The Triumph of Putinism

Understanding the Russian-Georgian conflict

The coverage of the Russian-Georgian conflict in the Russian and Western media has an odd "through the looking glass" quality. One side sees naked aggression by Russia toward small, defiant, democratic Georgia; the other sees naked aggression by Georgia toward the tiny separatist region of South Ossetia. Where Western observers tend to see a deplorable failure by the world's democracies to take decisive measures against Russia's bullying, Russian and pro-Russian commentators see blatant anti-Russian prejudice and a concerted effort to weaken Russia.

But this is not a situation with two equally valid opposing views of reality, or with roughly balanced rights and wrongs on both sides. True, on a political level, there are no real good guys in this conflict; the only true innocents are the ordinary people caught in the crossfire. But there are bad guys—and, at least in the short term, they seem to be the likely winners.

Mikheil Saakashvili—the pro-Western, pro-U.S. president of Georgia who was swept to power in 2003 in one of the peaceful, grassroots "color revolutions" that so rattled the Kremlin—is no liberal hero. Since 2007, he has moved to squelch the opposition and shut down the independent media, depicting his critics as puppets of Moscow in much the same way Putin has depicted his opponents as hirelings of the West. Saakashvili's decision to send troops to take control of South Ossetia and shell its capital Tskhinvali, though undertaken in response to a series of Russian provocations, was not only a major strategic blunder but also an assault on an area heavily populated by civilians.

Russia's military response, which most likely inflicted further damage on the South Ossetian population while repelling Georgian troops, quickly turned into an all-out assault on Georgia itself—a clear-cut punitive strike against a recalcitrant former colony that has been a major irritant to the ruling clique in the Kremlin, and to Putin himself.

Reliable information on many aspects of the conflict is hard to obtain. The Georgians claim that separatist-controlled Tskhinvali served as a launching pad for attacks on nearby Georgian villages. The Russians cry genocide, claiming that some 1,600 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the Georgian attack, and accusing Georgian soldiers of burning people alive and crushing them with tanks. Other observers, including Russian Human Rights Watch activist Tatiana Lokshina, dispute the high casualty estimates and say that the injured seen in area hospitals are mostly fighters from the South Ossetian militias.

Russia has pointedly compared South Ossetia's claims to independence to those of Kosovo, whose recognition it strongly opposed. (Russia's own war against secessionist Chechnya, which killed tens if not hundreds of thousands of civilians, goes unmentioned.) Yet many of Russia's critics, abroad and at home, see the South Ossetia breakaway movement as a faux separatism serving as a cover for a Russian power grab.

As evidence, they cite Russia's move a few years ago to grant citizenship to thousands of South Ossetians who were citizens of Georgia—even while paying lip service to Georgia's sovereignty over the region and serving as a supposedly neutral peacekeeper between Georgia and Ossetia. Notably, former high-level Russian military and security officers hold key posts in the South Ossetian separatist government. EJ.ru columnist Yulia Latynina calls the South Ossetian government "a joint venture of KGB generals and Ossetian bandits for the purpose of procuring money to finance conflict with Georgia."

Still, there is no denying that Ossetian separatism is based on real, longstanding grievances against Georgia. Partly, these grievances are rooted in the complex history of the Caucasus, a morass of tribal rivalries and hatreds. An experience recounted by the Russian Jewish journalist Grigory Svirsky (now living in Canada) vividly illustrates the local mindset. In the 1960s, as a young man, he was traveling through the region with a hiking group. In an Ossetian village, an elder invited the group to a wedding—except for Svirsky, who was emphatically told not to come. Some time later, to his amazement, the wedding party showed up to fetch him, with profuse apologies; he was brought to the feast and treated as the guest of honor. It turned out Svirsky had been excluded because the villagers thought he looked Georgian. When another hiker explained the error, the horrified elder hastened to make up for the dreadful insult of not only excluding a man from a wedding but mistaking him for a Georgian.

Such local hostilities are not merely the spontaneous product of local culture and history. Over time, they have been cleverly exploited and cultivated, first by Tsarist Russia, then by the Soviet Union, and now by Putin's Russia on the "divide and conquer" principle. If Georgia loses South Ossetia and the other secessionist province, Abkhazia, this will not translate into independence for the two regions but into de facto annexation by Russia.

