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US-backed Georgia pokes the Russian bear

By Tony Kevin - posted Friday, 22 August 2008

In diplomacy, it is usually a mistake to try to force resolution of a territorial dispute. The cure is often worse than the disease.

Such is the case with the Georgian crisis. Reckless provocation by the Bush administration and its protégé “Rose Revolution” anti-Russian Saakashvili government has led to a major realignment in the balance of power between post-communist Russia and the West.

It is the most important event in East-West relations since the fall of Soviet Communism in 1990. In Georgia, Russia took on US-led attempted Western strategic encirclement, and won. There will be consequences all along Russia's western and southern borderlands.


Russia had given ample warning to Georgia that it would defend its interests in its “near abroad”. In Helsinki, the Finns understand that Russia expects bordering states - its security glacis - to be non-confrontational in their diplomacy and national security.

But, encouraged by the Bush administration, Saakashvili defied such prudence. Georgia imported US and Israeli weapons and US military advisers. It hosted a Western-financed oil pipeline designed to bypass Russia. It pursued NATO and EU membership, and ramped up pressure on South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the non-ethnic Georgian regions in Georgia that were under Russian nominal peacekeeping protection since 1991.

In response, Russia issued Russian passports to these non-ethnic Georgian citizens who wanted them as a security. The status of these territories was frozen - they were effectively fully autonomous regions.

Two weeks ago, under cover of the Olympic Games opening, Georgian forces mounted a surprise attack on South Ossetia, taking its main city Tskhinvali after major artillery bombardment that caused great destruction, civilian casualties and refugee outflows.

Russian forces moved in two days later, easily rolling back the Georgian army and advancing deep into Georgia proper, demonstrating their power to cut the country in two and take its capital if they wished. They bracketed the oil pipeline with targeted shells to either side of it.

European peace diplomacy kicked in, and a ceasefire was negotiated. A victorious Moscow said it expected the Georgian people to have the good sense to remove the reckless government that had led it to such disaster, and that South Ossetia and Abkhazia might never wish to become part of Georgia after this experience. Russians drew pointed parallels with Western acceptance of Kosovo's right to independence after Serb brutality.


A spin campaign to present Georgia as victim of Russian aggression ran up against the hard facts that Saakashvili had initiated the armed conflict. Washington wheeled out old cold war rhetoric. It played well at home but badly in Paris and Bonn.

The war was a tragedy for Christian, Orthodox Georgia that has close cultural ties to Russia, its historical ally and protector against Turkish expansionism in the Caucasus. Now there will be deep hatred between these formerly friendly peoples. It did not have to happen like this.

map Russia Georgia Turkey

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First published in Eureka Street on August 19, 2008.

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About the Author

Tony Kevin holds degrees in civil engineering, and in economics and political science. He retired from the Australian foreign service in 1998, after a 30-year career during which he served in the Foreign Affairs and Prime Minister’s departments, and was Australia’s ambassador to Poland and Cambodia. He is currently an honorary visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies in Canberra. He has written extensively on Australian foreign, national security, and refugee policies in Australia’s national print media, and is the author of the award-winning books A Certain Maritime Incident – the Sinking of SIEV X, and Walking the Camino: a modern pilgrimage to Santiago. His third book on the global climate crisis, Crunch Time: Using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era was published by Scribe in September 2009.

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