Are We Entering A New Cold War?
Possibly. Although thankfully less people are now dying in Georgia, in diplomatic terms the crisis is in fact worsening fast. The formal US signing of the agreement to station missiles in Poland was rapidly followed by recognition by the Russian parliament of the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Those are both major inflammatory acts for the other side, and it is difficult to see how the current administrations in Russia and USA can pull back on either the missiles or the recognitions.
More significantly, Russia announced it was increasing its troop numbers in the port of Poti. This effectively kills the six point peace treaty Russia signed. Almost certainly, Russia will argue that its commitment to withdraw troops from Georgia does not include Abkhazia or South Ossetia as it now views them as not part of Georgia. But Poti is not in Abkhazia or South Ossetia, so there is no figleaf of justification for the Russian occupation there. This is straightforward military aggression against a sovereign state.
Won’t The Oligarchs Rein Back Putin To Protect Their Financial Interests?
There is no doubt that the Russian and Western economies are now much more interlinked than during the Cold War. Russian commodities production, particularly oil, gas and metals and wheat, are essential to Western economies. Germany’s dependence on Russian gas for forty per cent of its electricity has a visible effect on German foreign policy and is the most striking example of the diplomatic effect of this integration. On the other side, Russia’s economic resurgence is almost entirely commodity driven and it still produces very little by way of manufactured goods for its own population. Most of these are imported from the West. The international tension has contributed to a 20% plunge in Moscow stock markets this year, and dipped sharply on the Georgia invasion.
Is this enough to prevent a cold war? In many ways, this is a subset of the question, is globalisation the end to war?
The answer I fear is no.
Take the Iraq war. Direct costs alone to the US taxpayer have spiralled to over a trillion dollars, while massive US government debt to fund it, and subsequent acceleration in the decline of the dollar, has been a major contributory factor to the global credit crunch. Economically it has been disastrous for the US population.
But it has not been disastrous for the people who fund George Bush. Oil prices have soared because of the Iraq war, and powerful oil companies have made excess profits totalling hundreds of billions. Very obviously, profits of the big armaments companies have also leapt substantially. The military and security services have also benefited from a massive increase of resources. Big oil, big arms companies, the military and security services – those are a government-swaying conglomeration of private interests with loads of money to buy politicians. That is true in both the US and Russia. It is a peculiar paradox of human society that those who benefit from war, hot or cold, are always able to get their hands on the levers of power much more readily than the bulk of the population, who lose out badly from the misallocation of resources.
Symbolically, Russia signaled yesterday it is turning away from the open economic path with a very significant announcement that it is resiling from several commitments needed for WTO membership.
Wasn’t Russia Provoked Into This Conflict?
Yes. The Georgian attempt to reclaim South Ossetia by force was foolish, even if provoked by South Ossetian shelling. It also appears to have been pretty vicious. But Russian claims of genocide are absolute rubbish. I have witnessed first hand the work of Human Rights Watch in several different parts of the Former Soviet Union, and been very impressed by their methods. They put the South Ossetian dead in the low scores, not the thousands. Of course that is still several score too many. But the Russian response has been grossly disproportionate. There are two key points of international law here. Georgian action was limited to its own sovereign territory. Russia invaded another country and failed the important test of proportionality.
But We Invaded Iraq, right?
Yes we did, and that was illegal too. But just because President Bush says Russia is in the wrong, it does not necessarily follow that Russia is not in the wrong, just as if President Bush said “The time is 10am” it does not necessarily follow that it isn’t (though I’d check, unless someone gave him a nice easy digital watch).
Kosovo is a very precise parallel. Serbia invaded a secessionist area of its sovereign territory, and NATO responded by attacking Serbia – killing many more people than the Russians did in Georgia. NATO would argue that proven genocidal tendencies of the Serb army made it necessary, and that has some weight in assessing proportionality. Nonetheless the NATO response was disproportionate. Most of NATO of course went on to recognise Kosovo as independent, just as Russia has South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Again, NATO being wrong then does not make Russia right now.
But Aren’t South Ossetia and Abkhazia Entitled To Their Independence?
I would argue yes, they are, if it is plainly the will of their population. I would argue the same of Chechnya, Dagestan, Kosovo and Scotland. But there lies the rub – the application of the accepted international law principle of self-determination of peoples, as it applies to separatist entities within a sovereign state, is the hottest dispute in international law. There is no doubt that the precedent of the break-up of the Soviet Union and of Yugoslavia had moved the law in favour of the separatists, but how far? Agreed separations like the Czech and Slovak are no problem, but there is no fixed law for a region wishing to separate against the wishes of the state it is in. Quite simply it depends on having the political clout to get the UN to agree.
North Cyprus is a de facto state which never managed to pull this off, and seems a good parallel for the likely future of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Many “Western” states are deeply wary of acknowledging separatists for their own internal reasons – Canada and Spain being good examples.
The Chechen case is important, because it illustrates both Putin’s extreme ruthlessness, and the fact that Russia has no principle on its side. Russia supports or opposes the rights of separatists purely as they benefit Putin’s aims to expand Russian influence.
Isn’t It All About Oil and Gas?
To quite a degree, yes. European powers have been trying to obtain a Trans-Caucasian pipeline which would enable Central Asian gas to pass to Europe without going through Russia, which currently has a monopoly of Eastern supply. Russia has been pressurising Georgia to block such a pipeline.
Georgia is just one pawn in the New Great Game of securing the Caucasus and Central Asian hydrocarbons. It is a game Putin has been winning hands down for the past five years. He has evicted US influence from Uzbekistan and tied up Uzbek and Turkmen gas supply. Rigged elections got Azerbaijan sewn up under the leadership of the son of the former head of the KGB. Shell have been chucked out of Russia and BP are in the process of being chucked out. Georgia was a last remaining pro-western irritant. Western oil companies remain strong in Kazakhstan, where President Nazarbaev has carried out a brilliant balancing act between Russia and the West. Putin is now bound to ratchet up the pressure on him.
Do We Need a Strong NATO to Counteract Russia?
No. That is the stupid and unimaginative answer – hence espoused by David Miliband, our foreign secretary.
His proposal to accelerate Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership is foolish beyond belief. It will guarantee a new Cold War and boost the Zhirinvosky nationalist tendency in an already scarey Russia. NATO is part of the cause of the problem, not part of the solution. I recall when the Soviet Bloc collapsed reading an internal FCO paper entitled “Finding a New Role for NATO”. The options of a fundamental redesign or abolition were not considered. It simply dwelt on positioning a massive and unwieldy alliance, built to face down Russia, to tackle peace-keeping, drug-smuggling and human-trafficking. Of course, most of that was a cover for the structures, and jobs for the boys, to continue and in fact it just continued to control a massive nuclear-led arsenal still pointed at a disarming Russia, while all the time creeping closer to Russia. We pile on top of that new missile systems and US bases in former Russian satellite states, and our infamous decision to upgrade Trident with a system that means the UK alone could destroy every Russian city. The we worry about why Russia got paranoid and aggressive.
NATO has had its time, and the disaster of Afghanistan and brutality of Kosovo are not pointers to a new future. You can sense the relief of fools like Miliband at the comfort of returning the institution to massive cold war posture. We need a new start with Russia, which involved designing a completely new security architecture in which Russia plays a full part.