The War over South Ossetia
By Stephen Gowans
September 4, 2008
On August 4, 2008, Russia's deputy foreign minister Grigory Karasin phoned US assistant secretary of state Daniel Fried to complain about the build-up of Georgian troops in the vicinity of South Ossetia.  Two days later, South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity, having evidence that Georgia planned a military strike before the month was out, told Denis Keefe, Britain's ambassador to Georgia, that a Georgian invasion was imminent. 
Georgia had increased its military budget from $30 million to $1 billion per year, under its US-aligned president, Mikhail Saakashvili, relying on deep infusions of aid from Washington.  A country of only 8 million, Georgia had sent 2,000 troops to help US forces occupy Iraq, the third largest occupation force in the oil-rich country, after the US and Britain. Tbilisi "considered participation in Iraq as a sure way to prepare the Georgian military for 'national reunification' – the local euphemism of choice for restoring Abkhazia and South Ossetia to Georgian control." 
Georgia's attack was emboldened by three US moves: the sending of "advisers to build up the Georgian military, including an exercise" in July "with more than 1,000 American troops"; Washington's "pressing hard to bring Georgia into the NATO orbit;" and the US "loudly proclaiming its support for Georgia's territorial integrity in the battle with Russia over Georgia's separatist enclaves." 
On the eve of the war, Russia convoked an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, presenting a resolution that called on both sides to renounce the use of force.  The US, Britain and France refused to back the resolution, arguing that it was unbalanced. Only South Ossetia and Russia should be called upon to renounce the use of force, they said. Georgia should be allowed to defend herself. 
The above shows that far from restraining the Georgian hand, the US was facilitating, even encouraging, an attack; that the South Ossetians and Russians anticipated an attack and that the Russians used their position at the United Nations to try to stop it; and that the West was setting the stage to blame the attack on the victims.
The war was swift, and for the Georgians, ignominious. Georgian forces were rapidly pushed back, their positions easily over-run and much of their equipment captured or destroyed. In the end, Saakashvili would rail against Russian aggression, and wonder histrionically who was next.
The Russians did not strike first, as Georgian officials now claim. The New York Times cited evidence from an extensive set of witnesses that Georgia's military began to pound South Ossetia's capital, Tskhinvali, with heavy barrages of rocket and artillery fire, after Saakashvili gave the order and before Russian troops entered Georgia. The result was hundreds of civilian deaths. Among the targets of the Georgian assault was a Russian peacekeeping base. There "has been no independent evidence, beyond Georgia's insistence that its version is true, that Russian forces were attacking before the Georgian barrages," reported The New York Times.  Moreover, an unnamed senior US official told the newspaper that Russia's response didn't look "premeditated, with a massive staging of equipment," adding that "until the night before the fighting, Russia seemed to be playing a constructive role." 
On August 26, Moscow recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent. Meanwhile, Saakashvili vowed to rebuild his army to try again at a later date. 
Origin of Tensions
Ossetians have their own language and, in recognition of this, enjoyed autonomy within Soviet Georgia. Abkhazia, too, was an autonomous region. When the Soviet Union dissolved, Georgia declared the autonomous status of both regions to be void, and attempted to integrate them. This sparked fighting between the Georgians on one side, and the South Ossetians and Abkhaz on the other. The two regions "settled into a tenuous peace monitored by Russian peacekeepers," in which both enjoyed a de facto independence. But "frictions with Georgia increased sharply in 2004," when Saakashvili was elected," pledging "to restore Tbilisi's rule over South Ossetia and Abkhazia." 
There are two overland routes for pumping petroleum resources from the oil- and gas-rich Caspian basin to markets in Europe: through Russia, and alternatively, through Western-built pipelines that run through Georgia. Washington would like Caspian oil and gas to be delivered to European markets through the pipelines Western oil companies control in Georgia; Moscow would like Europe to continue to rely on pipelines that transit Russia. 
Two Western pipelines run through Georgia: "the 1,000-mile Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan line, which can deliver up to one million barrels of crude a day from the Azerbaijani coast on the Caspian Sea, through Georgia and Turkey to the port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea"; and the BP-operated Western Route Export pipeline, capable of carrying up to "160,000 barrels of oil a day from Baku on the Caspian Sea in Azerbaijan to the Georgian Black Sea port of Supsa." 
