Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Israel fears Russian response to Tel Aviv's military support for Georgia ... media news wrap on conflict

I have collated a variety of analytical articles written over the past week on Europe's first war of the 21st century, that between Russia and Georgia. I have also included an article on Israel's key involvement in the build up and training of Georgia's armed forces.

Has Israel overstepped its line in its dealings in external conflicts? Reports that have emerged suggest that Israel not only supplied advanced military hardware, but also sent experts to train Georgia's inexperienced army.

Why would Israel get itself tangled so deep in Georgia's military development, knowing full well that it needs Russian influence on Iran? Why would Israel want to take on the Russian bear?

NATO appears split between the hawks led by Washington and the Eastern European states demanding harsh retribution to Moscow, and the rational heads in Paris, Berlin and Rome who don't want to anger the bear any further. If there is any wisdom left in Tel Aviv, it would be restraining their American colleagues from taking a tough stance on Russia. If Washington is keen to slap Russia over Georgia, Moscow will bite back where it will hurt the West and Israel the most ... Iran.

This is not justice

Gideon Boas, The Age


The international community, which is dominated by the West, does not demand accountability impartially.

IT HAS been a busy time for international politics and criminal justice. The arrest of Radovan Karadzic and his transfer to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague was important, not just because one of the most notorious modern-day war criminals had been removed from circulation, but because it signalled a courageous shift in Serbia away from bitter nationalist politics towards a future in Europe.

Just days later, the Rwandan Government released a 500-page report in which it accused the then French president, prime minister and senior government officials of complicity in the genocide of up to 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 1994. The report also alleges that French soldiers and peacekeeping troops operating under a UN mandate assisted in the genocidal purges and committed other crimes, including rape.

It is not the first time peacekeeping forces have been accused of committing crimes against those they were deployed to protect. A recent report by Save the Children accused aid workers and peacekeepers of abusing children in conflict zones. Such abuses of power against the vulnerable are not uncommon in societies with a strong social cohesion; it is hardly surprising they occur in war-torn countries.

Around the same time as the Rwandan report was released, another event of considerable importance occurred: the first trial conviction by a US military tribunal of a Guantanamo Bay detainee. Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's former driver, was found guilty of providing support for terrorism, although he was acquitted of the more serious charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism.

Before there was time to take a breath, reports of Russia invading the Georgian territory of South Ossetia began to emerge, those two countries trading military blows and slinging around accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing, while the international community put on a show of stern diplomatic concern.

These events have a number of things in common. They are all grand episodes of international diplomacy that distract the common observer from the fact that, underneath the layer of political posturing, is the untold suffering of murdered, raped and mutilated civilians and the broader destruction of peoples and their societies.

They are also all episodes of great political hypocrisy that permeates any debate about the politics of international justice. Take the arrest of Karadzic in Serbia. Here is a former leader, a self-declared president of Bosnian Serbs, to be tried by an international criminal tribunal sponsored largely by the West. And there was Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Serbia, also arrested and tried by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, not to mention the former prime minister of Rwanda, Jean Kambanda, tried and convicted by an international criminal tribunal for genocide. Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, awaits trial by the mixed international Special Court of Sierra Leone and the president of Sudan has now been indicted by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

While these are great steps in the development of international criminal justice and the fight against impunity, they are also examples of justice being levelled against weak states by powerful ones. This is surely one reason such little attention has been paid to Rwanda's claims about France. France is a permanent member of the Security Council and a powerful member of the European Union and NATO. No doubt much animosity exists between France and Rwanda but a government report of this nature should be scrutinised closely to determine whether the allegations bear any merit.

And what of the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the United States and the United Kingdom? Most sensible international lawyers view the attack on Iraq as an illegal use of force, yet with both those countries on the Security Council no international justice response is likely. Indeed, calls for consideration of the criminal responsibility of George Bush, Tony Blair and even John Howard are brushed off as ludicrous. And it is certain that after events in South Ossetia have subsided, there will be no serious consideration of Vladimir Putin's responsibility. The West certainly won't call for it; and Putin is relying on the "humanitarian intervention" justification that the US and Europe used to bomb Serbia.

Australia has also engaged in its fair share of hypocrisy in the international politics of justice. It was right behind the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. We stood by mutely as our own citizen, David Hicks, was subjected to illegal detention, probably torture and was certainly denied the fundamental human rights accorded criminal suspects in our country. Perhaps worse, Australia reportedly turned a blind eye to Mamdouh Habib, an Australian terror suspect, being rendered by the US to Egypt for torture on his way to Guantanamo Bay.

