"GEORGIA LOST ALL HOPES"

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[07:06 pm] 26 August, 2008

An interview with Arman Grigorian, member of the Central Office of
the Armenian National Congress.

Mr. Grigorian, as I understand, you are an expert on conflicts,
including on internal conflicts and interventions. I also know that
you have dealt with the conflicts in Georgia in your work. What is
your assessment of the situation in Georgia?

The situation can only be characterized as an unmitigated disaster
for Georgia. I think Georgia has lost all hope of ever regaining
even nominal control of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, its military
capabilities and infrastructure have been severely crippled, Russian
forces control Poti, as well as the strategic highway connecting the
Eastern and Western parts of Georgia, which gives them tremendous
leverage at the negotiating table, and finally, the war has made it
painfully clear how much help Georgia can count on from the West, which
is not that much. Despite the high pitch anti-Russian rhetoric in the
US, President Bush and the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had to
assure the American people that the US will not go to war with Russia
over Georgia, removing much of the calculated ambiguity regarding
the true level of American commitment to Georgia's security. In
sum, I think this is one of the darkest times in the modern history
of Georgia.

By all indications it was the Georgian government that decided to
escalate in South Ossetia. Given the catastrophic results for the
country, why do you think Sahakashvili and his government made such a
decision? Was it simple incompetence and irrationality that drove them?

That is indeed one of the most interesting questions about this
conflict. Ultimately, Sahakashvili's policy has failed, and it
was a predictable failure, therefore it is not too unfair to call
Sahakashvili's competence into question. But we should resist the
temptation to see it as just incompetence, because even incompetent
governments don't start wars all the time. So there is usually more
to such decisions than that. What is behind Sahakashvili's decision in
my view? Before answering that question, however, I would like to say
a few words about the official Georgian argument. According to that
argument, Georgia was not the initiator of the conflict. The conflict
rather was initiated by the Ossetes who had been shelling Georgian
villages prior to the Georgian escalation. The spokesperson of the
Georgian Foreign Ministry, in fact, called Washington on August 6 - one
day before the launch of the operation - to tell that Georgia was under
attack, and that the government had to protect its people. I don't buy
the Georgian government's argument for two reasons, even if we take
its claim that Ossetes were shelling Georgians villages at face value.

First, the evidence suggests that the ultimate aim was the ethnic
cleansing of the Ossetian population of South Ossetia rather than
suppression of fire, which means that the alleged Ossetian shelling
was a pretext rather than the cause that triggered the Georgian
move. Second, the fact of Ossetian shelling, if indeed it is a fact,
may serve as a moral justification as to why Georgia had to respond,
if we forget the scale of that response for the moment, but not an
explanation for why it did, because the Georgian response was very
likely to trigger a Russian intervention. Georgian leaders must have
considered the possible Russian reaction independent of the moral case
of their position and somehow concluded that either Russia would not
intervene, or that Georgia would have sufficient support from the US
to fight Russia off if it did.

Could Georgians have possibly thought that Russia would not intervene,
and could such a prognosis be reasonable under any circumstances?

Obviously, we don't know whether this is the conclusion that
Saakashvili's government reached. If it is, the reasoning behind it
would be problematic to say the least, but it would not be totally
irrational despite the explicit Russian threats of intervention in case
of a Georgian attack on South Ossetia and Abkhazia. I say this because
this is the first time that Russia has done something seriously at odds
with American preferences in 20 years. Russia has made many threats
in this period - in response to the two rounds of NATO expansion,
the abrogation of the ABM treaty, the attack on Serbia, etc. - and I
cannot recall a single case where any of those threats were carried
out. Russia has been so weak and so concerned about projecting
a non-aggressive image that it has chosen to give in every time,
rather than react when its interests were infringed upon. This has
seriously eroded the credibility of Russian threats. That this time the
Russian threat was going to be carried out, therefore, was subject to
considerable and justified skepticism, as reckless as it looks after
the fact. Nonetheless, I think it is unlikely that Sahakashvili and
his team had completely bet on Russian inaction when they made their
decision. More likely, they thought that Russia would intervene, but
they catastrophically misjudged two things - the ferocity and scale
of the Russian intervention, i.e. the prospect that Russia would push
beyond South Ossetia instead of simply restoring the status quo ante;
and the likelihood of getting support from the Unites States in case
of that limited Russian intervention.

But how could they think that the US was going to help them? Could
they really have expected that the US was going to go to war against
Russia for Georgia? Isn't such an expectation itself evidence of
Georgian leader's utter incompetence?

I am reluctant to see it as nothing more than Sahakashvili's
incompetence. I would like to emphasize again that we should try
to see the logic of his decision as a composite of two elements -
the expectation of a limited intervention and the expectation of
American help in case of such an intervention, not necessarily in the
form of initiating a shooting war against Russia. Sahakashvili and
his government predicted in all likelihood that Russia would throw
the Georgian army out of South Ossetia and stop. If simultaneously
they thought South Ossetia was going to be lost anyway in case of
doing nothing, doing something would start to look at least no worse
than doing nothing, provided the assumption is that of a limited
intervention. I think they also predicted, not unreasonably, that the
escalation would sharpen the Russian-American antagonism over Georgia,
which would draw Americans closer, increase their military presence
in Georgia, increase their military aid to Georgia, and improve the
likelihood of Georgia's membership in NATO. All of this in turn would
increase the pressure on Russia to be more conciliatory in both South
Ossetia and Abkhazia.

