Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 18 August 2008

Russian action changes global geo-politics

Last week was a turning point in global politics.  Russia sent tanks into a disputed region of Georgia and warned Poland not to be a missile base for the United States, giving clear signals it will not tolerate one-superpower hegemony lying down.


The big news of the past week – besides the Olympics, of course – was the move by Russia to send its tanks and soldiers to oust the army of Georgia from two break-away Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are close allies of Russia.

Russia claimed it was not the aggressor, but the defender, as the Georgian army had invaded South Ossetia a few days earlier and killed up to 2,000 people in that region.

That figure was probably an exaggeration but there is no doubt that hundreds of ethnic Ossetians were `killed or injured and many houses were burnt.

On the other hand, Georgian President Mikael Saakashvili (whose troops were routed) blasted Russia for invading and raping his country, and said he had not given up claim to the two regions.

There are also reports of burning, looting and killings in the wake of the Russian entry into South Ossetia and into Georgia proper. Whether this was done by Russian troops or by militia linked to them, or by Ossetians taking revenge on ethnic Georgians was not6 clear.

Russia declared ceasefire and said its troops would withdraw from Georgia proper.  By last Friday the withdrawal had not been completed.

What really happened in the past traumatic fortnight in the area – including whether Georgian troops and people, the Russian troops and militia and the Ossetia people committed atrocities and to which extent – will be disputed for some time to come. 

But one thing is certain – the world, especially the Western world – has taken notice that Russia is now prepared to use its military power for its interests, for better or worse.

“Russia Resurgent” is the phrase used in The Economist and some European newspapers last weekend, to describe the new Russian resolve.

Many analysts are quick to declare the arrival of a new world geo-politics, and quite a few see the potential end of the uni-polar world dominated for so long by the sole super-power the United States.

Then last Friday, Russia’s deputy chief of staff warned Poland that it was vulnerable to a Russian rocket attack.   A day earlier Poland had reached a deal with the United States to establish a U.S. missile-defence base on Polish territory, which many analysts believe is aimed against Russia

Saying such an action cannot go unpunished, Colonel General Anatoly Nogovitsyn warned that “by deploying, Poland is exposing itself to a strike – 100 per cent.”  He said Russia’s security doctrine allowed it to use nuclear weapons against an active ally of a nuclear power such as the US.

Meanwhile, Russia has insisted it has the right to protect ethnic Russians and Russian citizens that live in Eastern and Central European counties. Besides the two regions of Georgia, there are ethnic Russians in Ukraine, Belarus and other countries. Georgia and Ukraine have governments that are pro-America and the two are seeking to join NATO.

Vladimir Putin, when he was Russian President, last year in a famous speech in Munich, said it was “pernicious, unacceptable and impossible” that there be a “unipolar world in which there is one center of authority, force and decision making, a world in which there is one master, one sovereign.”    

He had also warned that if Kosovo could become a state separated from Serbia, then 

South Ossetia and Abkhazia could also be independent from Georgia.     

Putin is no longer President but as Prime Minister he is still powerful, some say just as powerful as before.

Russia had warned that if Georgia attacked South Ossetia, Russia would come to its defence.  Georgia did send in its troops and artillery, with atrocities committed against Ossetians. In a few days Russia kept its word and its army chased the Georgia military out of the region, and then took the Georgian town of Gori.

In the wake of the Russian success, Ossetian militia then took revenge and burnt the houses of some Georgian families, with some being killed as well, according to news reports.

US President George Bush denounced Russia for “invading a sovereign neighbouring state” and sent his Secretary of State to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi to support the Georgian President.

But despite the appeals of the Georgian leader, it was clear that neither the U.S. nor the European Union were willing to go to war with Russia over his small country (population 4.6 million).

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel met Russian President Dmitri Dedvedev last Thursday and said Russia should pull its troops from Georgia but added significantly that “both sides are probably to blame” for the conflict.

Germany and France had thwarted the US’ drive a few months ago to get Georgia to join NATO.  If it had been a NATO member, other NATO members would be obliged to fight any country that went to war with it.

According to columnist Seumas Milne of the Guardian (London), the past fortnight is “not a story of Russian aggression but of US imperial expansion and ever tighter encirclement of Russia by a potentially hostile power.”

In this perspective, there has been a long-running dispute over South Ossetia ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the region has been aiming at secession from Georgia. The US has been providing Georgia with military support.

“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.

“Now the Bush administration is preparing to site a missile defence system in eastern Europe transparently targeted at Russia.”

Seen from this light, the Georgian army’s violent entry into South Ossetia was an unfortunate move of a government which was over-confident of American support or of Russian timidity.  It started a chain of events in which Russia took its first military move outside its borders since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan decades ago, following this  up with its warning to Poland.

The “Russian resurgence” is forcing the US and Europe to rethink the geo-political equations not only of Europe but the world.  By treating Russia like a potential enemy, the U.S. and NATO may have created an enemy. Last week was a big turning point in global politics.