Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about my experiences in Georgia in the early 1990s, monitoring the various conflicts – Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the then-Georgian civil war in Tbilisi. I noted that those secessionist conflicts were marked on each side by ethnic cleansing as extreme as anything I saw in the Yugloslav wars (a country which I also monitored for Human Rights Watch, during the mid-1980s on through the early years of those wars). The reasons why the two resembled each other seemed to me pretty obvious – the motivations (to clear ground and homogenize populations) were similar, the militia armies similar, the armaments similar …
Well. I declined in that post to say anything about the current situation. Although I’ve been pressed by a couple of friends since to say something more current, I’ve hesitated. I’ve only been in Tbilisi a couple of times since, and I have not spent time focusing on the political situation there and the development of its democracy or the US role in Georgia. Anything I have to say can and should be reasonably discounted as possibly unwarrantedly fixed on the situation from fifteen years ago. At the same time, however, the wars of fifteen years ago are what the current situation is largely about (“frozen conflicts” was and is an apt term) so speaking from fifteen years back has advantages and disadvantages. Moreover, many of the people with whom I’ve spoken about the situation today appear to be not much aware of the conduct of those wars by both sides – unlike, by sharp contrast, their deep awareness of the conduct of the Yugoslav wars. Often their awareness of Georgia appears to have been quite limited to Tbilisi; not that many people appear to have had much contact with the secessionist territories themselves. That said, here are my basic concerns; take them for what you think they are worth, and I fully understand that many will disagree:
Rolling back Russian expansionism. First, I share unreservedly the belief that Russia is deliberately undertaking a dangerous, threatening, imperial expansion in the “near abroad” and that it must be opposed and rolled back. I am as tough on this point as any conservative. I will here be a bit politically chauvinistic and add that I do not mean this in the way that, I sorrow to say, many of my friends on the liberal left so often mean it – gosh, that’s really terrible of Russia, and we should consult with our Western European allies and send some stiff diplomatic notes, and let’s be sure to have some Security Council meetings so that Russia can … veto any relevant resolution. I share the analysis of Russia’s strategic actions that, for example, my Hoover colleague and friend Victor Davis Hanson has offered in the National Review, and endorse Fred Kagan’s eminently sensible proposals in the Weekly Standard. The US may not be prepared to go to war over Georgia nakedly, but it should be prepared to staff it with advisors, equipment, technology, and intelligence. I would not be unhappy to hear (but have no reason to know anything about it, let me be clear) that US military advisors were advising or assisting Georgian forces in the fighting. I believe we are on our way back to a period in which the US will have to confront, not a superpower projecting power around the world, as in the Cold War, but a regional superpower whom the US will have to confront with force, using proxy forces in various places.
When I say ‘rolling back Russian imperialism’, I really do mean making it pay a material price in its military, its economy, and elsewhere for its adventurism in the near abroad. It does not mean open war with Russia in this instance, but it means a lot more than mere diplomacy.
Moreover, one thing that needs to be made clear is that describing what the US and NATO do to help Georgia as “humanitarian” is a mistake, and a profound one. The whole point about humanitarian aid is that outside parties are morally and legally entitled to send aid irrespective of any other political considerations for the succor of civilians. The point of aid to Georgia is not neutral humanitarian aid alone – that’s merely the unquestioned and unquestionable beginning – but military, economic, and other assistance that is aimed at strengthening it military, politically, and diplomatically. We have a side in this – we have a dog in this fight – and that needs to be at the root of our actions. But, as the third and fourth point below emphasize, the most fundamental dog we have in this fight is countering and checking Russia.
What is NATO? Second, NATO is going to undergo a reshaping in two directions out of this crisis, in the ways offered by Robert Kagan in his new Weekly Standard essay. On the one hand, the idea of NATO evolving into some kind of post Cold War ‘legionnaires of the good guys’, into which Russia would eventually become attached in some friendly way, is dead. It was dead for many reasons before this – to start with, the conversion of a club of mutual protection into a club of general cosmopolitan altruism never took account of the unwillingness of Europe, let alone America, to pay for it, or staff it. On the other hand, the idea of NATO as a genuine mutual protection club is back, at least as far as the Eastern Europeans are concerned; since the Western Europeans are much more interested in gas than protection, however, the forward path of NATO as a re-invigorated mutual protection association is cloudy. How long can a free rider club last if its guarantor starts to incur serious costs? I don’t know, but I doubt the answer is forever.
Who should actually govern South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Third, however – and this is where things get messy – it is a grave error to conflate rolling back Russian expansionism with the idea that Georgia should have actual political, security, and military control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. This is a difficult point, but it is essential. Based on what I saw in the brutal, unforgiving, as-bad-as-Yugoslavia, ethnic cleansing wars of fifteen years ago, in my view it is simply impossible for Georgia to govern those territories. I don’t think it was possible from the moment that Georgia declared independence; after all, secession happened practically moments later. And I emphatically believe that the level of brutal violence on each side sealed it.
