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Russian Jerks Meet Western Knee-Jerks

Russian Jerks Meet Western Knee-Jerks

by Steve Weissman,
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

The Russians can be real jerks, but they are not the only ones dragging us into a cold war redo. Blockheads on all sides are bringing back the risk of all-out nuclear conflict, along with a new arms race and the thrusting of American power from the Russian borderlands to wherever we see a Russian proxy. Even if Barack Obama and Joe Biden manage to win the election in November, the financial cost of a rush to yesteryear could cripple any real chance for a better tomorrow.

Strangely enough, the Russians appear to be complying with the six-point cease-fire agreement that French President Nicolas Sarkozy brokered, though no one would know it by listening to the heated rhetoric now coming from Washington and its NATO allies. The agreement, which the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs has posted on its web site, allows Russian troops to remain in the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. It specifies no limits on the number of troops or types of weapons the Russians may have. And, pending the establishment of "international mechanisms," it specifically permits the Russians "to implement additional security measures," such as the checkpoints the Russians have set up on Georgia's main highway.

Sarkozy now insists that Russia can implement these extra measures only in the immediate vicinity of the two provinces, while Western media have talked about a "security zone" on the Georgian side of the administrative borders of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. But none of this appears in the written agreement the Russians signed.

Even more to the point, the Russians never agreed in the cease-fire to maintain Georgia's "territorial integrity." As Sarkozy well knows, they explicitly rejected any such provision and have openly declared they would now support South Ossetia and Abkhazia in seceding from Georgia, just as the United States and most of Europe supported Kosovo in breaking away from Serbia.

None of this in any way justifies the way the Russians are lording it over Georgia, threatening Poland with nuclear annihilation, or threatening to rearm Cuba. They are, as I said, acting like jerks, and hurting their own cause, especially in Western Europe. But they are doing what they agreed to do, and in loudly proclaiming otherwise, NATO leaders seem determined to fire up a new cold war.

Adding fuel to the fire, most in the West ignore the role of Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili in provoking the Russian attack and continue to lionize him as the great democratic martyr of our age. He's not, and never was. Washington covertly staged his "Rose Revolution," and his great appeal to Georgian voters was primarily his ultra-nationalistic promise to put down any independence or autonomy for the Ossetians and Abkhazians. The current crisis stems directly from Washington's attempt to use this Georgian fervor against the Russians, and keeping the hotheaded Saakashvili as our man against Moscow simply keeps the pot boiling.

If democracy and self-determination are the goal, it would be smarter by far to call the Russians on their bluff as "liberators" and propose an internationally supervised referendum to ask the Ossetians and Abkhazians what they want. But, no. The Western Europeans continue to embrace Saakashvili, even as they put off making Georgia (or Ukraine) a full-fledged member of NATO. No one, either in Europe or the United States, wants to go to war to defend Georgia, not even John McCain, whose foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann was a paid lobbyist for the Georgians. But now that the cold war juices are flowing, very few - left or right - seem willing to step away from Saakashvili's grasp.

This is a particular problem for the Democrats, who are beginning their convention in Denver this week. Barack Obama, the presumptive presidential nominee, has called for costly social programs, from universal health care to the creation of new energy sources. But his vice-presidential pick, Joe Biden, has just returned from visiting Georgia as a guest of Saakashvili, and is pushing a $1 billion aid package for the Georgians. And that's just the first billion. If the United States leads NATO into a new cold war, the costs could be staggering, which will leave very little for "change we can believe in."

So far, I'm fairly pessimistic. Obama seems to have absorbed Biden's zeal for Saakashvili, and on the question of Georgia most of the Democratic Party now sounds like secondhand McSame. But there's always hope. If we can believe Mikhail Gorbachev, the Russians do not want a new cold war, and most Americans would clearly prefer health care to warfare. The question is whether American democracy and a new leader committed to change are strong enough for the popular will to prevail.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.

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