On Thursday, 7th August, 2008, conflict between Russia and Georgia exploded after President Saakashvili sent in his troops into the breakaway region of South Ossetia clashing with Russian peacekeepers as well as South Ossetian forces. As a frequent visitor to Georgia and South Ossetia since the end of the Soviet Union, various media asked for my views which usualy differed from the "experts" who had not been there. Here are some of my responses (as edited by the newspapers which published them):
(1) The Guardian (9th August, 2008) :
Plucky little Georgia? No, the cold war reading won't washIt is crudely simplistic to cast Russia as the sole villain in the clashes over South Ossetia. The west would be wise to stay out.
For many people the sight of Russian tanks streaming across a border in August has uncanny echoes of Prague 1968. That cold war reflex is natural enough, but after two decades of Russian retreat from those bastions it is misleading. Not every development in the former Soviet Union is a replay of Soviet history.
The clash between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia, which escalated dramatically yesterday, in truth has more in common with the Falklands war of 1982 than it does with a cold war crisis. When the Argentine junta was basking in public approval for its bloodless recovery of Las Malvinas, Henry Kissinger anticipated Britain's widely unexpected military response with the comment: "No great power retreats for ever." Maybe today Russia has stopped the long retreat to Moscow which started under Gorbachev.
Back in the late 1980s, as the USSR waned, the red army withdrew from countries in eastern Europe which plainly resented its presence as the guarantor of unpopular communist regimes. That theme continued throughout the new republics of the deceased Soviet Union, and on into the premiership of Putin, under whom Russian forces were evacuated even from the country's bases in Georgia.
To many Russians this vast geopolitical retreat from places which were part of Russia long before the dawn of communist rule brought no bonus in relations with the west. The more Russia drew in its horns, the more Washington and its allies denounced the Kremlin for its imperial ambitions.
Unlike in eastern Europe, for instance, today in breakaway states such as South Ossetia or Abkhazia, Russian troops are popular. Vladimir Putin's picture is more widely displayed than that of the South Ossetian president, the former Soviet wrestling champion Eduard Kokoity. The Russians are seen as protectors against a repeat of ethnic cleansing by Georgians.
In 1992, the west backed Eduard Shevardnadze's attempts to reassert Georgia's control over these regions. The then Georgian president's war was a disaster for his nation. It left 300,000 or more refugees "cleansed" by the rebel regions, but for Ossetians and Abkhazians the brutal plundering of the Georgian troops is the most indelible memory.
Georgians have nursed their humiliation ever since. Although Mikheil Saakashvili has done little for the refugees since he came to power early in 2004 - apart from move them out of their hostels in central Tbilisi to make way for property development - he has spent 70% of the Georgian budget on his military. At the start of the week he decided to flex his muscles.
Devoted to achieving Nato entry for Georgia, Saakashvili has sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan - and so clearly felt he had American backing. The streets of the Georgian capital are plastered with posters of George W Bush alongside his Georgian protege. George W Bush avenue leads to Tbilisi airport. But he has ignored Kissinger's dictum: "Great powers don't commit suicide for their allies." Perhaps his neoconservative allies in Washington have forgotten it, too. Let's hope not.
Like Galtieri in 1982, Saakashvili faces a domestic economic crisis and public disillusionment. In the years since the so-called Rose revolution, the cronyism and poverty that characterised the Shevardnadze era have not gone away. Allegations of corruption and favouritism towards his mother's clan, together with claims of election fraud, led to mass demonstrations against Saakashvili last November. His ruthless security forces - trained, equipped and subsidised by the west - thrashed the protesters. Lashing out at the Georgians' common enemy in South Ossetia would certainly rally them around the president, at least in the short term.
Last September, President Saakashvili suddenly turned on his closest ally in the Rose revolution, defence minister Irakli Okruashvili. Each man accused his former blood brother of mafia links and profiting from contraband. Whatever the truth, the fact that the men seen by the west as the heroes of a post-Shevardnadze clean-up accused each other of vile crimes should warn us against picking a local hero in Caucasian politics.
Western geopolitical commentators stick to cold war simplicities about Russia bullying plucky little Georgia. However, anyone familiar with the Caucasus knows that the state bleating about its victim status at the hands of a bigger neighbour can be just as nasty to its smaller subjects. Small nationalisms are rarely sweet-natured.
Worse still, western backing for "equip and train" programmes in Russia's backyard don't contribute to peace and stability if bombastic local leaders such as Saakashvili see them as a guarantee of support even in a crisis provoked by his own actions. He seems to have thought that the valuable oil pipeline passing through his territory, together with the Nato advisers intermingled with his troops, would prevent Russia reacting militarily to an incursion into South Ossetia. That calculation has proved disastrously wrong.
