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Disputed Territories

Ukraine and Georgia: Different Approaches

by RENEE PARSONS

In October, 2009, less than one year after becoming President, the affable Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between people” and for citing a “new climate in international politics.”

At the time, it was problematic exactly what the new President had achieved to deserve the esteemed Prize and most commentators overlooked the premature nature of the award suggesting, that the President offered hope for the future as the Nobel declaration stated “Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts.”

Since it is now embarrassingly obvious that the Nobel Committee misjudged the new President, the Committee, in the future, might consider basing the Peace Prize on actual accomplishments regarding the pursuit of peace rather than specious possibilities.

Two months later, the President offered a hint of what was to come when he accepted the award in Oslo delivering one of his customary rhetorical speeches entitled “A Just and Lasting Peace.”   In retrospect, that speech is even more alarming today than it was five years ago as we now know what the President meant when he referred to ‘future interventions’ and went on to defend the notion of a ‘just war’ characterized when “certain conditions were met”: if it is “waged as a last resort or in self-defense”; if the “force used is proportional”; and if, whenever possible, “civilians are spared from violence.”

One inescapable irony is that Peace Prize winner Obama has instigated, continued and encouraged more war and militarism around the planet (including a Tuesday morning ‘kill list’ review,  combat troops in Africa, a “pivot to Asia,’ “absolute’ support for Japan in its conflict with China over an insignificant, uninhabited pile of rocks, Marines in northern Australia, combat troops in Poland, Estonia and Lithuania, drone attacks on civilians, extra-judicial assassinations, proxy wars in Libya and Syria, increased constitutional violations and surveillance while continuing Bush’s war on terrorism in the Middle East and  in Guantanamo) than the notoriously pro-war George W. Bush accomplished even in his most hawkish moments.

During his recent trip to Asia, the President warned North Korea, China and Russia, all in one 48 hour period to follow US dictates or else -  not bad for a day’s work, if you want to be to known as the world’s greatest purveyor-of-war and violence.

Despite striking similarities, the 2008 five day war between Russia, South Ossetia and Georgia offers an insight into how the belligerent Bush Administration pursued a different approach in Georgia as compared to Obama’s US-generated conflict in Ukraine causing the ultimate secession of Crimea.   One obvious parallel is that Bush, already weakened by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, was an unpopular lame duck at home during the Georgia conflict while Obama, with a steady disapproval rating, is no longer viewed as a skilled leader to be trusted with keeping the peace.

One distinct dissimilarity is that Russia did not attempt a coup to oust Georgia’s democratically elected Mikheil Saakashvili in 2008 as the US did in Ukraine – nor did the Bush Administration overreact with a military response or economic sanctions against Moscow.

While Crimea, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, all considered ‘autonomous’ regions with historic and cultural connections to Russia, yet located within the borders of Ukraine and Georgia, respectively; the Bush and Obama Administrations, both dominated by a neo-con foreign policy, chose substantially different responses for the urge to secede.  Despite their rationale, one might almost be tempted to applaud the Bushies, no heroes in my book, for having better recognized the political realities of another grand war.

From the time of the 1917 Russian revolution, the Ossetians were on the side of the Bolsheviks and later South Ossetia, a thumb-print of a country surrounded mostly by Georgia with North Ossetia on its western border, became an autonomous region within the Soviet Republic of Georgia.  By the early 1990’s, as the USSR was unraveling, South Ossetia’s demand to formally secede as an autonomous, independent state was declared illegal by Georgia.  By 1992, tensions with Abkhazia, Georgia’s neighbor along the Black Sea and already an autonomous region with Russian roots, escalated as both regions wen to war with Georgia.  Both regions, like Crimea, so small, so insignificant yet so strategically vital to Russia as NATO buffers.

By 1992, a Russian-brokered ceasefire was in effect in South Ossetia with a peacekeeping force in place as a Constitution was adopted forming the Republic of South Ossetia.  Abkhazia declared its formal independence from Georgia and adopted its Constitution in 1994.

At the April, 2008 NATO Summit in Bucharest, NATO enlargement was a significant agenda item including US-proposed admission of Georgia and Ukraine with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister warning that membership would be a ‘huge strategic mistake which would have most serious consequences for pan-European security.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived to oppose the US deployment of missile defense shields in Poland and Czechoslovakia and the entry of Georgia and Ukraine and while Russia observed the process, the depth of its long-term apprehensions and also its legitimate right to equal security fell on deaf ears.  While the US had sponsored Georgia and Ukraine for membership, France and Germany, with continued energy supply issues from Gazprom, resisted US pressure and opposed affiliation for the time being. Both Georgia and Ukraine were short-listed to receive a NATO  Membership Action Plan in preparation for eventual membership.

The appeal of a better life under the IMF and NATO did little to convince South Ossetia and Abkhazia which still objected to Georgia’s push for reunification.   By August 7, 2008, after a July visit by US State Department Secretary Condoleeza Rice and a series of clashes with south Ossetia forces, there is little dispute in the historical record that Georgian President Saakashvili, well-known as a combustible personality and hot-head, initiated an invasion into South Ossetia. Russian troops responded by advancing into South Ossetia to defend its peacekeepers.

In “A Little War that Shook the World,” (not to be confused with “Ten Days that Shook the World” by John Reed) former State Department NATO Enlargement official Ron Asmus confirmed that on multiple occasions, Saaskashvili was warned by US officials to not precipitate a crisis or initiate any confrontation with Russia.   Asmus relates that on a 2005 visit to Georgia, President Bush personally told Saaskashvili ‘don’t do it.”

Whether Saaskashvili misread the signals or there was a green light from the US in support of military action, the fact is that the Bush Administration did not respond militarily; presumably with an awareness that the region was not significant enough to be worth a potential war with Russia and that the NATO pledge of ‘all for one, and one for all’ did not apply to  non-NATO nations.

On September 4, Vice President Dick Cheney visited Georgia announcing a one billion dollar aid package to assist in “work to overcome an invasion of your sovereign territory” as Russia signed a pact with both countries to maintain a 3,800 military force in each country.    On August 26, 2008, Russian President Medvedev signed a decree recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states after which Georgia severed diplomatic relations with Russia.

The author of the EU’s Tagliavini Report (Swiss diplomat Heidi Tagliavini) on the origins of the war determined that Georgia did not to have the right of self-defence in regard to attacks by Ossetian secessionist forces and that Georgia’s ‘excessive use of force” violated the UN Charter.  And further, although Russian forces did not penetrate into what it considers to be sovereign Georgian territory and since South Ossetia and Abkhazia are considered regions within Georgia, Tagliavini concluded that Russia did not have the right to invade Georgia to protect its members of the international peacekeeping force.

Today, Abkhazia remains a ‘disputed’ territory and neither Abkhazia or South Ossetia are recognized as independent states but as sovereign territory belonging to Georgia.  Currently, NATO and Georgian officials have met to discuss membership as early as September, 2014 – sure to trigger additional international turmoil.  Delegations of South Ossetia and Georgia are meeting currently for another round of Russia-EU-OSCE mediated talks with the South Ossetians due to raise ‘demonstrative and provocative border violations on the part of Georgia.”

Renee Parsons was a staffer in the U.S. House of Representatives and a lobbyist on nuclear energy issues with Friends of the Earth.  in 2005, she was elected to the Durango City Council and served as Councilor and Mayor.  Currently, she is a member of the Treasure Coast ACLU Board.