For Washington, the routes through Georgia represent a way of checking "Russia's control over pipelines and energy resources." Pipeline projects through Georgia are valued owing to their potential "to loosen Russia's grip over European energy supplies", and to fatten the bottom lines of US oil companies. 
From Moscow's perspective, control of Georgia and its pipelines puts it in a position to establish an "energy chokehold on Europe." 
Georgia, then, is of strategic importance to Washington because Western oil companies can transport "oil, and soon also gas, that lies not only in Azerbaijan, but beyond it in the Caspian Sea, and beyond it in Central Asia" to European markets, through Georgia, thereby cutting the Russians out of the action and giving Washington control over Europe's energy resources.  Equally, Georgia is of strategic importance to Moscow for the same reasons.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, the United States found itself in a unique position. As the lone remaining superpower, it had the potential to dominate the world for the foreseeable future. To maintain its primacy, it would have to prevent potential rivals from growing strong enough to challenge US pre-eminence. The route to remaining top dog lay in unchallenged military supremacy, and the determination to use military force to eclipse the rise of potential competitors.
The Pentagon set out its strategy in the Defense Planning Guide, a 16-page Pentagon policy statement leaked to The New York Times, on March 18, 1992.
"Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival…First, the U.S. must show the leadership necessary to establish and protect a new order that holds the promise of convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests.
In 2000, a group of US ruling class activists established The Project for a New American Century, a think-tank whose aim was to press the Clinton administration to more closely follow the 1992 Defense Planning Guide's blueprint for US primacy. Members of the group — investment bankers and CEOs who had circulated between top jobs in Washington and corporate America — furnished the personnel for key positions in the Bush administration and would soon become the principal architects of the war on Iraq. They urged the Pentagon to eclipse the rise of new greater power competitors, and to adopt this as its main 21st century mission. 
We must account sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order. Finally, we must maintain the mechanism for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role." 
Russia was, and remains, of particular concern to the US ruling class. While weak compared to the Soviet Union, it remains the country most able to challenge the US. To preserve US military pre-eminence, Washington seeks to build a ring around Russia, integrating countries on Russia's periphery into the Nato military alliance. Despite promises that it would not expand toward Russia's borders, Nato's policy since the demise of the Soviet Union has been to aggressively expand, dismissing the alarm raised by Russian leaders as paranoia. Expansion serves the purpose of hemming Russia in militarily and expands markets for US arms manufacturers who supply the standardized military equipment Nato countries buy as part of the alliance's equipment interoperability requirement.
A continuing strategy
While it seems as if Washington's encirclement strategy is new, dating from the early aftermath of the Soviet Union's collapse, it is, on the contrary, an extension of a Western policy pursued since the beginning of the Cold War.
The Cold War, remarked R. Palme Dutt in 1962, was "directed against the Soviet Union" since it, and the countries it liberated in WWII "remained…completely independent of American domination and control. The aims of American world domination required the overthrow of this independent power."  The new Cold War is no less directed at Russia, and is no less perpetrated by the US, than the old one (or the continuing one) was.
These "ultimate major aims," Dutt continued, "required as their presupposition and first step the building up of a coalition of governments and armed forces under American control." The "long-term strategic plan required the preliminary conquest of (the Soviet Union's) periphery, and establishment of a chain of bases and hinterland territories from which to launch the offensive." 
Thus, it has been US policy since the beginning of the Cold War to encircle Russia with a chain of bases and armies under US domination. The strategy was not born in 1992 and cannot be said to be the brainchild of neo-conservatives of either the Bush I or Bush II administrations. Its origins stretch back to the 1940s.
In the West, the spat between Georgia and the Ossetians appears to be rooted in longstanding ethnic animosity, but in Russia, it is seen quite differently. Russians understand that the United States is gradually encircling their country, and that Georgia is an important link in the chain.  Russian president Dmitri Medvedev complains of "being surrounded by bases on all sides" and of the "growing number of states…being drawn into the North Atlantic bloc."  He and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin protest vehemently against US plans to site antimissile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, on Russia's doorstep. They fear, justifiably, that the missile shield is aimed at Russia, and provides the US with a new offensive capability.