The question now is whether the conflict can be contained, or whether the west will be drawn in, raising the stakes to desperate levels. To date the west has operated radically different approaches to secession in the Balkans, where pro-western microstates get embassies, and the Caucasus, where the Caucasian boundaries drawn up by Stalin, are deemed sacrosanct.
In the Balkans, the west promoted the disintegration of multiethnic Yugoslavia, climaxing with their recognition of Kosovo's independence in February. If a mafia-dominated microstate like Montenegro can get western recognition, why shouldn't flawed, pro-Russian, unrecognised states aspire to independence, too?
Given its extraordinary ethnic complexity, Georgia is a post-Soviet Union in miniature. If westerners readily conceded non-Russian republics' right to secede from the USSR in 1991, what is the logic of insisting that non-Georgians must remain inside a microempire which happens to be pro-western?
Other people's nationalisms are like other people's love affairs, or, indeed, like dog fights. These are things wise people don't get involved in. A war in the Caucasus is never a straightforward moral crusade - but then, how many wars are?
· Mark Almond is a history lecturer at Oriel College, Oxford
(2) The Daily Mail (9th August, 2008):
'The war in South Ossetia could be the most dangerous flashpoint since the Cuban crisis', says top historian.
Yesterday a small war in the Caucasus became a major international flashpoint. Until now, almost no one had heard of Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia.
But as Russian tanks and troops rolled into the disputed territory from the north, after Georgian troops invaded from the south, the world suddenly faced a major crisis. South Ossetia has a population of fewer than 100,000 and is nestled on the southern slopes of the mountainous Caucasus region which divides Europe and Asia.
The region is riven with ancient tribal rivalries between its mountain peoples, and this has often led to warfare in the past.
The tribes of the Caucasus have fought each other since history began and long memories and grievances have fed a vendetta culture.
In the past, their skirmishes have gone unnoticed. But today a conflict in the Caucasus could draw in the world's great powers.
A glance at the map shows why Russia is involved. The disputed land lies on Russia's southern border which, ever since the breakup of the Soviet Union, has bitterly resented Georgia's independence.
Since 1992, South Ossetia has run its own affairs after defeating a rag-tag Georgian army's attempt to control it.
Most inhabitants of breakaway South Ossetia have now opted for Russian passports rather than Georgian ones.
Russian troops have patrolled the dividing line between the Georgian troops and Ossetians as 'peace-keepers' for the last 15 years and Russia has suffered casualties in skirmishes between the two sides.
But the West, too, has interests in the region. Running through Georgia from the Caspian Sea in the east to the Black Sea is an oil pipeline bringing BP's crude from Azerbaijan to the West.
Anyone filling their car's petrol tank this weekend won't need reminding how sensitive an issue oil supplies are at the moment.
For the Georgian government, the pipeline crossing the country is a guarantee of Western support against their local, Russian-backed enemies in South Ossetia.
Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili does everything he can to endear himself to the West in general and America in particular as the obvious counter-weight to Russia.
George W. Bush's portrait is widely displayed in Georgia. (Vladimir Putin is the political pinup for Ossetians.) President Saakashvili makes no bones about his desire to join Nato.
Predictably, the Kremlin's reaction to that has been one of fury.
American contractors and other Nato personnel have been involved in training the Georgian army and helping plan its operations, and the Russians see this as proof that the West was behind the sudden strike into South Ossetia this week.
As a result, the Russian army launched its own massive counter-stroke. The risk is that just as Russian 'peacekeepers' have been killed by the Georgian attack so the Nato personnel advising Georgian forces may take casualties as the Russians blast back.
If a Nato soldier is killed by a Russian shell the global temperature will rise alarmingly.
This is a high stakes game - and not just for Georgia.
For the deep involvement of Russia and the U.S. in this ostensibly local skirmish means the world is suddenly closer to a clash of nuclear superpowers than it has been since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.
At least then Kennedy and Khrushchev were in charge of their countries' policies and could negotiate as if playing a chess match between superpower grandmasters.
But this time local Caucasian warlords are muddying the waters for both the White House and the Kremlin. Yet it is not the Cold War which offers the best historical guide to the crisis which threatens world peace.
In many ways it is the assassination by Serbs of Archduke Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo in 1914 that prefigures the messy, complicated and often irrationally aggressive politics of the Caucasus today.
