- The ruins of Tskhinvali after Russia and Georgia fought over this town. The West in general has quite a lot on its plate already before having to bail out President Saakashvili for his rather rash expedition here.
Before I start to question the overall prevailing wisdom on Russia, I should declare my interests:
1) I have just returned from a week in Moscow where the accounts given on Russian TV and on English speaking but Russian sponsored news outlets give an account of recent events that is almost unrecognisable from the general "BBC/CNN" version of events we have in the west.
2) My wife is Russian by nationality but has Ukrainian parents and a Russian uncle and many Russian friends. Her family and friends demonstrate the reality of what happens when a big country splits into smaller component parts. Real people get stuck on all sides the new borders and calling everyone one side of new border "Russian" and everyone the other side of the side of a new border "Ukrainian" is extremely arbitrary and belies the more complex reality millions of families who are scattered either side of a new border. The same would be true of the UK if it were to split tomorrow. After all, some of the most powerful people who rule over a majority English population are Scottish and Welsh and many English would remain in an independent Scotland. Many other families have both Scottish and English parts.
This introduction is necessary as I realise with that combination of family background I will certainly offend someone reasonably close to me !(in the unlikely event they read this).
Firstly to the recent events themselves. My understanding from reading a variety of different accounts is that Georgia fired the initial artillery rounds and rockets onto the South Ossettian capital, Tskhinvali. To balance that I should also note that South Ossetian separatists, to some extent sponsored by Russia had been provoking the Georgian authorities for a long time. It is also true that the fact that most of South Ossetia has Russian passports is a little more than a goodwill gesture from Russia to a people who identify more closely with Moscow than Tbilisi. Prime Minister Putin is widely known to loathe Georgian President Saakashvili and giving Russian passports to people within the borders of Georgia was probably an effective way of annoying Saakashvili.
That said, my personal conclusion is that Georgia's response to Russian backed provocation was disproportionate. What is shown less frequently on Western TV is that the South Ossetian capital was extremely heavily damaged by Georgian weaponry. Once that happened it was unrealistic to not expect Russian to retaliate.
The brief occupation of large parts of Georgia was about demonstrating power over a much smaller neighbour. At a basic level a large country dominating a small country is not very appealing. Russia also worked on "degrading" Georgia's military by sinking boats, blowing up army bases and carting away weaponry. Again this is not appealing but I would suggest a reality of war. If Russia had walked past an army base without damaging it, it would have been a first in the history of military occupation.
There were however extremely unsavoury and non-standard elements to the Russian backed forces. These were mainly South Ossetian militia who burned down some Georgian villages and allegedly killed some villagers. I say "allegedly" as although I have read accounts from witnesses as far as I know these have not been verified by western media.
The Caucasus themselves are an extremely troubled area. Chechnya is nearby and Russians have suffered at the hands of Chechen terrorists, their own in-house Islamic militants. Bordering South Ossetia, North Ossetia includes the town of Beslan where 300 Russian children died at the hands of terrorists and a bodged rescue mission in 2004. Therefore the Caucasus are not tranquil Surrey and the average Russian could be forgiven for having a jaded view of goings on there.
However I do acknowledge the reality that Russia is trying to extend its influence beyond its internationally recognised borders. In addition to the Georgian breakaway areas, this includes the Crimea (it was rather arbitrarily made part of SSR Ukraine in 1954 having previously been part of Russia), Transdniester in Moldova and potentially the areas with majority Russian populations in the Baltic states, notably Latvia.
These are all likely areas of contention in the coming months and years for two reasons:
1) The majority population in these areas feel more Russian than part of the state they are currently in
2) It suits Russia to destabilise these states and extend its influence.
The two points are intertwined and while the Western media stresses 2), this would not be possible without 1).
So, back to "biting off more than we can chew". While it is laudable to talk of defending small states, it is as someone I don't often quote once said "time to get real".
The reality is Russia cannot be fought out of the areas it currently occupies in the internationally recognised borders of Georgia. While Russia sheds no tears about destabilising Georgia the other reality is there are many people in these areas who welcome Russia. The same would be true in Crimea, Transdniester and part of Latvia.