The Pentagon press secretary said last week that there was still "a significant population within Guantanamo who will likely never be released because of the threat they pose to the world", presumably regardless of any outcome in the already heavily prosecution-slanted military tribunal process.

International criminal justice is flourishing. Senior politicians, even heads of state, are subjected to scrutiny and trial, and a growing dedication to international criminal justice must be causing tyrants to think twice about spilling the blood of their own and other peoples.

To say that there is politics in justice is like saying there is oxygen in air. It is the nature of the politics that matters. Whether it is Milosevic, Omar al-Bashir, Robert Mugabe, Howard, Alain Juppe, Bush or Putin, international criminal justice will be better served when there is a system that focuses more on the crime and less on who commits it.

US, Israel part ways on Georgian conflict

Larry Cohler-Esses, The Jewish Week


For Israel this week, the outbreak of war between Georgia and Russia has been all about Iran.

As Tblisi and Moscow agreed to a cease-fire Tuesday in their five-day conflict over two disputed territories, Russia was still bristling with anger over U.S. policies and statements on the issue. But thanks to Israel’s decision to limit its arms sales to Georgia, the Kremlin had only kind words for Israel, Washington’s closest ally, as the guns of war died down.

“We are appreciative of Israel’s position of not selling offensive weapons to a conflict area,” Russian diplomat Anatoly Yurkov told The Jerusalem Post that day.

On CNN, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s envoy to the UN, also made a point of praising Israel for “reconsidering its relationship in the arms area with Georgia” and compared Jerusalem’s reaction to the conflict unfavorably to Washington’s.

But for Israel, the key statement came from Yurkov, the No. 2 official in Russia’s Tel Aviv embassy in Tel Aviv, temporarily filling the top spot as Russian Ambassador Petr V. Stegniy vacationed. Moscow, he suggested, was likely to take Israel’s reactions to the conflict into account when weighing its own arms sales to Iran and Syria.

For Jerry Hough, the Brookings Institution’s former senior Russian specialist, that signals further possibilities. If the White House alters its stance on NATO membership for Georgia and certain other issues, he said, “Russia may moderate and pay a price” on Iran.

But to Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, a hawkish Washington think tank, “It is unrealistic for us to expect that Russia will assume a constructive stance on Iran even as it itself violates significant established international norms.

All of which suggests that the UN track is well and truly dead, as far as pressuring Iran is concerned.”

Israel arms sales to Georgia over the last decade have been estimated at some $300 million to $500 million. They have included spy drones, infantry weapons and electronics for artillery systems. Israel has reportedly helped upgrade Soviet-designed Su-25 ground attack jets assembled in Georgia. And former Israeli generals serve as advisers to the Georgian military.

The arms dealers involved have also included important figures, such as former Likud cabinet minister Roni Milo.

But Jerusalem pulled its trainers out quickly and vowed to restrict itself to selling Georgia defensive weapons after hostilities broke out last Thursday. “The day we will want to prevent a future deal with Iran, our hands must be clean,” a senior political source told the daily paper Haaretz.

By contrast, the U.S., which has also been selling arms to Georgia and training its troops, flew 2,000 Georgian soldiers from Iraq, where they were part of the U.S.-led coalition, into Georgia to join the fight with Russia.

It is a parochial issue, in one sense. When two nations go to war, other countries inevitably assess the implications for their own particular interests. But in this case, Israel’s particular interest has much wider ramifications.

Israel regards Iran’s drive to develop its nuclear capabilities as a threat to its very existence.

And it views cooperation from Moscow — which has been supplying Iran with arms and help in its nuclear efforts — as crucial to halting Iran’s drive. Jerusalem, like Washington, also seeks the Kremlin’s cooperation in imposing tighter UN sanctions on Iran. If such sanctions fail, Israeli officials have warned, their only alternative will be war.

Now, with reports of continued violence and Russian troops still present in Georgia proper despite the cease-fire, Jerusalem’s hopes for avoiding this choice becomes part of a three-dimensional geopolitical chess game. And the key players are Russia and the United States, leaving Israel at the margins with interests that, in some ways, seem to diverge from those of its closest partner.

“The prerequisite for any movement on the UN sanctions front is that Moscow and Washington be on speaking terms,” said Berman, who is an Iran specialist. “And this has the potential to reconfigure in a very negative sense how the two sides think about each other.”

But others, such as Yossi Alpher, a former analyst for the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, see the situation in more complex terms.

