The Russian-Georgian Clash

Against the Current, No. 136, September/October 2008

interview with Ronald Grigor Suny

Suzi Weissman interviewed Ronald Grigor Suny, professor of social and political history at the University of Michigan and an expert on the national question in the Caucasus on her radio program, “Beneath The Surface” August 11th.  Suny’s books on that issue are The Making of the Georgian Nation and Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History. He’s also written on The Soviet Experiment and a new book on the Young Stalin.

Suzi Weissman: What’s happening in Georgia?

Ron Suny: Russia and Georgia are neighbors; Russia’s been an imperial power over Georgia, but Georgia achieved its independence at the beginning of the ’90s. The current series of problems and clashes stems from this period.

The media has been a little bit — in this country at least — irresponsible. It seems to be shoving all the blame on Russia. Since the mid-’90s, there has been a situation in which two tiny enclaves, really little republics within Georgia — Abkhazia and South Ossetia — were in conflict with Tbilisi (Georgia’s capital) and its government. Guarding these enclaves against Georgian incursions — because the local people didn’t want to be under Georgian control — are Russian peacekeepers.

The Russians managed through an agreement with Georgia and other states to protect these enclaves until a negotiated settlement was reached.  Russia was perfectly happy with the status quo but Georgia — particularly after the young and dynamic and a little bit impetuous president came to power, Mikheil Saakashvili — wanted to end the conflict and re-integrate these areas into the Georgian state.

SW: We’re hearing that this is like the Soviet invasion of Finland, or Czechoslovakia, or Hungary, a defining moment for this century. But what was Saakashvili thinking? Did he really imagine, with his tiny little army, that he could take on the Russian army?

RS: Well, I asked that question in a New York Times online op-ed recently; I actually don’t have a firm answer. I think this is an irrational, or at least an extraordinarily ill-considered, move on the part of Saakashvili. There were clashes between the peacekeepers and the Georgians for a while but they died down. Last week, just as Putin went off to Beijing to be with Bush and see the Olympics, and the president of Russia, Dmitrii Medvedev, went off on a cruise on the Volga, Saakashvili decided to launch this attack.  And, I must say, a rather vicious attack.

We don’t know the exact number, and in wars these figures tend to be exaggerated.  But at least hundreds were killed, and some say as many as 2000, in rocket attacks and a tank assault against Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. I think that Saakashvili thought: if we do it fast, establish ourselves there, and set up a local government loyal to Tbilisi, maybe the Russians in their confusion will step back, or not come in. That was obviously a miscalculation.

It seems Saakashvili is playing the Western card and he’s having some success. Both presidential candidates have come out against Russia, and President Bush spoke very forcefully on the White House lawn against Russia. The media, at least in this country and in some of Europe, is very anti-Russian: Russia is now the aggressor. Russia is now the imperial power invading Georgia.

The Americans go back and forth. They want to be Russia’s partner, or they’d like Russia to be our partner. They want Russian support in dealing with the Kosovo situation, where we’re on one side and Russia’s on the other. They want the Russians to help in the negotiations with Iran. If Russia doesn’t come around, then Iran will have a freer hand in developing its nuclear power.

On the other hand, step by step, the Americans keep pushing Russia, which is very sensitive to humiliation. The Americans want to put rockets in Poland and in Czechoslovakia, states close to Russia. They want to have Ukraine and Georgia inside NATO. If you look at the map, many East European and Baltic states are in NATO. If you add Georgia and Ukraine, Russia’s basically surrounded on its western and southern flanks by NATO. And that’s really unacceptable.

SW: George Kennan said in 1996 that the United States’ single biggest foreign policy blunder in 50 years was when it expanded NATO to all of Russian’s opponents and not to Russia itself. It seems that Putin is asserting his power — he’s trying to contain the continuing disintegration of the former Soviet Union.

RS: Putin’s rebuilding the state — you understand he’s no democrat, he’s a very authoritarian figure, he believes in Russia as a great power and wants to create a more centralized state, a kind of state capitalist state or something like that. In some ways Putin is admirable: he’s very competent, he’s obviously very smart and incredibly tough. But he can be extraordinarily brutal, and he tends to personalize politics. It is well known that he has a real antipathy towards Saakashvili, who he feels has humiliated and insulted Russia.

Will Russia play smart, take back those two enclaves, reestablish itself as the “legitimate peacekeeper” in the region, but not attack further Georgian territory? They have bombed Gori, they’ve moved troops apparently outside the enclaves into the city of Senaki in western Georgia. And this of course does change things.

If they take territory in Georgia proper or divide Georgia then 1) Russia will have de-legitimized its own source of authority for sending its army into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and 2) every power, including Europe and the United States, would have to reassess its views about Russia’s long-term aims.

SW: Is Saakashvili’s presidency over? What message does this conflict send to Ukraine and other former republics? And how important is the oil pipeline to all of this?

RS: The oil pipeline is important but it’s not the central thing in this particular clash. Russia would love to control as many pipelines as it can, but that pipeline is on and running. Russia has plenty of oil and access to oil pipelines, so this is a small irritant.

I think Saakashvili’s been seriously weakened. Any leader who initiates a fight, then loses it, loses popularity — as Olmert discovered in Israel and Bush has learned in Iraq. Russia is not interested in an imperial policy of re-integration, territorial expansion, controlling the domestic and foreign policy of its neighbors. The days of such territorial empires are over. Imperialism of that sort is very expensive and unacceptable in today’s world.

What Russia is interested in is hegemony in its own neighborhood. Russia sees itself as the Velikaya Derzhava, a Great Power; what it wants is hegemony in the area around Russia and recognition of its primary role in what it considers its sphere of interest close to home. That’s something that the United States and Europe have been unwilling to concede.

SW: What kind of desperation is there in this country to ratchet up the rhetoric without really seeming to consider the consequences?

RS: If the United States, as was expressed earlier in the Bush Administration, has a strategic plan of it being the only superpower, with no serious contenders, then inevitably there’s a clash between America, China, Russia, and any other power that sees itself as having regional interests.

If, on the other hand, the United States pulls back and begins to see that it is a multipolar world and there are other powers with interests that may clash with us, then relations can improve with Russia. We have to ask ourselves: Why is Washington fooling around in a place like Georgia? Sure, we should promote democracy —- though not necessarily with bayonets. Should we encourage antagonism to a giant neighbor on the part of a small power? I think not.

ATC 136, September-October 2008