Upping the ante or calling the bluff

Last year, only weeks after a nasty confrontation between the Estonians and the Russians ostensibly over the resiting of a Russian war memorial, I took a rickety train, the only one of the day, up the Gulf of Finland from the Estonian capital Talinn to St Petersburg. Just before passing by an empty rusty watch tower on an eerily deserted border, I couldn’t help thinking that we’re pledged to defend these guys now. And that was before..

The “casus belli” – not the cause as is often wrongly thought, but the opportunity for war, is always argued about furiously after the chips have fallen. Did the Georgians start it or did they fall for a Russian trap? Unfortunately, the arguments tend to divide according to where your sympathies lie, even in nuanced, well-informed and well-intentioned commentaries. Thus over Georgia, the Financial Times is clear.
“Most accounts agree that it was South Ossetian separatists who committed the first act of escalation when they blew up a Georgian military vehicle on August 1, wounding five Georgian peacekeeping troops. Georgia responded in kind, killing six South Ossetian militiamen….
FT cont.
“Capt Ivanov and Eduard Kokoity, the pro-Moscow president of South Ossetia, say they held a meeting that day between Marat Kulakhmetov, commander of the Russian peacekeeping forces, and Temur Yakobashvili, the Georgian minister for re­integration, whose job is to deal with the breakaway regions. General Kulakhmetov asked Mr Yakobashvili to telephone Mr Saakashvili and tell him to declare a unilateral ceasefire. At 7.30pm Mr Saakashvili announced the ceasefire: “I would like to address those who are now shooting at Georgian policemen. I want to say with full responsibility that several hours ago, I reached a very difficult decision – not to respond with fire. This was no use, however, and the fighting escalated..”

The New York Times’ Sante E Cornell backs up this line with supporting background:

The truth is that for the past several months, Russia, not Georgia, has been stoking tensions in South Ossetia and another of Georgia’s breakaway areas, Abkhazia. After NATO held a summit in Bucharest, Romania, in April — at which Georgia and Ukraine received positive signs of potential membership — then-President Vladimir Putin of Russia signed a decree effectively treating Abkhazia and South Ossetia as parts of the Russian Federation. This was a direct violation of Georgia’s territorial integrity.

It came after years of growing Russian efforts to assert control over these regions, for example, by distributing Russian passports to citizens and arranging the appointment of Russians to the territories’ governments. Mr. Putin, who is now Russia’s prime minister, oversaw a build-up of Russian “peacekeeping” forces in Abkhazia, which was clearly intended to provoke Georgia into a military response.

The emphasis from the Guardian’s veteran left-leaning Jonathan Steele is very different, though concentrating on the immediate crisis:

“(Georgian President Sakashvili’s) biggest lie was his attempt to airbrush the fact that he created the crisis by launching an artillery barrage on the South Ossetian capital, which killed scores of civilians and 15 Russian peacekeepers. It was absurd to think Russia would not retaliate. So the next lie was to claim Russia’s leaders had prepared a trap. In fact, they were taken by surprise as much as the Ossetians. Nevertheless, Russia should pull back completely now. It should also have restrained South Ossetian militias from running amok against Georgian villages.”

There are concerns Ukraine could be the next flashpoint. Ukraine’s president says his country is a hostage in a war waged by Russia against states in the old Soviet bloc. Ukraine said on Wednesday it wanted to discuss charging Russia more for the lease of a Black Sea naval base, a move that could aggravate regional tensions already enflamed by Moscow’s conflict with Georgia.

This could be some flashpoint. The Russian Black Sea and Ukrainian fleets, awkwardly split between the two successor States at the time of the USSR’s collapse, are both stationed in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. This ancient Russian territory though lying south of Ukraine, was magnanimously handed over from Russia to Ukraine in the glory days of the USSR in the 1950s, by Khrushchev. Crimea is a key instance of the fluid borders and population shifts, often brutally imposed, that had long been a characteristic of the Russian empire.