“What happens in Georgia is just a tiny part of this,” he said. “What happens with missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic is probably more important. My sense is that Russia is sending a message. It feels very hard pressed on all its Western borders. And it saw what Georgia was doing as part of this broader campaign to whittle away at its influence over anyone on its borders.”

Alpher and others evince a practical awareness of other issues Russia views as crucial to its own security — issues that Washington has brushed aside as Moscow’s anger and sense of grievance have risen, along with its power and wealth, thanks to huge oil revenues in recent years.

During the 1990s as NATO, the Western military alliance against the old Soviet Union, admitted Poland, the Czech Republic and other former satellites of the Soviet Union on Russia’s western border, a weakened Kremlin protested vehemently but could do nothing. It was not mollified by NATO’s declarations that it no longer viewed Russia as its adversary.

But President Clinton at the time stated that NATO would not expand beyond Eastern Europe.

The Bush administration, however, has strongly backed NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, on Russia’s southern border. Despite Russia’s adamant opposition, it is also plans to install anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, bordering Russia. Moscow rejects Washington’s stand that the anti-missile defenses — scored by critics as of dubious value — are meant only to counter a looming nuclear missile threat from Iran.

Earlier this year, the United States and the major powers of Western Europe also recognized Kosovo as an independent country over angry Russian protests. Kosovo, effectively a second state for Albanians, was a breakaway territory from Serbia, Russia’s closest ally.

Russia explicitly retaliated by recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian breakaway provinces in which it was acting as a peacekeeper, thereby inflaming Georgia — part of the lead up to the outbreak of hostilities last week.

Now, thanks to Iran, Israel finds it has an interest in — but little influence over — how all these issues have affected Russian attitudes.

According to the Israeli daily paper Haaretz, Israeli officials have urged their American counterparts in recent months to tone down their other disputes with Moscow to focus its efforts on obtaining Russia’s backing against Iran. Among other things, they suggested that Washington offer to drop its plan to station a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for Russia agreeing to stiffer sanctions against Iran. The administration rejected this idea, the paper reported.

“It seems to me if there is a deal with Russia on Iran, it will come in the next administration fairly early,” said Hough, the Brookings Institution’s former top Russian specialist. “It will involve the United States giving up on NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia.” In addition, he said, “The new administration has got to decide whether to go ahead with missiles defenses in Eastern Europe.”

Hough said the likelihood of such a deal is great if Democrat Barak Obama is elected president but almost nil if Republican John McCain, a longtime hawk on Russia, takes the White House. But the outbreak of hostilities in Georgia found Obama, too, calling for “a membership action plan for NATO” in his statement of support for Georgia on Monday.

That sounded pretty close to the position of McCain, who told Fox News, “I would move forward at the right time with the application for membership in NATO by Georgia… As you know, through NATO membership, if a member nation is attacked, it is viewed as an attack on all.”

In the short term, a lot will depend on whether Russia’s goals in Georgia prove limited to asserting its sway over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the two territories that seek to break off from Georgia; or if, as Georgia, its supporters and hawkish critics of Russia charge, Moscow seeks to overthrow the country’s democratically elected government or retake all or part of Georgia proper — a country it ruled until 1991 as part of the former Soviet Union.

“It’s clear there are two narratives contending with each other in Washington,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “One is that the Russian bear is back, and it’s time for the United States to double down and realize it again has a major competitor in Moscow.

“The second narrative sees it as much more complicated. It puts the onus on both Georgia and Russia. But the ‘complicated’ narrative disappears if Russia goes to Tblisi.”

US watched as squabble turned into a showdown

17/08/08, New York Times

WASHINGTON — Five months ago, President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, long a darling of this city’s diplomatic dinner party circuit, came to town to push for America to muscle his tiny country of four million into NATO.

On Capitol Hill, at the State Department and at the Pentagon, Mr. Saakashvili, brash and hyperkinetic, urged the West not to appease Russia by rejecting his country’s NATO ambitions.

At the White House, President Bush bantered with the Georgian president about his prowess as a dancer. Laura Bush, the first lady, took Mr. Saakashvili’s wife to lunch. Mr. Bush promised him to push hard for Georgia’s acceptance into NATO. After the meeting, Mr. Saakashvili pronounced his visit “one of the most successful visits during my presidency,” and said he did not know of any other leader of a small country with the access to the administration that he had.

Three weeks later, Mr. Bush went to the Black Sea resort of Sochi, at the invitation of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. There, he received a message from the Russian: the push to offer Ukraine and Georgia NATO membership was crossing Russia’s “red lines,” according to an administration official close to the talks.

