Written by Charles Scaliger

The New American
Tuesday, 30 September 2008 00:38

An American defense of Georgia could risk nuclear war, yet the Bush
administration seems determined to turn this brush fire into a Cuban
Missile Crisis-like stare-down.

Occupying the territory between the Black and Caspian Seas, the
rugged Caucasus Mountains, where Europe and Asia meet, is a rough
neighborhood. Home to dozens of different languages belonging to
three entirely separate stocks -- the Indo-European, Altaic, and
Caucasian proper -- and two major world religions, Christianity and
Islam, the Caucasus are both a cultural crossroads and a patchwork
of religious and ethnic animosities, some of them stretching back
centuries. In an area where Chechens, Georgians, Armenians, Azeris,
Dagestanis, Ossetians, Kalmyks, Russians, Kurds, Turks, and many other
ethnicities and tribes jockey for control of land and trade routes,
conflicts are frequent, often bloody, and almost incomprehensible to
those foreign to the region.

One of those long-standing conflicts, the rivalry between Georgia and
a small autonomous region known as South Ossetia, grabbed headlines
in August as a result of a quick and decisive war between Georgia
and Russia. The war began when Georgian troops, who had only days
earlier participated in an international military exercise that
also included roughly 1,000 Americans, invaded South Ossetia and
laid siege to Tskhinvali, the regional capital. Russia, long an ally
of the South Ossetians (North Ossetia is an autonomous territory or
oblast within Russia), counterattacked by land, sea, and air, routing
the Georgian military and occupying South Ossetia, another Georgian
region with secessionist designs named Abkhazia, and a considerable
swath of Georgian territory, including the important Georgian port
of Poti on the Black Sea.

Western leaders, including George Bush, who have been grooming
Georgia's president Mikheil Saakashvili for years, responded with
self-righteous outrage, demanding a return to the status quo ante. The
war was swiftly cast in the American media as a Soviet-style power
play by Moscow, and dire warnings about a second Cold War were the
order of the day. But as is so often the case, there is much more
than meets the eye to the ongoing Georgian conflict, the latest but
surely not the last conflagration in the Caucasus.

More Than Meets the Eye The Ossetians, descendants of the Alans, a
warlike tribe which participated in the invasion of the Roman Empire
along with the Vandals and Goths, lived originally along the Don River
but were driven south into the Caucasus in the Middle Ages during the
Mongol invasion. Their language belongs to the Indo-European stock and
is closely related to Iranian and Kurdish. Most Ossetians converted
to Christianity, and more than 60 percent of them are Christian today,
although there is also a sizable Muslim minority.

The land where many Ossetians chose to settle so many centuries ago,
Georgia, has one of the oldest cultures on Earth and was, after
Armenia, the second country to adopt Christianity as its official
religion. Georgia's peculiar Caucasian language has a writing system
all its own and literature stretching back many centuries. Because of
this, and because of her millennia-long occupancy of a large portion
of the central Caucasus, Georgians have long viewed the Ossetians as
modern interlopers, trespassers on hallowed Georgian territory and
undeserving of independence.

By contrast with the Ossetians, the Abkhaz people of Georgia's
other breakaway region have been in the Caucasus since time
immemorial. Abkhazia, stretching along the northeast coast of the
Black Sea, apparently converted to Christianity in the first half of
the first millennium A.D., and has been by turns an independent state,
a Roman conquest, a principality within the Byzantine Empire, a part
of the medieval kingdom of Georgia, and an Ottoman possession. Like
Georgia and Ossetia, Abkhazia became a part of the Russian Empire in
the first decade of the 19th century, and like them was later absorbed
into the Soviet Union as a part of the Soviet Republic of Georgia.

When the Soviet Union broke up in the early 1990s, the newly
independent nation of Georgia incorporated the two former Soviet
autonomous regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Georgian leader Zviad
Gamsakhurdia lost little time asserting control over the two restive
regions, launching a war in 1991 against Ossetia, which had been in
open revolt for two years. Russia entered the war on the side of the
Ossetians, and after more than a year of bitter fighting and several
thousand deaths, a cease-fire was signed restoring to Ossetia some
measure of the autonomy (but not full independence) that the Georgian
parliament had revoked in 1990. Gamsakhurdia, although a genuine
Georgian patriot and longtime dissident against the Soviet government,
was, like many of his compatriots, unwilling to give any political
recognition to Georgia's minorities. "Georgia for Georgians" was a
popular slogan at the time of independence, and self-determination
on the part of the reviled Ossetians was not to be -contemplated.

No sooner had the Ossetian conflict cooled in the summer of 1992
than Georgia invaded Abkhazia with several thousand troops, using
the kidnapping of a Georgian government minister as a pretext. The
Georgians took the Abkhaz capital Sukhumi with little resistance,
but were eventually repulsed and driven from Abkhazia by a large
force consisting of Abkhaz militia and sympathetic minorities from
all over the Caucasus -- Circassians, Chechens, Cossacks, Ossetians,
and others. The Abkhaz proceeded to expel or kill large numbers of
Georgians, in a Balkan-style episode of "ethnic cleansing" little
remarked in the West but possibly costing tens of thousands of lives,
both Abkhaz and Georgian. Eduard Shevardnadze, former foreign minister
of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev and sometime president of Georgia,
was in Sukhumi at the time and narrowly escaped death.