As Russia agrees to a ceasefire, on terms that at least for now will allow it to maintain a strong presence in the two regions, it is still too early to predict the full consequences of this crisis. Some liberal Russian commentators, such as EJ.ru's Dmitry Sidorov, argue that Saakashvili walked into Moscow's trap, giving Russia an excuse for an invasion that will fatally destabilize Georgia's political system. Meanwhile, opposition leader Mikhail Kasyanov believes it was the Kremlin that let itself be provoked into a military confrontation that will badly hurt Russia's international standing. That depends on the extent to which the U.S. and Western Europe will be willing to risk a major chill in relations with Russia. It remains to be seen whether Georgia and Ukraine will gain the NATO membership they seek, whether Russian "peacekeeping" forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia will be replaced by an international force, or whether Russia will lose the coveted choice of Sochi—only a few miles away from Abkhazia—as the site of 2014 Winter Olympics.

One outcome, at least, seems clear: a consolidation of Vladimir Putin's power in Russia. In recent weeks, the independent Russian media had started to talk about Dmitry Medvedev growing more assertive in his role as president, particularly after a Medvedev aide mildly rebuked Prime Minister Putin for unleashing a war of words against Mechel, a leading Russian mining company. But in the operation against Georgia, Putin has dominated the news, acting as commander-in-chief and perhaps showing not only Saakashvili but Medvedev who's boss. Meanwhile, if Medvedev's plans for a new rapprochement with the West were ever anything more than a façade, those hopes have suffered a severe blow. Putin, the Russian strongman, not only firmly holds the reins of power; he is also riding a popular wave of jingoism, one-upmanship, paranoia, and grievance toward the West—the very sentiments that have always formed the core of Putinism. For now, the Putin regime wins; Russia and Georgia lose.

Contributing Editor Cathy Young is the author of Growing Up in Moscow: Memories of a Soviet Girlhood.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Nigel Watt||

    Real people lose every war.

  • Elemenope||

    Nigel, that is the awesomest bumper-sticker ever.

  • ||

    Cathy Young hates both sides of the issue?

    What a surprise!

  • P1t||

    Unfortunately, Nigel is right. The ones who are really winning are the ones who pushed for the war, even in defeat. After all, the only thing about war is how destructive it is. Oh, and it encourages big government too (What is good during war is good during peace. That is the planned economy). Of course, in case of Russia, it is simply a return to the past.

  • ed||

    War. (sigh) What is it good for?

  • Naga Sadow||

    Russia always pulls crap like this. Some tiny country crosses it for whatever reason and big, bad Russia has to make that nation suffer. Russia never takes on one of the big boys.

  • ||

    Russia never takes on one of the big boys.

    Germany and Japan might argue with you.

    Anyway, does anyone really hope that the US and Russia launch a hot war? I seriously hope they don't.

  • Franklin Harris||

    Russia never takes on one of the big boys.



    Sort of like the U.S.

    Unless you want to go back to WWII.

  • Mike M.||

    There's no doubt about it, Putin is an incredibly clever and shrewd strategist. He picked the absolute perfect time to teach the breakaway satellites a humiliating lesson, while at the same rubbing the nose of the west in it for good measure.

    In the long run though, Putin's big win won't amount to much. Russia, like most of the big countries of old Europe, is a dying nation without a future due to the voluntary decision of its people to choose depopulation and extinction. These are merely the early violent death throes.

  • ||

    This is going to work out the like the Second Lebanon War, i.e. poorly.

  • ||

    Russia never takes on one of the big boys.



    Sort of like the U.S.



    I think it is sort of obvious why they don't...

  • Nigel Watt||

    Hell, Saakshivili might get a permanent Western force in Georgia out of this, and he'll certainly get more power within Georgia. The Georgians themselves will probably start looking up place to emigrate.

  • ||

    "Russia never takes on one of the big boys.

    Germany and Japan might argue with you."

    Germany attacked Russia so Russia had to fight. The Japanese kicked the hell out of the Russians in the early 20th Century. Russia did declare war on Japan in 1945 but that was only to pick at the pieces of the corpse of the Japanese empire.

    I am starting to wonder if this is going to turn out badly for the Russians. What do the Russians do now? They could drive on to the capital and depose Saakashvili and install their own puppet government. But if they do that they will have to leave behind troops to prop up the government and end up being tied down there for who knows how long. Further, even Europe would have to brand them an outlaw government for that. Lastly, it would drive the Ukraine and the Baltic together and closer to the West out of fear of Russia. Lastly, the presence of US military advisors means that it would risk war with the US.

