The Meaning of the South Ossetia War


Once again, I am late to the table on a major issue regarding Russia. This is mostly due to the fact that I just got back from working in Kazakhstan for four weeks. I will try not to duplicate any of the other coverage I have read.

As I have pointed out before, August is always an interesting month for Russia. Rather than rehash all the events, who is to blame, etc., I am more interested in how this event will shape Russia’s position in the global system. Ultimately, I believe that the result will be almost entirely positive, for several reasons:

  1. Competent Russia – for the first time as an independent state, the Russian Federation has used force beyond its borders. There is already much talk about Russia’s use of the ‘gas weapon’ as a tool of its foreign policy. Now there will be talk of its use of the ‘weapon weapon’. Russia’s willingness and ability to project force abroad, which up until now was only a hypothetical situation, automatically increases its power rating.
  2. Legal Russia – Russia’s ‘invasion’ of South Ossetia was a response to the initial Georgian invasion, in which Russian peacekeepers (i.e., non-participants in the conflict) were killed. FM Lavrov today claimed that Georgian peacekeepers fired on their Russian colleagues when the invasion began (though this could be Black PR). Thus, Russia’s response was in defense of its citizens, not to mention the 90% of South Ossetians that hold Russian passports. Interestingly, Russia refused the temptation to bite off more than it could chew by pushing further into Georgian territory, though it certainly could have, and likely would have only elicited protestations from Georgia’s western ‘friends’. Now Russia has ceased military actions and signed onto a 6-point peace plan negotiated with Prezident Sarkozy. The import of this is huge – Russia reacts in self-defense and then is willing to show restraint and accept mediation from the international community. This hardly rings of arrogance or imperialism (though Georgians will of course say otherwise).
  3. Limited USA/Russia – I was almost embarrassed to see pictures of President Bush in his casual clothes at the Olympics while our ‘ally’ was involved in a war. It should go next to the encyclopedia entry for lame duck. At one point – I think after they were booted out of South Ossetia – President Saakashvili proclaimed on CNN that this war is ‘about values.’ Clearly, it is not. The U.S. – bogged down in two wars and with a myriad other problems (I’m looking at you Iran) to worry about – is not going to intervene anywhere on the basis of values. Furthermore, nobody wants an armed conflict with Russia – it just will not happen. The U.S., like Russia, is a superpower, but is nonetheless bound by its capabilities and therefore must establish priorities on the basis of its interests. This is not to say that they are equal – they obviously are not. But the U.S. is not free to act as it would like, and as some thought it could in 2003-04. In my opinion, this makes for a much safer world than one that is governed by values (whose?). If, as Saakashvili proclaimed, this war was about values, then we might have witnessed the start of a much bigger, bloodier conflict.
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