Many are drawing analogies between the U.S.-led attack on Yugoslavia in 1999 and the Russian attack on Georgia earlier this month. Most, including Russian officials, do so to highlight the hypocrisy of Washington’s criticism of Russia’s action. Russia’s ambassador to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, went so far as to state last week, “If we had the territorial integrity of Serbia in the case of Kosovo, then we would have the territorial integrity of Georgia . . . with regard to South Ossetia and Abkhazia.” He added that NATO’s war in 1999 “takes away the right to criticise Russia for any present or future action.”
Surely one can ask: What right has the U.S., which led the assault on Yugoslavia ostensibly to protect the beleaguered Albanians of Kosovo, to condemn the Russians for advancing into Georgia to protect the South Ossetians who’d just been subjected (as AP acknowledges) to “a massive assault”? What right does the U.S., which led the bombardment of Belgrade, have to criticize Russia’s bombardment of Gori (sparing the Georgian capital of Tbilisi)? What right does the U.S., which this year recognized Kosovo as an independent country, have to challenge the Russian foreign minister’s pronouncement that Tbilisi can “forget about” retaining South Ossetia and Abkhazia whose citizens plainly want out of the Georgian state?
There are many parallels between these two situations, the first and second wars in Europe since 1945.
In 1989 Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic exploiting Serbian nationalism revoked Kosovo’s autonomous status. In that same year the Soviet Republic of Georgia’s parliament abolished South Ossetian autonomy, soon imposing Georgian as the only official language throughout the country. In both cases the withdrawal of autonomy was met with resistance, and ethnic violence and repression produced tens of thousands of refugees. In both cases a major power intervened, ostensibly to help the victims, with overwhelming military force.
But without justifying either attack it’s important to recognize some important differences. Kosovo is thousands of miles away from the U.S., whereas South Ossetia borders Russia. Kosovo has little relationship to U.S. national security, while the situation in South Ossetia impacts the security of the whole Caucasus region including southern Russia. Milosevic sent federal troops into Kosovo in 1998 to back up police in suppressing the separatist movement; Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili bombed the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali in an effort to destroy the autonomous government and occupy the city with tanks.
When the U.S.-led NATO forces attacked Yugoslavia, Kosovo was under Belgrade’s control. NATO had to bomb Kosovo and Belgrade to force the Serbian troops out. When Russia attacked Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia had acquired de facto independence and South Ossetia’s legislature had requested integration into the Russian Federation. Milosevic and Saakashvili both felt justified in attacking secessionist movements in their countries. But the former attacked a disordered province lacking effective leadership while the latter attacked what was in essence a country effectively divorced from Georgia since 1992.
Bill Clinton acted in 1999 to show the world what happens when a third-rate power defies U.S. demands. (These had included a demand for Belgrade to allow NATO forces access to the roads and airspace not only of Kosovo but the entire country of Yugoslavia in order to avoid a U.S. attack.) He acted to expand NATO’s reach as global policeman; one of the largest U.S. bases in the world has since been established in Kosovo and 15,000 NATO-led forces remain there. Ostensibly the U.S. moved to protect the Kosovars from “ethnic cleansing” at the hands of the Serbs, but it was clear within a year that the pre-war allegations of hundreds of thousands of victims of Serbian violence, disseminated by the likes of U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen, were pure disinformation. Only about 2000 persons in Kosovo (including Serbs and Roma) had been killed before the bombing started. The real ethnic bloodletting began with the war.
In part., the Russian leadership acted on August 7 to show what happens when the leader of a neighboring country hostile to itself launches missile attacks against Russia’s friends (and in the South Ossetian case, for the most part Russian passport-bearers). It acted to assure its friends that Moscow has the will and might to protect them. On the face of it, the Russian action against Georgia seems more justifiable and understandable than the U.S. action against Yugoslavia. But that of course is not saying much. Both the U.S. and Russia are imperialist powers whose rulers go to war for reasons of profit and geopolitical strategizing that have little to do with the stated casus belli.
