August 10, 2008 6:56 pm

Wounded pride ignites an accidental war

Both Russia and Georgia are involved in a frantic blame game, each seeking to label the other side as the aggressor in the bloody little war that has broken out in the Caucasus.

Russia claims Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s hot-blooded president, deliberately launched an all-out assault on separatist forces in South Ossetia last week, intent on retaking the province and gambling that Russia would be slow to respond.

Georgia insists that, on the contrary, Moscow cynically encouraged the separatists to bombard Georgian villages surrounding their capital, Tskhinvali, until they were forced to silence the guns. That gave Russia just the excuse it needed to launch a long-planned attack.

The truth is that the whole sorry saga may have been more cock-up than conspiracy. But it was a cock-up waiting to happen. Russia has been deliberately provoking Georgia for years by supporting Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and imposing a sweeping trade embargo. Mr Saakashvili boosted military spending and refused to rule out the use of force. But he did not intend to use it. By all accounts he was unprepared for the latest confrontation: he was booked to be on a flight to Beijing.

If Georgia had intended to seize South Ossetia, it would surely have first attempted to block the Roki tunnel, the only route for Russian reinforcements through the mountains from North Ossetia. Instead, Russian tanks came rolling in within hours of the Georgian attack on Tskhinvali.

The danger is now that the war, even if it ends sooner rather than later, will undermine Russia’s already tense relations with the US and the rest of Europe. Hopes of a new strategic partnership with the European Union will evaporate. By sending hundreds of tanks over the border and bombarding Georgian towns as well as military bases, Vladimir Putin – and few doubt that the former president is still calling the shots as prime minister – has confirmed the worst fears of all the former Soviet vassals.

Yet in Moscow it is portrayed very differently. This is Russia’s Kosovo, according to all the official propaganda. Mr Saakashvili is portrayed as a dangerous “pariah”, like Slobodan Milosevic. Russia is intervening for purely humanitarian reasons, to protect civilians and prevent ethnic cleansing, says Sergei Lavrov, the foreign minister. Let us not forget that Nato also hit economic and civilian targets in Serbia to win that war. Mr Putin has not forgotten.

But this war is more than Russian revenge for Kosovo. It is about Georgia’s entire pro-western attitude and its determination to join the Nato alliance – encouraged by the US and effectively guaranteed by the Nato summit in Bucharest in April. It is intended to prove that countries such as Georgia and Ukraine are far too unreliable to be allowed into Nato. It is also intended to demonstrate that only Russia has the capacity to enforce order – however brutally – on the territory of the former USSR.

It is also about respect. Mr Putin is obsessed with winning back the regard he believes his country is denied by the patronising leaders of the US and EU. He resents Mr Saakashvili, particularly. When the two first met after the Georgian president was elected in 2004, one of Mr Putin’s top advisers said he had “never heard anyone talk to my president with such lack of respect”.

The Georgian president is abrasive and can be authoritarian. He shocked his western supporters by using tear gas on opposition demonstrators last year. But his country is far more democratic than Russia, with an outspoken opposition. Its economy has boomed in spite of Moscow’s trade embargo. Until the latest clash it had attracted a surge in foreign investment, and it won great praise internationally for clamping down on corruption. The one major criticism has been over Mr Saakashvili’s failure to find an accommodation with Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Russia has certainly not helped. A senior former Kremlin official says Georgia missed its chance in the 1990s. It should have been Moscow’s most loyal ally, he said. Then Russia would have happily abandoned the secessionists.

But what can Georgia’s friends and allies do about it? Mr Putin is calling their bluff. George W. Bush, the US president, poured in military trainers and equipment, backed Nato membership, and now seems powerless to do more than wring his hands.

Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, sees it as a critical challenge. “We – and Russia – will have to live with the consequences of Russia’s use of force for a long time to come,” he said at the weekend. “No state has a right to intervene militarily in the territory of another state simply because there are individuals there with a passport issued by that state. The obligation to protect people lies with the state in which those individuals are located.

“Attempts to apply such a doctrine have plunged Europe into war in the past – and that is why it is so important that this doctrine is emphatically dismissed.”

For Mr Putin, however, such a doctrine plays extremely well at home. He does not really care how it plays abroad. It gets him respect, of a sort, from the barrel of a gun.

quentin.peel@ft.com

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