PARIS — Pipsqueak Georgia’s harebrained and disastrous attack on tiny South Ossetia has produced a full-blown crisis pitting the US and NATO against Russia.
In an act fraught with danger, US and NATO warships are delivering supplies to Georgia, watched by Russian men of war. The US Congress may soon vote $1 billion for America’s embattled Georgian satellite.
The western powers have resorted to fierce Cold War rhetoric. They are playing with fire. Russia has some 6,600 strategic nuclear weapons, mostly aimed at North America and Europe. Besides, the US, which invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, and whose air force just killed 90 Afghan civilians, 60 of them children, is in no position to lecture Moscow about aggression.
France’s conservative president, Nicholas Sarkozy, blasted Russia and will shortly hold a European summit over Georgia in Brussels. As usual, the Harper government faithfully echoed Washington’s words.
Poland agreed to emplace a US antiballistic missile system only 184 km from Russia’s border, provoking Moscow’s fury. Ukraine and Poland are loudly backing Georgia.
Russia’s chief of staff, Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, warns his nation has the right to launch a “preemptive nuclear strike” against enemies, in line, he tartly noted, with the Bush administration’s own policies.
Topping off this war of words, two of Sen. John McCain’s closet rightwing allies, senators Joseph Lieberman and Lindsay Graham, went to Georgia and called for “tough” measures against Moscow. They urged isolating Russia for “aggression” and admitting Ukraine and Georgia to NATO.
McCain’s allies give a good preview of what his foreign policy would look like. Lieberman and Graham, leading proponents of the US occupation of Iraq, had the chutzpah to insist, “Russia must not be allowed to control energy supplies.”
This ugly mess recalls how the great powers blundered into both World War I and II over obscure locales like Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Danzig Corridor. The obvious lesson: act with extreme caution. But few are listening as rhetoric sharpens.
The Bush administration — most likely VP Dick Cheney — almost certainly planned or knew about Georgia’s attack on Russian-backed South Ossetia launched under cover of the Beijing Olympics. Whether the White House was trying to inflict a quick little military victory over Moscow, or whipping up war fever at home to boost John McCain’s prospects, is uncertain.
This crisis over a mere 70,000 South Ossetians and 18,000 Abkhazians could have been quietly resolved by diplomacy. Instead, the Bush administration turned it into a major confrontation by accusing Russia of aggression. Washington, which rightly recognized the independence of Kosovo’s Albanians from Serb repression, denounced Russia’s recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian independence from Georgian repression. Meanwhile, Moscow, which crushed the life out of Chechnya’s independence movement, piously claimed to be defending Ossetian independence.
Things may get worse. The US is pressing Ukraine to join NATO, though half of its 48 million citizens oppose doing so. Ukraine’s constitution mandates a neutral state. Russia allowed Ukraine to decamp from the Soviet Union with the understanding it would never join NATO, and allow Russia’s Black Sea Fleet operate from Crimea.
Russian political expert Sergei Markov rightly notes that Washington and NATO see Ukraine as a rich new source of troops for Iraq and Afghanistan, wars from which he says NATO leaders cannot withdraw their soldiers without committing “political suicide.”
“Old Europe” is trying to avoid a clash with Moscow, while “new Europe” — Georgia, Poland, the Czechs, and Balts — frightened of Russia’s growing power, eggs on the US-Russia confrontation.
Not only did the clumsy US attempt to expand its influence into Moscow’s backyard backfire badly, Washington’s childish, petulant response is as inflammatory as it is powerless. The Georgian crisis and empty threats against Russia have aroused strong nationalist passions in Russia, which sees itself increasingly isolated and surrounded by the US and NATO.
Nationalist hysteria, jingoism, and fevered rhetoric are coming from both sides. We saw such lunacy before: in August 1914, and September 1939.