In the background of the Georgia conflict loom the issues of U.S.-Russian competition for control of the flow of Caspian oil and gas and the expansion of NATO. During the Soviet period, the resources under and around the Caspian Sea were Soviet state property and a major source of foreign exchange. Now most belong to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan, all courted by the U.S. bloc to cooperate in the construction of pipelines bypassing Russia (and Iran). In May 2005 a new pipeline built by a British Petroleum-led consortium began delivering oil from Turkmenistan to the Turkish seaport of Ceyhan, running through Georgia. Intended to reduce western dependence on Middle East and Russian oil, it inaugurates a new period of struggle for control that recalls the “Great Game” between Britain and Russia in Central Asia in the nineteenth century. It’s classical inter-imperialist contention.
The expansion of NATO is, from the Russian perspective, even more provocative. In July 1991, as the Soviet bloc and USSR itself were falling apart, the Warsaw Pact was officially dissolved. Conceived of as a defensive pact, NATO lost its raison d’être. Then-Soviet head of state Mikhail Gorbachev claims the U.S. administration promised him at the time that NATO would not expand to include former Soviet allies. Instead it has expanded inexorably. On March 12, 1999—two weeks before the commencement of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia—Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined the alliance. In 2004, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria joined. The first two of these countries border Russia. It is like having a global alliance designed to contain U.S. power expanding to include Mexico.
Now Washington advocates the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine into NATO; George Bush promised it at the last alliance meeting (in Bucharest, Romania). They border Russia to the west and south and their inclusion would mean NATO encirclement of Russia. Since 2002 NATO has led the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and the Russian leadership has to be nervous about permanent U.S. bases in that Central Asian country. All of these nations are a long ways from the North Atlantic.
U.S. officials tell Moscow not to worry; NATO’s not directed at them. But this is obviously disingenuous. Washington has been pressing Poland and the Czech Republic to accept the installation of a ballistic missile defense system which the Russians have argued weakens their own deterrent capacity. The missiles, the U.S. replies, aren’t directed against Russia but against “rogue states” like Iran and North Korea—as though either of those countries is likely to attack Europe. On August 16, Poland signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. to establish the system bitterly opposed by Moscow. Surely the timing was no coincidence, following the Polish foreign minister’s visit to Tbilisi to support Saakashvili after the Russian attack and Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s allegation that the EU shows “submissiveness” in its policy towards Russia.
In this context, Washington gave its good friend Saakashvili the green light to attack South Ossetia. It’s quite likely that most conspiratorial of warmongers Vice President Dick Cheney was deeply involved; he called Saakashvili on August 10 to inform him that “Russian aggression must not go unanswered.” Asked for clarification, Cheney’s office replied, “This must not stand.” That is precisely the phrase the first President Bush used after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, before the U.S. attacked Iraq the first time.
Russia under Putin never urged Milosevic to crack down on Kosovo; the Serb was nobody’s puppet. Moscow did not use the Kosovo crisis to provoke the U.S. but cooperated in the Rambouillet discussions until the U.S. made demands on Belgrade no sovereign nation could possibly accept. (The French foreign minister Hubert Védrine at the time suggested the U.S. had evolved beyond superpower status to become an hyperpuissance or “hyper-power”).
The U.S. in contrast has apparently used South Ossetia’s aspirations for secession to provoke Russia in its own “near abroad.” It’s hard to know who that might help. John McCain, who’s personally close to Saakashvili (and whose chief foreign policy advisor, neocon Randy Schuememann, has made $ 800,000 lobbying for the Georgian regime)? Even though the mainstream media has been predictably perverse in its depiction of recent events, placing the onus on Russia, I doubt that the defense of Georgia against Russia will become a major campaign issue.
The 1999 war was designed to expand NATO; the Russian attack on Georgia was designed in part to thwart its further growth. Russia has been on a defensive posture for sixteen years, accepting humiliation after humiliation. But with a real GDP now exceeding that of France and equal that of the U.K., Russia is back.
The U.S. has taken a hit in the Caucasus, and seems powerless to respond meaningfully. Its actions in response to Russia are constrained by dissent within NATO ranks, especially from Germany 40% dependent on Russian natural gas. Abdullah Gül, the president of NATO-member Turkey told British journalists over the weekend, “I don’t think you can control all the world from one center … What we have to do is, instead of unilateral actions, act all together, make common decisions and have consultations with the world. A new world order, if I can say it, should emerge.”
The hyperpower is humbled, as an old superpower revives. One shouldn’t side with one imperialist against another, as though selecting a lesser evil, but wish a plague on both their houses. Still, any blow to the ballooning NATO alliance is probably a good thing.
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org