South Ossetia News Roundup

Unsurprisingly, the South Ossetia conflict has generated a lot of coverage in the Western media, including many deep reflections on just what we should do about that Russia. Unfortunately, the coverage fails badly in several respects. First, with regards to the actual news coverage of the conflict and its aftermath, the Western media has unblinkingly swallowed and regurgitated the Georgian/Western version of events. It is even rare for a story to mention that Russia’s incursion was a reaction to Georgia moving into Tskhinvali, and that Saakashvili’s allegations about Russian tanks moving in first are dubious at best. Second, with regards to the opinion columns – the stuff that policymakers read when they realize they’ve never heard of South Ossetia – the neoconservative POV is disproportionately represented. You would think that they would be banned from respectable editorial pages after their sugar-coated promises about how easy invading Iraq would be. In any case, here are the latest pieces of news and opinions:

  1. Russia officially recognizes South Ossetia and Abkhazia – for the Russians, this is simply Kosovo, the sequel (minus most the bloodshed and in about 3 weeks I might add) – Strobe Talbott addressed this here. This is simply revenge and the idea of one tiny insignificant statelet for another is consistent with Russian strategic thinking (равновесие сил – balance of forces, etc.), even though Russia got two. Personally, I’m a little surprised by this move. This demonstrates an incredible amount of confidence in the stability of Chechnya, as this act will definitely revive calls of “me too!” On the other hand, after Georgia’s invasion of South Ossetia, it was in fact clear that the two could never be reunited again. But the inclusion of Abkhazia in this recognition reveals Russia’s longer-term view. On the other hand, Russia may just be trying to prove a point, full well knowing that its recognition of the two republics will likely not lead to a fundamental change in their current status. Instead, the goal may be to demonstrate the fallacy of recognizing new countries without the agreement of the loser country and local players (a la Kosovo). Mark Ames addressed this in a recent article in The Nation, where he argued that the Ossetian conflict points to the conflict between the two guiding concepts of international relations – national sovereignty and the right to self-determination. Russia’s point has always been that these issues should be addressed and resolved within the framework of multilateral institutions, rather than great powers supporting their own preferred resolution. Indeed, Russia has long argued that forcing through Kosovo’s independence would set a precedent that could apply to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. After the West typically ignored Russia and Serbia’s concerns regarding Kosovo independence, Russia had no incentive to show restraint with regards to South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Now that balkanization has played itself out in miniature form in Georgia, Russia is possibly hoping to demonstrate the superiority of its original position – that multilateral forums should be used to address local conflicts. If all major players agree to be bound by the procedures and principles of these forums, then these conflicts can be resolved according to the interests of the local population rather than geopolitics.
  2. Meanwhile, the White House claims that Russia has ‘absolutely’ not lived up to the ceasefire agreement and that it is reviewing its ‘entire relationship’ with Russia. Maybe this means that the U.S. will now block Russia’s entrance to the WTO, place offensive missile installations on its border, and unilaterally withdraw from bilateral arms agreements…oh, wait…
  3. Daniel Gross over at Slate explains why there won’t be a new Cold War due to all of the economic connections between the United States and Russia – I don’t really buy this. We are one of Russia’s smallest trading partners (of the major ones) and smaller foreign investors in Russia. The one major stat that he cites is oil sales, but that spigot can be turned off by an act of Congress. I think his argument works for most of the EU (hi Germany and Italy), but not for the United States. Finally, he misses the point that in a world of increasing resource scarcity, oil/gas producers and consumers have more antagonistic relationships than in other typical buyer/seller arrangements. This trend is well-documented in Michael Klare’s new book, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet.
  4. Also at Slate is coverage of the capital outflow since the start of the war. You can see the graph of the RTS on the right side of my blog to understand this. But, as a blogger over at Foreign Policy noted, it’s not only the war causing the outflow. Rather, it’s a combination of the war, the increasing attacks on BP and Hermitage Capital, and Putin’s verbal assault on Mechel. I would also expect that many portfolio investors in Russia are somewhat new to the country and don’t understand its internal and external politics. Thus, when they heard ‘Russian invasion’ on CNN, they ran to sell, sell, sell.
