Russian Military Intervention in South Ossetia: Different Perspectives

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Mahmoud Reza Golshanpajooh

Although the clashes in South Ossetia over the past few weeks have been halted following a heavy handed military intervention by Russia which led to a ceasefire and although the situation has apparently returned to normal, but the truth is that the incident that occurred in this strategic region would have consequences far beyond an all-out military attack, a troop pullback and certain arguments for and against the event.

Although the military reaction by Russia which turned the crisis from a not-too-extensive confrontation into an all-out war, at least in the short term, sounded a bit peculiar and hasty, however attention to the following points would help one better understand the situation:

1. Since 2005 so far, events have been occurring within the Russian national security domain which have made Moscow more and more pessimistic towards the West’s intentions every day and prompting the Kremlin to further tighten its outlook vis-à-vis national security issues. These events are:

1.1 The coming to power of Mikheil Saakashvili in Georgia as a close US ally in the region in 2005 was the starting point of a crisis which has now turned into a war between Russia and Georgia after three years.

1.2 Georgia’s desire to become a NATO member which was put to a referendum in 2008 with 70 percent of Georgians voting in favor. But Russia which is strongly opposed to infiltration of the US and NATO into its southern borders in the strategic Caucasus region was waiting for an opportunity to prevent such influence at any cost.

1.3 US persistence on deployment of missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland which would bring West Russia under America’s full radar control prompted Moscow to use all its possibilities to put pressure on Washington and its allies. And Georgia by attacking South Ossetia provided Russia with a good excuse.

1.4 Independence of Kosovo: Kosovo’s secession from Serbia which is a close ally of Russia, further weakened Moscow’s position in the Balkans. In return, Russia tried to strengthen its military presence compared with the past by indirectly recognizing certain official institutions in self-proclaimed governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia within the Russian territory. This Russian action faced strong negative reaction from Georgian statesmen which eventually led them attack South Ossetia in an uncalculated measure.

2. The policy practiced by Moscow at present is the same followed in 1992-3 over the refusal of former Georgian president Eduard Shevardnadze to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). This system of ethnic governments shaped at the time of the Soviet Union has been turned into a tool in the hands of Moscow to put pressure on defiant states, if necessary. It is also the same policy followed by Moscow in 1992-3 about Abkhazia, namely putting pressure on Tbilisi to contain Shevardnadze’s Western tendencies, something that is being practiced against Saakashvili now.

What is happening now in terms of the international law is a Russian attack on Georgian territory. But the Russians believe this is exactly what happened in the case of Kosovo. At the time of Kosovo’s independence announcement, the Russians had warned against resort to retaliatory measures in the Caucasus, particularly in Ossetia and Abkhazia. In other words, they wanted to say if Kosovo can break away from Serbia, then Abkhazia and Ossetia could become independent too.


Regarding the consequences of this crisis, two different outlooks can be considered. First, Russia’s defeat in the standoff; and secondly stabilization of Russia’s new position among the world powers.

First Outlook: According to this outlook, Russia’s reaction was very hasty. In other words, Russia has fallen into a trap cunningly laid by the US and certain European countries. Evidences of this perspective are:

1.    Although the United States and some European states were not directly involved in support of Georgia against Russia but repeated statements by George Bush; the visit of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to Georgia; cancellation of the joint US-Russia military exercises; immediate dispatch of humanitarian aid to Georgia by the West; the EU intervention, including France as the EU chairman, to settle the crisis; renewed talks on admission of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO; and more importantly the signing of an initial agreement between the US and Poland on deployment of missile defense shield inside Poland are among the prices Russia has paid for its hasty attack on South Ossetia so far. Here, the unified role played by the Western media in portraying the Russian attack as a “savage aggression on a defenseless country” should not be overlooked either. In the eyes of the audience of these media, Russia is now charged with genocide in Ossetia and with rendering tens of thousands of people homeless in the region.

2.    The method used by the Russian officials in handling the crisis showed that Russia still has a craving for the cold war and is therefore unable to settle issues Moscow is sensitive towards in a logical manner and through negotiations. Today, the Russians have again taken the same tough course of the former Soviet Union which depicts an uglier image of Moscow compared with the benevolent face of the American statesmen which have kept urging the Russians to show self-restraint and sit on the negotiation table. The Americans have also been sending humanitarian aid to Tbilisi and are proud that one of their main European allies (France) has managed to restore peace in the region. These things would unconsciously turn the attention to West’s goodwill and generosity.

