Salon Radio: Professor Charles King on Russia/Georgia

A leading expert on the former Soviet republics disputes the dominant American media narrative of this conflict.

Published August 11, 2008 2:33PM (EDT)

(updated below)

My guest today on Salon Radio is Professor Charles King of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He is a Professor of International Affairs and the author of several books on Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics. Professor King has an Op-Ed in this morning's Christian Science Monitor which strongly objects to the prevailing media narrative in the U.S. of the Russia-Georgia conflict.

During my discussion with Professor King, which lasted roughly 25 minutes, he examined the actual motives driving the various parties to this conflict; the misleading nature of the dominant American media themes; the extremely limited options available to the U.S. to influence the course of events; the analogy between Russia's intervention in Georgia and NATO's far lengthier and more aggressive intervention in Serbia; and the reasons for the increasingly acrimonious relationship between Russia and the U.S. A transcript of the interview will be posted shortly.

[Music: Kevin MacLeod]

UPDATE: The transcript is here.

Glenn Greenwald: I'm speaking this morning with Charles King, who's a professor in the School of Foreign Service and the Department of Government at Georgetown University. He's also the author of several books on the former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe and has an op-ed in this morning's Christian Science Monitor regarding the conflict between Georgia and Russia. Professor King, thanks for joining me this morning.

Charles King: Thank you.

GG: I want to begin with your op-ed which, among other things, challenges the predominant narrative in the media concerning this conflict, and you describe that predominant narrative this way: "Now, the story goes, Russia has at last found a way of undermining Georgia's Western aspirations, nipping the country's budding democracy, and countering American influence across Eurasia. But this view of events," you write, "is simplistic", and you go on to say that "the war began as an ill-considered move by Georgia to retake South Ossetia by force."

Now, one of the perplexing things about this conflict is that the grievances are rather long-standing, 15 years or so, and yet the various factions managed to avoid all-out war until several days ago. Is there any doubt or ambiguity about what prompted the hostilities that we see flaring up now?

CK: Well, I think there is some doubt about who fired first, who moved first, and certainly what was in the mind of President Saakashvili, the president of Georgia, that would have pushed him towards some sort of all-out assault on South Ossetia, this secessionist province that was at the core of this dispute. Really, for the last six months or so, folks in the United States who have been watching this, and in Europe, who's been watching developments in Georgia, have been very worried that Georgia would seek some sort of military solution to the secessionist struggles that have been plaguing the country now for the better part of two decades. And what seems to have happened is that Georgia decided to move quickly and decisively, hoping I think that they would be able to take South Ossetia and that Russia would be unable or unwilling to respond.

That now looks like a terrible miscalculation. The number of people who have been killed so far is really unknowable, both sides have their own numbers, but what seems to be clear, especially from reporting that been done on the ground, is that the cost in human lives and property of the initial Georgian assault on South Ossetia was extremely high. And that's another bit of the story, I think, that is not getting much play in the US media.

GG: One of the things that's a little difficult to understand is this idea that Georgia miscalculated what would be Russia's response. I mean, hasn't Russia been fairly unequivocal in the past, including the recent past, about that fact that they did intend to defend those provinces from incursions by Georgia, or an attempt to sort of take away their semi-autonomous status. It is really a surprise that Russia reacted the way that it did?

CK: Well, it's not a terrible surprise, but I think you also have to look at things from the Georgian perspective. Over the last several years, Georgia has become increasingly convinced that it's a real partner of the United States, that the US would defend Georgia - practically regardless of what Georgia did - that Georgia was simply reasserting control over bits of territory that are still internationally recognized as Georgia's own.

And so I think the Georgians' political elite, particularly the president and the people very close to him, probably convinced themselves of two things. One, that they could do this quickly and successfully, that is, re-take South Ossetia, and secondly, that if there were a Russian response - and there are very technical and geographic reasons for why the Georgians might have believed it would be difficult for the Russians to respond militarily, if they had taken South Ossetia's major road links very quickly - but if there were a Russian response, that the United States would somehow step in to defend them, and in fact both of those calculations have turned out to be wrong.

GG: Well, let's talk a little bit about the relationship between Georgia and the United States, and I realize that one can only speculate here, but do you consider it likely that Georgia would have taken this action, as risky as it was, without at least some indication to the United States ahead of time that it planned to so, whether it be something subtle or tacit, or something more explicit?

CK: Yeah, I can imagine a situation in which things escalated very quickly, that is, initial provocative move from the South Ossetian side and Georgians then decide to respond in force, and that perhaps word was gotten to the United States once the operation had already begun. Again, I think there was probably a degree of miscalculation and miscommunication in fact between Georgia and the United States.

