August 15, 2008

Caucasian Stalemate

This commentary aired on Vermont Public Radio, on August 13.

Last Thursday, after several days of skirmishes and confrontation in the breakaway region of Ossetia, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili announced a unilateral cessation of hostilities.

Hours later, however, Saakashvili ordered his armed forces to undertake a full-scale assault on Ossetia, a territory which, since 1992, has been patrolled by Russian peacekeepers under international mandate - to which Georgia was a signator.

Georgian troops launched an air, tank and artillery attack on Russian peacekeepers and civilians. In response, Russian troops, long perched on the Russo-Georgian border on hair-trigger alert, entered South Ossetia in force. They routed the Georgian troops and chased them back beyond the borders of Ossetia, into Georgia proper.

On August 12th, the Russian forces stood down.

These are more or less the basic facts of the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia. There are of course plenty of unverified assertions. For instance, Russia claims that Georgian forces killed more than 2000, leveled the Ossetian capital city of Tskhivali and demolished several Ossetian villages. And both sides are accusing the other of engaging in ethnic cleansing.

Coverage of this week's events by major US media has focused mainly on interpretations of Russia's motives, the general consensus being that we are seeing a new Russia, a bully emboldened by oil riches and acting out after 20 years of humiliation.

The explanation sounds good, but it is oversimplified and jingoistic. Russia's own explanation, that it is simply defending the local civilian population and beating back Georgian aggression, is also not the whole truth, but it does seem a bit closer to reality.

Our media have also given little treatment to the US role in this conflict, which is in stark contrast to how the Russian media are covering events. Russians, for their part, are quick to underscore the alliance between the US and Georgia.

Said former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev: "I am convinced it would not have happened without the consent of the United States. It has approved it."

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Lavrov [sic, that's Ivanov] told CNN that Saakashvili - quote - "is an American satellite, that is a known fact."

Saakashvili, for his part, soon after the Russian counter-attack, was quoted as saying, "It's not about Georgia anymore. It's about America, its values."

Again, oversimplified and jingoistic.

Actually, what the conflict is about was aptly captured by the great Russian writer Mikhail Lermontov. He fought in the Caucasus (in the 1830s, against Chechens), and wrote a long poem, entitled Valerik, in which he sees a general sitting by a bloody stream after a battle.

And he writes:

And with a secret, heartfelt grief
I thought: Poor man,
What is he after?
The sky is so clear
There is room for all under the heavens,
Yet incessantly and vainly
He still fights - why?

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