>From the early '90s to the present day, an uneasy status quo has
held sway in both breakaway republics, with both Georgia and Russia
maneuvering for control of the regions. With the ouster of President
Shevardnadze in 2003 and the rise of Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgian
politics have taken a decidedly pro-American tilt. Georgia sent a
very large contingent of troops into Iraq -- all of whom were speedily
evacuated and returned to Georgia, with American help, following the
outbreak of the August war -- and, along with newly assertive Ukraine,
applied for NATO membership.

At the same time, Georgia has become a transit center for oil from
the Caspian Sea. The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, completed in 2005,
crosses the country en route to the Turkish coast, and the Baku-Supsa
pipeline, brought online in 1999, ends at the Georgian Black Sea port
of Supsa.

Given the intractable enmities bound up in the Georgian conflict,
it would seem unwise for America to take sides or otherwise inject
its influence, but that is precisely what the Bush government has
chosen to do. Vowing to push for Georgian entry into NATO, the Bush
administration has leveled a steady barrage of criticism against
Moscow for behaving precisely as the United States -- or any great
power -- is wont to behave in its sphere of influence. "Russia has
invaded a sovereign neighboring state and threatens a democratic
government elected by its people," said President Bush. "Such an
action is unacceptable in the 21st century.... Russia's government
must respect Georgia's territorial integrity and sovereignty." Given
recent U.S. military interventions in Haiti and Panama (not to mention
Iraq), the Bush administration's moral posturing over Russia's Georgia
adventure (in which a number of Russian peacekeepers were killed before
Moscow ever launched her counterattack) ring hollow, to say the least.

Nor is there any basis for defending Georgia's NATO ambitions, at
least from an American point of view. NATO already commits the United
States Armed Forces to defend all sorts of out-of-the-way places of no
strategic value to the United States. Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia,
former Soviet republics all, are already members; is America ready
to start World War III to defend them? Yet that is precisely what
the NATO alliance will require of us, should Russia ever decide to
re-annex them, and it will do the same vis-a-vis Georgia, should this
trouble-prone Caucasus state ever become a member.

The Chief Motive As events stand, the Georgia/South Ossetia War, a
brief, inconsequential flare-up in a region where the United States
has no business looking for trouble, has already led to near-naval
confrontation between Russia and the United States in the Black Sea. At
the time of this writing, Russian bombers are in the Western Hemisphere
(in Venezuela) for the first time since the Cold War, and the United
States is threatening further unspecified measures against Russia for
her intransigence. For her part, Russia has withdrawn her military
forces from most of Georgia proper, but has kept large garrisons
in both breakaway regions and formally recognized the independence
of both.

In spite of the triviality of the Caucasus flare-up, the powers that
be in the West seem bent on antagonizing Russia. Immediately after
the Georgian conflict, the Bush administration announced a deal to
station missile interceptors -- ostensibly to defend Europe against
Iranian warheads -- in Poland. Russia responded by sending long-range
bombers to Venezuela and threatening to re-militarize Cuba. Defense of
Georgia or even of her oil pipelines seems inadequate rationale for
potential nuclear war, yet the Bush administration seems determined
to turn this regional brush fire into a Cuban Missile Crisis-like
international stare-down.

The chief motive for the exaggerated hullabaloo is the expansion
of NATO, which continues to absorb more nations and redefine its
organizational mission almost two decades after the disintegration
of the Soviet Union. What was once touted as a military alliance
to defend the West and its interests against the communist menace
has been reinvented as an all-purpose global military force. NATO
led the Western European and American intervention in the various
Balkan wars in the 1990s, and NATO forces are now in command
of the war in Afghanistan, a conflict far removed from Cold War
animosities. "Presumed dead more often than the hero in a melodrama,"
U.S. Ambassador to NATO R. Nicholas Burns wrote in 2003, "the new
NATO keeps on defying the pundits' predictions by adapting itself to
a rapidly changing world."

Absorption of Georgia, the Ukraine, and other former Soviet republics
has become a prime objective of the NATO organization, as NATO
Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer made clear in a recent speech
in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. "The process of NATO enlargement will
continue, with due caution but also with a clear purpose -- to help
create a stable, undivided Europe," Scheffer said. "No other country
will have a veto over that process, nor will we allow our strong ties
to Georgia to be broken by outside military intervention and pressure."

If the purpose of NATO is now the creation of a "stable, undivided
Europe," Americans would do well to wonder why America still belongs
to the organization. After all, America's military was created to
protect America and her vital interests, not those of Europe, much
less the remote and fractious Caucasus. Yet if the Eurocrats in charge
of NATO have their way, Georgia, along with all her Caucasian broils
and her blood feud with Russia, will be drawn into the alliance,
an event that will make war between Washington and Moscow much more
likely than it ever was during the Cold War.

From: Emil Lazarian | Ararat NewsPress