It’s said that Russia’s response to Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia is disproportionate: we hear of “Western leaders anxiously watching for a withdrawal and puzzling over how to punish Moscow for what they called a disproportionate reaction to the Georgian offensive”. No one has asked whether a disproportionate reaction or response is always wrong.
War, or an armed attack, can itself be a disproportionate response to some offense. If Britain, for example, declared war on Sweden for producing Abba, that would be disproportionate. It would also be wrong, because Abba isn’t cause enough for initiating violence. Britain could at least ask for a large indemnity first. The Nuremberg tribunals placed aggression, a “crime against peace”, ahead of war crimes. Perhaps this was meant to remind us that wars usher in far worse than war-fevered cheerleaders suppose, and are virtually always an immoral and disproportionate response to offences.
Within a war, there are war crimes. Those aren’t disproportionate responses, but responses directed against the wrong people, or, sometimes, the wrong sort of response.
Though it is not always wrong to kill innocent civilians – killing a civilian if there were no other way to fend off a Nazi world conquest wouldn’t be wrong – it is wrong to do so when you don’t have to. Then your response is against the wrong people. You can also, within a war, make the wrong sort of response against the right people. You can certainly use force against an enemy soldier, but you can’t torture the guy just because you’re pissed off.
There is also a relationship between war as an immorally disproportionate response, or starting war for the wrong reasons, and all its consequences. When you start a war for the wrong reasons, you are responsible for all that follows, even the other side’s atrocities. Though the other side is to blame for its crimes, so are you. You don’t even have the right to kill in self-defense. If you are wrong to start a war, you don’t suddenly fall into the right just because, contrary to your expectations, it’s you, not the other guy, who has to defend himself.
Georgia started a war, nothing less. The not terribly pro-Russian news agency Fox described the assault as follows:
Georgia, a U.S. ally whose troops have been trained by American soldiers, launched a major offensive overnight Friday. Heavy rocket and artillery fire pounded the provincial capital, Tskhinvali, leaving much of the city in ruins.
One might add that Tskhinvali’s population was given no chance to evacuate: this was not a mere demonstration or a hit-and-run operation. This starting a war.
Georgia was not *already* at war with South Ossetia or anyone else because of a 1992 peace agreement. Here is a summary of the agreement from another not notably pro-Russian source, the US Department of State:
“The June 24, 1992 Sochi Agreement established a cease-fire between the Georgian and South Ossetian forces and defined both a zone of conflict around the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali and a security corridor along the border of South Ossetian territories. The Agreement also created the Joint Control Commission (JCC), and a peacekeeping body, the Joint Peacekeeping Forces group (JPKF). The JPKF is under Russian command and is comprised of peacekeepers from Georgia, Russia, and Russia’s North Ossetian autonomous republic (as the separatist South Ossetian government remained unrecognized). South Ossetian peacekeepers, however, serve in the North Ossetian contingent. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agreed to monitor the ceasefire and facilitate negotiations.”
Given the phrase “security corridor along the the border of the South Ossetian territories”, the current conflict can’t be seen as some mere recurrence of civil unrest. There was a line determined by international agreement, and Russia was in charge of keeping that line between the opposing forces. Russia therefore was authorized to see that no one crossed that line. It did not suddenly insinuate itself into a civil conflict; it had an internationally recognized mandate to be there and to maintain the security corridor. Since by the terms of this agreement, by explicit declaration, and as a matter of blindingly obvious fact, Russia was committed to the defense of South Ossetia, Georgia did not just start a war with South Ossetia. It started one with Russia, too. The Georgians virtually proved, by killing Russian peacekeepers, that they understood this. If they didn’t, it just shows they’re morons, not that they didn’t start a war.(*)
It takes a lot to justify starting a war: maybe if another country is denying you resources without which you will starve to death, or is moving a large army towards your frontier. Some artillery exchanges are not enough, nor are territorial claims. Spain may have good territorial claims to Gibraltar – that wouldn’t justify starting a war with the UK. An adolescent country wanting to keep a province it doesn’t need, assigned it by a universally despised dictator whose population desperately wants independence – that’s not even a good territorial claim, much less sufficient reason for warfare.