Following David Miliband’s trip to Kiev and much other diplomatic scurrying-around, western leaders at a special summit next week will be fumbling for a response to Russian recognition of the breakaway Georgian territories. Will they rapidly try to bind the Russian periphery not already included in the Nato sphere quickly and “ call Russia’s bluff?” Or will they seek to cool Russian passions by doing nothing in particular? Nato is divided, the British with the Americans sounding militant, the Germans temporising. A Russia contemptuous of western protests yet fearful of western encirclement could start issuing more Russian passports to Russians and minorities in the Russian periphery, such as Ukraine where nearly half the population is Russian or Russian-leaning; or in the Baltics, where there have been repeated clashes and tensions in previous years. The issuing of passports could then spark tensions exactly like those in Georgia/south Ossetia and provide another, even greater casus belli. It is not the same by any means and the Russians would furiously resent the parallel, but the situation bears a certain resemblance to Hitler’s acts of provocation with ethnic Germans in the Czech Sudetenland in 1938 before seizing the whole of Czechoslovakia, and on the Polish frontier on the eve of war in 1939. It is classic destabilisation strategy.

  • esmereldavillalobos

    It is classic destabilisation strategy.


    One angle explored on BBC radio by a Russian commentator last pm was the effect this crisis may have on the US election. Russians sabre rattling, US government putting missiles in Poland, NATO advancing to the big brown bear’s borders, possibility of a new Cold War – send for Reagan… I mean McCain! If the American public can be scared enough they may just reject Obama’s promises of change and stay with the status quo, the ancient conservative war hero.

    I have no real beef with McCain (one of the few Republicans I could get on board with) but one could view part of this as the US administration mischief making to influence a presidential election.

    Honestly, I’m not a conspiracy nut or an anti-American Pinko but it does all seem quite convenient, doesn’t it?

    There again, what was Saakashvili thinking?

  • David

    This is a slightly amended version of something I posted elsewhere.

    NATO needs to reconsider our relationship with the Ukraine. Some sort of external association with NATO, short of full membership but with guarantees for the country’s security if attacked would seem to be the best immediate option.

    The troops that Russia used to carry out the invasion of Georgia were moved to the adjoining areas of Russia for “military exercises” in July 2008, that is several weeks before the alleged “provocation” by Georgia.

    The invasion was clearly Putin’s desired outcome. The use of a Georgian attack as a reason is just an excuse. South Ossetia was previously a patchwork quilt of government and separatist held areas. There was often fighting between the two sides. Once the Russian army was in place all they had to do was wait and eventually there would be something to excuse the invasion

    Russia is playing a long term game. Its primary objective is to turn Europe into a Russian sphere of influence. It is achieving this goal spectacularly well, largely because so much of the strategy is going undetected.

    This is not something which can be achieved militarily. Russia has a much smaller economy and population than western Europe, albeit his military is bigger and has a vastly greater nuclear potential. The basic method Putin is using is divide and conquer. Most western European countries are much stronger than Russia economically, but all are relatively weak militarily. Putin’s strategy is to divide Western Europe from Eastern Europe, to allow him to absorb Eastern Europe.

    Russian increase in its sphere of influence is something which can be achieved by a combination of measures. Russia is in the process of developing an economic stranglehold over European energy supplies, this will be used to bully the western European powers. Eastern European countries in general have virtually no military capacity, so despite their loathing of Russia they would be easy prey to an actual invasion. Once the west of Europe is weakened, it won’t lift a finger to save the East; naively they will sacrifice others believeing that this will save themselves.

    There seem to be 2 things that need to be done to prevent Russian expansionism. Challenge the economic aspects and challenge the military aspects. Challenging the economic aspects means developing alternative energy sources. Unfortunately the main viable alternative gas sources come through Georgia at the moment. This means pressurising Russia over Georgia, and trying to make peace between Armenia and Azerbijan, thus opening up the only other alternative route.

    Challenging the military aspects means preventing future Russian military adventurism, like that witnessed in Georgia. Unfortunately it is now too late to prevent a Russian invasion of Georgia, it has already happened. Russia has used the invasion to completely destroy the much smaller Georgian military. Small countries need to ally themselves to bigger ones to assist in their defence. The chances of increasing western influence in any part of the world will be very small if small countries believe that it will open them up to attack from Russia.

