The Russian Case (Updated)

In the Financial Times Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation, lays out Russia’s case for military intervention in Georgia: Georgia’s assault on South Ossetia had created a humanitarian disasters, the Georgians were actively contributing to the catastrophe, the Georgian action had resulted in the deaths of Russian peacekeepers (BTW I wouldn’t translate the word used by Russians for this as “peacekeepers” but as “peacemakers” but I suppose that’s unimportant), and a large proportion of the people of South Ossetia are Russian citizens. This last rather reminds me of the case of the man on trial for killing his parents whose lawyer in his summation calls for mercy because the man was an orphan. It calls for the question was it proper for Russia to extend Russian citizenship to the people of South Ossetia?

He states Russian intentions in the matter:

Russia has been accused of using the conflict to try to topple the government and impose control over the country. This is palpable nonsense. Having established the safety of the region, the president has declared an end to military operations. Russia has no intention of annexing or occupying any part of Georgia and has again affirmed its respect for its sovereignty. Over the next few days, on the condition that Georgia refrains from military activity and keeps its forces out of the region, Russia will continue to take the diplomatic steps required to consolidate this temporary cessation of hostilities.

As I’ve said before contrary to what seems to be a European and elite American view of world affairs I think we’re going to see a good deal more of this kind of action. The great powers act as they will within their own spheres of influence and nobody including the other great powers is in much of a position to do anything about it. Unless you believe that the U. S. should be willing to make sacrifices and risk starting a conflagration that could end the world over Georgia, that’s the way this matter is likely to end. It’s hard for me to see why the U. S. should make all of the sacrifices if our European allies who have arguably much more to lose by this than we aren’t willing to make any.

BTW see Mark Safranski’s take on the situation, largely in sync with mine.


I agree with Andrew Sullivan that Russia isn’t trying to “take over the world”. They’re just looking after their national interests and trying to secure their position as a regional power.

We may be the only superpower and, indeed, may remain so for the foreseeable future but we aren’t the only power in the world and the world’s regional powers which include Russia, Iran, and China should be expected to look after their own interests. As we should look after ours.

17 comments… add one
  • “I agree with Andrew Sullivan that Russia isn’t trying to “take over the world”. They’re just looking after their national interests and trying to secure their position as a regional power.”

    Hmmm…didn’t the same thing happen in 1914? Russia defined its “national interests” as promoting a greater Serbia. Where do you draw the line? If it isn’t Georgian sovreignty, is it Ukrainian? Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian?

  • I draw the line at real, genuine American strategic interests. I see mostly European strategic interests in Georgia and, if the Europeans aren’t willing to defend their own strategic interests, I think we should look skeptically at intervention on their behalf unless it primarily serves our interests. I’d welcome hearing the case for that about Georgia.

    I’m not sure what you’re referrering to in 1914. Are you referring to the general strike? I’m not sure how that’s relevant.

    In 1914 the Tsar ruled Russia, the Russian Empire included Poland, Ukraine, and the Transcaucasus, and they were allied with Western Europe which, ultimately, included the U. S.

  • PD Shaw Link

    What are Russia’s national interests in Georgia? Lavrov is making the p.r. case to the world. I’m not buying the humanitarian case or the ethnic self-determination case. Its the Caucuses.

    Russian actions indicate that it believes its national interest is in a weak Georgia. Does that truly constitute a national interest? Can it simply be explained by sphere of influence?

    Note the distinction in how China and Russia seek to exert influence in their near/abroad. China brings material goods and trade; its people immigrate outwards. Russia has no commercial base and a declining demographic. Apparently it believes its only means of influence is to degrade its neighbors.

    That’s the non-European issue presented by Georgia: That Russia believes that pursuing its self-interest in its near-abroad means aggravating ethnic/religious tensions, undermining/collapsing neighboring economies and active use of its military advantage to punish and terrorize. There is a potentially nihilistic course that would impact Europe and Asia.

    OTOH, Georgia could just be the dog Russia kicks when it gets home from a bad day at the job.

  • No, I was referring to the fact that Russia was willing to precipitate a larger European war to back Serbia, a country it didnt even share a border with, because they deemed it in their “national interest.”

    Seems like we are advocating principled impotence…which cannot be comforting to any of the smaller countries bordering Russia. After all, if Russia decides its “national interests” require the conquering of the Baltic states (as it has repeatedly over the centuries), we wont have any interests there, will we?