Afterward, Mr. Bush said of Mr. Putin, “He’s been very truthful and to me, that’s the only way you can find common ground.” It was one of many moments when the United States seemed to have missed — or gambled it could manage — the depth of Russia’s anger and the resolve of the Georgian president to provoke the Russians.

The story of how a 16-year, low-grade conflict over who should rule two small, mountainous regions in the Caucasus erupted into the most serious post-cold-war showdown between the United States and Russia is one of miscalculation, missed signals and overreaching, according to interviews with diplomats and senior officials in the United States, the European Union, Russia and Georgia. In many cases, the officials would speak only on the condition of anonymity.

It is also the story of how both Democrats and Republicans have misread Russia’s determination to dominate its traditional sphere of influence.

As with many foreign policy issues, this one highlighted a continuing fight within the administration. Vice President Dick Cheney and his aides and allies, who saw Georgia as a role model for their democracy promotion campaign, pushed to sell Georgia more arms, including Stinger antiaircraft missiles, so that it could defend itself against possible Russian aggression.

On the other side, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and William J. Burns, the new under secretary of state for political affairs, argued that such a sale would provoke Russia, which would see it as arrogant meddling in its turf, the officials and diplomats said.

They describe three leaders on a collision course. Mr. Bush, rewarding Georgia for its robust troop contribution to Iraq — at 2,000, the third highest, behind the United States and Britain — promised NATO membership and its accompanying umbrella of American military support. Mr. Putin, angry at what he saw as American infringement right in his backyard, decided that Georgia was the line in the sand that the West would not be allowed to cross. And Mr. Saakashvili, unabashedly pro-American, was determined to show, once and for all, that Georgia was no longer a vassal of Russia.

With a vastly more confident Russia, flush with oil money, a booming economy and a rebuilt military no longer bogged down in Chechnya, the stars were aligned for a confrontation in which Russia could, with a quick show of force, teach a lesson to the United States, Georgia and all of the former Soviet satellites and republics seeking closer ties with the West.

“We have probably failed to understand that the Russians are really quite serious when they say, ‘We have interests and we’re going to defend them,’ ” said James Collins, United States ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001. “Russia does have interests, and at some point they’re going to stand up and draw lines that are not simply to be ignored.”

Georgia Makes Its Moves

The stage for the confrontation was set in January 2004, when Mr. Saakashvili handily won the presidency after leading protests against a rigged election the previous year. He made the return of separatist areas to Georgian control a central plank of his platform.

It was a potent theme. Georgia had lost the wars against separatists in the 1990s, and Russia’s involvement stung Georgians. Mr. Saakashvili saw international law on his side. His young government, a small circle of men in their 30s with virtually no military experience, openly endorsed this thinking.

Georgia increased its troop contribution to Iraq, and in return the United States provided more military training. The Georgians clearly saw this as a step toward building up a military that could be used to settle problems with the separatists at home.

Whether they intended to build a military for fighting or deterrence is unclear. American officials said they repeatedly and bluntly told their Georgian counterparts that the Iraq mission should not be taken as a sign of American support, or as a prelude, for operations against the separatists. And it was obvious that Russia’s army, which at roughly 641,000 troops is 25 times the size of Georgia’s, could easily overwhelm the Georgian forces.

Nevertheless, the career foreign policy establishment worried that the wrong signals were being sent. “We were training Saakashvili’s army, and he was getting at least a corps of highly trained individuals, which he could use for adventures,” said one former senior intelligence analyst, who covered Georgia and Russia at the time. “The feeling in the intelligence community was that this was a very high-risk endeavor.”

Mr. Saakashvili proceeded against other separatist enclaves — retaking one, Ajaria, in 2004, and advancing high into the mountains of the upper Kodori Gorge in Abhkazia in 2006 to sweep away bands of criminals who had long controlled the place.

Georgia labeled it a police operation, but it was a military one: Mark Lenzi, then the country director for the nonprofit International Republican Institute, visited the region and says he saw that military markings on a helicopter had been freshly painted over with the word “police.”

Mr. Lenzi, who worked with Mr. Saakashvili’s young government, says that in retrospect, there were risks that were not adequately assessed. “It was a combustible,” he said. “But it was a little bit of the price we were willing to pay for the military cooperation in Iraq.”

He added: “I go back to the democracy thing. I’m not saying I gave them a big pass here. But looking back I should have pressed harder.”

