Monday, 8 September 2008

Some Thoughts Arising From Lt-Col. Robert Hamilton's Paper, by George Hewitt

-Ossetian War Article
-RE: Ossetian War article/ JRL#159 item #24.


Some Thoughts Arising From Lt-Col. Robert Hamilton's Paper

US Lieutenant-colonel Robert Hamilton, in a reply to an article on recent events in S. Ossetia, offers a few observations which call for a response.

He begins by correcting some of the figures given in the article to which he is replying that relate to the armaments available to the Georgian military. Whilst the number and nature of those armaments are of no immediate concern for present purposes, one question does immediately arise about which Hamilton is silent. This question is: 'For what purpose did Georgia need all the weaponry supplied to it by the USA, the Ukraine, Israel, and others over recent years?' The answer is, of course, now clear to the whole world: it was to attack the two regions of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia placed within the Soviet boundaries of his homeland by Georgia's most famous son, Iosep Besarionis-dze Dzhughashvili (aka Joseph Stalin). The weight of military forces that bore down on Tskhinval on the night of the 7th August could not have been mustered without some kind of careful preparation. Georgian president (for how much longer, one wonders) Misha Saak'ashvili was ever making verbal assurances that he would not resort to arms to resolve the conflicts in these two regions (since 26th August 'de iure' independent states), but, crucially, he never put his signature to any such binding document. And the reason is obvious: however long Misha's generals might have been planning the S. Ossetian operation, they had certainly been planning over many months a parallel strike on Abkhazia, as evidenced by the tremendous amount of heavy weaponry and munitions they had been amassing in the Upper K'odor Valley, all of which was discovered there once it had been cleared of Misha's 'policemen', as he had deceptively described them for the purpose of deceiving a gullible world since introducing these forces (in blatant transgression of the 1994 peace-accords) in 2006. And just to remind the Lt.-colonel of the quality of the Georgian forces on the western front, they fled from both the Upper K'odor Valley and from their positions along the River Ingur in the face of those ranged against them – bombing and shelling unarmed civilians in S. Ossetia causes such shrieks of wild enthusiasm as 'This is war!', as captured on film, but fighting a determined opposition is obviously another matter, where flight is the order of the day. As one of those in southern Abkhazia that weekend after the attack on S. Ossetia and thus a potential target for the planned assault there, I find nothing appealing in Hamilton's threat: 'If the US makes the decision to continue and even expand its capacity-building efforts with the Georgians, it would not be too difficult a task to build the types of capabilities (air defense, maritime security, C4ISR and mobile, lethal anti-armor) required for Georgia to bloody the Russian Army if it decides to invade Georgia again.' If Saak'ashvili had not taken the insane decision to attack S. Ossetia on 7th August, there would have been no Russian response. It is quite wrong to depict what happened as a Russian 'invasion', as has been repeated 'ad nauseam' in the Western media. The military mind illustrated by Hamilton's piece thinks in terms only of 'bloodying' an opposing military – where were the opposing military as Tskhinval's population was abed at 11.30 pm at the start of the assault? Where would have been the opposing military forces, if it had been the Georgians who were in a position to open up a 2nd front in the West? Thanks to Russian actions in destroying what it could find of the armaments recklessly provided to Georgia by its Western allies, Abkhazia was able to escape the bloodshed planned by Saak'ashvili, his generals, and (who knows?) his Western 'advisers'? What has Hamilton to say to the S. Ossetians and the Abkhazians about the application actually made by Tbilisi of Western armaments on 7th August and planned for later use in Abkhazia? Let us hope Hamilton's political masters do not take another insane decision and rearm the Georgian state in the way suggested in Hamilton's threat, for that would be sure recipe for further tragedy in the country.

Hamilton repeats what has been said by at least one Georgian minister this year in reference to the mistakes made by Georgia in its dealings with Abkhazia in the early 1990s, namely: 'We allowed ourselves to be provoked.' Well, there's a very simple lesson here – if you don't want to be provoked, don't be! As to 'provocations' back in 1992, I scratch my head in vain to think of any provocations causing a rift between the Abkhazians and the Georgians other than the self-inflicted woes arising directly out of the madness of nationalism that exploded amongst the Georgians from late 1988 and poisoned relations between Tbilisi and a number of the ethnic groups living within Soviet Georgia. This led to fatal clashes in the Azerbaijani-populated district of Dmanisi-Marneuli and in Abkhazia in July 1989, and tensions remained high until the ultimate madness of war, which broke out on 14th August 1992, thanks to Shevardnadze's decision to send his troops into Abkhazia in the hope this would put an end to the Mingrelia-based civil war, where forces loyal to the ousted president Zviad Gamsakhurdia were fighting the military junta that had overthrown him. Where here were any external 'provocations'? Georgians were the only ones responsible for opening the Pandora's Box of nationalism, and they have to recognise that responsibility and face the consequences (viz. loss of S. Ossetia and Abkhazia as of 1992 and 1992, respectively) rather than run around laying the blame on the Kremlin.