Saakashvili and the Rose Revolution
Mikhail Saakashvili is typical of local rulers Washington brings to power to act as its proxy on the ground. He is US-educated, fanatically pro-American, and implicitly shares the imperialist values of his backers in Washington. It is not by chance that the Saakashvili government enthusiastically pledged troops to the occupation of Iraq, and named a street in honor of George W. Bush.
With aid from the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and billionaire financier George Soros' Open Society Institute, Saakashvili was carried to power by the so-called Rose Revolution of 2004, a US ruling class-financed overthrow movement that forced Georgia's then president Eduard Shevardnadze, to step down. Soros' intimate connection to Saakashvili's rise to power is evidenced in his helping finance the Georgian government once Saakashvili was installed in the president's office, and in Georgia's designation as Sorositan by critics of the financier's meddling. 
Washington was happy to partner with Soros to rid Georgia of Shevardnadze, a former Soviet foreign minister who was too close to Russia and not close enough to Washington. Intent on extending its ring of armies and military bases around its potential great power competitor, the US finagled Shevardnadze's ouster and replaced him with the biddable puppet, Saakashvili.
The name for our profits is democracy
While the official propaganda holds Saakashvili to be a champion of democracy, the real story is quite different. The Georgian president is in reality a champion of Western investment interests who is prepared to suspend political and civil liberties to crush opposition to his pro-US economic policies.
The World Bank recognizes Saakashvili's Georgia to be "the number one economic reformer in the world," having climbed to 18th place from a shameful 112th under Shevardnadze, by creating "a friendly business environment." Saakashvili earned the bank's high praise by replacing Georgia's progressive income tax system with a regressive flat tax;  privatizing publicly-owned assets; and gutting the civil service. The latter action sparked huge street protests last autumn, which Saakashvili put down with riot police, rubber bullets and truncheons, charging that the protesters were planning to stage a coup, with Russia's collusion.  Ruling with an iron fist, he had no qualms about dispatching masked police officers to ransack an opposition television station, forcing it off the air.  Soon after, he declared a state of emergency, suspending advocacy rights and freedom of assembly – an action which, had it been done by his predecessor Shevardnadze, would have called forth howls of outrage and new infusions of aid for pro-democracy activists from Western governments, imperialist foundations and billionaires. On Saakashvili's watch, by contrast, abridgments of civil and political liberties are met with fond reminiscences of the Rose Revolution and paeans to Saakashvili's pro-American leanings and supposed democratic credentials.
Saakashvili won snap elections held two months after he cracked down on protestors, but his victory was secured under a cloud of accusations of blackmail and vote-buying. The government accused two opposition leaders of treason, charging they were conspiring with Russia to overthrow Saakashvili.  Having himself come to power with the aid of outside forces, Saakashvili more than anyone else knew the danger of foreign-directed overthrow movements, and perhaps knew better than others, how to defeat them.
Post Rose Revolution
Once Saakashvili had been installed as president, Washington scaled back funding to the civil society organizations that had been instrumental in destabilizing Shevardnadze's rule, shifting aid instead to building up the central government, now under Saakashvili's control.  Achieving the policy aim of installing a local proxy quite naturally led Washington to channel funding away from the manipulated "pro-democracy" civil society groups on the ground who paved the way for Saakashvili's rise to power, to the government forces that would secure the friendly economic and military environment Washington desired. In other words, once civil society served its purpose, it was cut free.
Today, Rose Revolution true-believers are embittered. "Georgia is a semi-democracy. We have traded one kind of semi-democratic system for another," laments Lincoln Mitchell, who worked for the Rose Revolution-funding Democratic Party-arm of the NED in Georgia from 2002 to 2004. "There is a real need to understand that what happened is another one-party government emerged." 
Naïve do-gooders who thought money pitch-forked into the coffers of civil society groups by wealthy individuals and the US government would create democracy in Georgia now complain that Georgia under Saakashvili is no better, and probably worse, than it was under Shevardnadze.