    In Europe the most likely next areas of Russian military adventurism are Moldova and Ukraine. Both are poor countries and both have territorial disputes either with Russia (Crimea, especially Sevastapol and Crimean lighthouses in the Ukraine) or Russian backed separatists (Transdnister in Moldova).

    I am unsure what could be done to boost Moldova. It is desperately poor with no military. Transdneister is not recognised and survives on organized crime and Russian subsidies, so it is not susceptible to economic presures.

    Ukrine is a different matter. It could be brought more into the NATO sphere of influence. The purpose of allowing Ukraine under a NATO umbrella (perhaps not by full NATO membership – maybe some temporary guarantee together with stationing NATO troops/air power there) would be to deter a Russian attack there. Ukraine has a large population and unlike eastern Europe generally, it seems to have large, though poorly equipped army. It is a sitting duck in a war with Russia due to its poor air forces. Increase these and perhaps it will stand a fighting chance.

    The idea that this would antagonise Russia is a valid concern, however the fact that refusing NATO membership did not pacify Russia, but left it with impunity to attack, shows that this might work. After all the Russians eventually backed down on Estonia last year.

    A temporary pact is preferable to full NATO membership at the moment, as many Ukrainians oppose NATO membership and the country itself is often divided between pro and anti Russian forces. If the pro-Russians won the next election we would not want to be committed to their defence.

  • BfB

    ‘but one could view part of this as the US administration mischief making to influence a presidential election.’

    Flesh this statement out. Or is this another boney
    ‘get Obama’ conspiracy kite?

  • joeCanuck

    This misadventure didn’t start on Aug 1, of course. It started when the USSR collapsed.

  • IJP

    Another excellent posting, Brian.

    Basically I think that’s all right – I too was in Estonia in 2004, and also Moldova (where I predicted another war over Transnistria sooner rather than later).

    The only thing I would say is it’s not a clear matter of black versus white. Having sympathy for Russian nationals resident in other ex-Soviet states and not being properly treated (undoubtedly the case in Estonia) and therefore having some sympathy with Russian involvement in those states is not the same as being an out-and-out Putin fan.

    On the contrary, it makes it easier to understand and predict Putin’s moves (and the inevitable excuses for them).

    The EU should see to it, for example, that all citizens in the Baltic states get the vote regardless of linguistic competence (merely an excuse for revenge on Russians), thereby removing some of the “excuses”. That might not stop Russian war-games, but it would make it indisputable who the “good guys” are.

  • Prionsa Eoghan


    I reckon that your theory fails on the obvious. No conspiracy would ever have included giving Uncle Sam such a showing up. The Russki’s have severely embarrassed the US by demonstrating just how little clout they have, or will to cash the cheques her foreign policy writes.

    Oh and don’t expect Sarkozy’s name to be mentioned to mediate in another world crisis. The Yanks aren’t the only ones to be done like a kipper.


    Reality check time. There is nothing whatsoever to stop the Russki’s imposing her will in whichever way shape or form anywhere in the former Soviet Union. The west in general has been shown to be having a massive Erectile dysfunction when push came to shove over Georgia. Not so much about actually giving Georgia a bloody nose, more the aftermath and the refusal to bow to diplomatic pressure. And classically the withdrawals that actually turned into advances, which left the US looking like bleating lambs when they petulantly retorted that the latest developments could harm future relations between the countries. I don’t think we’ll be needing the Anderson shelters somehow.

  • The problem for the west is after Iraq the USA has no credibility or morality in the bank. The thought of have either Georgia or Ukraine in NATO is frightening, the former as it is led by a man who acts like a bull in a china shop and the latter for the reasons already given, i e population makeup.

    Under Bush the US has been poking the Russian bear with a big stick, always a very dangerous thing to do as both Napoleon and Hitler found out to their cost. The west thought they had won first prize when Russia was led by a vain glorious fool like Mikhail Gorbecev and then a drunken bum Yeltsin. With Putin, a totally different kettle of fish, they have no idea what to do but growl.

    As To Miliband touring the Ukraine like a modern day Flashman, he is an embarrassment and I have no doubt Brown has set the poor sap up. I often wonder if the likes of him have ever read a history book. One thing is for sure the Russians will not be shitting their pants over his visit, more likely spitting their sides with laughter.

