The Duck of Minerva

Russia-Georgia conflict: what the current evidence suggests

14 August 2008

Now that a number of media outlets and independent groups have gained access to key locations in Georgia and South Ossetia, some aspects of the last few days, as well as the current situation, are starting to come into focus.

Steven Lee Myers’ report in the International Herald Tribute, for example, suggests strongly that: (1) Russian accusations of Georgian atrocities were greatly exaggerated; (2) the Russians–or at least their South Ossetian allies–have engaged in ethnic cleansing of Georgian towns in South Ossetia; and (3) that Moscow is justifying their current military operations–although the term “displays of dominance” seems more appropriate–based on ambiguous language in the Sarkozy-brokered agreement.

According to Kommersant, Russian General Staff Deputy Chief Anatoly Nogovitsyn is claiming that the Russian military “saved Abkhazia from [a] Georgian invasion.”

I’ve been rather charitable towards the Russians, but the last twenty-four hours have, in my view, changed the landscape considerably. The Georgian attack on South Ossetia was not only a blunder, but an underhanded one at that.

The Russian refusal to abide by the spirit, if not the letter, of the ceasefire agreement, however smells very bad. The realist in me appreciates why the Russians would use the Georgian offensive as a pretext to settle, once and for all, the unstable security situation faced by their client-enclaves. But, as of yesterday, all indications pointed to a political settlement favoring Russia and its allies–rendering their current acts of violence and vandalism gross and superfluous.

In his latest remarks, Bush has also made clear that his decision use the US military to provide emergency assistance in Georgia is (as I initially thought) an effort to make it more difficult for the Russians to violate the ceasefire agreement. The Russians, predictably, aren’t pleased, either with the incoming US personnel or US threats to, in effect, freeze them out of many of the key institutions of the current global order.

Finally, the Abkhazians aren’t the only ones saying “Dmitry Medvedev’s decrees have no power…” That seems to be Putin’s general sentiment as well.

At this point, I can’t offer a great deal of analysis of any significance. Unfortunately, the crisis isn’t over. Indeed, it could get much worse very quickly. Let’s hope for the best.

I do want to note that there’s a certain irony here, insofar as a majority of international-relations observers have focused on China as the most significant threat to US influence. Only a small minority have been warning about the dangers posed by deteriorating US-Russian relations, as well as the potential collision course between US and Russian policy goals in the latter’s near abroad, particularly with respect to the dynamics of patron-client relations[*] And most of them see the future as a great conflict between democracy and authoritarianism, which, I submit, is not the wisest way to approach the shifting landscape of power politics (nor of this conflict).

*I don’t mean to sound obnoxious, but over the last year or so I’ve not only been blogging about this, but I’ve also been writing things like:

In particular, [the debate over American Empire] calls our attention to the way in which contemporary geopolitical concerns involve patterns of domination and control that penetrate into the domestic politics of states. These patterns call into question the utility of the states-under-anarchy framework for understanding power-political dynamics. They suggest the crucial importance of patron-client relations, struggles over the legitimacy of external influence, the interplay of international inequality with domestic—as well as transnational—movements and coalitions, and other dynamics often found in imperial cases.

Aspects of what we might term the micropolitics of international hierarchy play out in the context of, for example, American basing and access agreements, alliance politics, and use of proxies to combat Islamicist movements. The rise of Chinese influence, Russian re-assertiveness, and other trends which we traditionally interrogate through the states-under-anarchy framework also intersect in important ways with dynamics of international hierarchy. Indeed, many of our debates about American grand strategy—with their focus on broad questions of “unilateralism versus multilateralism,” “restraint versus preemption,” “hard versus soft balancing,” and so forth—remain fatally detached from a proper appreciation of the decisive importance of the micropolitics of asymmetric influence.

I know that’s opaque academic speak, but it basically means “stop arguing about really abstract high-level questions and start focusing on things like the degree of influence stronger powers have over weaker allies, how the domestic politics of those weaker allies impact that influence, and the intersection of those kinds of dynamics with great-power competition, energy, and the war on terror.” There’s a reason we’d been talking about Georgia on the Duck for a while.