Monday, August 11, 2008

Saakashvili's reckless gamble

Over the weekend, Georgia's nationalist President Mikheil Saakashvili decided he would settle his country's ongoing dispute with separatists in South Ossetia by invading the region and levelling its capital with artillery. As a result, almost 2,000 people - 2 to 3% of South Ossetia's pre-war population - are estimated to be dead, 30,000 are homeless, and Georgia is now in a shooting war with Russia - a war it cannot possibly hope to win.

The latter was such a predictable outcome that you have to wonder what Saakashvili thought he would gain by escalating the conflict. Russia intervened to force a ceasefire during the first Ossetian conflict in 1992, and was ready to do so again. And as a result, a return to the status quo ante of de facto but unrecognised independence is now unlikely. Instead, Georgia's military assault may instead see South Ossetia and its other breakaway region, Abkhazia, both becoming independent statelets under Russian "protection". Which is exactly the opposite of what the Georgian government claimed to want. Whether they were blinded by nationalism or had delusions that their status as a potential member of NATO would deter Russian intervention is unclear, but either way, their reckless gamble has backfired, at a significant cost in human life - a cost which could have been avoided if they'd continued to talk rather than sending in the tanks. Stupid and immoral. The fact that they're doing it over a place which has even less people than Palmerston North simply makes it stupider.

Fortunately, Georgia now seems to realise it has lost, and is trying to back out down. And hopefully that means that no-one else is going to die for their insanity. But any fool can realise they would have been better off not fighting this war in the first place.

As for Russia, they've carefully stoked separatism in the region, and were clearly prepared for this sort of thing to happen at some stage, so they don't exactly have clean hands here. But the fact remains that they didn't start this, and they're not the ones levelling cities this time around. I don't like them, but the cold war narrative coming from the US of "evil Russians, beating up their smaller neighbours" seems just a little divorced from reality...