Like many OJ readers, I’ve been watching with shock and dismay as the situation unfolds in Georgia – unsure what exactly to say about policy and US policy in particular. I mean, it’s easy to agree with both the Obama and McCain campaign reactions (I paraphrase) … ‘Russian invasions are bad’ (Obama) and ‘Put the tanks in reverse, Putin’ (McCain) – but that’s not policy, it’s a (very) small step toward actual policy. The situation appears to worsen as the hours pass. It seems to have gone from the natural breaking point, for Russia, in driving the Georgian army from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, apparently to something – hard to say with certainty at this point, but apparently – wildly, frighteningly more aggressive from the standpoint of international law and policy, toppling the government in Georgia and seeing it replaced with something more to Moscow’s liking.
I was in Georgia, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia in the early 1990s when these conflicts got going in the process of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the independence of Georgia. I was covering these conflicts for the Human Rights Watch Arms Division, which meant a focus on violations of the laws of war in the conflicts and looking at where the weapons used in the violations came from – not that the last question was all that hard to answer in this case. So, I was in Georgia in 1993; after the civil war that messed up Tbilisi very badly, as the South Ossetia conflict had quieted down, but Abkhazia was in full swing. The Georgian army today is pretty well professionalized, disciplined, and trained, in large part by the US (although obviously not large enough to take on the Russian military), although that is disputed by Moscow, which claims criminal acts in the Georgian military incursion. But discipline was not the case in the multiple civil wars that were in large part the genesis of the war on-going now.
In this post, I’m not going to discuss current policy, but instead talk about what I saw in these conflicts as I watched them unfold back then. Maybe there’s something to understanding the on the ground circumstances of those conflicts fifteen years ago that is relevant now. Or maybe not.