The Eclectic One

…Because labels are a poor substitute for thinking

Lebanon in the Caucasus

Posted by Bill Nance on August 28, 2008

Russia’s recent decision to establish “security zones” in Georgian territory and its unilateral recognition of an independent South Ossetia and Abkhazia is not without historical precedent, and no, I’m not talking about Nazi manipulations of “sudeten” Czechoslovakia.

The most recent and cogent example is the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon, which lasted from 1983-2000.

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, resulting in between 10,000 and 15,00 Lebanese and Palestinian casualties (depending on who you rely upon as a source), the deaths of over 600 Israeli soldiers and massive, long-lasting damage to the polity and infrastructure of the Lebanon. Additionally, the invasion led to American and French intervention, and the subsequent attacks on the U.S. Marine and French Paratroop barracks in Beirut, in which over 241 Americans and 58 Frenchmen lost their lives.

In 1983, after negotiating a withdrawal from the Beirut area, Israel established what it called a “security zone” in south Lebanon, ostensibly to prevent attacks on northern Israel by Hezbollah and Palestinian militants. The “security zone” did not provide much security for Israel. It did however, further incense Arabs across the world, inspire Islamic radicalization, empower Hezbollah, and further isolate Israel from European support. When it finally withdrew in 2000 under intense domestic political pressure, Israelis widely viewed the occupation as a failed experiment. Many Israeli’s  termed it  “Israel’s Vietnam.”

In the latest example of unilateral occupation, Russia has declared its own “security zones,” surrounding the Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, with reports of Russian checkpoints as far afield as the outskirts of the Georgian port of Poti, a critical commercial port for Georgia.

There is no question that Georgian President Mikheil Saakhashvili was badly mistaken when he ordered the failed attempt to re-assert Tblisi’s control over South Ossetia. As I’ve written here before, it was a tactical and strategic blunder, and a predictable one at that. However, while ill-conceived, the attempt was within the rule of international law. Both ethnic enclaves are part of the internationally recognized borders of Georgia, a member state of the UN, as well as a state recognized by Russia itself. Georgia had the right, if not the ability to take back control of this region. And Russian claims of a parallel between south Ossetia and Kosovo are not only false and hollow, they are laughable. For whatever faults Georgia may possess, it has never attempted genocide or “ethnic cleansing,” as the Serbs, with the uncritical support of Moscow, were wont to do.

It’s difficult to know precisely what the Russians hope to gain from all this, but one can certainly see a few things. From the outside it seems obvious that they wish to reassert their dominance, if not control, over the countries along its borders. As Paul Berman has pointed out, each of these border regions has its own Russian ethnic population, which has been a source of internal dissension in places like the Ukraine. The move into Georgia might be seen by Ukrainians as threatening, but many ethnic Russians in that country are not in full agreement with that assessment and are likely to put increased pressure for closer ties with Moscow. This is going to make it more difficult for those countries to integrate with the EU and NATO.

But it’s also important to note that much of this move is meant to solidify and maintain domestic support. Vladimir Putin and his cronies (and Medvedev is little more than a sock-puppet for Putin) have spent years encouraging Russian nationalism and fostering the notion that Russia was “humiliated” over losing its empire. It has been very careful to neglect the historical fact that this empire was controlled by a brutal police state backed by an army all too ready to enforce Moscow’s will. The campaign has largely succeeded and, in combination with the suppression and intimidation of political dissent, has laid a solid base of support for a resurgent Russian nationalism. This also sends a strong message to its own ethnic enclaves such as Moldova that the “iron fist” remains quite ready to respond to any attempts at more autonomy; as if the lessons of Chechnya were not enough. (I would heartily recommend the book: The Oath for an excellent insight into the war in Chechnya)

But the situation on the ground leaves the rest of the world in a bind. No one is nor should be, willing to go to war with Russia over this matter, nor have there been any movements toward this, despite Russia’s false claims of victimhood. The West in general has responded with caution and restraint, while unequivocally condemning Russia. But while diplomacy is clearly the best course, along with some form of economic pressure, Russia continues to ratchet up the rhetorical heat and continues to assert its “right” to occupy and dominate Georgia despite these moves.

Russia’s position is weaker than one might suppose. It is currently flush with cash from its natural gas and oil sales and is in the position of being able to cut off the flow of these resources to Western Europe, giving it significant economic leverage. But at the same time, cutting off Western Europe, which accounts for over 70 percent of its customer base, would to immense damage to Russia’s own economy, which despite its present cash-rich position, is still, on the whole, underdeveloped and fragile.

But today even France, which has worked hard to foster close relations with Moscow, uttered the word sanctions. Western Europe is hardly unified in this rhetoric. Germany for one, would no doubt strongly oppose such overt moves, since it would be the primary victim of Russian economic retaliation. It would seem to be a stand-off. But pressure is mounting for stronger action, and not withstanding Germany’s reluctance, continued Russian belligerence will add legitimacy to those calling for tougher measures.

It is tempting to draw parallels with the Prague spring of 1968 and thoughts of the old Soviet Union, but such thinking would not only be incorrect, but could lead to serious misunderstanding of the real parallels.

Russia is not returning to the ways of Soviet Cold-War expansionism. It is returning to its roots of 19th-century empire. And as events in the then backwater city of Sarajevo led to the 19th-century-based powers blundering into a war that killed tens of millions, so too could a misjudgment here lead to unintended and horrific consequences stretching far from tiny Georgia.

The world, not just The West, must stand firm against a return to the horrors of nationalism and empire that killed millions over two centuries of conflict. It must convince Russia that it it in its own best interests to strengthen ties with its neighbors and potential allies around the globe. However, we must also make sure that rhetoric or military moves do not further incense the Russian proclivity for cultural paranoia and avoid steps that Russia can only interpret as direct threats to its own security. It would be wise for diplomats to use the example of Israel, whose over-reactions to far worse provocations than Russia can even pretend to have suffered, has been hurt far more than it has benefited from military adventurism.

Nevertheless, we must be willing to back words with actions. The decision to place patriot missiles in Poland was a smart move, if one over which the Russians would predictably scream bloody murder. So too was the trip of Britain’s Foreign Minister David Miliband to Ukraine. Democracy has friends and allies in the region, if ones rightfully very nervous of Russian aggression. They must be reassured of support, including military support when required.

This is the maze through which the world must navigate in the critical times ahead. And it is a walk in which the world cannot afford to fail.

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