Mitchel, for example, points out that under Shevardnadze, there was freedom of assembly and the press, the government was too weak to crack down on dissent, and the parliament could lay a restraining hand on the president. Under Saakashvili, the media have far fewer freedoms, civil society has been weakened, the government is strong enough to crack down on dissent with ease, and the parliament is less able to restrain the president. As regards elections, they're run no better under Saakashvili. 
Exporting color revolutions
The Los Angeles Times of September 2, 2008 ran a story on Nini Gogiberidze, a Georgian who "is deployed abroad to teach democracy activists how to agitate for change against their autocratic governments, going everywhere from Eastern Europe to train Belarusians to Turkey to coach Iranians." She is not, predictably, deployed within her own semi-democratic country, working to bring down the liberal democracy-disdaining Saakashvili.
Gogiberidze's salary is paid by the Soros-linked Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, funded by the Republican Party arm of the US Congress's National Endowment for Democracy, headed by John McCain, a friend of Saakashvili. Freedom House, a US ruling class organization that is interlocked with the CIA and is headed by former Michael Milken right-hand man Peter Ackerman (a Stephen Zunes associate), also chips in.
Gogiberidze is hardly the kind of grassroots, left-leaning, radical democracy activist one is led to believe make up the officer corps of the Soros-funded international army against autocracy. Like one of her Zimbabwean colleagues, who is a white conservative businessman with a penchant for good manners and the British royals (who we're to believe is working underground to overthrow the Mugabe government because he's keenly interested in democracy), Gogiberidze sounds more like a conservative interested in promoting Western economic interests on behalf of Uncle Sam. She studied at the London School of Economics and is married to an investment banker. She's also on the payroll of US ruling class foundations. Moscow "views the so-called color revolutions as US sponsored plots using local dupes to overthrow governments" Washington is unfriendly to "and install American vassals."  Is it any wonder?
The Los Angeles Times reporter who brought the Gogiberidze story to light, mocks Moscow's assessment of the color revolutions, while at the same time documenting the manifold connections Gogiberidze and her fellow color revolutionaries have to US ruling class organizations. The only way to square this circle – to explain how color revolutionaries can be on the regime changer's payroll while mocking the idea that color revolutions are US-sponsored plots to overthrow governments Washington has targeted for regime change – is to believe billionaire financiers, CIA pass through organizations, and foundations dominated by US investment bankers and CEO's, are really concerned with promoting democracy.
US ruling class activists and George Soros, sponsored dupes in Georgia to overthrow the Shevardnadze government to bring the ardently pro-US, pro-foreign investment, pro-imperialist Mikhael Saakashvili to power. Since ascending to the presidency, Saakashvili has gone on a neo-liberal binge, privatizing formerly publically-owned assets, replacing the country's progressive income tax system with a regressive flat tax, and firing civil servants in heaps. While this has earned him the admiration of the World Bank, it has created unrest at home, which Saakashvili has put down with truncheons, rubber bullets, police attacks on opposition media, and abridgements of political and civil liberties.
At the same time, Saakashvili has acted to further his US-sponsor's military designs, deploying 2,000 Georgian troops to Iraq, bulking up his military, clamoring to join Nato, and keeping Russia off kilter with incessant threats to annex South Ossetia and Abkhazia militarily, now acted upon.
The great democrat, in the eyes of such color revolution hagiographers as Stephen Zunes, is hardly a democrat. Leaders who deploy troops to occupy conquered countries, who attempt to integrate regions that don't want to be integrated, and who limit political and civil liberties when they threaten to derail the building of a business friendly environment, are not democrats, no matter how many dollars their supporters receive from Freedom House, George Soros and the National Endowment for Democracy.
The US seeks to expand its sphere of influence to hem Russia in militarily in order to preserve US pre-eminence; to draw new countries into the Nato alliance to expand markets for US arms manufacturers; and to secure new markets and investment opportunities for US investors and corporations in countries whose economic ties have historically been oriented toward Russia. Russia seeks to resist the encroachment, to hang on to as much as the former Soviet sphere of influence as possible.