With reference to Russo-Georgian relations over recent years, as everyone knows, they have been going from bad to worse. But, even if Russia has an agenda with regards to Tbilisi, who gave it the chance to act? Tbilisi, launching the fourth war under its three post-Soviet presidents: Gamsakhurdia (S. Ossetia 1990-92), Shevardnadze (Abkhazia 1992-93), Saak'ashvili (S. Ossetia August 2008), plus the aforementioned Mingrelia-based civil war of 1992. Given what happened in S. Ossetia on 7th August and what was indisputably planned for Abkhazia, Russia's actions were correct and followed the sort of perfect military logic that even US military personnel should appreciate – dismantle your opponent's capacity to fight and do further damage. It was the result of a totally wrong-headed policy towards Georgia followed by the West since the USSR fell apart, largely because the policy-makers listened (if they listened to anybody) only to those with experience of the USSR based on knowledge of machinations in and around the Kremlin, rather than taking the trouble to discover what the realities of Transcaucasian life might be for those living there. The West has done nothing to solve the problems it helped to create in S. Ossetia and Abkhazia for almost 20 years. Russia has now acted decisively, and, if Western leaders had any sense, they would abandon their failed policy of giving unconditional support to whoever happens to head the government in Tbilisi and recognise both S. Ossetia and Abkhazia, so that serious thoughts might finally be given to how to take the whole area forward into the 21st century rather than to talk of providing more armaments sufficient to 'bloody' the Russians – what utter poverty of imagination.

Among the 'provocations' listed by Hamilton and relating to Abkhazia (which is the case I am best qualified to discuss) for which he condemns Russia are:

Lifting the military and economic embargo on Abkhazia; Dealing directly with the separatist authorities instead of using the Georgian government as an interlocutor; Deploying an additional battalion of Russian troops there under the auspices of increasing its peacekeeping contingent; Deploying railroad troops to repair the railway line between the Russian border and a major port - ostensibly for humanitarian purposes but later used to transport Russian military equipment; Shooting down an unarmed Georgian reconnaissance drone.

The barren policies employed over recent years to punish the victims of Georgia's wars of aggressive integrationism (S. Ossetia 1990-92; Abkhazia 1992-93), including the blockade imposed at Georgia'sinsistence, were leading nowhere. Russia took the step, which any sensible leader in Tbilisi would have taken himself as a move to improve relations with Sukhum, of lifting the blockade and is to becongratulated for so doing. Had the West ever been inclined to offer positive advice to the Georgian government, it would either have told Tbilisi in no uncertain terms to recognise S. Ossetia and Abkhazia or have done so itself, a move which Tbilisi would have been forced to follow. The West could then have played a part in creating both stability in the region and a successful future for these republics AS WELL AS FOR GEORGIA PROPER, WHERE 70% OF THE NATIONAL BUDGET HAS BEEN WASTED ON THE MILITARY OVER RECENT YEARS. By behaving in the misguided way it has, it has merely achieved what it wanted to avoid – both republics have been driven ever closer to Moscow, and Moscow has played its hand brilliantly in trumping Western (lack of) actions in the relevant areas.

Since there have been no direct negotiations between Sukhum and Tbilisi since Saak'ashvili's introduction of his troops into the Upper K'odor Valley in 2006, how could Russia have spoken to the Abkhazians via the Georgian government?

It looked as though the Georgians might resort to hostilities either in the spring or early summer in Abkhazia after NATO's regrettable decision in April at Bucharest not to bin the unworthy proposalemanating from Washington to admit Georgia into the organisation but to promise some-time membership and to review the case in December. Once that fatal decision was taken, it was always likely that the impetuous Georgian president would try his luck to resolve the outstanding territorial issues before that meeting. In light of this, it was only proper that Russia should have increased its peace-keeping forces in Abkhazia at the time and take the precautionary step of refurbishing the rail-link between Sukhum and Ochamchira. Everything they have done has preserved the peace in Abkhazia and had the additional advantage of ridding the K'odor Valley of its illegal occupiers. Isn't keeping the peace what peace-keepers are meant to do?

OK, Israeli-supplied Georgian drones were shot down earlier in the year – but they should not have been in the Upper K'odor Valley or flown over the demilitarised zone or Abkhazian territory in the first place. Hamilton conveniently forgets this point, which is a perfect illustration of pot calling the kettle black. Towards the end of his Georgian apologia Hamilton dismisses any idea of the Georgian army hatching a 'long-term plan to retake South Ossetia and Abkhazia by force'. How then does he explain not only the quantity but also the nature of the weaponry built up in the Upper K'odor Valley? The Abkhazians and other residents of Abkhazia who would have been slaughtered by these 'policing' tools don't need an American Lt.-Col. to teach them the answer… And neither do I.

Finally a question for the Lt.-colonel. What purpose does he suppose is being served by his and his colleagues' presence in Georgia? No doubt he is just obeying orders and doing his job. But presumably he must be able to justify his work to his conscience from an ideological point of view. And so, he probably feels that he is contributing to buttressing the 'beacon of democracy' that his government claims Georgia to be. How then would he assess the level of 'democracy' hisoperation is assisting when:

1. riot-police are loosed on oppositionists during the November 2007 anti-Saak'ashvili demonstrations;
2. the independent TV channel Imedi's equipment is smashed and broadcasting suspended at the same time;
3. during the May 2008 elections, in a cynical attempt to portray the Abkhazians in bad light to the world, 'Georgian' (specifically Mingrelian) voters crossing from Abkhazia to vote in Zugdidi are shotat in their bus in the village of Q'urcha with immediate claims from Tbilisi that the Abkhazians were responsible for this act, when in fact it was staged by the Georgians themselves (as demonstrated by both Georgian and foreign investigative reporters);
4. during the S. Ossetian events all Russian channels and internet-sites are jammed across Georgia to deprive Georgian citizens of access to the Russian side of the argument?

This is most assuredly not the sort of democracy I want to see my government supporting.

George Hewitt (Professor of Caucasian Languages, SOAS, London University)

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