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. 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'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.