I think this was a terrible theory of victory, but a tempting one,
since as I said Russia has not come out on top in a single dispute
with NATO in the last 20 years. Thinking that this time would be
different apparently required a little more imagination than the
Georgian leaders had. And Georgians are not the only ones who thought
along these lines. In a very interesting article that was published
during the war, the Los Angeles Times had quoted David Phillips,
who is a well-connected analyst in Washington, saying that "the last
thing Russia wants is a war with the West. If they came eye to eye
with NATO warplanes, they would retreat." I can assure you that in
the US Phillips is not the exception to the rule in this regard.

What do you think was the exact role of the USA in all of this? More
specifically, there is an opinion, sometimes voiced in the Russian
media, that Sahakashvili was either prodded by the Americans to attack
South Ossetia or that he at least had a green light from them. Do
you think that opinion is justified?

The answer to that question cannot be unequivocal. There is
considerable evidence that the Secretary of State Rice urged restraint
on Sahkashvili and warned against doing anything too bold more than
once. At the same time, however, I think the US government did not
do enough to restrain him. Even worse, Sahakashvili did receive some
mixed signals.

Can you elaborate on this a little more?

Sure. The signals were mixed in two ways. First, the same group of
people would tell Sahakashvili not to do anything reckless, but then
would make extremely strong public statements designed to reassure
Georgia and to contain Russia. Certain doors were opened in Washington
for Sahakashvili that would be opened for very few leaders. Most
importantly, Americans were supplying and training the Georgian
military. Such shows of support could legitimately be interpreted
as indicators of a very high degree of Washington's interest in
protecting Georgia. They also intentionally or unintentionally
staked the American reputation on defending Georgia, even if they
did not imply any legal obligations. As a result, Sahakashvili
could have thought that the US would intervene to protect its own
credibility as an ally, even if the Secretary of State was telling
him behind closed doors that he should behave himself. There was a
second way in which the signals were mixed, and it has to do with
the incoherence that sometimes characterizes the working of the
American government. Often we think of it as a perfectly ordered,
hierarchically structured set of institutions, which acts as a single,
coherent unit with a centralized decision-making mechanism. That is
not how it always works, however. There are issue areas and cases,
where the White House, the CIA, the State Department, and the Pentagon
all have their different policies. Something along these lines in all
likelihood was happening in the case of Georgia, where vice-president
Cheney and his office, according to several major American newspapers,
were far more encouraging of Sahakashvili's belligerence than the
State Department. Given this picture, and the fact that the current
American vice-president is a particularly powerful individual, I
can easily imagine how Sahakashvili chose to read only the signals
coming from him and his office, since those signals confirmed his
biases. Such selective reading of signals is actually a very general
cognitive defect, which to some degree affects us all.

Now I would like to move from explaining the conflict to speculating
on its consequences. Do you think this will lead to a new cold war
between the US and Russia?

If we look at both the American and Russian strategic interests,
the answer should be no. Indeed, Russia and the USA should have
been close partners a long time ago, because their interests overlap
in a number of areas - nuclear proliferation, the struggle against
radical Islam, Russia being a an alternative to the Gulf as an energy
supplier, the rise of China, etc. But strategic interests are not
what always drive American foreign policy. Especially in good times,
and the last 20 years have been good times for the US, foreign policy
becomes hostage to special interests, which is the only explanation
for the American elites' reluctance to establish a more cooperative
relationship with Russia. The American defense-industrial complex,
which is in a desperate search of a serious enemy since the early
1990's to justify its massively oversized existence, the myriad ethnic
lobbies, which have all kinds of grudges against Russia, the gigantic
army of experts and bureaucrats suffering from Cold War nostalgia,
etc., all have interests that are quite distinct from what I think
the American strategic interests are, and which have successfully
imposed their agenda on the American people up to this point. These
special interests remain very powerful and practically unchecked
today by any counterlobbies, which does not bode well for the future
of American-Russian relations. I also fear that after having watched
its ally get pounded by Russia, the US is going to try to punish
Russia somehow in order not to let the Russians think that they can
throw their weight around now. Russia, meanwhile, has regained some of
its strength and is definitely going to demand more respect from now
on. A new cold war, therefore, is at least a possibility. I should add,
however, that this time much will depend on the policies of Germany and
France, which do not want a cold war, as well as on the developments
in Iraq, Afghanistan, and soon probably in Pakistan, which may make
a new cold war with Russia excessively costly for the US.

Finally, I would like to know your opinion about the consequences of
this war for Armenia, as well as its likely effects on the settlement
for the Karabagh conflict.

First about the effects on the Ossetian war on the Karabagh
conflict. One positive result is that the likes of Vafa Gulizade in
Azerbaijan have stopped praising the Georgian policy and advocating
a similar approach to "solve" the Karabagh conflict, which they
were doing at very high decibels during the first couple of days of
the war. The outcome in Ossetia must have had a sobering effect on
Gulizade and others of his ilk, and that is a very good thing. At
the same time, I don't think the outcome in South Ossetia, and the
related fact that Russia is considering the de jure recognition of
both South Ossetia and Abkhazia, has markedly increased the chances
of Karabagh's de jure recognition by Russia, which is a prospect some
people now consider very likely. As for the general effects of the
war, my answer is quite simple and straightforward: a war between
the two most important countries for Armenia cannot possibly be good
news. Georgia is Armenia's lifeline, and the military alliance with
Russia is Armenia's main security guarantee. The deepening of their
hostility is going to make the maintenance of the very difficult
balance between them that much more difficult, especially if the
US-Russian relations deteriorate further and Americans get more
closely involved.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress