Frozen Conflicts Unfreezing

Frozen Conflicts Unfreezing

My thanks to Chris for posting on the Georgian conflict as it has unfolded.  I’ve been watching, unsure what exactly to say about policy.  I’m still unsure.  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.   Meanwhile, the situation appears to worsen as the hours pass – from the natural breaking point, for Russia, in driving the Georgian army from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, apparently – hard to say with certainty at this point, but apparently – to something 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 (Western European willingness to confront Russia diminishing with each cubic meter of natural gas delivered), although obviously not large enough to take on the Russian military; that discipline is disputed by Moscow, which claims criminal acts in the Georgian military incursion.  But discipline and professionalization were certainly not the case in the multiple civil wars that were in large part the genesis of the war on-going now.

The things that characterized those wars fifteen years ago were ethnic cleansing fueled by pillage and rape and murder and a level of military indiscipline on all sides that was astounding, even to someone who had been covering the war in Yugoslavia.  I mean that you can have a military which, while violating the rules of war in all sorts of ways, is still internally disciplined with respect to the things it cares about, such as defensive perimeters.  In Sukhumi, the coastal resort town on the Black Sea, the Georgian military held it while our mission was there, during a ceasefire monitored by various European militaries; the ceasefire was breaking down, and the place was assaulted and taken by Abkhaz forces a day or so after we got out, on one of the last planes to leave, scarily overloaded – the young Dutch captain in the ceasefire monitoring forces as unflappable, but I could tell he was terrified that the overloaded plane was going to crash on takeoff.  But as we walked around the city that day, the Georgian forces had not dug in, appeared completely indifferent to the possibility of assault by sea, and seemed mostly fueled by drugs and alcohol. Their indiscipline encompassed pillage, rape, murder, and all sorts of violations of the laws of war as part of a general indiscipline in which the concept of an NCO seemed entirely unknown.  

The favored weapon on both sides was the Katyusha rocket – a fragmentation anti-personnel rocket that scattered zillions of flying steel splinters, descended from the famous Stalin’s Organ of the Second World War, and well-known today, of course, as a Hezbollah weapon – aimed (in the case of Katyusha rockets, the word “aim” seems inapposite, designed as they are for local, tactical, battlefield use to shred opposing infantry) at villages with large concentrations of the wrong ethnicity, in order to drive them out.  

On the Abkhaz side, the Russians had supplied plenty of clandestine fighters.  We met some of them staying in the Abhaz capital – they described themselves as ex-KGB, which is to say, they had gone out of formal government service and were being paid as private contractors, in dollars into foreign bank accounts.  They called themselves defenders of the ethnic-Russian villages in Abkhazia, and described operations in arming the villages and creating defensive perimeters; also in attacking Georgian police and military units and stations, to drive them out of the area.  Those guys struck me as very, very, very dangerous – but also completely disciplined as fighters.  Out of the front lines, the militia forces on both sides were untrained or at best ill-trained, and fought while drunk and high.  David Rieff, who was on that mission, and I walked around the parking lot in Sukhumi where the militia fighters assembled to go to the front lines for the night; it was littered with needles.  

But a major strategic point of the conflicts on each side was to sort out which ethnicity was where, and ethnically homogenize them.  The pillage, rape, and murder was in part private but also part of the systematic ethnic cleansing strategy – something everyone understands perfectly now, after the wars of the Yugoslav succession, but it was still somewhat new then.

At one point, the ICRC delegate asked me to accompany him to a meeting with local humanitarian groups from each side – the local groups had worked out a form of internal house and property swaps across regions to allow resettlement – technically voluntary, but of course if you didn’t take the opportunity to swap houses, you knew what would eventually happen.  The humanitarian groups brokered the swaps and provided safe passage.  Both the ICRC and I, speaking for Human Rights Watch, were asked our opinion of the voluntary resettlement deal by the local humanitarian workers, who were very proud of having worked out a sort-of functioning nonviolent arrangement.  They were surprised and not happy when both I and the ICRC delegate spoke against the arrangement – the international community having started to take, in the Yugoslavia wars, a strong position against relocations, even sort of voluntary ones.  Both the ICRC delegate and I privately discussed our qualms about our hardline policies, given the very ugly realities on the ground, and the uglier alternatives, but didn’t know what else we could say.  (I had occasion to recall this in the minor furor over Samantha Power, of all people, musing about population relocation recently.  The Protocol I position on siege, which I and the ICRC delegate explained to them, prohibits things designed to cause the civilian population to be forced to move away from its homes; it has always seemed to me a bridge too far, and a classic instance of the best in IHL being an enemy of the good.)

