South Ossetia: The perfect wrong war

By now, days after Georgian forces stormed the capital of south Ossetia and Russian units counter attacked across the breaking away province and beyond; a devastating war has spread across the Caucasus causing death, destruction and displacement of populations. All wars are terrible  -- even the legitimate ones where country, freedom and survival at are at stake. But this war is particularly unnecessary, could have been avoided and above all is wrong; in fact I call it the perfect wrong war.

Unfortunately, when battles are raging with tanks, artillery, bombs and all sort of firepower, it becomes more difficult to see the substantive issues clearly than before the confrontation began. For example, it becomes more pressing to reach a cease fire, provide medical attention, create Red Cross corridors, stop ethnic cleansing, human rights breaches and take care of refugees, than to investigate who began the hostilities, what provoked it, what are the local claims and what international equation has permitted such an onslaught. And to make it more complicated, rushed journalistic reporting -- often biased -- confuses public opinion endlessly. In short, once the bullets fly, media sensationalism explodes and political agendas creep in.

Let's review the battle of arguments in the South Ossetia conflict and try to analyze the essence while keeping an eye on the bigger picture, the one that affects democracies' national security and international efforts against terror forces.

The classical slogans

When you observe the media analysis worldwide, you can spot the mutual classical slogans and easy assessments, not always accurate. As soon as the clashes began in Tskhinvali (the South Ossetian capital), anti-American propagandists rushed to accuse the Bush Administration of "pushing President Mikheil Saakshvili to perform an attack destined to weaken the Kremlin." Other more sinister charges linked the Georgian move to a US "interest in Oil pipelines." Similar to the 9/11 conspiracy theories these allegations were also found in some Russian unofficial commentaries.  But opposing narratives spoke of a "Putin offensive to expand Russian power southbound after years of weakness." Many stories accused the Kremlin of simply trying to "re-occupy" former Soviet Republics.

Obviously these slogans from this and other sides are frivolous. Neither Moscow nor Washington are in a state allowing them to wage wars at will 18 years after the end of the Cold War. The United States, involved in two battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq and closely monitoring developments in precarious Pakistan and in aggressive Iran, is certainly not planning another conflict in the Caucasus where it would have to commit a ground support. With a US Presidential election in weeks and a major debate about US involvement anywhere, forget about these hallucinations. Moscow too, despite the sour post-Soviet feelings in Red Square, is not in the business of re-invading any Republic to bring it back to the "empire:" In Hollywoodian imagination, maybe; but in real politics not so likely. So what are the actual reasons behind these tragic events and escalating military clashes?   

The roots of the local conflict

South Ossetia and Abkhazia are provinces (self declared Republics) within a sovereign country, Georgia. The populations of these two entities, non ethnic Georgians and mostly ethnic-Russians, rose to obtain separation based on their own perception of cultural identity. In comparative analysis they would be the equivalent of Kosovo's ethnic-Albanians. As in other ethnic conflicts, each side claim superseding ownership; but in the eyes of modern international law that is irrelevant after hundreds of years of settlement. An initial confrontation in the early 1990s (1992-1994) between Georgia’s post Soviet Government and the separatist movements led to agreements allowing for local autonomy for these two areas and for the deployment of Russian (CIS) Peacekeepers.

For almost 16 years this status quo survived while awaiting a final resolution of the conflict. As in many spots in the Caucasus and the Balkans, borders do not always correspond with nationalities and ethnicities. The agreement between South Ossetia and Georgia, blessed by Moscow, was the guarantee of stability, until times changed.

Five reasons led to transformations: One was the shift of Georgia to NATO and friendship to Washington; two was a shift in Moscow from good relations with the US under Yeltsin and the first years of Putin to more tense relations in the last Putin years; three was the active participation of Georgia in US-led activities in Iraq; four were the Ossetians' continuous aspirations towards self determination; and last but not least, the breakdown of friendship between the West and Russia since the Kosovo resolution few months ago, the real last straw.

The Kosovo factor

Since 1999, the outcome of the Western campaign in Kosovo brought about a parallel status quo to the one established in South Ossetia and in Abkhasia. In short, NATO had created an autonomous area for the ethnic Albanians inside a sovereign country, Serbia; while Russia and the CIS have insured autonomous status for South Ossetians and Abkhasians inside another sovereign state, Georgia.