  • PD Shaw Link

    Rich Horton, I see your point, but I think the WWI analogy assigns different roles for different players.

    First, you have the Austro-Hungarian Empire, weakened by loss of territory and alarmed by waning influence and the threat of national uprisings further eroding its power. Concerned about Serbia, it is willing to utilize the pretense of an assassination to either win draconian concessions from Serbia or go to war to gain them. That is Russia.

    Second, you have Serbia, a new state with a proud history being swept along by national fervor and rising expectations. Not above tweaking the nose of the giant to the North. Serbia feels confident that Russia will intervene against Austro-Hungarian Empire if war comes. That is Georgia.

    Third, you have Czarist Russia. Likely overextended for a major war. It had no alliance with Serbia or other diplomatic duty to intervene on Serbia’s behalf. But it is concerned that its strategic position in Europe will erode dramatically without a Serbian threat to either Austrian or Ottoman ambitions. That is the U.S.

    OK, maybe forced a bit. Whoever plays what role, I think the main lesson of the Great War is in evaluating whether steps as precautions against war make the risk of war more likely. Like military alliances. Does NATO expansion increase or decrease the risk of war, or both?

  • I guess my larger point is the historical record that shows Russia will push the question of its “national interests” to extremes. In the case of Georgia, I’m not sure there was ever going to be much we could do except diplomatically…but the question remains as to what we are prepared to do in other circumstances…especially in places like Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia. I’m not convinced that Russia self view of their “national interests” and their irrational fear of “encirclement” will not eventually lead to a conflict over those more EU integrated nations. (MAybe using the missle shield system as pretext.)

    Thats why I asked where is the line is. Should we concerned about the staus of Poland? Even if we say “yes” isn’t it still more a European problem than one that affect the US proper? What is the guiding rational principles that tell us who is and who isnt worth protecting? We could make a narrow legalistic rationale based upon explicit treaty obligations, but if WWI taught that these can be fraught with danger when honored closely, WWII teaches that they often are not worth the paper they are printed on (as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR found out).

  • PD Shaw Link

    We’ve drawn the line at Poland haven’t we? Isn’t that what NATO membership means? We’ve promised to go to war to defend Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania too.

  • “We’ve drawn the line at Poland haven’t we? Isn’t that what NATO membership means? We’ve promised to go to war to defend Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania too.”

    Would we? I tend toubt it. Would we really stand up for the Baltic countires if push came to shove? Idoubt it, and I dont think US public opinion would stomach it either. We have treaty obligations with Taiwan as well, and I dont know too many people who think we would do anything militarily there either.

  • ASPushkin Link

    I think there is an important point missed in this discussion. Russia is interfering in Georgia not because of jealousy or hate to democracy. In fact, Russia has since the 90-es reduced its presence and interest in Georgia many fold. It simply had no active military, trade, economic, national and cultural policy towards Georgia. It did not lobby for any candidate or party to come to power, and no budget was allocated for this.

    In Russian heads, the ideal Georgia was like ideal children in a British family: you do not hear them, you do not see them and you forget they even exist.

    Not surpisingly, Georgia had another idea about family life and got in bed quickly with USA. Even this would cause no concern from Russia, if the cooperation were merely economic, technological and financial. Even if USA would build up the Georgian military, this would be of no concern, had Georgia remained a neutral country.

    However, Georgia joining NATO is a completely different situation. Putting surveillance and military capabilities high in the Caucasus mountain range will completely alter the effectiveness of the Russia’s defenses and effectiveness of their land-based strategic nuclear missiles, providing mutually-assured annihilation, and hence guarantee of nuclear weapons not being used in the modern warfare.

    In the Russian opinion, the threats coming from Georgia joining NATO are real and mortal. These are the threats Russia is fighting against, not the democracy or nationalism in Georgia. In fact, it is not even Georgia they think they are fighting against.

  • Nina K Link

    I am a mother of three, and I personally think the world would be so better off if we all kept to reading good classics instead of watching news on TV. Then, for one, many of us would see Mr. Saakashvili as a version of Geoge Wickham, using the public prejudice against Mr. Darcy to present himself as an innocent victim of an arrogant, selfish man. Indeed, most tricks have been invented long time ago and there is nothing new – so, going back to the main point, we would be better off reading classics than watching TV.