The same would most certainly not be true in Poland where Russia would be unwelcome by anybody. This brings us to a term much over-used in the Georgia conflict; "red lines". Russia was said to have crossed many red lines in Georgia. These red lines turned out to be rather meaningless as nothing happened when they were crossed, least of all to Russia.
So it is time for the West to agree some "real red lines", lines that Russia knows it cannot cross without provoking a united Western response and not a series of PR related trips by political leaders new (Sarkozy) and aspiring (Cameron).
The reason for this less than idealistic approach is "getting real". It is not "getting real" to demand Russia leaves South Ossetia today. The only real power that could cause that, the US, is more than busy in Iraq and Afghanistan. While we hardly dare to say it too loud, Iraq seems to be getting better but Afghanistan and potentially Pakistan is getting worse. Benazir Bhutto's widower said yesterday the world should acknowledge it is loosing the war on terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This needs addressing and addressing urgently. Pakistan's frontier province faces large number of Al Qaeda foreign fighters including Arabs, Uzbeks and Chechens. Last week 10 French commandos were killed by the Taliban in Afghanistan, a big loss for France and the casualties of all countries in Afghanistan continue to mount.
Last week in Sochi, Russian President Medvedev, isolated by Western criticism, met with Syrian President Assad in Sochi to discuss military cooperation. There are big dangers here of an isolated Russia making new "friends" with countries such as Iran and Syria. While this hardly puts Russia in good light, how much worse it will be for the West to face Islamic extremists, rogue states and a nuclear superpower in an unholy alliance.
This may seem far fetched and it is clear that would be a fragile alliance. However it seems an unnecessary risk from the west choosing to wage war on too many fronts.
My view is that Russia and the West have more in common than divides them. For one, Russia and the West both face Islamic extremism at home and abroad. Chechen militants would be equally happy to set off bombs in Moscow or at US bases in Afghanistan. On my visit to Russia last week, not once was I faced with negative sentiment. I think a visit to some Islamic countries would be rather different. There is no real appetite for a big conflict with the West in Russia. The West needs Russian oil and gas but Russia needs Western revenue in return.
Russians do feel there are some double standards however. Foremost amongst these double standards is Kosovo. Kosovo was historically integral to the Serbian state, an ally of Russia. Despite allocations of atrocities such as organ harvesting and former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton warning of the dangers of Kosovan independence (including Islamic extremism in Europe), the West chose to recognise the independence this year. To now object to the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia seems inconsistent to say the least.
The difficult lesson which many may not agree with is that the borders of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic do not always make the logical international borders of the Russian Federation. There are two ways of dealing with this:
1) Accept that some "adjustments" will be made in the coming years but only tolerate this in areas where majority Russian populations exist.
2) Strengthen Western military to such an extent that it can both fight the war on Terror and pose a meaningful threat to Russian expansion.
At all costs avoid hollow threats as these both antagonise Russia but do not help its near neighbours. This is the worst of all worlds and is what has happened in the last few weeks.
Finally, accepting that "we are where we are", the West needs to agree meaningful "red lines" over which Russia must not cross without receiving a meaningful military threat. One obvious red line is the Polish border.
Whatever the agreements and disagreements on this, a key point is the need to "get real". In the real world military force can still change realities and such force can come from all sides. The need for a strong military to defend our freedoms and those of our allies is vital. Anyone who feels in the least bit concerned by recent events should be supporting a stronger military than we currently have. While I caution against biting off more than we can chew, it would be useful to have some teeth in the first place. It would also be more than useful that the West agree at what point Russia can expect to be bitten rather than the meaningless barking of recent weeks. My own view is that in the current world order, with plenty of conflicts ongoing, a major exercise to "defend" areas of majority Russian population in Russia's near neighbours is unrealistic and unwise.
The sad reality maybe that just as the world needs it more, the US lead by President Obama will turn away from military reality and opt for "smiling diplomacy" and hollow words instead. I suspect Obama has a few supporters in the Russian army.....
The main hope from recent events is more people will be awoken to the reality of the world and the need for adequate armed forces to defend that which we value. If we don't we should not be surprised when someone with such forces takes what we value for themselves. Focusing on adequate defence requirements and concluding the war on terror is probably a great priority than starting an adventure in Caucasus.
Russia can be made to see reason but it will need clear agreement on where the "red lines" are first and a certainty that force is available to defend the red lines in future.