    If Bush, Brown and co are not careful the Russian will organize a referendum on whether the people what independence in the two Georgian disputed territories and invite UN election observers to oversea it.
    No one doubts a free vote will be in favor of either independence or joining with north Ossetia as part of the Russian federation. Then where will that leave Bush and Brown with there talk of defending freedom.

    These men really do need to leave the stage before they end up killing us all.

  • Alan

    Estonia is one of my favourite countries, i just love the place, but they have many unresolved soviet era issues. I also recently visited Lithuania (Vilnius), where my guide recalled a visit by George Bush, where he declared the enemies of Lithuania are enemies of USA. This was met with a collective sigh, fearing that the reverse may also be true…

  • heck

    mick Hall

    I agree with the point you are making except that I would edit that is “after Iraq new labour has no credibility or morality in the bank”. Miliband is a pathetic member of a party of war criminals and should shut TF up.

    as to the baltics. I have a solution -why not partition off the area with a small majority of ethnic russians and say it’s (sort of) part of russia. Then the ethnic russians can discriminate against their native baltic citizens, set up a paramilitary police force (let’s call it the Russian Unified Contabulary), and the once a year they can all get drunk and march through estonian/latvian/lithunian neighbourhoods to show who is boss.

  • Prionsa Eoghan


    C’mon! The Russki’s are far too civilised to allow thos kinda shenanigans.

    Anyhow do you think these ethnic Russki’s living in the partitioned part of Estonia would actually claim to be Estonian and Russki, and demand that any claim to a definition of Estonian must suit them? Or is that tooooooooo far fetched?

  • b.black

    Why not recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia?


  • Dewi

    hmmm…I’d sign up to fight for Estonia’s independence. Rights of Russian speakers? Ain’t they got a huge country next door? We move heaven and earth to preserve rare birds and animals but when it comes to languages it doesn’t seem as important – strange. I’m happy though cos the girl who lives in the Tescos self service machine now speaks Welsh to me – wonderful.

  • Occassional Commentor
  • Greenflag

    The Abkhazians and South Ossetians do not want to be part of an independent Georgia . The Kosovars did not want to be part of Serbia

    Why can’t people be allowed to be part of the country they want to be part of .

    There are Russian language and ethnic minorities in the Baltic States so presumably many see the break up/repartition of Georgia to be a precursor of the same for some of the Baltic States . That may well be but the best defence for the Baltic States is to ensure that their ethnic ‘russians ‘ are not treated like say Northern Ireland’s nationalsits 1920- to recent times .

    The Abhazians and South Ossetians feel safer under the Russian Bear than as part of a smaller State -Georgia.

    They will in time be part of Russia and the best thing the Georgians can do is to wish them ‘bon voyage ‘

  • Harry Flashman

    For those cheering on “mighty” Russia can I just point out that the nations of NATO are twenty times wealthier, have a vastly superior military capability, much healthier societies, longer life expectancy and are much more reproductive than the shambling, vodka addled, bear.

    Forty years ago the USSR was rightly dismissed as Upper Volta with rockets, today the Upper Voltans might feel themselves justifiably insulted by such a comparison.

    Russia is going through its death throes, blowing its inheritance before the grim inexorable fate it knows awaits it finally catches up.

    The rest of the civilised world need not concern itself too much with its brutish, idiotic posturing.

  • Harry

    I do not feel any one is ‘cheering on mighty Russia’ the fact is minnows like Bush are only behaving as they are because they sense Russia is weak. They should read a history book, or look to nature, a wounded bear is at its most dangerous.

    Historically Russia has often been as weak as a mouse, but it always survived as it has enormous depth and resources, the trick is for the west to learn to live peacefully with Russia, not easy at times I agree, but manufacturing a crises as Bush and Brown have done over south Osettia is not the way.

    Do we really want a repeat of the cold war or worse, half the time I do not believe todays western politicians understand their actions have consequences, encouraging and immediately recognizing Kosova was bound to have embolden the south Osettian’s and god knows who else.

  • Harry Flashman

    No Mick, we certainly do not want a confrontation with Russia, that is why I said we should just ignore their posturing, in the geo-political scheme of things Russia is a non-entity. I’ve said it before; within 30 years the Chinese and the Muslims of east and central Asia will have taken all the decent bits off the carcass of Russia. However that does not detract from the fact that Georgia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia etc are perfectly entitled to self determination.