  5. Peter Finn at the Washington Post has a very good short history of the war, which accurately notes the fact that Georgia most likely started it.
  6. Also at the Post, is an op-ed by Francis Fukuyama, where he sets out to provide a taxonomy of today’s autocrats, and confidently concludes that there is no real challenge to the U.S. from such people – history always takes care of them. Instead, he goes on to say that the only real challenge to American power is radical Islamism. It’s hard to imagine how a few thousand men in caves with aging Soviet rifles are more of a challenge to U.S. hegemony than a revived, rich Russia with thousands of nuclear warheads. Amazingly, Fukuyama cites his own essay – ‘The End of History?’ – in which he proclaimed the victory of the West over the Soviet threat and the end of conflict. Contrast this to the picture of the West standing by and watching its ‘ally’ getting repeatedly sucker-punched by Russia. Perhaps Fukuyama should stick to history and stop trying to predict the future.
  7. The LA Times thinks that Russian intransigence could help ‘unite’ the United States and Europe – we can call this the John McCain wet dream scenario. The article points out the disarray in the Western reaction to Russia’s actions in Georgia and suggests that once President ***** takes over in January 2009, we might see a realignment towards a common position vis a vis Russia. I find this argument unpersuasive. Common in this – and many other – analyses is the Cold War mentality that the ‘West’ will and must face off against a common enemy. For Fukuyama, it’s radical Islamism. For others, it’s China or a ‘revanchist’ Russia. This old wine in new bottles argument fails to see that the West’s failure to be united on most issues has less to do with the lack of a common enemy and more to do with the relative decline in their power. It is simply more advantageous for Europe and the U.S. to pursue their various national interests rather than insist on a common binding position. Fareed Zakaria has excellently documented this ‘rise of the rest‘ in his new book, The Post-American World. Thus, I don’t think we’ll see a reenergized West united against the Russian bear.
  8. Interestingly, it’s not just liberal internationalists like Zakaria that are arguing for a more pragmatic, case-by-case approach to foreign policy. The conservative realists over at The National Interest also agree. In this article, Doug Bandow argues that while the South Ossetian war has numerous complex roots, Russia’s interest is primarily an issue of security – the development of a hostile regime next door. He argues for more engagement with Russia, rather than sillily ‘punishing’ it by kicking it out of the G8. Similarly, this article argues that, for all the bluster coming from Western capitals, the U.S. and Europe still need Russia’s cooperation on a host of issues.
  9. The Council on Foreign Relations brings out its big dogs to weigh in on the way forward for the crisis. Amongst the comments is Ariel Cohen’s (Heritage Foundation) amusing suggestion that the U.S. should ensure that Russia do this or that. I’m sorry, but if the U.S. could ensure that Russia do anything, wouldn’t this crisis never have started in the first place?
  10. Another entry for the neocons is Robert Kagan’s piece, History’s Back: Ambitious Autocracies, Hesitant Democracies. One wonders whether Kagan was inspired by Fukuyama’s piece in the Post the day before, with his heavy reliance on ‘history’ to ‘prove’ his point. His central point is that great power competition is back – that geo-economics has replaced geo-politics. He also argues that there won’t be a universal struggle of values as there was in the Cold War (not that this premise is even true). Finally, he sadly notes the divisions in Europe regarding how to engage with Russia and China. Despite this fractured world that is more characterized by economic interests than ‘values’, Kagan goes on to argue that the U.S. can ‘lead’ the world’s ‘democracies’ against the world’s rising autocracies (is Georgia a democracy?). Kagan’s thought is not simply an oversimplification – even if you accept his oversimplification as 100% true, it still doesn’t support his logic or conclusions. Finally, the idea of ‘hesitant democracies’ is laughable, considering Kagan’s cheerleading for the Iraq war.
  11. Finally, I should point out that the coverage over at Sean’s Russia Blog has been ongoing and excellent, with great conversations, including one side-discussion on whether a C average at Yale is good.

Finally, it is ironic that one of the only TV news show to highlight the hypocrisy of the Bush Administration’s insistence that Russia may not invade sovereign nations and topple their leaders was The Daily Show:

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