August 15, 2008

There is Only One Winner, and Too Many Casualties



Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, was in the invidious position yesterday of having to thank the French President for securing the ceasefire agreement intended to halt Russia's bitter war with Georgia. For it was Ms Rice who uttered the unforgettable statement about future Bush administration policy in the spring of 2003, angered by the failure of France, Germany and Russia to support the Iraq invasion: "Punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia."

What a difference a war makes. Those words must have haunted her yesterday as she held talks with President Nicolas Sarkozy at his summer residence before heading to Tbilisi in a show of solidarity with the embattled government of Georgia.

The conflict, which is still rumbling on, has produced short- term winners and losers. However, with a view to the long term, the scorecards may have to be amended:


The clear winner with clear goals which have now been achieved, namely the effective removal of Georgia's breakaway regions from Tbilisi's control to punish the former Soviet republic for its attempt to join Nato. Russia was able to set the terms of the ceasefire deal signed by the Russian and Georgian presidents, which contained significant loopholes enabling Russian "peacekeeping forces" to remain in Georgia proper. Although the West has ruled out military action in support of Georgia, Western leaders are banking on Russia's desire to be integrated into international institutions as a powerful incentive for a negotiated solution.

But Moscow has other options if the West chooses to punish Russia for its "blatant aggression" in Georgia through diplomatic isolation. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has cultivated relations with strategically important countries such as China and Iran, and the West will find it difficult to isolate the Kremlin, which may take the view that the West will soon come to its senses, as it did with Israel after the Lebanon war. It is, in the longer term, that Russia will suffer, having built up its economy on a bubble of oil and gas wealth without diversifying. Russia will also have to come to terms with the implications of its actions in support of breakaway regions in Georgia within its own borders where there are literally hundreds of ethnic and religious minorities.


President Mikheil Saakashvili is the big loser of the war, who may be tempted at this point to escalate the conflict in an attempt to force a more muscular intervention by the West.

However, Ms Rice, who will be strongly supportive of Mr Saakashvili in her public appearances today, as she was on her last trip to Tbilisi a month ago, will make the limits of US support clear to the Georgian leader. The fact that Moscow is openly calling for his removal, and will not deal with him as a negotiator rather puts Mr Saakashvili in the position of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader whose prestige suffered from being shut out by both Israel and the Bush administration. In the short term, Georgians have rallied behind him, including the opposition, but his future seems insecure.

The EU

France, through the tireless actions of its President and its Foreign Minister has won praise at the outset of its six-month EU presidency. But the euphoria will be short-lived as the fundamental flaws of the six-point deal are exposed.

The EU is hopelessly divided between what one analyst has called "Cold War warriors and appeasers", and will remain so in the longer term. However, the divisions in Europe may turn out to be a strength because they provide an alternative view to the White House's black- and-white foreign policy approach.


Nato emboldened Georgia to attempt to assert control over South Ossetia, which is a conflict frozen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, by offering eventual membership of the Western military alliance.

Mr Saakashvili is bitter about the fact that under Russian pressure, the 26-nation alliance at its summit last April failed to offer a timetable for membership. The Russians "took it as a signal to attack", he said on Wednesday. Nato could turn out to be the long- term loser if Moscow cracks down on Ukraine which, like Georgia, has just challenged Moscow's supremacy in its strategic "near abroad" by demanding three days' notice of Black Sea fleet movements.


As in most wars, the truth has been the first casualty, and the total number of civilian victims remains unknown. It has been impossible to verify the claims and counter-claims by each side accusing the other of genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Originally published by ANNE PENKETH Diplomatic Editor.

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