    I’m a big fan of democracy, I like freedom. Russia is a boorish, gangster state, I know who’s side I’m on, I’m not terribly surprised that people who should know better are once again siding with an aggressive, anti-democratic government in a regressive nation merely because they are opposed to the United States.

    They never learn, do they?

  • “However that does not detract from the fact that Georgia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Latvia, Estonia etc are perfectly entitled to self determination.
    posted by harry”

    I agree completely. Although if you have a dangerous bear in the next door garden, it is not that wise to rely on a friend to protect you from it who lives many miles away and rarely calls around. Better to lob the odd jar of honey over the fence in the hope it will leave you alone until one can come up with a better idea 😉

    These countries situation reminds me of the quote from Porfirio Diaz “Poor Mexico. So far from God. So Close to the U.S”

    All the best.

  • David

    Though Mick your approach is more akin to lobbing your Georgian neighbour over and hoping the bear has no appetite left afterwards.

  • esmereldavillalobos
  • BfB

    Ya, I just watched him on tv…….another Harrison Ford movie in the works, I’m afraid. Tom Clancy where arrree yuuuuuuuuuuuu!

  • Though Mick your approach is more akin to lobbing your Georgian neighbour over and hoping the bear has no appetite left afterwards.

    Posted by David.


    What would you do, lob the whole of Europe into the path of the bear, whilst you got the last flight out to the USA. Funny how these politicos talk a great deal about statesmanship and diplomacy, but when its needed the first thing they do is make threats like children in the playground.

    South Osettia is not Czechoslovakia, for one thing the Osettians cannot wait to see the back of Georgian rule, as this is the case what is the difference between Kosova and south Osettia claiming independence?

  • David

    Mick your answers are the perfect demonstration of why the European Union has very little future and why NATO will remain the cornerstone of European defence.

    If Russia threatens smaller countries such as Georgia, Ukraine, or the Baltic Republics your first reaction is let them have these pesky places, they are too much bother. Unfortunately Germany tends t have the same answer.

    Russia is a dying state. It is an economic disaster sustained by its energy resources which it cannot even exploit properly. Its sole power in the world comes from its nuclear arsenal, if it uses this in anger both Europe and the US are likely to respond wit nuclear force. In a conventional shooting war European countries together have a much bigger military and much greater economic resources.

    The only way Russia can win is if the west surrenders, or if western countries start selling their neighbours to the Russians for short term advantage.

    We are faced with a dying state that is seeking to detract from its own problems by territorial expansion and your primary piece of foreign policy advice is to let them do it.

    Your idea is insanity. Back in the 1980s I remember that the CND types had a big clever slogan “Better red than dead” because they too were at the forefront of the surrender brigade. Well Reagan came along and armed the west adequately and look what happened, we didn’t have a big war yet we ended up neither red nor dead.

    The problem with the sort of semi-pacificism that you advocate is that it has a one dimensional view of military force and strategy. It fails to appreciate how a capacity for military force can act as a deterrence to aggression.

    My prescription for Europe is to strengthen NATO by increasing military budgets all around. The UK and France need to upgrade their navies to regain aircraft carrier potential, eastern European states need to increase their military spending.

    In addition Ukraine needs to be moved into a closer relationship with NATO, some sort of short term mutual defence agreement to provide for the country’s defence without full NATO membership, which would be unpopular in the country.

  • David

    The only idea I came out with was to lob some honey if a bear turns up in the garden next door, whilst you work out what to do next. Far from being infantile it seems pretty practical to me, as yo your grand idea of cold war 2, not so clever. The first cold war bankrupted Russia and left the USA with third world levels of over all health care, housing, employment practices, now you wish Europe to emulate it.

    You seem to forget, unlike the USA, Europe has seen the dreadful consequences of war on our home turf and within living memory, the closest the US has come was 9/11.

    Historically, Russia has always been seen by western powers to be in its death throws, untill they proved otherwise then panic sets in until the next time around, we are currently going through the latter.

    I notice you failed to answer my question so I will ask it again, what is the difference between Kosova going it alone and South Ossetia.