    Second, they could just go home. But if they go home with Saakashvili still in power and the Georgian Army still in tact, it will look like they backed down from a third rate banana republic with Western support. And for what? Some useless ethnically divided province that Georgia is probably happy to get rid of anyway? That doesn't sound like a very good deal either.

    You go to war to enforce your will on the other party. Contrast this to the Kosovo War. In that war, Serbia was friendless and the US was able to bomb them into replacing pulling out of Kosovo and replacing their government with a more pliant one. In this case, Georgia has a lot of friends and is getting a lot of aid and their leader seems to be more popular now than before. Short of occupying the entire country and forcibly removing the government, how does Russia enforce its will on Georgia?

  • Douglas Gray||

    In WW II, Russia had Germany in full retreat prior to the Normandy invasion. The German troops said, that with the exception of some of our elite units, that Ivan was a more formidable adversary than G.I. Joe. Russia had to face the bulk of Germany's best troops. They were forced to take on a "big boy."

    Right or wrong, Putin enjoys widespread support in Russia. He comes out looking strong and decisive; Bush and Co. appear weak, blustering, and vaccilating.

  • ||

    Yes! Russia stood up to the genocidal maniacs in Georgia - just as Bush/Cheney stood up for the Kurds against Saddam!

    When BOTH superpowers are morally depraved something good is bound to happen!

    Kant would say that there are no "good" countries anymore - ok, the Swiss and Danes excepted - yet he would employ a new categorical imperative, - '"Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal PROFIT."

  • ||

    Step 1) Invade Georgia
    Step 2) ?
    Step 3) Profit!

  • ||

    Nigel Watt | August 13, 2008, 5:03pm | #

    Hell, Saakshivili might get a permanent Western force in Georgia out of this, and he'll certainly get more power within Georgia.


    Meanwhile, there is now officially no way in the wide world of sports that South Ossetia and Abkhazia are going to accept Georgian rule. Whether an anti-Russian government remains in power in Tblisi is still an open question.

    If Russia loses some international prestige and engagement in exchange for greater control over their "near abroad," the Russians themselves are likely to call that a win. That's just how they roll.

  • ||

    Bush canceled the ABMT with Russia abruptly in 2001 and then offered Putin a hollow reach-around by admiring his "soul".

    Putin will extract revenge - no doubt.

  • me||

    Russia, like most of the big countries of old Europe, is a dying nation without a future due to the voluntary decision of its people to choose depopulation and extinction.

    What was that? Lessons on demography? If not for an immigration, US population growth would be negative over the long term too.

  • ||

    shrike,

    I think it would be a mistake to either accept the Russians' characterization of the Georgians at face value, or to assume that we played anything more than a walk-on part in the cause of this war.

  • fyodor||

    Does anyone know what provocations by the Russians Young is refering to that she says Saakashvili was responding to by shelling Tskhinvali?

  • QSL||

    Sounds like an endless parade of he said/she said "they started it!" fingerpointing among those two sides, whereas very few will know the whole truth of that matter.

  • ||

    I think it would be a mistake to either accept the Russians' characterization of the Georgians at face value, or to assume that we played anything more than a walk-on part in the cause of this war.

    Good enough, but this is a Bush-Putin pissing match, and now that Bush is weak Putin will push harder to back his oil money-flow.

    Money is the determinant - not some vague form of democracy, not genocide, not human rights.

    I posted the Haaretz article earlier --

    Israel proposes crude pipeline from Georgia to Eastern Asia
    By Avi Bar-Eli
    Tags: Israel, crude oil, Far East

    Israel may be on its way to becoming a crude oil transport bridge to the Far East. The Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company (EAPC) is leading an international initiative to channel crude oil from Jihan in southeast Turkey to eastern Asia, using its infrastructure in Israel. A consortium of energy firms and international shipping companies will manage the initiative, and a memorandum of understanding is expected to be signed within three months.

    The oil would be pumped in Georgia and Azerbaijan, and be brought to Turkey by pipeline. From Turkey it will be shipped by tanker to Ashkelon, whence it would be transported by pipeline to Eilat. In Eilat, the oil wilbe be loaded onto a new set of tankers for transportation to eastern Asia.


    Its about petro-money, and Russia will not let its moneyflow be disrupted by alternate routes.

  • ||

    shrike | August 13, 2008, 6:11pm | #

    I can't stand it any more!!!

