There’s a game I used to play with my geopolitics university students. I’d get them to form a circle and then I’d ramble about in the middle linking them up with black cotton thread. It would form a dense and incomprehensible jangle, tying them up in improbable ways. I’d always leave a few free.
Then I’d get one of the untied students to “attack” one of the tied students. As he moved towards the other, he would have to cross the threads in the middle and would quickly draw others into the conflict.
The thread, I told my students, are the ties of international trade and politics. And Russia has just played silly-buggers with everyone else’s party.
When the US invaded Iraq in a so-called pre-emptive strike, Russia and China vetoed the chance for the US to put it to the UN. Neither Russia nor China were particularly interested in Iraq, but the principle at stake was crucial to both of them.
If it becomes acceptable to physically intervene in the activities of a sovereign state – no matter what cause is given – then the actions of China and Russia in pacifying their own self-declared zones of control (Chechnya, in the case of Russia, and Tibet for China) become something in which the rest of the world can intercede. And it isn’t only these two big nations. The list of contentious break-away regions is quite large. Indonesia and Aceh, the Yugoslav republics, India / Pakistan and Kashmir, Sri Lanka and the Tamil … hell, even Canada and Quebec, or the UK and Scotland.
Most recently, South Africa joined China and Russia in refusing to allow sanctions against Zimbabwe using the claim that this would be intervening in an internal conflict.
But the US did invade Iraq and, in so doing, triggered the collapse of the central state and unleashed a civil war. It hasn’t been declared outright illegal. Given the US’ global power and their importance to most nation’s, this was never likely. But that is, in any case, merely symbolic.
Simply declaring the US guilty and telling them to leave Iraq wouldn’t achieve any sort of solace for Iraqis. It would leave them with a violent and unstable country, locked in civil war. The US’ default punishment has been to stay there and sort out the mess they caused. The US electorate may not like it, but – too bad – their president led them into it, and now they all have to pay for it. The total cost of the war, so far, is estimated at around $1 – 2 trillion over a 10 year period. Savour that and consider whether the punishment fits the crime?
But the US is a big nation and, even at that price, it amounts to only 0.7% of GDP. Hardly anything to really feel.
The whole point of not coming out with a ruling, though, satisfied all sides to the conflict. If there is no clear ruling on intervention, and everything is left vague, then the US can have their little war in Iraq, Russia can continue killing Chechnyans, and China can continue subjugating Tibet. Plus, no one has a precedent on which to base direct intervention in Iran or North Korea.
Until Russia invaded Georgia, seized their break-away provinces and made them her own.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia was premised on the following: that they were acting as peace-keepers to prevent genocide amongst a break-away region nominally under their protection and that is home to a large number of Russian citizens. We’ll ignore the fact that they only received their Russian passports conveniently recently…
In the first hours of the conflict, the Russian media declared that Georgians had targeted South Ossetian civilians and killed some 2,000 of them. This left both Europe and the US stuck in simply demanding that the Russians act with restraint. Then it turned out that “only” 150, or so, people had been killed and that Russian troops were looting and destroying Georgian homes and pushing 115,000 of them out of South Ossetia. Human Rights Watch then declared that Russia had deliberately dropped cluster bombs over civilian areas. Human Rights Watch continues to monitor the ongoing onslaught by Russian troops on Georgians within their zone of control. It’s chilling.
Now, there are some pointed differences between the US invading Iraq and Russia invading Georgia, not least of which is that the US, at least, has tried to rebuild Iraq, while Russia is simply looting and trashing Georgia.
However, Russia’s original claims have changed. Firstly, they have wrecked the Georgian’s ability to put their point across with active DOS attacks against their telecommunications infrastructure. Then they promptly, and unilaterally, “recognised” the South Ossetians and Abkhasian’s independence, and they now accuse the US of “forcing” the Russians to invade. Meanwhile, they continue to hold large parts of Georgia, and blockade their main port of Poti, in contravention of the cease-fire they signed with Georgia. And, just this morning, Russia has announced that they will integrate both Abkhazia and South Ossetia into the Federation and any independence will be short-lived.
The Russians have declared they will provide $ 400 million to rebuild South Ossetia. The US has sent aid to Georgia. Russia’s intervention in the Caucasus now stands revealed for the land-grab it always was.
Since Russia would veto any UN attempt at international redress, what stands to punish Russia? Especially considering that the US and Europe have no real appetite for war with the Russian bear.
All the punishments are already happening, again, by default.
Firstly, Russia has uncorked the separatist genie. Russia has plenty of regions that wish for independence. Even worse, is that so many of them share borders with South Ossetia. They include Ingushetia, Chechnya and Dagestan. Now Chechnya has been bombed into submission, but the other states may consider this an opportune moment to push for their own independence.
Russia’s only support so far has come from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) that consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Russia. I haven’t seen any press from China suggesting that they’re into this and, given their own internal breakaway regions (Taiwan, Tibet, and the Uighars in Xinjiang), I’m not too sure they’ll stand around for too long.
Update: China didn’t. As soon as Russia announced their annexation, China withdrew and now Russia is relying on the even more insignificant Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) to validate her claims. The CSTO comprises Russia and the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
So Russia is politically isolated. Worse is that, as in my tied up students example, small countries attempting to escape Russia’s embraced have rushed into alliances with Europe and the US. Poland, which had been cagey about hosting a US defensive missile system, signed up immediately. Ukraine has called for closer ties with the EU and even Turkey has looked nervous.
Financially, Russia declared that their oil wealth kept them safe. Not so. Investors are fleeing as rapidly as Georgia’s refugees. Something like $ 16 billion have left the country in the past weeks. Investors were already nervous given Putin’s bellicosity over listed companies and the war appears to have been the last straw. In order to keep the economy afloat, the government is considering a bailout.
But Russia is significantly smaller than the US. All posturing aside, Russia’s economy is only 6.1% the size of that of the US. Their military expenditure is 4.8% of total US military spending. Crushing Georgia may have been easy for the Russians, but they’re kidding themselves if the US really takes them seriously.
So, here we have Russia, isolated, with a collapsing economy and only one product to sell. They have given an excuse to every separatist movement inside the Russian Federation to call for their own independence, and the Europeans an excuse to raise prices on energy and push for energy-self-sufficiency.
As ye sew, so shall ye reap. Or, in American, go fuck yourself.