Four Wars in One
- By Richard Lourie
- Sep. 15 2008 00:00
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A friend of mine in New York gets his hair cut by a Russian emigre barber. When asked his opinion of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the barber replied, "He forgot what country he was living in." Georgia forgot what country it was living next to. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is the Khodorkovsky of statesmen.
Though the war was ruinous for Georgia, it wasn't an unalloyed victory for Russia. A war now has at least four dimensions: the physical, meaning land, sea and air combat; the cybernetic, meaning inflicting damage to the opponent's IT capabilities; the PR struggle over whose narrative will prevail; and, finally, the aftermath and consequences sometimes known as the peace.
Though Georgia started this war, it has been portrayed as the plucky little David to Russia's Goliath. But what's interesting is how poorly Georgia fought. Little Finland bloodied Stalin's Red Army in the Winter War of 1940-41, and Chechnya essentially defeated the Russian army in the first war between them in the mid-1990s. Extremely well-equipped by the United States, the Georgian army fled in disarray almost at once. Ordered to attack South Ossetia, the Georgian army did so in a horrific pre-dawn assault, but was not motivated to defend the disputed territory nor even to make the Russians pay dearly for their victory. This shows that the war was essentially political and had no real grassroots support.
We don't know much about the cyber-attack on Georgia except that it happened. We don't know who launched it -- Russian government agencies, freelancers, something in the middle -- or how effective it was. Georgia and Russia each accused each other of provocation. The world settled for a simple narrative: Georgia attacked, but Russia overreacted. A person's Russophobia or Putinophobia can be measured by exactly how much that overreaction is stressed.
Now what? South Ossetia should ultimately be reunited with North Ossetia, from which it was unnaturally separated by the caprices of Soviet officialdom. The status of Abkhazia is trickier and should probably continue in its current limbo until cooler heads prevail. Self-determination and territorial integrity are opposing principles, and usually your politics determines which one you choose. Self-determination is fine when the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia or Serbia are collapsing. Territorial integrity was of no importance when the United States invaded Iraq or makes incursions into Pakistani territory.
Neither South Ossetia nor Abkhazia wish to be part of Georgia, as any internationally monitored referendum would prove in a minute. In fact, the best anti-Russian position would be to vigorously support the two breakaway republics in the hopes of fomenting similar secessionist unrest in Russia. Some elements in the oil-rich Islamic regions of Russia have reportedly been encouraged by the apparent success of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Russia was justified in counter-attacking Georgia, but justifications aren't winning it the peace. It is losing prestige and foreign capital at an alarming rate. It could change the atmosphere dramatically by offering to pay part of Georgia's rebuilding costs, say, $250 million. Magnanimity in victory plays better than pugnacious rationalization. If Georgia turns down the offer, so much the worse for them.
What the United States and the West have to do is rethink the policy of NATO expansion. George Kennan, creator of the "containment doctrine," was against it from the start, knowing it would lead to exactly the sort of situation we now have on our hands. And that has to be done fast and well, with a stone-cold sober sense of how to relate to the new resurgent Russia. If a new relationship between the West and Russia is not worked out, the next crisis could easily break out over Ukraine. Since Ukraine is 10 times bigger than Georgia, things could be 10 times worse there.
Richard Lourie, author of "Sakharov: A Biography" is now writing "The Death of Russia."