This, of course, was an event which appeared to be the result of local grievances but, because of the alliegances of the then great powers, had a domino effect which spiralled into the Great War. On that occasion, Austria and its ally Germany demanded that Serbia be punished. But Britain backed Russia's support for Serbia - ironically in the light of the present crisis, Russia was then our ally. The result was worldwide slaughter.
Neither Russia nor the West wants this conflict in the Caucasus to get out of hand. But history shows that small countries can draw their patrons into a war which is not of their choosing.
The West, led by the U.S., will not want to be seen to let down its local partner. Likewise, Russia will want to stand by South Ossetia.
What happened in the Balkans in 1914 is the classic example of lesser allies drawing their powerful backers into a conflict which had nothing to do with them directly.
And I fear that the South Ossetia could be a terrible trigger point for our time, just as Sarajevo was in 1914.
In 1919, only five years after Sarajevo, our foreign secretary Arthur Balfour opposed getting involved in the civil wars then convulsing the Caucasus.
He told the Cabinet: 'If they want to cut their own throats why do we not let them do it?. I should say we are not going to spend all our money and men in civilising a few people who do not want to be civilised.'
Idealists will be horrified by such attitudes, but people who remember how catastrophic wars get started by chivalrous interventions should beware of taking sides. If Russia respects our real interests in the region, why should we fight to decide whether Georgians rule Ossetians or vice-versa?
Does either Moscow or Washington really want to go over the brink for the sake of a small partner? We avoided superpower mutual suicide during the Cold War but could this Caucasus conflict trigger it today?
Both George Bush and Vladimir Putin are in Beijing and have been talking about the crisis. Let us hope and pray that they act together to win an Olympic gold for peacemaking.
Mark Almond is a lecturer in modern history at Oriel College, Oxford.
(3) The Sunday Mirror (10th August, 2008):
THIS DAVID AND GOLIATH BATTLE IS A RASH AND SUICIDAL FOLLY
By Mark Almond Oxford history Don and a regular visitor to Georgia
Standing up to a bully is admirable but picking a fight with a heavyweight champion is suicidally foolish.
Yet that is what tiny Georgia’s president Mikhail Saakashvili did when he invaded the breakaway region of South Ossetia – despite the presence of Russian troops holding the line between the feuding peoples.
No rational person in the West wants to see NATO face off against a nuclear-armed Russia. Yet dragging us into his war with Russia seems the only way Saakashvili can survive.
Bombastic Saakashvili, 40, seems to have taken his backers in Washington and his enemies in Moscow by surprise. But having watched him in action in Georgia for a decade I’m not surprised he has upset the applecart.
Even more than most politicians, Saakashvili likes to be the centre of attention. It must be frustrating to be president of a poverty-stricken small state when you want to strut the world stage.
A Soviet border guard when the USSR collapsed in 1991, young Saakashvili was whisked across the Atlantic to study. He fell in love with America and became a wannabe Yankee – loud and brash.
Sponsored by the US, he led the “Rose Revolution” in 2003 which toppled the West’s former favourite in Georgia, Eduard Shevardnadze. George Bush praised him as a regional role model and it went to his head.
The new president built a palace dominating the Tbilisi skyline. His police don’t allow it to be photographed – as I found out to my cost when I tried. They are even heavier-handed with his domestic critics. Last November the opposition took a thrashing for demonstrating in the street. Dissidents get locked up in crowded jails rife with torture and tuberculosis. Political opponents are packed in the same cramped cells as hardened criminals – a Soviet way of punishing dissent.
Saakashvili’s wife has compared him with Georgia’s most infamous son, Stalin. But Stalin wasn’t reckless. Saakashvili has staked ordinary Georgians’ lives on proving himself the man to face off against mighty Russia’s strong man, Vladimir Putin.
He forgot Goliath came to David looking for a fight – not the other way around. With his reckless gamble in ruins, Saakashvili faces a grim future at home. Unpopular because he has done nothing to relieve his people’s poverty, now he looks like a loser. too.
Georgia’s position on the tectonic plates between Russia and NATO means the West has an interest in avoiding a geopolitical earthquake. Saakashvili’s personal fate is small beer compared with the risks of a new East-West confrontation.
With fighting spreading, the situation gets worse by the hour. It even threatens the West’s one concrete interest in the region – the oil pipeline from the Caspian Sea. It is time to damp down this conflict before it sets off an uncontrollable wild fire.
There is no happy outcome likely. Western intervention would be suicidal, Western posturing will be farcical.
The least bad option is that Russia wins back control of South Ossetia and stops its bombing. Unsatisfactory that may be, but at least it would stop the killing.