Sure, you can tell me that was all a long time ago. You can tell me that the Georgian military is now US trained and no longer the militia army of pillaging, raping thugs it was fifteen years ago (as were the militias on the other side, let me be entirely clear – not as some puerile point of moral equivalence, but simply because it was true). You can tell me about how Georgia is a democracy now and allied with the US and NATO and those things wouldn’t happen any more.
Maybe. But frankly I doubt it. I doubt it because fifteen years ago is nothing in conflicts such as these. When, in the earliest days of the Croatia and Serbia war, before the fighting had actually broken out, I happened into a couple of completely empty villages; the populations had fled into the forests because, as they told me when they finally returned, they remembered what had happened in the Second World War – fifty years before, not fifteen. The pillaging irregulars who were right behind the Russian troops when they retook South Ossetia and invaded Georgia proper – they are what these wars are all about. The American policy maker who assumes blithely that this is what the other side does, but not the Georgians, runs against historical experience. And against the ‘uncompleted’ nature of the earlier wars: the last fifteen years have been a pause in those wars, not some kind of new beginning, at least as far as the territories, and their relationships to Georgia and Russia are concerned.
Finally, the nature of the conflict – its objectives – argues strongly for a war consisting of ethnic cleansing and all the atrocities that go along with it. It is not by excess that the methods of war on both sides consist of driving out civilians of the wrong ethnicity – it is by rationality because, as in Yugoslavia, that is what the war is about. Western policymakers who bet on the reformed Georgian army, and who base the moral superiority of the cause not merely on rolling back Russian imperialism but run it together with actual Georgian political, security, and military governance of the contested provinces, risk losing all that high ground if – when, in my view – the Georgians take up what, in stark terms, are the most realistic methods of fighting. It is worth recalling that no one thought it necessary to make Kuwait into more than it was in order to defend the principle of rolling back its annexation by Saddam’s Iraq. Democratic Georgia, I hasten to add, is a long way from the corrupt little principality that was Kuwait, but the abstract point is the same – the principle of defense of a sovereign state from attack and occupation is perfectly justifiable on its own terms.
Moreover, the war to govern these territories is a war the Georgians cannot possibly win in the long run, and that is true even if there were no Russia, unless Georgia were willing to contemplate genuinely appalling measures. Yes, the problem of protecting ethnic Georgian enclaves in South Ossetia and Abkhazia is a deeply serious one, precisely because the only language either side has understood in the earlier phases of conflict has been ethnic cleansing of civilians. But the only way for Georgia to run, actually govern on the ground, those places is by pushing the locals out of their own territories. When observers today, in other words, describe the “irregulars” who come behind the Russian army into Georgian territory and loot and pillage the place, they have this tendency to assume that the other side would not engage it such behavior, because they haven’t seen it. And maybe the Georgians wouldn’t, today. But they did, with as much gusto as the other side, fifteen years ago. I think it is a leap of faith to think that, given the unsupervised opportunity and having the motive, they would not do so today. Does the US really want to base its policy, not on rolling back Russian expansionism for the evil it is, but on the leap of faith that the Georgian forces really have changed, including when they occupy enemy villages? Is that leap of faith a prudent basis for US policy? Not in my estimation.
It cannot possibly be, in other words, in the foreign policy interest of the United States to commit itself to a policy of actual, in-fact Georgian political and military and security control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. It would be in the same general ball-park as suggesting that, in the name of territorial integrity, Serbia could or should run Kosovo. Where, you ask, is the Milosevic of Georgia, and what makes you think that Georgian governance would turn out to be so destructive that its de facto control must be qualified by its friends and allies? Well, you were almost certainly not around fifteen years ago during the fighting and, anyway, one doesn’t necessarily need a Milosevic in order for a militia-army to loot, pillage, rape, and murder its way to ethnic cleansing.
Or alternatively, if you don’t like Balkan analogies, simply say it is not in the foreign policy interests of the United States to endorse the creation of another India-in-Kashmir situation. Once you are in it, as India is in Kashmir, then you might have to deal with it, but why you would create it in the first place, merely in order to satisfy a formal legal idea of sovereignty over territory, is quite beyond me. And the most basic reason it is not in the foreign policy interests of the United States is because it is not in the interests of Georgia, either. It is not in Georgia’s own interest to create for itself not one, but two, Indias-in-Kashmir. Yet the nature of Georgian politics – the politics of a democracy, to be precise – is that it cannot help itself.
