s hope that we can stop history repeating itself.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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