The issue of pillage became a major embarrassment to both sides.  But the Abkhaz side, as the breakaway province, had a greater interest in international sympathy and hence a greater interest in showing its respect for international humanitarian law.  So it announced a policy of zero tolerance for battlefield pillage.  Sure enough, a soldier – on its own side, something that was, I’m sure, no accident – was seized in the act of pillage.  He was given a cursory court martial and sentenced to die.  Asked HRW’s view on the matter, I explained that we opposed the death penalty in all forms.  They shot him, though, and then ran the tape of the execution over and over on local TV and, it must be said, purely private pillage dropped considerably for a time. 

I guess I’m surprised the general cease-fire has held this many years.  I’ll try to say something not about history but about the current situation.  But today’s conflict has its roots directly in those conflicts of the earlier 1990s, never settled, never really on the table but never really off the table, either.  But on the table now.

(ps.  As Jim Geraghty notes: “I’m not kidding in the headline about the odd similarity to Tom Clancy’s original Ghost Recon game, which had U.S. special forces secretly going into… T’bilisi, Georgia to deal with Russian invasion forces backed by ultra-nationalist hardliners. The “future date” of the 2001 game was… August 2008.”  (HT Instapundit)

(pps.  I have focused in this post almost exclusively on violations of the laws of war by all sides in the early 1990s conflicts, rather than on the jus ad bellum merits of the conflicts, the complicated and difficult questions of self-determination, autonomy, and secession that are at the heart of things.  Ilya Somin at Volokh has several very interesting posts on the issue of secession; my own view is closer to the standard international law view of territorial integrity, but these are highly recommended discussions.  My focus here is natural, given that I was there in a human rights monitoring capacity.  Nevertheless, human rights monitors, me included, have a strong tendency, even when not in the limited role of jus in bello monitor, to think that the underlying rights and wrongs of the conflict are settled by the jus in bello conduct of the parties.  They are not, but this post does not address them.)

(ppps.  Over at my personal blog, I raise some objections to New York Times Moscow bureau chief C.J. Chivers’ “news analysis” of the conflict.  My blog post is mostly waspish objections to Chiver’s dark, but unargued, innuendo about US training and equipment for the Georgian army, so I didn’t think it worth posting here.  I try not to get snarky like that here at OJ; actually, I mostly try not to get snarky like that at all.  But Instapundit linked to it, and it refers back to some posts at OJ, so if anyone is interested, it is here.)

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Patrick S. O'Donnell
Patrick S. O'Donnell

Response… The various ethno-nationalist conflicts in the post-Communist geo-political world call out for some kind of social-psychological explanation, perhaps on the order of the sort pioneered in Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom (1941) (note especially the sado-masochism of the authoritarian character and see in particular the chapter on ‘mechanisms of escape’), among other works (e.g., The Sane Society, 1955). The “pathology of normalcy” is evidenced both in the ubiquitousness of “false consciousness” and in a peculiar kind of social character, for instance, that seen in the development of “semihypnotic transferential ties between the masses and their leaders, in which they idealize the latter and put them in the place of their ego ideal” (Daniel Burston on Fromm). Ostensibly nomal individuals exhibit, at the very least, “low-grade, chronic schizoid tendencies,” “inhabit[ing] a quasi-hypnoid state in relation to their political, military, and religious leadership.” Such a social psychological orientation might benefit from a complementary analysis of the sort provided by Vladimir Tismaneanu’s Fantasies of Salvation: Democracy, Nationalism and Myth in Post-Communist Europe (1998).