Disentangling rolling back Russian imperialism from endorsing Georgian control in fact over uncontrollable territories is only one of two core problems for US policy:
Democracy and participatory ethnic nationalism. Fourth, therefore, US policy must also disentangle “democracy” from what Georgian democracy currently is – which is best characterized not as democracy, but instead as “participatory ethnic nationalism.” The US can be proud of what it has done to help Georgia reach the point of free elections, and to take the first steps toward liberal democracy that came about in the Rose Revolution. But that was only a short few years ago. Not only does democratic consolidation have a long way to go, much more fundamentally, what we call democracy in Georgia only really works so long as Georgia is pretty much all ethnic Georgian. It is an ethnic state, and its democratic process is based on that fact. That works okay for issues on which ethnicity does not matter; but for Georgia to be a democratic state that also included Abkhazia and South Ossetia as genuine political parts, it would require a very different kind of democracy. It would require an internalized notion of “citizen” which meant something, as it does in liberal democracies such as the United States, different from merely being an ethnic Georgian. Georgia is a long ways from that.
US policy thus believes that it is defending Georgian democracy. Insofar as Georgia is all one general ethnicity, that is fine; citoyen overlaps with ‘ethnic Georgian’. But the moment that it does not – the moment, in other words, that Georgia contemplates taking actual political control of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and the non-ethnic Georgian peoples who live there – then what looks like democracy instead looks like the heroic solidarity of participatory – deeply participatory – ethnic nationalism. It is not democracy, not in the liberal sense.
As practical policy, this counsels for the kind of legal ambiguity that I wrote about in an earlier post. No one should be talking about independence for South Ossetia or Abkhazia; the formalities of territorial integrity matter, here as in many other places in the world. Russia must be firmly opposed on this political point; no recognition of the territories, serious political pressure against other countries that contemplate doing so, etc. On the other hand, no one should talk of Georgia in actual fact governing these places, either, least of all the Georgians. Yet, on a third hand, it is unacceptable in these circumstances for the Russians to exercise de facto political control over them either – particularly by filling them with all the military instruments suitable for an invasion and occupation of Georgia proper.O (One of the commentators to this post correctly points to the difficulty in the strategic geography of the territories in relation to Georgia in total.)
The best solution is the placement of ceasefire monitors and peacekeepers who are genuinely from outside and who would have obligations to all ethnic communities. I say this reluctantly because outside peacekeepers bring many issues and problems of their own; I am not in any case urging UN peacekeepers, but instead by preference ceasefire monitors and peacekeepers from the OSCE, and noting that plenty of Eastern European NATO countries should have an incentive – fear – to supply them. That works only so-so, because the Russians are able so completely to dominate, militarily as well as diplomatically. But it is certainly a better moral and political policy than proposing, with a straight face, that the Georgians take actual political control over these territories. Even to propose that cedes both the practical reality and the moral high ground. Better simply to assert that what’s required is a deliberate legal ambiguity – and then concentrate on getting Russian rollback of its actual military forces. That has the virtue, at least, of uniting what the practical goal would have to be in any case with what the moral policy should be.
I realize that this will not sit well with many of my conservative friends, those with whom I am ordinarily aligned – because it will seem like I am undercutting the plainest moral posture: invasion of a sovereign democratic country by a big imperial power. But the facts of South Ossetia and Abkhazia are not simply a narrative of Russia stirring up trouble in an otherwise untroubled corner of the world. One can tell me that I am therefore blaming the victim – but I was actually around tallying up the victims a few years ago; I do not have a lot of patience for high minded lectures from people who have not been in bloody ethnic conflict up close, and in this bloody ethnic conflict up close. Not even, alas, from the Weekly Standard’s Matthew Continetti, someone for whom I have great respect. The fifteen years that have passed since these conflicts got underway are the blink of an eye. It is not even act two, after a long intermission. Only an American, used to thinking in nanoseconds, someone for whom there is no history before he or she arrived, could think this. It is merely scene two in an early act. This is not some updated, “They’ve been fighting each other for hundreds of years, it’s in the DNA.” It is, rather, that this conflict got started fifteen years ago, and although on again and off again, it has never stopped. Neither its existence nor its persistence are due to Russian imperial expansion alone.
So there are two fundamental policy failures here. The first is the failure to disentangle opposing Russian imperialism from unwise and frankly not morally defensible Georgian demands for actual political control. The second is the failure to disentangle the laudable project of Georgian democracy from the overlapping and less laudable project of participatory ethnic nationalism in Georgia. Taken together, these failures risk tying US policy to a standard of Georgian behavior in war, conflict, control of non-ethnic Georgian territories – to the US asserting a frankly romanticized standard of Georgian goodness and purity – that, as a matter of history, even recent history, they have not managed to meet. US responses should be tied to Russian ill-doing, which are legion, not unlikely assertions of Georgian virtue.
There is, in my view, no reason why the US response should be any less vigorous on that account. Indeed, it is likely to be a firmer basis for action in the longer run, because it remains a valid policy, even if Georgian behavior were somehow to undertake a reversion to the historic mean.
(Update: I am going back to clarify and edit some grammar and stuff, and also to add some links. My thanks to Glenn and Eugene and others for the links, and also for the thoughtfulness of the comments.)
(Second update: Michael Cecire at Democracy Project has a thoughtful critique of my post, well worth reading.)