Not content with having driven the Georgians out of South Ossetia, Russia has inflicted a severe punishment beating on Georgia itself. Of course, it isn't easy to follow exactly what is going on - one minute, we hear from the Georgians that they are retreating, that their retreat is a fait accompli in fact, the next we have official confirmation that Georgian troops are being flown from Iraq to fight the Russians courtesy of General Petraeus, and then the Russian military says that it is still engaging Georgian soldiers. The Russian government assures us that their attacks will end soon, only to escalate them again, and expand well into the Georgian land mass. Now they have declared an end to the war, without imposing regime change - but we will surely hear claim and counter-claim of various violations justifying a new attack by one side or the other. The Georgian government has already been caught fabricating a Russian pipeline bombing, and one expects that similar claims have also been simply made up as part of a poorly contrived propaganda campaign to stimulate Western military intervention. Many of the claims from Saakashvili have been not merely false but absurd - he has been pretending that Russia is ready to "annihilate" ethnic Georgians, as if his own military's attacks on South Ossetians didn't look a little indiscriminate themselves. Russian media is undoubtedly also peppered with false or unsubstantiated claims - who knows if the claims about Ukrainian fighters working for Georgia are true or not? But we have been less exposed to those kinds of distortions because, despite the fact that much conservative and liberal commentary in the West has been hostile to the Georgian upstart who overplayed his hand, (reflecting divisions among Western states on strategy in the Caucasus), the main animus has remained squarely against Russia.
Thus, the BBC's Emily Maitliss wasted no time in scorning Russia's self-justifying rhetoric on Newsnight last night: "The Russians are calling it ‘peace enforcement operation’. It’s the kind of Newspeak that would make George Orwell proud." Replace the word "Russians" with "Israelis" or "Yanqui Invading Scum", and you realise how distant the statement is from usual BBC language. (It is also idiotic - in what way would Orwell be 'proud' of such banal propaganda statements?) Not that, as Craig Murray mistakenly thinks, I believe Putin should be given "the benefit of the doubt" (no such thing). While I have no more sympathy for Saakashvili than I do for Putin, the real victims of Russia's attacks will be not only the civilians cut down by their bombs, but also the Saakashvili regime's opponents, who have repeatedly bore the brunt of the state's crackdown whenever there is a flare-up of rivalry with Russia (see this sinister video for example). If Saakashvili somehow survives this crisis, the opposition will probably be demolished. If Russia had effected 'regime change', the prospects for real change would probably have been even worse. So, no, it's not that Putin is a good guy fighting Western imperialism. Partly, it's just that one would appreciate balance in the discussion, and notices its glaring absence. We are facing perhaps not so much a 'new Cold War' as a new Great Game. Great power militarism, fuelled by a mortal combat over energy supplies, is always liable to generate nationalistic responses. We hear of 'Russian nationalism' as if it were something distinctly foreign, but the responses of the commentariat to this crisis - combining sanctimony with an explicit defense of 'Western' interests - hardly lack particularlism. The compulsion to identify with a nation-state as if it were the volksgeist incarnate, as if one could speak unproblematically of 'our' interests, is so universal that no one notices it until the enemy of the month appears to practise it too.
As to the character of this 'Great Game', it seems obvious. Russia's role is subordinate: it wants to prevent further secessions (by slaughtering the Chechen opposition, for example) and restore its global standing by increasing its hegemony in a geopolitically important area. In addition, Russia has forged links with several of America's opponents, such as Iran, and is looking to revive its interests in Cuba just as the American political class shows signs of being willing to drop its blockade. And it has been moving closer to China, with the reported aim of building a 'NATO of the east'. The Russian ruling class, having decisively turned against its pro-Western neoliberal political leadership in the mid-1990s, wants to restore its position as a global player. The US, by contrast, has always pursued a 'Grand Area' strategy. In this design, whole areas of the planet are presumed to be under its command even where there is no direct rule or even military presence. From the Monroe Doctrine to the post-WWII 'spheres of influence', such a strategy enabled it to displace former colonial rivals. And American planners had an unprecedented opportunity when the USSR broke down - the Warsaw Pact states broke away, the Russians had just lost Afghanistan, the Caucasus and Central Asian states were seceeding (often becoming pro-Washington without altering the basic organisational, political and ideological machinery that had persisted when Moscow was in charge). This was a remarkable gift, for, barring a brief period following the Russian Revolution, the Caucasus and Central Asia had been increasingly under Russia's imperial control since Peter the Great. The main difference between the Tsarist Empire and the Stalinist one was that in the latter, the states were formally independent components of a union of socialist republics who had the right to leave at any time (a relic of one of Lenin's early victories over Stalin), rather than subjugated land masses in which the Tsar unapologetically carried out genocidal massacres against local Muslim populations in the name of civilization. This formal legal status meant it was possible for states on Russia's southern flank to break away without their local rulers being overthrown and without the social structure being fundamentally altered. That gave Washington a bonus in 'stability' in its new client-states that might otherwise have been absent.
