August 8 (Originally posted by Mischa)
Russian armored units have the crossed the border into Georgia amidst escalating fears of humanitarian disaster. There’s a handful of required sources for anyone trying to track this as it develops: Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty ; Eurasianet ; and the Eurasia Daily Monitor. (EDM’s parent, the Jamestown Foundation, has a strong Western slant. Socor and Felgenhaur do know their stuff though.)
The BBC has a useful, brief background Q&A here.
So a few disconnected thoughts to keep in mind:
–The NATO problem: Georgia has been pushing hard for NATO membership. President Bush has made some positive gestures towards both Saakashvili’s government and pro-western parties in Ukraine. On the other hand Germany, France and other Western European allies were hesitant, not in small part because of European reliance on Russian oil. The intractability of Georgia’s frozen conflicts stood as a major block to NATO talks, and open warfare on this scale effectively kills any possibility of meaningful discussions in the short to medium term. Socor argues that this was a Russian goal in the escalation, while the Russian counterposition claims that Saakashvili is himself trying to drag NATO into the situation.
–What role for America?: The Department of State today released a statement urging a cease-fire and withdrawal of Russian combat forces. Going back a ways, remember that the U.S. rejected South Ossetia’s independence referendum in the Winter of 2006. (Kosovo, of course, had better luck.) The possibility of frozen conflicts erupting on John McCain’s watch is troubling. McCain made, then backed away from, belligerent but completely untenable calls to expel Russia from the G8. ThinkProgress has a good summary here, and it’s especially worth noting that McCain adviser Randy Scheunemann used to lobby for Georgia. (This included covering for some pretty nasty business, as Ken Silverstein reported at the time.)
American media coverage has been and will be pro-Georgian on balance, not in small part because of Saakashvili. He’s American-educated, speaks solid English, and gives decent interview. While the Russian President’s office released a 45-second statement, Saakashvili appeared on CNN’s American Morning. The World Bank hearts his business policy, and in 2006 he appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Georgian civil society activists present a much more complex picture of a country with a spotty human rights record and troubling political tendencies. Last Winter I met a former political prisoner who had been active against Schevardnadze and initially extremely supportive of Saakashvili, but found himself back out in the streets leading demonstrations against rising state militarism in both style (the return of televised military parades) and substance (budget priorities.) None of this is to suggest that you get your news from Pravda (yikes!). Just be sure to take everyone with your usual level of skepticism.
–Russian internal politics: For what it’s worth, Putin was away in China when this all went down. While Medvedev was tending the garden at home, the ex-KGB man was face to face with Bush. Read into that what you will. One Radio Liberty analyst argued that Russian policy here is the doing of the siloviki, essentially the military and KGB-state. Drawing Moscow into a deep commitment to the Ossetian cause is thus a political powerplay, a show of internal political strength vis-a-vis reformers, new-money oligarchs, or other domestic rivals. The author suggests that it doesn’t matter to the siloviki whether Russia wins or gets bogged down badly, as the latter would lead to “shouts, recriminations, hysterics, and — in the end — more money.” I would suggest that the latter is unsustainable, as the misadventures in Chechnya have already badly damaged the morale and capabilities of the Russian military. Visible failures of military action do the siloviki no good, and they may have opened a can of worms for themselves if this stalls.
It’s too early for predictions of how this ends. But one thing to remember above all: This is a humanitarian crisis. So here’s hoping that cooler heads prevail, and soon.