By last November, Mr. Saakashvili’s democratic credentials were becoming checkered. Accused by the opposition of corruption, arrogance and centralization, he struck back against demonstrators and declared a state of emergency. After he won a snap election this year on a vote that the opposition said was subtly rigged, Mr. Saakashvili turned his attention back to the enclaves.

Georgia had new military equipment and the experience of Iraq. Russia had engaged in several brief air attacks and had shot down a pilotless reconnaissance plane over Georgian soil.

Inside the Saakashvili government, officials were seething. Batu Kutelia, a first deputy minister of defense, framed the presence of Russia in the enclaves with intensity. “Tell me,” he asked a reporter over dinner this spring, “would you share your wife?”

Several Georgian officials said that night that seizing South Ossetia would be militarily easy. But there was a difference between any operation in the remaining enclaves and the successful reclamation of Ajaria and the Kodori Gorge: the remaining enclaves had large numbers of Russian troops.

Russian Anger

Russia, too, was laying down its markers, strenuously protesting the West’s intention to recognize the breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo, set on independence after the long Balkans wars of the 1990s. The Russians insisted that independence for Kosovo would be a serious affront. Last February, the United States and the European Union, over Russia’s vehement objections, recognized an independent Kosovo.

Mr. Putin and other Russian officials drew a parallel with Kosovo: If the West could redraw boundaries against the wishes of Russia and its ally Serbia, then Russia could redraw boundaries in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

By April, before the Russians had a chance to grow accustomed to an independent Kosovo, they were being confronted with what they saw as more meddling in their backyard. On April 3, the night before the NATO summit meeting in Bucharest, Romania, Mr. Bush attended a dinner with European leaders and annoyed the Germans and French by lobbying long and hard for Ukraine and Georgia to be welcomed into a Membership Action Plan that prepares nations for NATO membership.

Mr. Bush lost that battle, but won two others the next day that would anger Russia: NATO leaders agreed to endorse a United States missile defense system based in Eastern Europe, and the Europeans said invitations to the membership plan for Georgia and Ukraine might come in a year, at the next summit.

NATO leaders had invited Mr. Putin to Bucharest to speak, seeking to offset the impression that the alliance was hostile to Russia. He was cordial but clear, saying that Russia viewed “the appearance of a powerful military bloc” on its borders “as a direct threat” to its security. “The claim that this process is not directed against Russia will not suffice,” Mr. Putin said. “National security is not based on promises.”

The next day, Mr. Bush and Mr. Putin went to Sochi. “It definitely wasn’t what I would call a ‘look-into-your-eyes-and-see-your-soul’ meeting,” said a Bush administration official, referring to Mr. Bush’s famous line after he first met Mr. Putin. Mr. Bush had dinner with Mr. Putin and his protégé and successor, Dmitri A. Medvedev, at the Russian resort, which is near Georgia. The official said the discussion centered on Ukraine and Georgia, and Mr. Putin warned, again, against the NATO push.

Asked how Mr. Bush reacted to the warning, the official said: “It wasn’t anything we hadn’t heard before.”

It appeared that the Bush administration misread the depth of Russia’s fury. A Bush administration official said the Americans understood that Russia was angry, but believed that they could forestall a worsening of the relationship by looking for other possibilities for cooperation.

Ms. Rice offered up an 11-page “strategic framework declaration” examining areas where the two nations could work together, which was hammered out with Sergey V. Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, that night in Sochi. The statement included language describing how they would in the future address the issue of missile defenses the United States had proposed basing in Eastern Europe. The United States promised to work toward “assuaging” Russian concerns.

Washington Weighs In

Nine days later, on April 16, Mr. Putin took action. In one of his last formal acts as president, he issued an order that Russia was broadly expanding support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia and would establish legal connections with the regions’ separatist governments.

Washington was quick to rally around Mr. Saakashvili. Senator John McCain, whose campaign foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, had represented Georgia as a lobbyist, was the first to blast Russia. Mr. McCain, who already was the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee, telephoned Mr. Saakashvili to offer support, and then told reporters on April 17 that “we must not allow Russia to believe it has a free hand to engage in policies that undermine Georgian sovereignty.” On April 21 came a statement from a “deeply troubled” Senator Barack Obama, the leading Democratic candidate.

“There’s no doubt that the Georgians have carefully cultivated a broad base of support in Washington,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign who has hosted dinner parties for Mr. Saakashvili in Washington.

Within the Bush administration, “the fight between the hawks and the doves” erupted anew, said one administration official. In this case, the people he called the “hawks” —Mr. Cheney and the assistant secretary of state for Europe, Daniel Fried — argued for more American military aid for Georgia; the “doves” — Ms. Rice, Mr. Hadley, Mr. Burns — urged restraint.

