Wednesday, 13 August 2008

On the Midnight Train to World War III ?

The violent expulsion of the Georgian army (and most Georgians) from South Ossetia and Abkhazia in the past week or so has led to an orgy of hand-wringing and sabre-rattling in the conservative blogsphere. Individuals such as Bill O'Reilly on FoxNews have used the conflict not only to berate Europe for kow-towing to Russia nut have also asserted that, as long as the USA is dependent on foreign oil, World War III is inevitable.

On politicalbetting.com there were calls from some of the more extreme right-wing elements for western military intervention in Georgia. Presumably these troops would be sent from Iraq and Afghanistan and we would get into a shooting war with Russia just to prove a point.

Fortuantely, in the world of realpolitik, saner heads generally prevail...

The de-construction of the former Soviet Union was a haphazard and far from peaceful series of events. The regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia weren't the only disputed areas on the periphery and within the former USSR - there have been problems with Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniestr and elsewhere.

The Georgians took advantage of Russian weakness in the early 90s to launch a war to seize the ethnically-Russian dominant regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and succeeded in tearing these regions away from Russia at a considerable cost in terms of lives and damage. However, it required the presence of Russian peacekeepers on the ground to maintain the delicate balance and it did not stop pro-Russian South Ossetian militants from attacking Georgian interests.

When the Georgians decided to clamp down militarily on the militants, the Russians swept in and have effectively expelled the Georgians from South Ossetia and Abkhazia and have moved into parts of Georgia such as Gori.

The question is, what happens now ?

The Georgian military appears to have been cut up very badly and whether the Russians are tempted to move on Tbilisi as a show of force I don't know. It does seem clear that Georgia will no longer be able to folloow the pro-western line they have followed since 2004. Thoughts of joining NATO, for example, can be forgotten. It may well be that while Georgia will survive as an independent state its Government will be far more inclined to a pro-Moscow line out of necessity.

The consequence of this for areas like Ukraine can only be guessed at. I don't think Putin is trying to be another Stalin but there must be a view that after a decade of being a second or third-class power, Russia is regaining its world status backed by oil and gas reserves and the control of Europe's energy supply that results.

This will end nearly twenty years of geo-political supremancy for the USA. Of course, American military force is still pre-eminent in the world but the economic growth of China and the re-emergence of Russia suggests we are moving into a more unstable multi-polar environment where it will not be possible for America to take a unilateral approach to problems in the Middle East for example.

This will be a significant challenge for whichever of John McCain or Barack Obama becomes the next American President and for David Cameron as a future British Prime Minister. Cameron's comments have been predictable and forgettable. The idea of military containment of Russia is a non-starter but that doesn't mean we are back in a pre-1989 Cold War.

History shows us that Russia is a significant player in European and Asian affairs. However, engaging with Russia isn't impossible and nor do I think that Putin imagines himself as ruler of Europe. The key will be to accept that however unpalatable we may consider it, we in the West are in no position to impose our political culture and mores on either Russia or China. If we move away from crass moralising we can have a good and secure relationship with Moscow and Beijing but we also have to accept that American global hegemony, if it ever existed, has ended and we now live in interesting times..

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