Georgia for a long time, and in fact Georgians and the political elite and elsewhere have talked about an incident now 13 years ago, but 13 years ago actually this month in August, something called operation Storm, when the Croatian military moved into a region of its own territory called the Krajina, to oust a local secessionist Serb entity. That military operation went forward with a green light from the United States after the Croatian army had in fact been trained and equipped by the United States military, succeeded.

Now, it lead to about, hundreds of thousands of Serbs being pushed out of the area, but it allowed Croatia to reassert control over its own territory, it lead directly to the agreement, the Dayton Accords on Bosnia, and I think the Georgians had become convinced that if they could do this kind of lightning strike, and succeed, they would create a situation on the ground that the Russians would have a very difficult time countering. In the end the Georgians did not succeed militarily and now we're seeing the result of that failure.

GG: One of the aspects of miscalculation that you mention, or possible miscalculation, is the perception that if things got out of control the United States would intervene on Georgia's behalf, in order to protect them, and you see some calls from various factions inside the United States as well, neo-conservatives and others, suggesting that the United States ought to be doing more, and talking about the grave perils of allowing Russia to do this to our ally without any consequence.

Given the US's precarious condition militarily - where we're occupying two countries, fighting two wars - versus Russia's strength, and then you look at the aspect of soft power or moral credibility, there's that exchange in the UN where the US ambassador to the UN said that Russia had intended 'regime change' in Georgia, to which the Russian ambassador replied that that was an American concept, obviously referencing Iraq. Even if the US were inclined to do more, and Georgia's expectations of what we would do had been accurate, what would really our options be to intervene in any meaningful way in this conflict in a way that would influence Russia?

CK: Well, it would be absolutely impossible, I think. A great deal at this stage, in strict technical terms, not to mention the possibility of escalating what is really a very, a rather small and localized, however tragic, conflict into a confrontation between two major world nuclear powers. I mean, one can't imagine that scenario unless Russia pushes things much farther forward. I do think at the stage the ball is really in Russia's court.

From the US perspective, this is of course an illegal operation, it wasn't sanctioned by the United Nations, it doesn't fall under any kind of UN Security Council mandate, but so far, in fact the Russians have exercised a degree of restraint - that is to say, you haven't see, at least as of this morning, bombing of major Georgian cities. A few pieces of munitions seem to have gone astray, the city of Gori was hit, there may be some indications the city of Zugdidi, which is near the border with another secessionist entity, may have been hit. But these are cities are very near the zone of conflict.

If you begin to see Russian troops moving farther into Georgia proper, if you begin to see large-scale attacks on Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, then we are in a new stage of this conflict, and then it really does look like Russia's trying to do something other than go back to the status quo and protect South Ossetians and Abkhaz.

GG: Right. Now, one of the principle themes of the Bush Administration's foreign policy is the premium that's placed on safeguarding democracies, and therefore that's the theme that our media, the prism through which our media tends to view all conflicts, and that's how this current conflict is being depicted, that it's this Georgian democracy and democratic values, versus Russian aggression and autocracy.

About that theme, a couple of questions. First of all, the people in these provinces, certainly the majority, have no desire to be subject to rule by Georgia, and I guess if they had to choose, at least in the interim, they have expressed a preference to be protected by Russia rather than by the central government of Georgia.

And secondly, there's the question of how democratic the Georgian government actually is at this point. I guess there was some dispute about the legitimacy of the last election, some heavy-handed tactics by the Georgian government against political dissidents, and opposition media. Can you talk about the theme of democracy that is being used to glorify Georgia as this bastion of democratic values, and how valid or accurate that really is?

CK: Well, it is clear that Georgia in terms of the level of civil society development, the sophistication of its population, the engagement of its population with politics, is a relative rarity in the former Soviet Union, at least as you move towards the east in the former Soviet Union. And certainly it's a bit of a rarity even in the Caucasus, where in a neighboring country like Azerbaijan, you have essentially have rule by dynasty, the transfer of power from a father to a son, very difficult transition period to the south in Armenia, with rigged elections this last time around and public protests against them. So Georgia has done better than many of its neighbors, but this is not an issue of an embattled democratic country facing up to an autocratic aggressor.

If you look at Georgian actions just late last week, in the initial attack on South Ossetia, we're talking about a country that did use - Georgia - did use large-scale bombardment of a city that it claims as its own. The capital of South Ossetia has been virtually flattened because of the fighting there and a fair amount of the responsibility for that lies with Georgia. So this I think it's very simplistic to see this as the Russian autocratic bear trying to snuff out this small, beacon of democracy. There are bigger issues, geopolitical issues, human rights issues, that are at stake here as well.

GG: I want to talk for a moment about Russian perception, and what's driving the Russians. There was the Cold War, and the fall of the Soviet Union, and NATO continued to exist as an active alliance, and then continued to expand, first to former Warsaw Pact countries, and then even, prospectively, to former Soviet republics. Is there an actual perception in the Russian leadership of some sort of encirclement? How valid is that perception if there is, and what role do you think that's playing in what the Russians are doing here?