    I hate that book.

  • ||

    joshua corning | August 13, 2008, 6:51pm | #

    Lie fallow in your ignorance then. 'Haarettz is an Israeli newspaper, not a book.

  • Chad||

    "John | August 13, 2008, 5:04pm | #

    I am starting to wonder if this is going to turn out badly for the Russians."

    We should all be doing what we can to ensure that it comes out badly for the Russians. The lame excuse that "Georgia wasn't perfectly innocent" does not excuse, in any way, shape or form, the pure unadulterated power-grab by Russia.

  • ||

    Maybe the Russians are just trying to get back at the country which inflicted Stalin upon them.

  • ||

    The best mediated solution is one which neither side totally accepts but are willing to live with: Let Ossetia be a separate country whose independence is guaranteed by both Russia and Georgia, like Andorra with Spain and France. Same thing with Abkhazia. The last thing Russia wants is to absorb any more militant Muslims. They have enough trouble with the Chechens, whom they should also leave alone.

    There should be more countries. Everybody should have one. This one is mine.

  • reader||

  • ||

    What do the Russians do now? They could drive on to the capital and depose Saakashvili and install their own puppet government. But if they do that they will have to leave behind troops to prop up the government and end up being tied down there for who knows how long. Further, even Europe would have to brand them an outlaw government for that.

    John, please please tell me you chuckled at the irony as you wrote this.

  • ||

    Great link, reader.

    Among other points is the observation that the Russians were willing to accept Kosovar autonomy, but not independence.

  • Mad Max||

    "Still, there is no denying that Ossetian separatism is based on real, longstanding grievances against Georgia. Partly, these grievances are rooted in the complex history of the Caucasus, a morass of tribal rivalries and hatreds."

    I've been trying to warn you folks - the Caucasians are incapable of self-government.

  • ||

    Why does the US care about defending Georgia? What is the benefit to the US getting involved and choosing sides?

    My cynical reaction is that the US wants offend Russia and protect Israel's interests in the Caspian oil pipeline. But in this day and age, I guess that is reason enough for war...

  • Rationalitate||

    In case anybody wants to digg up this article to counteract the usual digg tide of associating themselves with anyone who happens to be against the US:

    http://digg.com/world_news/The_Triumph_of_Putinism_Understanding_the_Russian_Georgian

  • Scooter||

    "Mikheil Saakashvili-the pro-Western, pro-U.S. president of Georgia who was swept to power in 2003 in one of the peaceful, grassroots "color revolutions" that so rattled the Kremlin-is no liberal hero. Since 2007, he has moved to squelch the opposition and shut down the independent media, depicting his critics as puppets of Moscow in much the same way Putin has depicted his opponents as hirelings of the West. "

    What means is he using to squelch the opposition shut down the independent media? The wording indicates the means being "depicting his critics as puppets of Moscow". But since this is supposed to be libertarian website I assume it's a bit more than that. Is it?

  • ||

    Ah the sweet smell of Afghanistan again. Let's continue to arm those Georgians to the teeth & the Russian troops will soon lose heart & maybe even revolt this time.

  • Cathy Young||

    Scooter writes:

    What means is he using to squelch the opposition shut down the independent media? The wording indicates the means being "depicting his critics as puppets of Moscow". But since this is supposed to be libertarian website I assume it's a bit more than that. Is it?



    Quite a bit more -- check out this 2007 report.

    I agree that none of Saakashvili's faults even begin to excuse Russia's conduct, of course.

  • ||

    The roots of this incursion are grounded in the self identified strategic and political history of Russia, extending back to Tsarist times. Just as the US has a historical perspective defined by democratic process, Russia's world view is firmly grounded within an Imperial outlook. This Imperial perspective, which includes a propensity for direct regional control of contiguous nations, was apparent under all Russian regimes, including the Communist period. We see it at play once again in Georgia and the sword rattling at Poland over ABM sites. Expect it to continue unabatted.

  • Saakashvili||

    In this matter the rule of law was non-existence. Both parties knew all along an end would come where the big boys would not be connected. That is just the way thing are in the USA and many other places.

    The Predator Beast befitting their name just takes what they want and how and walks away when gorged with their licit bounty. That has been the way for a very long time but I do believe that a breath of fresh air is coming that will give us who care a legal system that does work using acts of equity for all using truth and justice as their core foundations of ruling principles.

    Obviously in this matter those actions were never part of the courts mandates.

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