Tuesday, August 12, 2008

So what now?

The news is that Russia has ceased its military action. Or has announced that she has done so, though there are still reports of fighting. It is not quite clear what that means, since before doing so, its forces penetrated far into Georgian territory. What will they demand in return for taking them out and, indeed, will they take them out?

The whole subject of South Ossetian independence has disappeared into a memory hole. Yesterday I took part in a discussion on the BBC Russian Service, together with Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation and a Russian political analyst and former member of the Duma (whose name I managed not to catch, which is really annoying but had something to do with me having to adjust my earphones).

The latter very calmly informed us all that there was no question of going back to status quo ante because only Russian troops (I don’t think he bothered with the words peacekeepers or peacemakers) could guarantee the two break-away republics’ security and they were staying. Under no circumstances would international peacekeepers be allowed in.

Nor did he argue when I made the point that this was not about South Ossetian independence. Of course, not. Only those who are wilfully blind can say so.

Indeed, the gentleman in question remained very calm and full of certainty throughout the discussion, losing his temper only when I started enumerating the various ways in which the West can respond without any military intervention. “And who are you going to buy gas from,” he asked me angrily. “Lots of people,” replied I airily. “Who are you going to sell it to if we don’t buy it? There are no pipelines to China.” This did not make him very happy.

While we are on the subject of what the West can do to prevent attacks on other countries (the idea that Russia will do no such thing now that it has taught Georgia a lesson can be believed only by people who also think that stars are God’s daisy chains), here is a posting on a blog that has recently come my way, which makes me look like a real ninny.

What we could not find out was Russia’s endgame. What is it they want? We still don’t know, though according to the BBC Russian Service website [it’s in Russian but I think there is a way of having the article translated] some experts are saying that Russia has achieved her aims. Others are more cautious and suggesting we should wait and see.

On the whole, waiting and seeing sounds like an excellent idea. Not least we should hear what it is Mr Putin or his teddy bear, Mr Medvedev are going to demand. Simply asserting that they have punished the aggressor and reasserted the security of the civilian population (something that Mr Putin cares about desperately) as well as of the peacemakers is not the end. There will be more demands.

Meanwhile President Saakashvili has announced to around 50,000 people in Tbilisi that Georgia is leaving the Commonwealth of Independent States, Russia’s post-Soviet attempt to control the break-away republics.

While the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline appears not to have been damaged (apart from the fire caused by an explosion in Turkey a few days before the hostilities in Georgia began) BP has prudently closed it down for the duration. When they will reopen it might well depend on the separate battle that is being waged for the control of the joint Anglo-Russian consortium TNK-BP.

We can but speculate why Russia has decided to end hostilities for the time being, while there is still fighting in Abkhazia. It may be that they do feel that they have taught Georgia a lesson and, in any case, they are in a good position to resume the teaching of that lesson if the Georgians refuse to kiss the rod.

It may be that the Georgian forces fought back with greater vigour than the Russians had expected and there was a sudden worry (which we have speculated on before) of another quagmire like Chechnya. It may be that the angry conversation between President Bush and former President, now Prime Minister, Putin included certain very specific threats possibly to do with ships in the Mediterranean.

As opposed to that last point Russia may well have reassured herself that the West will do nothing if she proceeds to reconquer the old Soviet colonies as Putin has always threatened to do and there is no need to do anything else for the moment.

I shall do a separate posting, possibly on the other blog about Russia, her so-called humiliation and the amazing lengths to which her supporters in the West will go to. For the moment, let me just point out that if there has been any humiliation it was that of President Medvedev. He may say that he has decided to end the hostilities and he may look solemn during his meeting with President Sarkozy as the Reuters picture above shows but the whole world has been watching and we know who has been in charge all the time.

As the International Herald Tribune wrote today:
In recent days, Putin has appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up, mingling with refugees on the border with South Ossetia — the very picture of a man of action.

By contrast, Medvedev is shown sitting at his desk in Moscow, giving ceremonial orders to the minister of defense.

"All his liberal speeches which he made in Berlin and elsewhere are forgotten," Rahr, who serves on the German Council on Foreign Relations, said of the new president. "He is playing the game which is designed by Putin."

Yulia L. Latynina, a frequent critic of Putin's government, noted with amusement that on the eve of the conflict in Georgia, when President George W. Bush and Putin were deep in conversation in Beijing at the start of the Olympics, Medvedev was taking a cruise on the Volga River.

"Now he can cruise the Volga for all the remaining years, or can go right to the Bahamas," she wrote in Daily Magazine, a Russian Web site. "I must admit that for the first time in my life I felt admiration for the skill with which Vladimir Putin maintains his power."
What, one cannot help wondering, will happen if the worm or the teddy bear turns?

UPDATE: The announcements were all premature and wait and see remains a good policy. It seems that the Russians are shelling Gori, which is, indeed, Stalin's birth place. More to the point, it is a long way from the disputed territory, some days after the Georgians asked for a cease-fire and a day or so after President Saakashvile agreed to the European plan for negotiations. Of course, it could be that President Medvedev's announcements are not worth the paper they are described on.