    One big illusion about the whole notion of “news” is that we actually expect to see something new. And what we see is yet another version of old game. Some found parallels to WWI, some to WWII, but the point is, any case of today would abound in parallels. The only unparalleled thing is the coverage. On 9/11, we all saw how one tragedy could go around the globe in a minute, as the whole world watched the towers go down and the dust cloud moving fast toward the camera.

    Well, something new did happen in the South Ossetia conflict this time. And it was in the coverage. As we are learning now, a group of about 20 professional PR people (from some kind of Belgium agency, presumably) was sending messages to journalists and news agency representatives. The messages were, well, premeditated lies. They were supposed to be the first headlines that the world would read about the South Ossetia conflict. And, as you well know, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. It worked like magic.

    Now it’s no use appealing to the facts, to the eyewitnesses, to the victims, or even to logic or common sense. You have read the headline. You have seen the picture. You got your first impression and, as a result, a firm opinion of what is going on thousands of miles from your home. It’s a media age, ladies and gentlemen. There is nothing new in the notion of propaganda. There is nothing new in the notion of disinformation. Nothing new in the notion that a free press is free for one side when the other is paying for it. But media war of this scale, and waged on so many levels is rather new. And we had to be all wired and all on the net for this to happen.

    This leads to yet another illusion of “new”. So many of new gadgets have to do with information flow, one way or another. You can watch the news, listen to 300 songs, text to a couple dozens of people, read your paper, and check your e-mails, all from your cell phone, within one hour, on your way to work where you need to process even more information. Every new gadget aims at taking you onto a next level in the big Information Game, where the one with most information presumably wins. Yet again, as a mother of three, I’m worried about drugs. And I can’t help it when the Looky Wo Has a New Gagdet game reminds me of drug dealers who come up with some “cooler stuff” all the time. And our new drug is information.

    It’s easy to see if you’re addicted – just go off TV and Internet for a couple of days. Turn the radio off, too, if it has any news. Don’t read your paper. On top of that, don’t ask others what’s in the news 🙂 If you’re experiencing any signs of detoxing, look for a local group of Infoaddicts Anonymous. But since you probably won’t find one handy, try some home remedies. Turn off the TV for good, and grab a good book. Who knows, may be once we have all successfully detoxed, we would wake up to a better world?

    Nina K,
    a Russian mother of three

  • EAK Link

    Larry King had interviewed Mikhail Gorbachev today, followed by Saakashvili. Here what I wrote to Larry:

    LARRY, YOU ARE THE MAN!! And a very brave one!

    You dared to let a single Russian voice on any “Western” media (official/mainstream TV, radio, press, and their Internet outlets) for the FIRST time in these 11 days of conflict!!!

    Every day, every hour that we were hearing/watching/reading about it from/on/in the media, esp. CNN, – it was more and more EMBARASSINGLY ONE-SIDED. All news, comments or accusations were coming only from either official Georgian side (including its clearly/visibly disturbed and inadequate president Saakashvili), or pro-Western = anti-Russian = pro-Georgian officials, “experts”, and newsmen from US and Europe.

    Your viewers know by heart that every story (esp. conflict) has two sides. So when 3 days into Russian “Response” (Pres. Bush) we were fed with exclusively one side of the story, it became clear to our guts – something’s wrong with our side (of the story AND conflict). Any fool realized – such a bias was not because of chance, neglect or ignorance. Some sort of effort was behind.

    Therefore, I applaud you for your brave albeit belated (6th day into response, 2nd day into truce already), breakthrough! I’m sure it was not easy to get it permitted by your network.

    I must also commend your thoughtful choice of the source to represent the other side! A well-known, -respected, and -achieved Peace Nobelist, who is blamed in Russia for dismantling Soviet Union. Mr. Gorbachev is independent of, somewhat in opposition to, and often critical toward current “regime” in Russia. Thus his words, facts and analysis were very impressive and trustful. It was important that you did not call one of those eager Russians paid for by the Heritage Foundation. Nor did you call a Russian official. Although I’m thinking sometimes: with Georgian President all over our free media 24/7, would not it be prudent to let the Russian President to appear once?

    It seemed to me that your decision to give the last word to Saakashvili was very unfair. But maybe you were smart here too: what and how Saakashvili spoke, smeared Gorbachev, contradicted himself today or his previous strange statements, looked ridiculous on the background of European Union flag (not only Georgia is NOT a member and EU said he may not legally do this, Georgia is in ASIA) – all went in Gorbachev’s favor.

