Sunday, August 10, 2008

Ambitions of Russian and Georgian leaders in the conflict

The escalating conflict between Georgia and Russia leaves a Russian Jotman reader named Sanjuro -- who follows both Western and Russian media sources closely -- with some big unanswered questions.

Firstly, Sanjuro is wary of exaggerating the scope of the conflict, and notes the defensive nature of at least one Russian operation:
Yesterday Abkhazia announced that it is joining the effort. My earlier guess of a guerilla warfare has so far not been confirmed. Looks like a limited but still rather conventional regional war: exchanges of airstrikes, deep infiltration, and possibly some naval operation in the days to come - the Georgian port of Poti has reportedly been destroyed by Russian air force. The Abkhazs have reportedly entered the Kodori mountain pass controlled by the Georgians. To defend the Abkhaz port of Sukhumi from a Georgian naval retribution, Russian have sent some warships of the Black Sea Fleet...
Sanjuro wonders about the motives of the respective leaders:
For now only Saakashvili looks calling for peace, leaders of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia look belligerent and enjoying they 15 min of fame. For Medvedev in Russia this is a double-edged sword: first a chance to prove his credibility of Commander-in-Chief, and the strong man of the country; secondly a risk to come under much more influence of the military and intelligence communities. His first officially publicized initiative in Russia was an instruction to the military "to force Georgia to peace" with South Ossetia. A liberal Russian newspaper Kommersant ironically calls the conflict "the first peacemaking war".
What the recent American experience shows us is that at a time of war, moderates afraid of losing influence will sometimes beat the war drums loudly as if to prove their patriotism. Sanjuro also pointed to an interesting irony: the leader who did the most to ignite the war is now the only one calling for peace. Sanjuro goes on to ask:
Honestly, I am at loss what was M. Saakashvili thinking there - he was largely to blame for the escalation and military buildup near the North Ossetian area, and surely what is happening now is killing any chances of a "confederation" with South Ossetia and Abkhazia that he was talking about recently.
A few commentators have speculated Saakashvili put a lot of stock in his ties to the West, particularly the United States. I think he was smoking something if he imagined the US was going to credibly back Georgia in any showdown with Russia.
But wait a sec, just hours before the hostilities, there were reports in the Russian press, that Saakashvili had offered South Ossetians a "wide autonomy", perhaps meaning they would remain part of Georgia on paper only - but at least something to release the tension. In the due time this "wide autonomy" could convert into a "reintegration" with Georgia or formation of an independent nationstate where Russian influence would be significantly lower.
It's very hard to see why any of the leaders -- including Saakashvlii -- would have put more faith in war than political/diplomatic processes.
Wasn't the string of unreasonable provocation designed to twart any peaceful solution to the situation? Who benefits from the war? Georgia? Russia? South Ossetia? Politicians in all these countries had vested interest in the longstanding confrontation.
Is it an any party's interest to go to war? It would appear not.


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