With the world distracted by the glitz and glam of the Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing -- where George W. Bush (after some entirely rote criticism) nestled down with his long-time family business partners and fellow crony-capitalist authoritarians in the Chinese leadership -- the new Cold War fuelled by the old Cold Warriors in Washington took a sharp and bitter turn in Georgia.
Yesterday, Georgia's American-educated, pro-NATO president, Mikhail Saakashvili sent a heavy force into the breakaway region of South Ossetia, which has enjoyed de facto independence since the early 1990s. Georgian forces shelled the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali, and sent thousands of refugees fleeing north into Russia. Several Russian peacekeepers, which have been stationed in South Ossetia for years as part of earlier ceasefire agreements, were killed in the attack. Saakashvili announced that his invasion had "liberated" much of the region.
Today, in retaliation, Russian troops and tanks began moving into South Ossetia (where up to 90 percent of the population hold Russian passports) and reportedly bombed some installations in Georgia proper. Saakashvili immediately appealed to his chief patron, George W. Bush, to step in and save him from the Russian bear: "It's not about Georgia any more," he told CNN. "It's about America, its values. We are a freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack."
Saakashvili had earlier broken a ceasefire agreement following the initial incursion. After promising to stop the attack, Georgian forces suddenly unleashed a fierce bombardment of Tskhinvali, then reportedly bombed a convoy of relief vehicles coming from Russia. Ossetian officials claimed that hundreds of civilians had been killed in the shelling of Tskhinvali, but that report -- like most of the others -- could not be confirmed in the swirling confusion of the moment.
Georgia claims its initial invasion of South Ossetia was in response to continued attacks from South Ossetian militias, and there is some truth in that. After years of relative peace, the tension between Georgia and the Ossetians accelerated after Washington and the Western nations unilaterally recognized the "independence" of Kosovo. (You know, that very independent, completely sovereign new nation whose affairs are entirely controlled by foreign viceroys, who exercise veto power over almost every function of Kosovo's government). South Ossetia -- and Georgia's other breakaway region, Abkhazia -- immediately asserted their right to similar recognition of their own independence. In the light of the West's move in Kosovo, Russian leader Vladimir Putin (it is amusing to see the media pretend that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev might be in charge of events in the Kremlin) said Moscow would increase its support for South Ossetia -- although the Kremlin denies, not very convincingly, supporting the Ossetian militia movement.
It is likely that Saakashvili -- who has been making increasingly authoritarian gestures to quash dissent and investigations into charges of corruption and murder in his administration -- will receive a sympathetic hearing from Bush. After all, under Saakashvili, Georgia is now the third-largest partner in war crime in Iraq, with some 2,000 troops taking part in the illegal occupation of the conquered land. Saakashvili has also avidly sought to bring Georgia into NATO, eagerly embracing the New Cold War strategy of ringing Russia with American proxy armies and bristling "missile defense" bases.
However, it is highly unlikely that he will get more than lip service (and perhaps a few black ops) out of Bush. Our steely tough American militarists never like to tangle with anyone who might actually fight back; they prefer to stomp around in broken states like Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia. They are certainly not going to take direct action against what is still the second-most powerful military machine in the world. And even their options for indirect action are also limited. Thanks to Bush's own Terror War, and its resultant upward spiral in oil prices, the Kremlin is floating on a sea of money at the moment -- and also tightening its hold on Europe's energy market.
So the New Cold Warriors might just have to concede this round in the renewed game -- although they will certainly be plotting to take revenge somewhere down the line. Of course, thousands of ordinary people will suffer, and many will die, from these machinations of the high and mighty in their redoubts along the Potomac and the Moskva. But what else is new?
NOTE: Some background on the current conflict can be found here and here.
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This story was published on August 8, 2008.