From a Russian perspective the two cases were linked and would eventually be resolved via negotiations. From a Western perspective Kosovo was "unique" and was to be resolved differently, that is granted independence unilaterally. But as long as Russian-American relations especially under Presidents Bush and Putin were warm, the de facto enclaves in Kosovo and Ossetia lived in stability.

The challenge began when during winter 2008, the US and the European Union decided to unleash Kosovo's separation despite Serbia's opposition. In international jurisprudence, breaking away entities need validation by the country the partition is going to affect. In Canada for example, Quebec would always need the other provinces to agree on separation. Agreement of "both sides" is usually sought.

But in the case of Kosovo, for international political motivations, including a gesture to please the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in the midst of a campaign to win hearts and minds, Washington and Brussels went ahead swiftly and endorsed Pristina's declaration of separation from Belgrade. The Western powers argued that going back to Serbia was out of question for the Kosovars; therefore going forward was the only option, despite Serbian claims inside the province.

The underlying geopolitical reasoning was that no force including the Russians would be able to oppose the move. "They are too far" to intervene, assumed the diplomats. But Moscow made its intentions known the day of Kosovo's declaration of independence.

The Russian statement was poorly covered in the international media. The release said the Russian Federation will recognize the efforts by South Ossetia and Abkhazia to secede from Georgia. It was a clear eye for an eye declaration, but it went unnoticed in the West. In an article titled "Be Wise on Kosovo," published on December 13, 2007 in the American Thinker,  I warned that a chain reaction may begin elsewhere. The confrontations taking place today in the Caucasus were triggered strategically in the Balkans few months before. Russia was ignored on the shores of the Mediterranean, it responded on the shores of the Black sea. To Moscow, Georgia's allies are also "too far" when the enclaves would move to separation.

Direct causes

But Georgia's Government realized the sense of Russia's statements and still decided to act preemptively. President Mikheil Saakashvili must have calculated that by moving fast on the ground he would avoid the repetition of a Kosovo-like declaration in South Ossetia. His strategic algebra is still unclear to me. Was he hoping for a blitz seizure of Tskhinvali and the formation of a pro-Georgian local government? Was he predicting a slow Russian reaction? Historians will tell. But the chain reaction is clear. Moscow gave the green light to South Ossetia and Abkhazia to follow the Kosovo model, and Tbilisi rushed to abort these moves. Hence Georgian forces were ordered by Saakashvili to "bring back constitutional order" to the breakaway republics -- 16 years after a status quo -- and Medvedev and Putin responded by sending Russian forces to drive the Georgians out of the two provinces. In its own response Russia was telling the West: South Ossetia is Kosovo and Georgia is Serbia; I am applying your doctrine in the Caucasus.

From August 6 on, the Georgian offensive attempted to seize the capital of the enclave and the Russian counter offensive pushed the Georgians out. Moscow accused Tbilisi's units of ethnic cleansing and Georgia's leaders counter-accused the Russians of invading all of their country. The fog of war is still too thick at this point.

International reactions

The US blasted the Russian Federation for the attack while the European Union called for a return to the status quo ante, technically cancelling the effects of the Georgian attack but hoping for a Russian stop of operations.  In the Security Council a battle of words has been raging for days without real results, other than wishes for a cease fire. Naturally Britain stood by America and China discreetly backed Russia.

In Central and Eastern Europe, particularly in the Baltic sub-region politicians are very concerned. From Prague to Tallinn politicians remember the Soviet occupation and fear a repeat of Ossetian scenarios on their land. In the Baltic States many are concerned that local Russian populations may call for similar interventions. Perhaps these fears are unwarranted as the Caucasus enclaves have historical roots, unlike the north. 

But on both sides of the Atlantic unease is spreading. Hard core critics of Russia, vestiges of the Cold war, still believe that the Soviet Union changed clothes but is still around. Others boil down the crisis to standing by Georgia as an ally, period. On the left, any alibi is good to demean American policy. In a sum, confusion reigns: how did the West get itself to face off with post Soviet Russia in an ethnic standoff in the Caucasus? Was the Kosovo episode too rushed? Did Washington and Brussels' East Policies fail in the middle of a war on terror? Or was the Atlantic West dragged by other world powers to re-clash with the East? Again, historians will have to investigate.

