Sunday, August 10, 2008

Putin wins (probably)


It is obvious by now that Georgia is going to suffer a humiliating loss, even with extensive Western backing. Not only is its weary army fighting Russian troops, but they are also being battered by attacks from independence fighters in Abkhazia. The Russian press have openly spoken of annexing Abkhazia. For example, Alexander Bobkov in the Russkii Kurier summarised some of the common Russian press perceptions about the region - dispelling worries that it is a "purely Muslim republic" or that annexing it would stimulate a war with the EU and US, and pointing out the economic benefits of "210 kilometers of sub-tropical Black Sea coastline". Since the region has already declared itself independent of Georgia, and has suffered international isolation and blockade as a result, it may even welcome integration into Russia so that it is part of a recognised world power with an accessible economy. Russia is already devoting aid to the region in anticipation of future tax receipts. Meanwhile, Putin's forces are systematically taking out economic and military targets in Georgia, including the Black Sea port of Poti. Georgia claims Russia is preparing an invasion - probably an exaggeration, but I wouldn't be surprised to see thousands of Russian troops being stationed around the seceding regions. If the Bush administration did endorse Saakashvili's actions, it blundered horribly, and Russia may well end up with an expanded territory in a geo-economically prized region.

Even if Bush was somehow taken by surprise, which I think is unlikely, there is no doubt that the US government and its supporters are now throwing their weight decisively behind Georgia, and are about to get a bloody nose for their trouble. Russia has sought a peace deal through the UN Security Council, but "council concluded it was at a stalemate after the United States, Britain and some other members backed the Georgians in rejecting a phrase in the three-sentence draft statement that would have required both sides “to renounce the use of force,” council diplomats said." That's fairly clear, isn't it? Georgia and its backers are being absolutely intransigent, refusing to withdraw Georgian troops from South Ossetia, where - not that you would know it from much of the reporting - they are actually carrying out serious atrocities. So when the Observer and papers like it say the "world pleads for peace", they aren't being strictly up-front with us. Georgia is claiming this morning to have withdrawn all troops from South Ossetia. I doubt that is the case - why reject a bilateral ceasefire at the UN, only to engage in a unilateral one the next day? But to the extent that this reflects Georgia's weakness, it surely augurs their imminent defeat.

You have to wonder how far the US is prepared to take this - they aren't going to commit troops and, no matter how much Saakashvili may wish it, NATO is not going to overstretch itself even further. There are also rumours going around sites like DEBKAFile and other sites that Israeli advisors are assisting the Georgian side of the conflict. Yossi Melman of Ha'aretz has apparently supported this claim. It is no secret that there are Israeli military advisors in Georgia, but Israel has a delicate relationship with Russia that it doesn't want to upset. That is presumably why Israel froze defense sales to Georgia on Tuesday. Israel is clearly far more beholden to the US than to Russia, but I suspect the Bush administration would rather Israel stayed out of any explicit involvement. So, unless I drastically underestimate the Georgian military, I can't see any other outcome than a decisive Russian victory here.

Incidentally, just so that this point isn't lost in the deliberately confusing reportage. Yes, Russian jets are attacking Georgian targets and killing civilians. Yes, the reported civilian casualties "on both sides" is reported to be over 2,000. What is quite often not stated or just gently skated over in the reporting, so laden with images of Georgian dead and wounded, is that the estimate of 2,000 civilian deaths comes from the Russian government and it applies overwhelmingly to the Georgian attacks on South Ossetia on Friday. In fact, this is the basis for Vladimir Putin's claims of a "genocide" against South Osettians by the Georgians (is he deliberately referencing the ICTY judgment about Srebrenica here?). The Georgian side, by contrast, claims 129 deaths of both soldiers and civilians. So, if Russian figures are good enough to reference, why is the source of the figures and their context obscured? Why is being made to look as if Russian forces are behind most of those alleged deaths? Doesn't this just amount to a whitewash of the actions of the Georgian army in South Ossetia? And why not mention 30,000 refugees too?