So Georgia not only started a war; it started one without sufficient reason. Commentators manage not to grasp that this is a huge deal, probably because they are prejudiced against Russia to the point of incoherence.(**) Otherwise they would not flail about so much.
Suppose all that the accusations against Russia are true. Maybe Russian wanted a war and provoked Georgia. Maybe Russia wants to extend its influence. Russia did kill innocent civilians when it bombed Gori. It went far beyond what was necessary to repel an invasion. Georgia was an internationally recognized sovereign state. Technically, it may not have been an aggressor. It was attacking territory to which it had a formally plausible claim, contested by no other sovereign state. It probably killed fewer South Ossetian civilians than originally supposed. Some South Ossetians killed innocent civilians and engaged in ethnic cleansing. Russia destroyed a lot of stuff after the fighting died down. Maybe Russia resents the freedom-loving propensities of tiny plucky Georgia. None of this makes any difference. Russia was still in the right, and Georgia in the wrong.
The civilian casualties inflicted by Russian aviation were, by all reports, genuine ‘collateral damage’, and recent history makes it abundantly clear that the ‘international community’ finds such killing entirely acceptable.(***) Yes, some Russians or South Ossetians no doubt committed atrocities, and the atrocities of this and every other war are inexcusable. But if the individuals involved are responsible for their acts, responsibility at the state level rests almost entirely with Georgia, which knew perfectly well what war would bring. And for the country, Russia, to meet warfare with warfare was fully justified.
Whether or not Georgia’s attack was a real threat to Russia can be debated back and forth. Sure, Georgia itself was no threat. But it has been clear for over a decade that the West is out to encircle Russia with NATO allies, armed to the teeth and backed by nuclear weapons. Not to respond to an attack by a devoted fan of the US and NATO would have given this process a green light. It would also have encouraged more violent separatism within Russia’s boundaries. Maybe if Russia had not fought back, there would have been much greater violence later on: no one can know for sure. But we don’t need to know. When someone whose existence you don’t threaten starts a war with you, you can fight back. It’s that simple.
All that remains is the question with which we started: was the Russian response ‘disproportionate’? Maybe, but disproportionate responses in warfare are absolutely standard and quite acceptable. This is apparent in any battlefield scenario. Assuming you didn’t start the war in the first place, you don’t have to tread lightly. No one supposes that, if you calculate you can win by destroying one-tenth of the enemy’s forces, that’s all you’re allowed to do. Wiping out his whole army is perfectly ok. Barring a formal surrender, you can go on to destroy all military targets you can find, and most strategic ones as well, even if this means some ‘collateral damage’. When the allies are faulted for what they did to Germany or Japan, the criticism is always about actions that are said to go well beyond such limits, like the bombings of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
War is not like self-defense in civilian life, when the response must be proportionate to the threat. In civilian life, the expectation is that there are authorities who will sort the whole business out, real soon now. In war, there is no such expectation. If you have been attacked, you do not have to trust in the feeble prospect that maybe, possibly, the ‘international community’ will make everything all right. You are entitled to make damn sure that your enemy will never attack you again. You would be a fool not to do so, at least when your enemy has proven to be a murderous idiot under the patronage of the world’s strongest military power. The *unacceptably* disproportionate response was Georgia’s in starting the war, not Russia’s in finishing it.
MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
* Supposing the Georgians dismissed the 1992 agreement, they still started a war, not only with the Ossetians, but with the Russians. Countries can’t just confer internal status on a conflict: when the French protested that Algeria was a department of France, no one was too impressed. Russian commitments were just as clear was when the ‘U.N.’ forces brought China into the conflict by crossing the 38th parallel in Korea.
** Here’s a funny example, all the more telling because it comes from a left-liberal source: “It may not be possible to rescue South Ossetia, tiny and without resources, from becoming a Russian protectorate or even part of the Russian Federation – and most of its people seem to want that.” Hi there: if most of its people seem to want that, how can there be any question of ‘rescuing’ them?
*** See “Terror and Expected Collateral Damage: The Case for Moral Equivalence”, in Stephen Law, ed., Israel, Palestine and Terror, London and New York (Continuum) 2008, 136-152.