Paddy Gibson puts the recent flashes of violence between Russia and Georgia in context

WESTERN POLITICAL leaders have been sickeningly hypocritical in their response to the recent crisis in Georgia.

US Republican Presidential candidate John McCain declared that, “In the twenty-first century, nations do not invade other nations”. This from the man who supports keeping US troops in Iraq for 100 years! Kevin Rudd, who has Australian troops stationed in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the Pacific, lectured Russia on the importance of “respecting territorial sovereignty”.

On August 7, US trained and armed troops from Georgia went on the offensive to regain control in the disputed region of South Ossetia, killing 200 civilians and displacing 40,000. Russia then counter-attacked and essentially overran the Georgian army, taking control of vast tracts of northern Georgia, including some key ports.

Since then, Russia has declared its support for South Ossetia and Abkhazia’s independence, the US has promised US$1 billion’s worth of aid to Georgia and Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili has vowed he will rebuild the army and regain control in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The Australian editorialised that Russia’s actions amounted to a reassertion of “authoritarianism”, a trend that “democratic” forces like the US military and its allies needed to resist.

But it is precisely the imperialist strategy adopted by the US since the end of the Cold War, and viciously accelerated since the “war on terror” began in 2001, that lies at the root of the current fighting.

The expansion of NATO

Zbigniew Brezezinski, Barack Obama’s main foreign policy adviser, talks about the strategic importance of the “Eurasian land mass” in his seminal book The Grand Chessboard. This area stretches from the Balkans in the west, through the Middle East and the Caucasus, to Afghanistan in the east. It is rich in energy resources and is the geographic nexus between the major economic centres of Russia, China and the EU.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was established in 1949 in order to “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”, according to first NATO Secretary General Lord Ismay.

The US has used the rapid eastward expansion of NATO as its key mechanism to assert control over this area. In 1999 Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic were brought into NATO. In 2004 six more Eastern European states, including the former Soviet Republics of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania also joined, tightening the encirclement of Russia.

Georgia itself joined the NATO “partnership for peace” in 2005, and the US has been pushing for full membership for both Georgia and the Ukraine. France and Germany this April stood in the way of full membership, keeping NATO just back from Russia’s border.

The US has been cementing Georgia as its key military ally in the Caucasus for many years. Over 2000 Georgian troops have fought in Iraq, the biggest commitment after the US and UK. One thousand of these were transported back to Georgia by the US to fight in South Ossetia.

“Georgia has a strong economic foundation and leaders with an impressive record of reform,” Bush claimed in announcing his aid package. “Our additional economic assistance will help the people of Georgia recover from the assault on their country, and continue to build a prosperous and competitive economy.”

The Georgian regime has close ties with the neo-conservatives in Washington—receiving a consistent flow of arms and US military instructors in the capital Tbilisi and naming the major road to the Georgian airport “George W. Bush Avenue”. US ally Israel also sells arms to Georgia.

The need for the US to exert military control of the region is structural. Militarily, they possess unrivalled capacity. But their economic superiority is flagging, and under challenge from rivals old and new. Consequently, they are forced to rely increasingly on military operations to maintain global hegemony. Deep running tensions can quickly explode, as seen here, or during Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon in 2006.

In the wake of the initial military confrontation in Georgia, the government in Poland gave its support for US plans to build “missile defence” infrastructure on Polish soil. The system is designed to give the US a nuclear “first strike” capacity against Russia by cutting off Moscow’s capacity to strike back. Moscow responded by publicly “reserving the right” to launch a nuclear strike on Poland.

Russia’s current posture marks a shift in the battle for control of the “Eurasian land mass” and the dynamics of the world system more broadly. While the period since the end of the Cold War has been characterised by major powers attacking smaller ones to expand their influence, this conflict is an explicit proxy war between two major imperial centres.

It is in this context that the old maxim “Neither Washington nor Moscow” has some relevance. We oppose US aggression in the region and understand that the main game for activists in the West is working to build opposition to the imperial ambitions of leaders like Bush and our own Kevin Rudd. But in saying this, we must also understand Russia’s own imperial agenda that drives its support for independence for South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

National Liberation

The Ossetians have been caught for centuries in wars between rival imperial blocs. The language group is cut in half by the Georgia-Russia border, with North Ossetia part of the Russian Federation.

In the early 1990s, following the collapse of the USSR and the emergence of an independent Georgia, the new regime refused to recognise South Ossetia’s claim to independence.

During the ensuing conflict, Russia poured thousands of troops into the region. Even after withdrawing, they used their support for South Ossetia to maintain a foothold in Georgia.

The South Ossetians have a good historic case for independence, as do people in Abkhazia, another ethnically distinct region who have fought the Georgian military and now host Russian troops.

But the status of these areas in the current context has nothing to do with the strength of any genuine independence movement and will be determined by the conflict between great power rivals. The South Ossetian militias and administration are almost entirely creatures of the Russian state, evidenced in the fact that the South Ossetian president, Eduard Kokoity, demands nothing more than reunification with North Ossetia within the Russian Federation.

Despite the fact that Russia has now formally supported South Ossetia’s “independence”, it is clear that Vladimir Putin (once president and now prime minister, all the while still in control) is an enemy of genuine national liberation. He has butchered thousands of Chechens struggling for independence.

The Russian occupation of South Ossetia and the bombing of Tbilisi is not action in defence of Ossetian independence, but in defence of Russia’s own imperial interests.

Russia’s economy is no longer a post-USSR wasteland. Its recent recovery has been based on the energy sector. For example, Russia now supplies 40 per cent of Europe’s gas.

The US has worked with Georgia to run pipelines from the oil and gas-rich Caspian basin to Europe which by-pass Russia—and is planning more. Increasingly confident and with its interests directly threatened, Russia has struck back against NATO expansion.

The current crisis reveals the divisions amongst European rulers about how to relate to America’s imperial strategy.

On the one hand, European powers such as France and Germany gain enormous leverage on the world stage from their alliance with the US military through NATO.

On the other, they are more immediately reliant on smooth trade relations with Russia and political stability in the region than the US.

This tension is clearly illustrated by debates in Germany. Current chancellor Angela Merkel’s initial response to the crisis in the Caucusus was a qualified criticism of Russia. Meanwhile, ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroder, who now heads the Northern European Gas Pipeline Company (51 per cent of which is owned by Russian state energy company Gazprom), blamed Georgian aggression.

The division has also been on display through the conflict in Afghanistan. The Bush administration uses the occupation as a testing ground of commitment to a militant, expansionist NATO, consistently leaning on Western Europe to bulk up its troop commitments.

The Australian argues that, “the unipolar moment for the US is long gone” and urges the Rudd government to prepare for “the possibility that competition, not co-operation will define the coming disorder”. This means bulking up Australia’s military and being willing to intervene alongside the US in future conflicts. It means accelerating the militarisation of the Pacific to squeeze China from the East, while NATO encroaches on its Western flank.

The Rudd government’s recent Department of Defence White Paper agrees that, “we are slowly moving into a multipolar world”. It argues for increases in military spending to allow operations in the new environment, including “contributions to US-led coalition operations” in “high intensity wars”.

As Australian troops raid houses half a world away in places like Afghanistan for advantage in this imperial game, we will be forced to suffer further cuts to basic services and attacks on democratic rights. We must expose Rudd’s hypocrisy in the Georgia crisis and fight to break the alliance with US imperialism, which is willing to take the world to the brink of disaster.

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