The United States was already providing Georgia with military aid, equipment and training, and Ms. Rice, for the time being, won the fight against adding American-provided Stinger missiles to Georgia’s arsenal.

On April 21, Georgia accused Russia of shooting down the pilotless Georgian plane over Abkhazia and released what it said was a video of the encounter. Mr. Putin responded that he had expressed “bewilderment” to Mr. Saakashvili at Georgia’s sending reconnaissance planes over Abkhazia.

A senior adviser to Mr. Saakashvili said Mr. Cheney’s office was more openly critical of the Russians after the episode than was the State Department, which struck a more balanced tone, asking Russia to explain their actions.

Bush administration officials have been adamant that they told Mr. Saakashvili that the United States would not back Georgia militarily in a fight with Russia, but a senior administration official acknowledged that “it’s possible that Georgians may have confused the cheerleading from Washington with something else.”

In May and June, Russia increased the number of troops in South Ossetia and sent troops into Abkhazia, who Moscow said were going for humanitarian purposes, Georgian and American officials said.

Ms. Rice traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia, in July, where, aides said, she privately told Mr. Saakashvili not to let Russia provoke him into a fight he could not win. But her public comments, delivered while standing next to Mr. Saakashvili during a news conference, were far stronger and more supportive.

And when she brought up NATO membership, mentioning that the Bush administration had pushed for it in Bucharest, Mr. Saakashvili jumped on the opportunity to get a public commitment that the administration would bring the matter up again with NATO before leaving office.

“So are you going — I understood you are going to give a tough fight for us in December,” he said.

Ms. Rice: “Always, Mr. President. We always fight for our friends.”

The Buildup

The Russians and the Georgians give different accounts of who provoked whom in the weeks before Aug. 7. Each side accuses the other of premeditated attack. While the public line from the Bush administration has been that Russia and Mr. Putin are largely to blame, some administration officials said the Georgian military had drawn up a “concept of operations” for crisis in South Ossetia that called for its army units to sweep across the region and rapidly establish such firm control that a Russian response could be pre-empted.

They note that in January, the Georgian Ministry of Defense released a “strategic defense review” that laid out its broad military planning for the breakaway regions. As described by David J. Smith of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, the document sets out goals for the Georgian armed forces and refers specifically to the threat of conflict in the separatist regions.

American officials said that they had clearly told their Georgian counterparts that the plan had little chance of success, given Kremlin statements promising to protect the local population from Georgian “aggression” — and the fact of overwhelming Russian military force along the border.

The shelling from South Ossetia to Georgia proper increased significantly in August. On the morning of Aug. 1, five Georgian police officers were wounded by two remotely detonated explosions on a bypass road in South Ossetia, Georgian officials said. Troops from Georgia battled separatist fighters, killing at least six people; the Georgians accused the South Ossetian separatists of firing at Georgian towns behind the shelter of Russian peacekeepers.

On Aug. 6, the separatists fired on several Georgian villages, Georgian officials said. The Russian Defense Ministry and South Ossetian officials say that Georgians provoked the escalation by shelling Russian peacekeeping positions in the region’s capital of Tskhinvali, along with civilian areas.

The Georgians said the separatists stepped up their shelling. Foreign Minister Eka Tkeshelashvili of Georgia called Mr. Fried and told him that her country was under attack, and that Georgia had to protect its people. Mr. Fried, according to a senior administration official, told the Georgian not to go into South Ossetia. The Georgians moved in on Aug. 7.

Helene Cooper reported from Washington, C. J. Chivers from Georgia and Clifford J. Levy from Moscow. Reporting was contributed by Anne Barnard and Ellen Barry from Moscow; Andrew E. Kramer from Tbilisi, Georgia; Sabrina Tavernise and Matt Siegel from Tskhinvali, Georgia; and Thom Shanker from Washington.

This is a tale of US expansion not Russian aggression

Seumas Milne, The Guardian

The outcome of six grim days of bloodshed in the Caucasus has triggered an outpouring of the most nauseating hypocrisy from western politicians and their captive media. As talking heads thundered against Russian imperialism and brutal disproportionality, US vice-president Dick Cheney, faithfully echoed by Gordon Brown and David Miliband, declared that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered". George Bush denounced Russia for having "invaded a sovereign neighbouring state" and threatening "a democratic government". Such an action, he insisted, "is unacceptable in the 21st century".