    There was one strange thing, though. It was funny, if not sharply disturbing, when you asked Saakashvili whether Gorbachev was right that Georgia had started it. Really, are you still in doubt? It’s common knowledge by now. If you indeed are still searching for the core truth here, let me suggest you a brief and definitive analysis below.

    As a scientist, for such an analysis I choose few simple numerical facts from an undisputable source. The source you can surely trust (at least on this one) – the President of the US George W. Bush. His statements made in Beijing August 9 and 10, and later repeated in White House, were surely prepared with the help of State Dept and CIA, in turn led by trusted and knowledgeable Kremlinologists. The facts are:
    1. Russia entered the conflict on August 8, 2008 (remember? It happened on Olympiad opening date of 08.08.08).
    2. Russia’s activity was called “disproportionate RESPONSE”.
    3. Sides were asked to return to the “status quo of August 6” in South Ossetia.

    That’s it. Just three verifiable irrefutable numerical facts. They must have been well researched for the historical statement. Analysis simply follows the facts:

    On August 8, Russia RESPONDED. Thus by definition Russia did not start it.
    It responded to something done by somebody sometime earlier. Can we further determine these “somes”? Yes:

    The response by Russia was defined as military and disproportionate. It was not defined as wrong or unprovoked. Therefore, the “something” was a military attack.
    Since the opposing side mentioned was Georgia, the “somebody” was Georgia, more specifically its military.
    Since the President demanded the status quo of August 6, the “sometime” must be on or before the August 6.

    Now we can summarize our analysis:
    It turns out that ON OR BEFORE August 6, 2008, armed forces of republic of Georgia STARTED a military ATTACK on targets/people in South Ossetia. No doubt it was executed upon orders of Georgian Commander in Chief Saakashvili, may be approved in advance by their parliament. AFTER this, two days and nights later, Russia RESPONDED with its armed forces on orders by its Commander in Chief President Medvedev.

    You or Mr. Saakashvili are invited to falsify/refute the analysis by providing an alternative one. Until my analysis is falsified in the same strict manner, it stands as the only true representation of what happened in the beginning of the South Ossetia conflict this August. We must also conclude, that Georgia and personally Saakashvili are wrong and guilty in starting a war without UN sanctions, which constitutes the heaviest crime against humanity.

    Few questions remain. What were the Georgia’s targets in Ossetia? Military or civilian? What was the extent of the Georgian assault? How disproportionate was Russian response (e.g., too big or too small?)?

    Three more comments and I’ll be done. Saakashvili waved some stained two pages calling them HRW report confirming the damage in Gori and refuting Russian allegations in South Ossetia and Ts’hinval. What he failed to tell you was that HRW has not visited Ts’hinval yet.

    He told you Russia violates the signed truce agreement. But according to FOX and CNN, the 5th article of the agreement allows Russia to patrol and demilitarize the adjacent areas (i.e., to dismantle Georgian army there), AND SAAKASHVILI HAD SIGNED THE AGREEMENT, on TV.

    Clearly, any documented recording of military activity in the area BEFORE August 8 would exhibit the size/extent of GEORGIA’s assault there (e.g., US and Russian satellites, radars, and video). Toward this end, I state the following: The skirmishes there had actually started on August 3 (thus 11 days of conflict) with Georgian sniper fire and mortars. So, I was following the news from there very closely since then. On August 6, Georgia started heavy artillery shelling of Ts’hinval, and Georgian TV was showing it. That’s when Georgian peacekeepers were reportedly shooting Russian ones and running home. On the night of August 7, GEORGIAN TV broadcasted a shocking footage: in darkness dozens of bright rockets flying across the screen. It was accompanied by proud comments: President Saakashvili had ordered the restoration of Constitutional order in South Ossetia and we are going ahead! (I got the video from both Georgian and Russian Internet TV streams like Russia Today and Rustavi-2, both with English). The Katyusha type rockets were fired from Russian-made “Grad” system. Please ask your stuff to find out about it (it is indiscriminate weapon for mass destruction of personnel on large area). Please ask your stuff to find the footage in archives – you won’t need to ask Saakashvili who started what, and he won’t lie into your face. I was shaken to my gut by the images! To use Grad rockets at night on a sleeping city is not just barbaric and criminal, it’s pure Nazi evil! How could we ever support or defend such a … degenerate?

    Next day Russian troops moved in, shelling of Ts’hinval stopped, Georgian troops started running, and only then the world had heard of South Ossetia FROM THE MOUTH OF SAAKASHVILI.

