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.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London