Could these by any chance be the leaders of the same governments that in 2003 invaded and occupied - along with Georgia, as luck would have it - the sovereign state of Iraq on a false pretext at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives? Or even the two governments that blocked a ceasefire in the summer of 2006 as Israel pulverised Lebanon's infrastructure and killed more than a thousand civilians in retaliation for the capture or killing of five soldiers?

You'd be hard put to recall after all the fury over Russian aggression that it was actually Georgia that began the war last Thursday with an all-out attack on South Ossetia to "restore constitutional order" - in other words, rule over an area it has never controlled since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nor, amid the outrage at Russian bombardments, have there been much more than the briefest references to the atrocities committed by Georgian forces against citizens it claims as its own in South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali. Several hundred civilians were killed there by Georgian troops last week, along with Russian soldiers operating under a 1990s peace agreement: "I saw a Georgian soldier throw a grenade into a basement full of women and children," one Tskhinvali resident, Saramat Tskhovredov, told reporters on Tuesday.

Might it be because Georgia is what Jim Murphy, Britain's minister for Europe, called a "small beautiful democracy". Well it's certainly small and beautiful, but both the current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and his predecessor came to power in western-backed coups, the most recent prettified as a "Rose revolution". Saakashvili was then initially rubber-stamped into office with 96% of the vote before establishing what the International Crisis Group recently described as an "increasingly authoritarian" government, violently cracking down on opposition dissent and independent media last November. "Democratic" simply seems to mean "pro-western" in these cases.

The long-running dispute over South Ossetia - as well as Abkhazia, the other contested region of Georgia - is the inevitable consequence of the breakup of the Soviet Union. As in the case of Yugoslavia, minorities who were happy enough to live on either side of an internal boundary that made little difference to their lives feel quite differently when they find themselves on the wrong side of an international state border.

Such problems would be hard enough to settle through negotiation in any circumstances. But add in the tireless US promotion of Georgia as a pro-western, anti-Russian forward base in the region, its efforts to bring Georgia into Nato, the routing of a key Caspian oil pipeline through its territory aimed at weakening Russia's control of energy supplies, and the US-sponsored recognition of the independence of Kosovo - whose status Russia had explicitly linked to that of South Ossetia and Abkhazia - and conflict was only a matter of time.

The CIA has in fact been closely involved in Georgia since the Soviet collapse. But under the Bush administration, Georgia has become a fully fledged US satellite. Georgia's forces are armed and trained by the US and Israel. It has the third-largest military contingent in Iraq - hence the US need to airlift 800 of them back to fight the Russians at the weekend. Saakashvili's links with the neoconservatives in Washington are particularly close: the lobbying firm headed by US Republican candidate John McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, has been paid nearly $900,000 by the Georgian government since 2004.

But underlying the conflict of the past week has also been the Bush administration's wider, explicit determination to enforce US global hegemony and prevent any regional challenge, particularly from a resurgent Russia. That aim was first spelled out when Cheney was defence secretary under Bush's father, but its full impact has only been felt as Russia has begun to recover from the disintegration of the 1990s.

Over the past decade, Nato's relentless eastward expansion has brought the western military alliance hard up against Russia's borders and deep into former Soviet territory. American military bases have spread across eastern Europe and central Asia, as the US has helped install one anti-Russian client government after another through a series of colour-coded revolutions. Now the Bush administration is preparing to site a missile defence system in eastern Europe transparently targeted at Russia.

By any sensible reckoning, this is not a story of Russian aggression, but of US imperial expansion and ever tighter encirclement of Russia by a potentially hostile power. That a stronger Russia has now used the South Ossetian imbroglio to put a check on that expansion should hardly come as a surprise. What is harder to work out is why Saakashvili launched last week's attack and whether he was given any encouragement by his friends in Washington.

If so, it has spectacularly backfired, at savage human cost. And despite Bush's attempts to talk tough yesterday, the war has also exposed the limits of US power in the region. As long as Georgia proper's independence is respected - best protected by opting for neutrality - that should be no bad thing. Unipolar domination of the world has squeezed the space for genuine self-determination and the return of some counterweight has to be welcome. But the process of adjustment also brings huge dangers. If Georgia had been a member of Nato, this week's conflict would have risked a far sharper escalation. That would be even more obvious in the case of Ukraine - which yesterday gave a warning of the potential for future confrontation when its pro-western president threatened to restrict the movement of Russian ships in and out of their Crimean base in Sevastopol. As great power conflict returns, South Ossetia is likely to be only a taste of things to come.