    BTW, why the free media have not yet invited a single South Ossetian to talk? I heard they call these events The Third Genocide. I would like to hear why. Anyway, without a word from a single Ossetian man, woman or child, all the reporting seems fake, inhumane, and Soviet Union-like.


  • EAK Link

    Re: Russian citizenship.

    People here seem not to understand the issue. And they are not helped. So let me:

    1. Russia is not mono-ethnic country. Never was. Ethnic Russians are about 80%. Anything wrong here?

    2. About 1 million ethnic Georgians live in Russia, all trying to gain R citizenship. Russia gave it to several hundred thousand of them. Was Russia wrong?

    3. Millions of Mexicans gain US citizenship each year, and millions of US citizens live and work abroad. Anything wrong here?

    4. Every south Ossetian has relatives in North Ossetia. Family-based citizenship is a norm in any civilized country, incl. US.

    5. Russian specifics NOW is that it was decided BY LAW in 1992 that ANY former Soviet citizen may become a Russian citizen AFTER COLLAPSE of the USSR. SAME applied for all former republics. Gazillions of Georgians, Ukrainians, Russians, etc, took citizenships in their and/or other republics. So what? It is allowed, it’s a norm there.

    6. Same was norm after British empire! E.g., millions of Hong Kong inhabitants were given British passports! China did not start shooting them and grabbing Hong-Kong. Waited 99 years.

    7. Under a million of Georgians live and work in Russian Federation with Georgian passports (transferring to impoverished Georgia over $660 mill per year (over 6% GDP). Still, Russia did not try to kill them or exterminate from Russian soil.

    Bottom line – Russian passports in S. Ossetia is not the problem. The problem is: what happened on August 6-8 with them, Ossetians now call The Third Genocide. They want and have right to live with their brethren in the North. They hate Georgians and would rather die than remain there.

    Most importantly, This strange setup – division of a nation between 2 Soviet republics, and subordination of S. Ossetians to Georgians – WAS ESTABLISHED BY JOSEF STALIN HIMSELF in 1921. Thus the first genocide had erupted. It is a bitter shame that the West today became the lover and enforcer of the Stalin’s rule on Ossetians!


  • PD Shaw Link

    I believe CNN has interviewed Russian ambasadors and representatives every day since Russia invaded Georgia. I can’t speak for Larry King, however, since I never watch him.



  • Nina K Link

    I’m getting rather emotional on this. Why should I, really? No big deal – just the fact that the WWIII is actually going on. And so far it’s not real bloody – what is a couple of thousand of South Ossetians compared to millions that could have perished if they chose to fight it with real weapons instead of media ones? It has started rather subtly, one could hardly see what was going on, but it is in full swing now it divides continents and people even worse than the Cold War did.

    See, in Cold War we had big propaganda machines, we did, but it was a known fact. We knew that propaganda was at work, and we could take it as such and analyze it as such. While now it’s “an interview”, “a news show” of some supposedly “independent” media, and those come in so many colors and on so many channels as to give you an impression of different people trying to see a fact from different perspectives. What a game.

    Going back to who started the war, let’s use some simple logic. If you woke up to a nightmare – God forbid – like the people of South Ossetia, where would you run? Would you run toward the guns that were destroying your home or away from them? Would you run toward the place of your citizenship or a place of safety, especially if you had to choose one over the other? Would you care for legal matters under fire?

    Neighboring Russian territories flooded with Ossetian refugees (30,000+ in the first 4 days of the conflict) and Georgia opening its first refugee camp a few days ago, and it looked rather empty in the news – now, what does that tell you? Doesn’t it look like a response from the South Ossetian people to the questions above?

    Now watch the “blooper” on Fox TV with the real South Ossetians on. You can watch it on utube now, but not on Fox – no siree. Fox actually got eyewitnesses on air, but when they started saying that it was Georgian troops they fled from they were very rudely cut by the interviewer and NOT ALLOWED TO SPEAK! Free press, indeed. Free to shut you up when your words don’t match their script. Free for somebody to tell the press what to say and when to say it, whom to interview and whom not to. Free to obey strict, severe censorship. This is a very rare case of freedom, but this is something the rest of the world should aspire to – these are the news agencies that set standards for others. I’m reminded of a short response by Putin, “Quite honestly, we don’t want the same kind of democracy that they have in Iraq”. Oh, you can watch that one on utube, too. If they let you.

  • Dear visitors, isn’t it better once to see than ten times to hear about?
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