But meanwhile, a growing number of observers in the West are connecting the dots from the South Ossetia drama to much wider and strategic horizons.  How to look at the Caucasus crisis is the question. Do we want to bring back the Cold war and the Russo-Western struggle? Do we want to drop the War on Terror and swim back to the pre 1990s years? Or do we want to win the global confrontation with the forthcoming Jihadi Caliphate?

At the end of the day, it is a question of choices, and mostly the democracies' choice.

Hard strategic questions

Is the Russian current leadership displaying features of superpower-return, of zones of influence and of so-called strategic belts? Yes it does. Prime Minister Putin and his Government showed many signs of opposition to the advancing NATO influence in what he perceives as Russia's neighborhood: the crisis with Ukraine, opposition to missiles defense shield in Eastern Europe and nervousness about US military influence developing at the edges of the former USSR, including in Romania, Bulgaria, Estonia and Georgia.

But beyond these geopolitical considerations the Kremlin also rejected the US-led Iraq campaign, the isolation of the Syrian regime and the containment of the Iran Khomeinist power. And here lies the distinction. If Moscow's politico-military establishment feels uncomfortable with NATO coming closer to Russia's borders, it can express that discontent and address it in bilateral relationships with Washington. The United States, for example, wouldn't be very comfortable seeing Russian missiles systems installed in Mexico or a strategic defense treaty signed between Haiti and China. These are classical moves in international relations, drawing tensions and counter moves.

But for Russia to actively arm Iran and Syria, this is a feature of cold war, inconsistent with present the international consensus against Terrorism. The Tehran-Damascus "axis" is in an active campaign to support Jihadi terror forces in the region and armed groups involved in the killing of US and Coalition personnel. It would be the equivalent of having the US arming and providing technology to Wahabi Chechen Terrorists operating against Russian cities and military. Hence, while Americans are as anti-terrorist as Russia is when it comes to the al-Qaeda Salafi threat, Russians are still feeding anti-Western forces in the Middle East. Hence there is a difference between Russian discomfort with NATO growth around the CIS and US concerns about Russia's protection of Iranian-Syrian efforts in the region. Moscow is backing a party at war with the US Coalition while Americans aren't assisting parties at War with Russia.

So, if that is the case, what is the best strategic course of action that the US and NATO must follow to address this problem? Some advise Washington to press the encirclement of the Russian Federation and put pressure on its few allies in the Balkans, thinking that this would weaken the Kremlin resolve to fight back. I disagree. If Russia's leadership has moved to counter US efforts in the Middle East the right response is not to escalate against the Russians in Kosovo and along their borders, including in Ossetia. For by pursuing such policy -- while the US and its allies are engaged in massive confrontations against the Salafist movements and the Khomeinist power -- the West will find itself over stretched on two world fronts, one of them at least is unnecessary: Russia.      

To be crude: Liberal democracies have no interest in over-pressuring Russia in the course of strategic gaming while they are at full war with the Global Jihadists. Such a move will push the Russians away from converging with the West against the "common enemy." Instead of consolidating a Western-Russian entente against both Salafists and Khomeinists, Russia and the US are confronting the Wahabis separately and in most cases unsuccessfully while the Russians have befriended the Khomeinists who are harassing the Americans. The Russo-American competition is not helping either side,  but one other side does win: the Global Jihadists.  

Jihadi Dual agenda

The world Salafists' ultimate wish is to see the two infidel superpowers at odds with each other again; and that is happening. The combat-Jihadists want bloodshed both in Moscow and in Washington now and in the future. The long-term Wahabis likes the idea of an American demobilization against Jihadism and a re-mobilization against Russia. Ending the War on Terror and reigniting the Cold war is the ultimate fantasy of the oil producing fundamentalist powers.

On the other hand, the Iranian regime and its allies in Syria and Lebanon have clearly opted for privileged strategic relations with Russia as a way to counterbalance the US and its allies in the region. The flow of petro cash from Iranian oil revenues can ensure a good business and military relationship with Moscow. Some in the latter city -- still recalling Cold War feelings -- like the idea of client states (or so they think) counterbalancing American presence in the Middle East.

