Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Caucasus Belli: Russia's Rhetorical Blitzkrieg

Not only has the Russian military overrun Georgia's. Now a Russian media blitzkrieg is rolling over Western handwringing. Op-eds by Russia's minister of foreign affairs Sergei Lavrov in the Financial Times (Aug. 13) and Wall Street Journal (Aug. 20) and by former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev in the New York Times (Aug. 20) mount a point-by-point assault on the Western narrative of Soviet-style aggression against"a beautiful little country" and its "wonderful people," to quote Saakashvili's enabler-in-chief, John McCain.

Since that idiot Saakashvili attacked first, bombarding and invading a province where the overwhelming majority no more wants to be part of Georgia than the Georgians want to be part of Russia, it's been easy for Russian leaders to turn the Western tale of "Soviet-style aggression" that "has no place in the twenty-first century" on its head -- and to do the same with Western threats to cut the Russians out of various forms of membership, collaboration and consultation with the West.

This is not to suggest that Russia's response to Georgia's rash grab was "proportionate," or restrained, or benign. As Putin's probably-murderous meddling in Ukranian politics made plain, he and his proxies do not want functioning democracies in Russia's near abroad to offset his bogus "managed democracy." That's what makes Saakashvili's miscalculation so catastrophic. He handed the Russians a sword, not only to gore him, but to terrorize the entire neighborhood. And the opening was not only military but rhetorical, legal, moral -- a causus belli you could driving a tank through.

Here's a sampling of how Lavrov and Gorbachev have rolled over Western talking points, one by one, in their three-pronged attack through the FT, NYT and WSJ (links above).

Spoiling for war?
Gorbachev: Russia did not want this crisis. The Russian leadership is in a strong enough position domestically; it did not need a little victorious war. Russia was dragged into the fray by the recklessness of the Georgian president,Mikheil Saakashvili. He would not have dared to attack without outside support. Once he did, Russia could not afford inaction.
Lavrov, FT: Let me be absolutely clear. This is not a conflict of Russia’s making; this is not a conflict of Russia’s choosing. There are no winners from this conflict. Hours before the Georgian invasion, Russia had been working to secure a United Nations Security Council statement calling for a renunciation of force by both Georgia and South Ossetians. The statement that could have averted bloodshed was blocked by western countries.
Lavrov, WSJ: Another real issue is U.S. military involvement with the government of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Did Washington purposely encourage an irresponsible and unpredictable regime in this misadventure? If the U.S. couldn't control Tbilisi's behavior before, why do some in the U.S. seek to rush to rearm the Georgian military now?
Russian tanks rolling over small, peaceful, neighbor?

Lavrov, WSJ: Meticulously avoided in those [Western] statements: The decision of Tbilisi to use crude military force against South Ossetia in the early hours of Aug. 8. The Georgian army used multiple rocket launchers, artillery and air force to attack the sleeping city of Tskhinvali.

Some honest independent observers acknowledge that a surprised Russia didn't respond immediately. We started moving our troops in support of peacekeepers only on the second day of Georgia's ruthless military assault. Yes, our military struck sites outside of South Ossetia. When the positions of your peacekeepers and the civilian population they have been mandated to protect are shelled, the sources of such attacks are legitimate targets.
Gorbachev: The acute phase of the crisis provoked by the Georgian forces’ assault on Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia is now behind us. But how can one erase from memory the horrifying scenes of the nighttime rocket attack on a peaceful town, the razing of entire city blocks, the deaths of people taking cover in basements, the destruction of ancient monuments and ancestral graves?...

The news coverage has been far from fair and balanced, especially during the first days of the crisis. Tskhinvali was in smoking ruins and thousands of people were fleeing — before any Russian troops arrived. Yet Russia was already being accused of aggression; news reports were often an embarrassing recitation of the Georgian leader’s deceptive statements.
Democrat good, autocrat bad?
Lavrov, WSJ: When the mantra of the "Georgian democratic government" is repeated time and time again, does it mean that by U.S. standards, a democratic government is allowed to act in brutal fashion against a civilian population it claims to be its own, simply because it is "democratic"?
Gorbachev: Mr. Saakashvili had been lavished with praise for being a staunch American ally and a real democrat — and for helping out in Iraq. Now America’s friend has wrought disorder, and all of us — the Europeans and, most important, the region’s innocent civilians — must pick up the pieces.
Gorbachev: Those who rush to judgment on what’s happening in the Caucasus, or those who seek influence there, should first have at least some idea of this region’s complexities. The Ossetians live both in Georgia and in Russia. The region is a patchwork of ethnic groups living in close proximity. Therefore, all talk of “this is our land,” “we are liberating our land,” is meaningless. We must think about the people who live on the land.
Lavrov, FT: Last Friday, after the world’s leaders had arrived at the Beijing Olympics, Georgian troops launched an all-out assault on the region of South Ossetia, which has enjoyed de facto independence for more than 16 years. The majority of the region’s population are Russian citizens. Under the terms of the 1992 agreement to which Georgia is a party, they are afforded protection by a small number of Russian peacekeeping soldiers....

