Monday, August 11, 2008

Inconsistent and Disproportionate- the oily road to South Ossetia

Whatever the many disagreements it is possible to have about South Ossetia and the conflict between Georgia and Russia, most people would have to agree that it is a sorry mess.

While not being an apologist for the Kremlin, the trigger for this episode seems to have been a Georgian attack on its South Ossetian minority. While this follows years of dispute and months of escalating tension, the Georgian use of artillery and rockets against a civilian town seems to have been disproportionate and rash.

It was disproportionate because civilians rather than Russian soldiers seem to have been the main victims. If the figures of 1,500 to 2,000 South Ossetians being killed are correct, then this was an equivalent of a Russian 9/11. It was rash as in the face of such provocation it seems inconceivable that Russia would not have counter-attacked.

Russia in turn is now portrayed as the attacker. This is inconsistent as when the US and Israel retaliate against those who kill their people, this is not portrayed as attack. Russia's response is in turn seen as disproportionate, at least by the country that gave the world "Shock and Awe".

This inconsistency is unlikely to go unnoticed in Russia. Or rather as Georgian troops return from Iraq, Russia is unlikely to take lectures about not retaliating for attacks.

However even from a Russian perspective the goals of this exercise seem vague. It is possible for them to occupy the whole of Georgia but they seem reluctant to do this. They could reduce Georgia to ruins as "punishment". This is a possibility and becomes more likely as the fighting goes on. It is however difficult to understand what the point in that is.

What is more certain is there is little help Georgia can count on. It took the first step but now seems destined to suffer the consequences. Russia is too strong to be challenged "in its own back yard" by an America engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan and apparently eager to leave the former. Britain is over stretched and in any case too small to make a difference alone. There are no other European forces of note, with the possible exception of France and it seems improbable France would started action in the Caucuses. In summary Russia seems able to do what it likes and everyone who drives cars and heats their homes can fund the Russian attack through the oil and gas they buy.

This is the disturbing reality of the balance of power in the world. It was coming to this but Georgia's rash action just got us there a little quicker along with the recognition of Kosovo as independent and the inconsistent treatments handed out in the Balkans.

The main lesson of this episode is that armed forces will always matter in this world. We may feel cocooned in our city and live a life of work, leisure and shopping. However in the real world freedom is only as certain as the forces who exist to defend it. With Europe's feeble forces and America's tired and overstretched army, the reality is that others can move into the fill the vacuum.

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