In the final analysis, the two main trees of Jihadism are playing West against East to ensure the weakening and ultimately the collapse of their grand foes. The Wahabis wants to bring Russia down via the establishment of several Wahabi emirates in its midst --from Chechnya to Central Asia. And the Khomeinists want the US out of the region so that they can establish their own dominance instead.

Moscow and Washington (and Brussels as well) should not be manipulated by oil fundamentalist powers against each other. The Cold War should not be brought back at the expense of winning the conflict against Jihadi Terrorism. In clear terms: no wars should be waged outside the international campaign against the terrorists, should it be an ethnic or economic one. These, including the current Caucasus conflict, are wrong wars as they would profit the global Jihadi forces, both political and military.

The road from here

With this outlook in mind Western and Russian actions must climb back the walls and get off the pit they got themselves in.

1)      First a swift conclusion of the Georgia-South Ossetia-Abkhazia conflict.

It is important to help the parties to the conflict end the military confrontation as fast as possible. Open wounds should not be allowed to fester. Lines of direct clashes must be frozen. After the consolidation of an internationally endorsed cease fire, security measures on the ground have to take place in a way to ensure a non repeat of the drama. Georgian forces should return to their initial positions of pre August 6, 2008 -- that is on their national soil but outside the two "ethnic republics." To separate them from the South Ossetians and Abkhasians until the political conflict is resolved, CIS Peace keepers should remain in their initial positions but it is highly recommended that other forces --not engaged in the latest clashes -- deploy between the two contending armed forces. A United Nations mandate (not regular UN units at this stage) for specially selected troops trusted from both sides such as French, Spanish, Greek, Mongolian, Japanese, Argentines,
etc. would be best to separate the militaries on the ground. Once that stage is completed, the political process must begin.

2)      International resolution process

A UN-led commission of inquiry (with and all members of the UN Security Council) must meet with representatives of the South Ossetians and Abkhazians to determine their suggested claims and meet with the Government of Georgia to note their demands as well. Unlike in the Kosovo case, all sides should be listened to and all concerns should be catered to as well. The interim stage can take different shapes but the ultimate process ironically must follow the Kosovo precedent -- that is to grant the South Ossetians and Abkhazians their right for self-determination while Georgians concerns must be addressed. The final security arrangements are best to be made under international auspices so that responsibility for breaches can be determined by universal measurements.

3)      Russo-Western guarantees

To guarantee the two processes, security and political, a Russo-Western summit (in different shape) must take place including Russia, the United States and the European Union. Such a summit should work on ending the tensions between the two sides worldwide and in the Caucasus. A thinking process about a NATO-Russian dialogue must begin based on two principles: stabilization of ethnic conflicts internationally and focus on a new stage in the confrontation with international Terror forces. This process may take a long time, but as it begins, crises such as the South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia must be addressed immediately and military clashes avoided.


In the end, even if the above comments and opinion seem to be too utopian, a simple review of the alternatives is a road to nowhere except a defeat of the international community in its quest for a win against Terror. This Caucasus conflict should create enough consciousness among Western and other democracies, including Russia, that any global confrontation between these large blocs -- regardless of their pending issues -- is a loss to the overarching world efforts against the danger that menaces all democracies, including India, other world powers such as China, and Muslim moderate countries as well. Obviously to those many among us in the West who are still swimming in Cold War culture, and to those in Russia who perceive the post-Soviet era with pre-1990 lenses, these crises are opportunities to sharpen the old rusty swords of the East-West conflict. I am making the case strongly in this article against such a return to a past we all lived through and hoped would end. After the terror attacks of 9/11, Madrid, London, Mumbai, Moscow and Beslan we have all moved to a new era: a relentless Jihadi war War waged against all Kuffars (infidels) worldwide.

The Kosovo affair was concluded with sourness that came back to haunt the international community in South Ossetia. That is the first lesson to learn from it. The military clashes between Russia and Georgia told us that new conflicts would collapse all that the international community has tried to achieve for the last seven years. That is the second lesson. Third and last, without going back to the blame game, the South Ossetia war was a wrong war that should have been avoided: It was a perfect wrong War.

Dr. Walid Phares is a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a visiting scholar with the European Foundation for Democracy, the author of The Confrontation: Winning the War against Future Jihad, and teaches Global Strategies at the National Defense University.
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