Such stability has been threatened by two after-effects of America's Afghanistan campaign, which were that local opposition forces would include Islamist militants circulating around the Central Asian region from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that one of the main local industries would be heroin production and distribution. Just as the CIA used drugs to raise money for far right forces in Vietnam and Nicaragua, so it had helped warlords in Afghanistan cultivate and transport the opium crop that would go on to supply 75% of the world's supply of skag. The US nonetheless made an ally of the Taliban for a while, forged close relations with the 'narco-states' it is so ostentatiously remonstrative about today, and got Chevron, Union Oil of California, Amoco and Exxon into the region to exploit the substantial proven oil supplies and the gas reserves that make 40% of the world's total supply. Contrary to some opinion, the placing of 'lily-pads' in the Caucasus and Central Asia did not begin under Bush or after 9/11, but under Clinton in 1997. Encirclement of Russia is a bipartisan policy. But several of these states would become crucial allies of Bush during the 'war on terror', and were able as a result to stigmatise opposition to their regimes first by pretending that the minority Islamist currents (such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan or the far larger Hizb ut-Tahrir) were representative of the opposition, and secondly by claiming that these movements were in turn local adjuncts of 'Al Qaeda'. In other words, the 'war on terror' bolstered the most viciously authoritarian states in the region. It also bolstered their role in heroin trade, as US-supported warlords integrated into the new Afghan state rely on the production of opium to sustain military control of their fiefdoms. And, although we are advised that Dyncorp's role is to suppress the drugs trade, this report [pdf] shows that their activities drive up the prices of the substance, thus enriching the warlords who depend on it. If production were shut down in Afghanistna, it would now probably move to Tajikistan, where laboratories for processing the substance have been built. At any rate, as we have also seen, this crop is also sustaining the efforts of the various Afghan insurgents collectively described as the Taliban, as well as funding various opposition movements in Central Asia. So, Washington has also unleashed the very dynamics that might destabilise its own efforts to control the situation.
It is important not to overlook the divisions that this conflict has revealed. For all the talk of a unipolar world after the Cold War, the reality was never as simple. The neoconservative right was at least realistic in this aspect of its outlook: it accurately anticipated the emergence of potential challengers, and urged policymakers to embrace a program of global expansion to forestall such possibilities. The EU, though it lacked the coherence to ever become a rival military or economic power to the US, was no longer dependent on an American-owned security canopy. NATO had to find new rationales for its existence on the basis of common American-European interests, which it duly did in Yugoslavia. It then proposed to expand its remit well beyond its traditional boundaries, which it then did in Afghanistan, bringing the alliance into the strategically crucial Caucasus and Central Asia. But that doesn't mean that European states are all in agreement as to whether to remain involved in what could be a perpetually escalating commitment that binds their own interests ever more tightly to American military power. And it certainly doesn't mean that a collective of states that relies heavily on Russian energy supplies is anxious to follow America into a belligerent stance against Russia. For example, both Germany and France were opposed to admitting the Ukraine and Georgia any prospect of joining NATO. France's role in this conflict has been to send Bernard Kouchner to Georgia to negotiate a peace settlement, which basically amounted to urging Saakashvili to retreat (even while Sarkozy vocally denounced the Russians). France and Russia have been historical allies, so this is unsurprising.
Interestingly, the UK leadership has been quite reticent on this issue. This could be because Britain is one of the main foreign investors in Russia, and because it has been British policy to ally with the Putin government where possible, even during its suppression of the Chechen revolt. For example, Tony Blair explained in 2000 during a visit to St Petersburg that "Chechnya isn't Kosovo", and insisted to the House of Commons that whatever concerns there were about Chechnya, "we support Russia in her action against terrorism". Say what you like about Russia's bombing in Georgia, it is not even close to the pounding that Chechnya received. As of 2007, the UK was the single biggest investor in Russia [pdf], supplying approximately a quarter of its foreign direct investment. A great portion of this is not just energy, but finance-capital from the City's major investment institutions. Despite turf-wars, such as BP's stakeholder dispute with TNK, British investment capital still presumably expects to reap great dividends from Russia. The EU as a whole, moreover, is the source of most investment in the country. In short, it seems that the conflict has exposed a major fissure between the US and its erstwhile European allies. Only the countries of 'new Europe' who are most dependent on an alliance with the US, and most fearful of Russian resurgence, are really siding with Georgia on this question.
The US political class is less divided. Of the two main presidential candidates, McCain is staking out the most belligerent territory, but Obama is catching up rapidly. His foreign policy advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski has compared Putin to Hitler and complained that Western access to crucial oil pipelines will be cut off by Russia's actions - which suggests that any administration that takes his advice would be far more aggressive toward Russia than the Bush administration has been. While McCain wants to keep fighting in Iraq, Obama wants to pour troops into Afghanistan and shore up the Central Asian frontier. Brzezinski has already supplied the rationale for this in The Grand Chessboard: "Eurasia is the world's axial super continent. A power that dominated Eurasia would exercise decisive influence over two of the world's three most economically productive regions, Western Europe and East Asia. A glance at the map also suggests that a country dominant in Eurasia would almost automatically control the Middle East and Africa ... Eurasia accounts for 75% of the world's population, 60% of its GNP, and 75% of its energy resources. Collectively, Eurasia's potential power overshadows even America's." In this account, control of the Middle East is a secondary aim. You may recall Obama's sabre-rattling toward Pakistan and still think it was just big talk from a presidential candidate working in a martial culture. But consider the context: the bombing raids that the US has already carried out in Pakistan, apparently without permission. Several arms of the US state accuse the ISI of backing insurgents in Afghanistan. It would seem that US control of its Pakistani ally is tenuous, and that the US has to threaten it with a bit of ultra-violence to keep it in line. It may even come to an American invasion given a sufficient crisis. So Obama was being perfectly realistic about what he might be expected to do. In his most recent book, Second Chance, Brzezinski offers a future president the purported means to reverse America's declining power. One of his recommendations is to pay more attention to Russia, disrupt its increasingly close relationship with China and make a concerted effort to contain Putin's efforts to restore Russian power. Bush is excoriated for, among other things, failing to act decisively against Putin while alienating the Chinese leadership. And Brzezinski, I suspect, is speaking for a lot of people in the American establishment. So, don't buy the line that Obama is just tail-coating McCain when he talks tough about Russian aggression. It is an integral component of the global 'Grand Area' strategy of a significant component of US power.