Posted by: secretperson | August 11, 2008

South Ossetia – Return of the Cold War?

Ok it is not quite like the Cold War in that Russia are actually fighting. But there are similarities that may be drawn on in order to predict the future. First I should make clear I know very little about the war, and draw largely from the British media and blogosphere, and it is on their reactions I will largely comment.

It seems that the latest conflict is largely about ‘spheres of influence’ with a pro-Westerm Georgian government, keen to join NATO, arguing with a resurgent Russia, already threatened by the eastern expansion of the EU and NATO. From the Georgian side it is a question of territorial integrity, would the Russian concern for the South Ossetians really exist if Georgia was closer to the Putin government than the West (it seems to be Prime Minister Putin, not President Medvedev leading this)? If America was to back Georgia and Russia South Ossetian separatists, but neither directly fought, it would be a dead ringer for one of the ‘proxy wars’ of the second half of the twentieth century. Putin has even accussed the US of such an attitude, but I hardly think Russian involvement is a matter of principle.

The media seems to be mainly condemning Russia, with some criticism for Georgia, but online comment seems to be split along left-right lines. Those on the left see the American influence on Georgia (through which an oil pipeline runs – queue Iraq war comparisons), and emphasise Georgia starting the conflict. Those on the right see a powerful Russia asserting its military dominance of the region against a small nation, and are fearful about appeasing it.

Both have points, both have mistakes. What this emphasises to me though is that there still exists an ‘us and them’ Cold war mindset. Despite the narrowness of the political spectrum in both Westminster politicians and the mainstream media, people still identify with one side and take a blinkered partisan and inconsistent view on issues dependent on that. While I would identify as right wing (of the small state variety) I try to avoid any of this.

Why did the US support a Kosovan unilateral decleration of independence, but oppose the long standing South Ossetian one? Why is Russia concerned about an area’s independence in a way it just wasn’t with its own Chechnya? Why can’t people recognise both groups are acting in their own interests?

My natural instinct favours self-determination over territorial integrity, in the great battle of competing but both ‘nationalist’ ideologies. If the people of South Ossetia want independence, let them have it. The same goes for Chechnya, Kosovo and Scotland. But that doesn’t mean Russia’s invasion was the right move. These crises are never simple however, and what this conflict has brought home to me is how many people seem to still take such partisan views of such complex issues.



  1. Comparing South Ossetia to Kosovo is used by the Russians to justify their intervention. They say they are doing the same thing that NATO did in 1999.

    Facts do not support their claim, though.

  2. I wasn’t comparing the military response, but the recognition of Kosovo’s UDI. I am in no way trying to justify Russian military action, if that’s what you thought?

    Just that all sides (and I tend to side more with the West) claim to support both self-determination and territorial integrity as justifications, depending on who they judge to be ‘on their side’.

    If people are citing precedent, Georgia could compare South Ossetia to Chechnya, after all.

  3. I only stated my position and promoted my new blog. It was not directed against you. Sorry if I was not more clear on that.

    Also, every declaration of independence is UDI. Do you that Thomas Jefferson waited for a reply from London before sitting down to write the Declaration of Independence.

    Nor were the Serbs themselves waiting for the Ottomans to recognize their independence before declaring it.

    Whether the former occupator comes to terms with the new reality this is another issue. The problem with Serbs is that they are sore losers. They will keep living in denial.

    It will be hard for Georgia to keep South Ossetia now. Russia is making an example out there to Ukraine for NATO and to the Baltic states and others about their Russian minorities. They didn’t establish for nothing the old Soviet anthem in Moscow. The empire is coming back.

  4. No worries Ruben, no offence taken.

    You are almost right about UDI, I think now in Western Europe we have reached the point where you may see rearrangement of national borders based on mutual acceptance of referenda. It might not be correct to refer to this as independence though. Obviously the question of Scottish “independence”, which you might call the break up of the United Kingdom, is of interest to me.

    I am worried about Russia, and about our reliance on oil from Russia and the Middle East. In this case though I want to side with the South Ossetians, and the Russians seem to be backing them too.

    This is where the Cold War thing comes in. Is the ‘enemy of my enemy my friend’ with all that follows from that?

  5. I see how UDI would be considered passe in the Western Europe. I don’t find the same context in the former Yugoslavia unfortunately.

    Even in UK it would be hard to dismiss the legitimacy of UDI if you start for example killing Scottish civilians and throw them in mass graves or even worse reopen the mass graves, steal the bodies and transport them by trucks so you can hide them in secret mass graves in the suburb of London.

    There mass graves like this were found in Belgrade after the war with 800 bodies 8 of which women and one child. They were taken to central Serbia hoping to hide the traces of the crimes.

    Now, you would think that the new moderate pro-European Serbian leaders asked for forgiveness to the families of the civilians who were killed and their bodies stolen. Well, it never happened.

    Imagine if you find a couple of bodies buried in some park near London it would make somehow the papers. Right? Well apparently in Belgrade finding 800 stinking bodies near the capital is not newsworthy. Forget about a reason to call for a review of the recent history.

    You think in front of a society like this the Kosovars had a chance to consider UDI an obsolete political act.

    The independence of Kosovo was the principled and moral solution of that conflict, but this is not why it happened. The only reason why the West supported it, is that there was no other practical solution. The Serbs could not keep it. The West and the UN did not want to keep it for them. Nor could they.

    The bottom line is that it is easier to contain a state than a population.

  6. You know the only reason Russia is in South Ossetia is because of the pipelines.

    They have Russians in the Baltic states and elsewhere, but with no crucial pipeline going under their feet who cares for that magic “Russian passport”.

    Any dependence is dangerous. The Europeans have reasons to worry. The Russians have given proof that they would cut off the supply for political reasons. They did it to Ukraine. They planned it for Poland. There is no reason why they would not be tempted to use it later with the EU, when they will feel stronger and richer.

    Whether EU should start thinking about investing more and build new pipelines, instead of asking for political compromises in the Caucasus, I don’t know.

  7. Blast from the past:

    I can’t say that Russians were without arguments. It is their gas after all and they can ask for whatever price the market can bear.

    You can say it is all free market. You raise the price then I don’t pay. I lose but you lose too.

    However the West should think twice about this. Without a democratic regime, Moscow is not accountable to its citizens and maybe ready to face the financial loss. Are the people in the West willing to freeze for political reasons?

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