Georgia: A Blow to US Energy

Steve LeVine, BusinessWeek

The sudden war in the Caucasus brought Georgia to heel, reasserted Russia's claim as the dominant force in the region, and dealt a blow to U.S. prestige. But in this part of the world, diplomacy and war are about oil and gas as much as they are about hegemony and the tragic loss of human life. Victory in Georgia now gives Russia the edge in the struggle over access to the Caspian's 35 billion barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of gas. The probable losers: the U.S. and those Western oil companies that have bet heavily on the Caspian as one of the few regions where they could still operate with relative freedom.

At the core of the struggle is a vast network of actual and planned pipelines for shipping Caspian Sea oil to the world market from countries that were once part of the Soviet empire. American policymakers working with a BP-led consortium had already helped build oil and natural gas pipelines across Georgia to the Turkish coast. Next on the drawing board: another pipeline through Georgia to carry natural gas from the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea to Austria—offering an alternate supply to Western Europe, which now depends on Russia for a third of its energy.

But after the mauling Georgia got, "any chance of a new non-Russian pipeline out of Central Asia and into Europe is pretty much dead," says Chris Ruppel, an energy analyst at Execution, a brokerage in Greenwich, Conn. The risk of building a pipeline through countries vulnerable to the wrath of Russia is just too high.

The Russia-Georgia war thus may have dealt a blow to 15 years of American economic diplomacy. Back in the mid-1990s, Clinton Administration officials looking at a map of the recently dismantled Soviet Union grasped a singular fact about its southern perimeter: The newly independent countries there were overflowing with oil and natural gas but had to ship it via Russia to reach customers. Without pipelines of their own, the Caspian states would never fully develop their energy industries, or be politically independent of Russia. The lack of pipelines also curbed the export potential of companies like Chevron, which owns half of Tengiz, the giant Kazakhstan oilfield. After first resisting, BP (BP) and Chevron (CVX) backed the American pipeline strategy.

Moscow's Anger

Georgia was a key transit point for any line to the West. John Wolf, a former U.S. ambassador and now head of the Eisenhower Fellowship program in Philadelphia, was in the thick of the bargaining and arm-twisting that created the so-called East-West Energy Corridor. Wolf recalls powwowing with the leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey on the construction of what would become the 1,000-mile-long Baku-Ceyhan, the Caspian's first independent oil export pipeline. These leaders knew they risked provoking Russia's wrath but figured the gamble was worth it, Wolf says. Now almost 1 million barrels a day normally course through the pipeline. For Georgia, it's not the fees it collects from pipeline transit—about $60 million annually—that are important. Instead, the pipeline's presence signaled Georgia's stability and encouraged a flood of foreign investment.

That stability, of course, has proved illusory. Yet the Russians won't interfere with the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline directly, analysts say. Moscow's strategy depends on not spooking the Europeans, who might then be encouraged to back the construction of other non-Russian energy pipelines. Since there have been no confirmed attacks on the pipelines running through Georgia, no European leader has called for a reconsideration of energy policy.

Besides, the Russians may not need to shut down the Baku-Ceyhan line to win the advantage in the energy wars. "There's no doubt that what's happening has increased the investment risk within the region," says Nick Butler, a former senior executive at BP who directs the Cambridge Centre for Energy Studies at the University of Cambridge's Judge Business School. Already, on Aug. 12, BP shut down a secondary oil pipeline that ends at Georgia's Black Sea port of Supsa, saying there could be a risk of attack on the line.

Russia's Pipeline Plans

Both Chevron and ExxonMobil (XOM) had also planned to ship hundreds of thousands of additional barrels a day along the route traversing Georgia. Now that may be subject to change. "Do you want to put more eggs in the South Caucasus basket?" asks Edward C. Chow, a former Chevron executive and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington."And if you do, are there certain accommodations that need to be made with the Russians to protect them?"

What about the White House's plans for a pipeline to ship natural gas to Europe? The proposed pipeline's success depends on Turkmenistan, which has the fourth-largest natural gas reserves on the planet, an estimated 3 trillion cubic meters. The Turkmen are cautious: Under former President Saparmurat Niyazov, they refused to defy the Russians and support the construction of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. "[Niyazov] thought about it and probably decided he didn't want to wake up dead," says former U.S. diplomat Wolf.

The assault on Georgia may make the Turkmen even more wary of the new pipeline. Instead, they may end up cutting a deal with the Russians, who are vigorously pursuing new gas pipelines of their own in a bid to dominate energy in the region. "A new Iron Curtain," says analyst Ruppel, "is descending around the periphery of Russia."

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