To expand its influence into the former Soviet domain, Washington deploys a number of tactics. In Belarus, it sponsors a civil society-based overthrow movement to destablize the Russia-aligned government of Alexander Lukashenko. In Ukraine, it sponsored the Orange Revolution to force the Russian-aligned leader Viktor Yanukovich to yield power to the US-oriented Viktor Yushchenko. Washington is very likely to have sponsored, encouraged and aided the secessionist movement in Chechnya, with the aim of breaking the territory away from Russia.
To maintain, or in an attempt to restore, its influence in these regions, Moscow backs Lukashenko in Belarus and Yanukovich in Ukraine, facilitates Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's remaining independent of Georgia, and militarily crushed the Chechen secessionists.
The struggle to expand spheres of influence (the US) and to maintain or restore them (Russia) inevitably leads powers to take hypocritical positions: the US insists on Georgia's territorial integrity (South Ossetia and Abkhazia) but denies that of Serbia (Kosovo); Russia insists on its own territorial integrity (Chechnya) but denies that of Georgia.
There is no doubt that the US is the more aggressive party in this clash, but it can be, because it is by far the stronger of the two. The jingoist depiction in the Western media of Russia as provoking a new Cold War and seeking to expand militarily into neighboring countries is without foundation and is an inversion of reality. The US pursuit of a Cold War against Russia has been carried on without interruption since the 1940s. It is not Russia that is aggressively acting to expand its sphere of influence, it is the US. And yet this reality is so infirmly grasped that it is possible for the leader of a country whose scores of thousands of troops occupy conquered Iraq and Afghanistan to lecture Russia that countries don't invade other countries in the 21st century.
The Rose Revolution was not a people power-driven rebellion against autocracy but a movement of dupes sponsored and manipulated by Washington whose purpose was to pave the way for the rise to power of a US-educated lawyer with connections to Washington and Wall Street.
Saakashvili is not a hero of democratic reform, but a representative of US ruling class interests who is prepared to suspend civil and political liberties, tinker with elections, and commit war crimes if that's what it takes to secure his patron's economic and military objectives.
Russia did not initiate an attack on Georgia. Georgia launched an artillery and rocket barrage on the capital of South Ossetia and on Russian peacekeepers before Russia entered Georgia.
The US did not try to defuse tensions in the region; it has actively moved to inflame them.
Russia has not provoked a new Cold War; the US has allowed the Cold War is had pursued against Russia since the 1940s to heat up, using its puppet, Saakashvili to fan the embers.
1. RIA Novosti, August 4, 2008.
2. RIA Novosti, August 6, 2008.
3. Russia Today, August 8, 2008. US assistance to Georgia is about to increase significantly, with Washington announcing on September 3 that it is hiking economic aid to Georgia to $1 billion per year from $63 million in 2007, placing the country among the top recipients of US aid, along with Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Colombia: The Guardian (UK), September 3, 2008.
4. New York Times, August 10. 2008.
5. New York Times, August 13, 2008.
6. Independent (UK), August 8, 2008.
7. New York Times, August 10, 2008.
8. New York Times, September 3, 2008.
9. New York Times, August 10, 2008.
10. New York Times, August 26, 2008.
11. New York Times, August 10, 2008.
12. Los Angeles Times, August 13, 2008.
16. Zbginiew Brzinski, quoted in Serge Halimi, "The Return of Russia," MRZine, August 28, 2008,
17. Nato in the Balkans, International Action Center, New York, 19998. p. 4.
19. R. Palme Dutt, "Problem of Contemporary history," International Publishers, New York, 1962.
21. View of Russia's representative to NATO, New York Times, August 28, 2008.
22. New York Times, August 28, 2008.
23. Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.
24. "The political realities of 'democratic' Georgia," World Socialist Website, August 18, 2008. www.wsws.org/articles/2008/aug2008/saak-a18.shtml
25. New York Times, August 12, 2008.
26. New York Times, August 14, 2008.
27. "The political realities of "democratic" Georgia," World Socialist Website, August 18, 2008. www.wsws.org/articles/2008/aug2008/saak-a18.shtml
28. Glenn Kessler, "Georgian Democracy A Complex Evolution," The Washington Post, August 24, 2008. www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/08/23/AR2008082301817_pf.html
31. Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2008.