    Best regards

  • David

    The question you ask about Kosovo and South Ossetia seems to carry with it two assumptions. The first of these assumptions is that I am in favour of the recognition of Kosovo. I am not. I would like Kosovo to be an independent state, but international law has always had a presumption against secession and I think it is foolish to encourage secession by recognising such break away regions. I would not have advocated recognition of Kosovo until Serbia recognised it.

    The second assumption implicit in the question is that you believe that the Russian attack on Georgia is really about South Ossetia. I say that this was a preplanned move by Putin, not some spur of the moment reaction to Georgia’s actions. There are 3 reasons why I say this:

    1. Russian forces were moved to the region for military exercises in July, before the alleged provocation, and did not return home. As I noted above South Ossetia was a patchwork quilt of government and separatist held regions, with frequent fighting between the regions. An excuse was bound to come along.

    2. Russian forces did not limit themselves to taking South Ossetia, they also took Abkhazia and a large section of Georgian territory.

    3. Georgia is a strategic area due to its hosting of several oil and gas pipelines. In the gas field it could have provided an alternative gas supply to that from Russia itself by piping Central Asian gas to Europe. Russia has a strong strategic interest in cutting off alternative energy supplies to Europe. The Russian invasion allows them to do this.

    Any analysis of Russia that sees the country as a child having a tantrum, or as a “wounded bear” vastly underestimates the nation and the potential of its leaders.

    Putin rose from being a low ranking KGB officer to President and now Prime Minister of the country. He did not make this rise by being a buffoon or a fool. He has risen to the top in a country full of Byzantine intrigue where failure can be fatal. Underestimating him would be very dangerous.

  • You make a fair assessment and I agree with your take on Putin’s abilities, What you fail to mention is how the Russians may have viewed the pipeline when accompanied with Georgia wish to join Nato. If you add on the missile shield it is not difficult to see that from the Russian side of the fence these things add up to a hefty poke with a big stick.

    It does us no harm at times to try the shoe on of others, just to see whether it pinches or not.

  • David

    I don’t disagree that we should look at the effects of our actions on others. The problem is that we also have to retain some judgement ourselves in deciding what is reasonable and what is unreasonable.

    Russia basically resents the fact that Georgia and the Baltic Republics are independent at all. This resentment is worsened because these countries don’t like Russia very much. Placating these Russian feelings is unreasonable. Western foreign policy must be aimed at ensuring the independence of Europe from Russia, and ensuring the independence of Eastern Europe is crucial to this.

    The oil pipeline is an even more clear cut issue. Europe is already over dependent on Russian gas. Russia has no entitlement to our custom as gas buyers and has no right to dictate that we do not get supplies from elsewhere.

    I think that your metaphor of Russian behaviour is too passive and that it underestimates the fact that Russia has played the main active role in creating this crisis rather than being a passive reactor to others.

  • David

    Sorry for the double post, but I should add that we will probably be living with the effects of this story long after people have forgotten the DUP’s latest spat with SF or Obama’s latest speech.

  • BfB

    Russia is a third world country with oil and nukes. Her population is falling like a rock, it’s population is very unhealthy. Alcoholism, smoking, bad food….environment. I’ve spent time in Russia, very scary bunch of klingons imho. They have a big Reagan chip on their shoulders, and are genetically aggressive, crude, and dismissive of other races right to live. The Chinese will have Mongolia, and all the sattelites will nibble. When I was there soldiers were almost begging for booze money in public. Gangsters ruled the roost in Moscow. Couldn’t wait to get out of there…..
    Clinton pissed them off, Bush let them back on their high horse. Eff Iran, my eye’s on Putin.

  • Greig

    “NATO needs to reconsider our relationship with the Ukraine. Some sort of external association with NATO, short of full membership but with guarantees for the country’s security if attacked would seem to be the best immediate option. ”

    If you are going to nuke Russia as part of a military treaty, go the entire nine yards, because a half-treaty will have Russia blowing blue smoke out of it’s mobile launches and jacking the lids off it’s hardened silos.

    There are Russians who view parts of Turkey the same way Americans view San Franciso. In that entire region, success is histroically anything short of a planned genocide.