3.    Although Russia made it clear, through its military operations, that it would not tolerate the West’s intrusion into its red lines, but the event also exposed Moscow’s great panic vis-à-vis West’s calculated moves. Russia has in fact unwillingly exposed, not its red lines but its weak points so that the West, particularly Washington, would now be able to cunningly pinpoint this Russian weakness in due time and disturb Moscow. This strategy would undoubtedly serve the interests of the West in the future.

Second Outlook: According to this view, the Russian reaction was very intelligent and timely which would bring about positive and unpredictable outcomes for Moscow in future relations and interactions between Russia and West. The proofs for this point of view are:

1.    Russia made it clear to the West that it would make no compromise within its former domain of influence. In reality, the West realized that the price it should pay for supporting Kosovo’s secession and the color revolutions was not little and that the issue was not simply over. This message had also other audience among the former Soviet republics. The leaders of Georgia and Ukraine have now realized that the cost of their NATO membership might be higher than they thought. Georgia received a painful reminder from Russia over its deep weak points (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) which may help its Westernized government adopt milder attitudes.

2.    At the end of this unrest, Saakashvili realized that he had pinned hope in US support for no good reason. Although at the end of his 4-hour talks with Rice and after accepting the truce, he announced that Georgia would make no compromise over losing part of its territory but at the same time he openly accused NATO that by delaying Georgia’s membership in the treat it had practically invited Moscow to carry out the military operation. He also understood that he had somehow become a tool in the hands of the big powers. It can be hardly accepted that the American intelligence apparatus had overlooked Georgia’s military movements just few days before the clashes started. Nevertheless, the US refusal to interfere before and after the Georgian army attack on South Ossetia is very questionable. Moreover, the decision by the Zionist regime to stop arms sales to Georgia and terminate sale of 200 Merkava tanks to Tbilisi (although this happened over alleged Israeli concerns that Russia may retaliate by supplying S-300 modern anti-aircraft defense systems to Syria and Iran) awakened Saakashvili that the rules of the game between the big players were not easily understandable and that one could not make strategic planning based on those rules.

3.    Russia one again reminded America how much the Iraqi and Afghan quagmires had affected its global movements.

4.    Russia made it clear to the West that it was not that sick man of Europe and 15 years of lassitude does not mean it is lacking willpower. Russia is now a fundamental factor in Western interactions that should not be ignored at any cost. In fact, Russia by placing superior military tools alongside its other effective tools, namely providing a huge part of Europe’s energy, forced the West to revise its tactics and strategies. Russia showed the US that even spending billions of dollars on the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline as a European alternative source of energy still depended on Moscow’s determination. The presence of Russian troops 40 miles from the Georgian capital in less than 72 hours was an alarm against West’s optimism and a confirmation that the Russians are serious in protecting their own interests.

In any case, the lapse of time and the type of role played by Russia, US and Europe would clarify which of the two scenarios is closer to reality. But what is already clear here is the deep division between Russia and the West. Now many possibilities in connection with Russian and American reactions have turned into reality. Efforts may take place to bring these two power blocs closer together but the recent events showed how superficial this closeness could be.

This situation has provided an opportunity for Iranian policy-makers. Although experience about Iran’s nuclear issue over the past few years shows that Moscow would support Iran only as long as its interests allowed; otherwise it would join the West in their anti-Iran resolutions, but we have to be vigilant as the current situation is such that Tehran can take good advantage of. The Russians have now lost a big part of their trust in the West and America.

Although the Russians can benefit from the current situation and when getting concessions from the West over Georgia they can involve Iran’s nuclear case to strengthen their bargain power, yet it is the job of IRI foreign diplomacy to take advantage of the existing windows to serve its national interests. Russia knows that the Middle East is much more vital for America than the Caucasus and that Washington really needs Russian support in its anti-Iran programs. Therefore, it is just natural for the IRI to act profoundly and intelligently at this sensitive juncture.

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