No country in the world would idly stand by as its citizens are killed and driven from their homes. Russia repeatedly warned Tbilisi that it would protect its citizens by force if necessary, and its actions are entirely consistent with international law, including article 51 of the UN charter on the right of self-defence.
Destroying trust and partnership?

Lavrov, WSJ: Russia is committed to the ongoing positive development of relations with the U.S...However, it must be remembered that, as between any other major world powers, our bilateral relationship can only advance upon the basis of reciprocity. And that is exactly what has been missing over the past 16 years. I meant precisely that when I said that the U.S. will have to choose between its virtual Georgia project and its much broader partnership with Russia.

The signs are ominous. Several joint military exercises have been cancelled by the Americans. Now Washington suggests our Navy ships are no longer welcome to take part in the Active Endeavour counterterrorism and counterproliferation operation in the Mediterranean. Washington also threatens to freeze our bilateral strategic stability dialogue.

Likely to be punished?
Lavrov, WSJ: Of course, that strategic dialogue has not led us too far since last fall, including on the issue of U.S. missile defense sites in Eastern Europe and the future of the strategic arms reduction regime. But the threat itself to drop these issues from our bilateral agenda is very indicative of the cost of the choice being made in Washington in favor of the discredited regime in Tbilisi. The U.S. seems to be eager to punish Russia to save the face of a failed "democratic" leader at the expense of solving the problems that are much more important to the entire world.

It is up to the American side to decide whether it wants a relationship with Russia that our two peoples deserve. The geopolitical reality we'll have to deal with at the end of the day will inevitably force us to cooperate.

Lavrov in particular has been methodical, thorough and subtle in offering the Russian counter-narrative. Whatever the merits of the case -- and the Russian briefs are full of exaggerations, elisions and distortions -- one has to acknowledge that Lavrov is a rhetorical master. There's a mind there. The substance is above. The deeper framing, the construction of counter-narrative, is equally impressive. Relatively early on in the media campaign, in his Aug. 13 FT piece, he led off by going head-on after the West's broadest archetype before dissecting it:
For some of those witnessing the fighting in the Caucasus over the past few days, the narrative is straightforward and easy. The plucky republic of Georgia, with just a few million citizens, was attacked by its giant eastern neighbour, Russia. Add to this all the stereotypes of the cold war era, and you are presented with a truly David and Goliath interpretation – with all its accompanying connotations of good and evil. While this version of events is being written in much of the western media, the facts present a different picture.
That opening gambit is nicely balanced by Lavrov's conclusion in today's WSJ piece -- challenging the West to accept his inversion of that tale:
Just admit for a moment that the course of history must not depend entirely on what the Georgian president is saying. Just admit that a democratically elected leader can lie. Just admit that you have other sources of information—and other objectives—that shape your foreign policy.
Is Lavrov oversimplifying Western response to the crisis? Consider this bit of mythmaking from John McCain at the Aug. 16 Saddleback Forum:
I am very saddened here to be with you and talk about Russian re-emergence in the centuries-old ambition of the Russian Empire to dominate that part of the world — killings, murder, villages are being burned, people are being wantonly ejected from their homes, the latest figures from human rights organizations 118,000 people in that small country. It was one of the earliest Christian nations. The king of then-Georgia in the third century converted to Christianity. You go to Georgia and you see these old churches that go back to the 4th and 5th century.

My friends, the president — the present, Saakashvili, is a man who is educated in the United States of America on a scholarship. He went back to Georgia, and with other young people who had also received an education, they achieved a revolution. They had democracy, prosperity and a great little nation, and now the Russians are coming in there in an act of aggression, and we have to not only bring about ceasefire, but we have to have honored one of the most fundamental rights of any nation, and that is territorial integrity.

We must respect the entire territory of Russia - excuse me - the Russians must respect the entire territorial integrity of Georgia — and there’s only 4 million people in Georgia, my friends. I’ve been there. It is a beautiful little country. They are wonderful people.

Envision the author of this disjointed, pandering ramble going head-to-head with the Russian leadership. Looks like a Russia-Georgia scale mismatch.

No comments:

Post a Comment