Friday, August 29, 2008

Russia: Staring down the barrel of a gun

Since the Russians launched their well-planned war against Georgia on August 8th, there have been several opportunities for Russia to reduce the increasing tension with NATO. However, at every stage, the Russian Federation has played hardball. Firstly they have failed to implement the August 15th ceasefire agreement which they themselves signed- keeping their troops well inside Georgia proper. The Russian army has looted the port of Poti and stolen not only Georgian property, but also the property of several other nations too. The have repeatedly attacked rail and road links and have successfully disrupted oil transit from Azerbaijan to the West. As humanitarian aide comes into the only functioning port under Georgian control- Batumi- Russian naval vessels have harassed the incoming shipments and the NATO warships that have entered the Black Sea. Any criticism has been greeted with extremely aggressive- in fact bellicose- language. By recognising Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Russian Federation has made plain that it intends to annex both territories. The expulsion of the Georgians from South Ossetia leaves a population of only about 30,000 left, while the population of Abkhazia has fallen from 570,000 in 1991 to around 100,000 today, as a result of the complete expulsion of all Georgians. These micro-states are highly unlikely to survive- and it is now clear that in due course, the Kremlin intends to "admit" them both to the Russian Federation.

The war has been a blatant land grab by Russia against Georgia and all the weasel words from the Kremlin on "self determination" and making parallels with the situation in Kosova can not hide the fact that the Kosovars were being attacked by the Serbs and that Kosova, with a population of nearly 2 million, is genuinely able to be independent. In Abkhazia and now in Ossetia, the victims have been the Georgians, and their "independence" is a fig leaf for Russian annexation. Meanwhile, the population of ethnically cleansed "South Ossetia" is now smaller than that of Lichtenstein.

The response from the West to this extraordinary breach of international law was initially confused and divided. However the initial dismay at the Russian invasion has given way to the clear recognition that Russia regards itself as a rival and not a partner to the West. The result has been an increasingly determined stance against the Kremlin. Divisions remain, but even in the most dovish states, there is a recognition that a significant response is required.

However as the air has been filled with talk of sanctions, the Russian response has grown even more aggressive and shrill. The signature of the Polish-US accord on missile defense has seen the Russians threaten a nuclear response. Threats of even the mildest of sanctions have been greeted with threats that Russia will cut off oil and gas supplies altogether.

The European Summit convening on Monday will be a sombre affair indeed. The more hostile the Russian stance, the more united of purpose must the NATO and EU allies be. The fact that the French foreign minister has already indicated that sanctions are on the agenda suggests that, though the doves may fight a rearguard action, they have lost the argument. The furious Russian response- threatening a suspension of all energy supplies may give pause for thought, but may even actually reinforce the determination of the allies to unite in the face of the Russian threat.

However tension is now dangerously high. Russia has acted illegally and has refused to make even the slightest concession to global feeling. The luke-warm communique at the end of the Dushanbe summit of the Shanghai group of Central Asian states reflects the deep concerns amongst those states and the Chinese at Russia's actions. Russia is increasingly isolated.

The question is now that Russia has shown its willingness to unleash warfare on a neighbouing state, how far is it prepared to go to bring other countries it believes should be in its orbit under the direct control of Moscow? The evidence is that there is no clear control over the Russian military.

This is not simply a return to the cold war- there is a real risk that we could face an actual war- a hot war, possibly including a nuclear attack- which the Russian high command now openly suggests is a part of Moscow's strategic planning.

The crude and brutal aggression against Georgia is that dangerous. Unless Russia acts to cool the situation very quickly, it will certainly face sanctions and isolation. How it responds to these will be critical. The slightest miscalculation will put Russia and the rest of the world into a collision course that will lead to war.

A war between nuclear states.

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