CK: Well, the Russians are certainly worried about the idea of being strategically encircled by the West, particularly by the United States. They see the US focus on democracy as being no more than an extremely cynical attempt to cloak basic US strategic interests in something other than what it is. That is to use the language of democracy to protect governments or countries that are pro-US in their foreign policy orientation. The Russians will often point out that the US doesn't seem to have any problem with autocracies that are extremely pro-US, and it does occasionally seem to have problems with democracies who aren't terribly pro-US in their foreign policy orientations. One only need look at the cooling off of relations between the United States and Turkey over the last several years to understand that point.

In the case of the expansion of NATO, and so on, Russia is very, very worried about the expansion of this military alliance, not only into former Warsaw Pact countries, which is already happened of course, but into the territory of the old Soviet Union. And Georgia is a particular concern in that regard, simply because it's right on Russia's borders, it's right on a very sensitive border for Russia - that is the area of the Caucasus, where Russia itself has fought two wars over the last fifteen years in its own secessionist region of Chechnya. So, from the Russian perspective that's very, very worrying.

It's also important, though, to underscore at the Russian public level, the degree to which what has been going on in Georgia, is perceived as a human rights issue, and it's important to understand the Russian public conception of this. They see the Georgians as having engaged in ethnic cleansing, near genocidal policies against the Abkhaz in the early 1990s, and against the South Ossetians in early 1990s, and you can't be in Russia and watch pictures of refugees flooding into southern Russia from South Ossetia looking at the video images of the city Tskhinvali that was practically leveled during the fighting, and not have a degree of sympathy with the real underdog in this fight, from the Russian perspective, and that's the South Ossetians themselves.

GG: Well, interestingly you analogized the conflicts that have given rise to this dispute to the conflicts in the Balkans, and you wrote in your op-ed, quote, "Like the Balkans in the 1990s, the central problems of this region are about the dark politics of ethnic revival and territorial struggle. The region is home to scores of brewing border disputes and dreams of nationalist homelands."

Now, at least on the surface, Russia's intervention in this conflict between Georgia and these breakaway provinces seems analogous to what the United States and NATO allies claimed, at least, they were doing with regard to their involvement in Serbia and to the province of Kosovo, and in fact there's some suggestion that the NATO support for Kosovo's independence and secession from Serbia is part of what motivated Russia's support for greater independence for these provinces.

How valid is that analogy, both in terms of what the Russians are doing in Georgia, and what NATO allies did in Serbia, and what do you think is the role that the Kosovo independence issue is playing in what Russia is doing here?

CK: Well, if we go back to the initial intervention in Kosovo, there are of course many differences. Kosovo was undertaken by NATO pursuant to an existing UN Security Council resolution, even though that Security Council resolution didn't authorize the particular military action the the US and its NATO allies took, but there was an international legal component to this, in a way that one could argue there simply isn't in the Georgia case.

On the other hand, if you look at a kind of military technical level, the nature of the intervention by NATO in Kosovo, an intervention that lasted 78 days, that led to military strikes not only against Serbian military targets inside Kosovo, but on the Serbian capital Belgrade, which is very far away from the zone of the conflict: NATO bombing bridges across the Danube river, hitting electrical supply stations, the electrical grid in Belgrade, and tragically bombing the Chinese embassy by mistake. Russia has so far not engaged in nearly that level of military conflict with Georgia.

Now, if Russia goes down that road, we'll be, I think, into a new stage of this conflict, but so far at least, Russia has not done that. The language that the Russian government is using to speak about what it's doing in Georgia is very similar to the language that was used in the Kosovo conflict. Prime Minister Putin has used the term genocide to describe what the Georgians were doing late last week in South Ossetia, they talked about the human rights dimension of this, they talked about protecting their own peace-keepers on the ground in South Ossetia and elsewhere. So, there are parallel components.

I think it's also the case that the independence of Kosovo this past February really did change the geopolitical context of the wider South East Europe, what we think about the Balkans the Black Sea and Caucasus, as being one kind of space. Because plenty of groups across that region looked at Kosovo's independence, and said, what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

GG: Now, any time there's a conflict of this sort that involves oil interests, there's always the question of what role that plays, and there's obviously a very important oil pipeline that runs from Azerbaijan to Turkey that runs through Georgia, and there's been some suggestion that this is of great interest and importance to the West, because it's a substantial amount of oil that is under the control exclusively of Western powers, doesn't need to go through Russia or Iran in order to make its way into the international market, and I guess there's a natural gas pipeline that runs adjacent or parallel to it. What's the importance of that, if any, in terms of US interests in Georgia, and in terms of what Russia's doing?

CK: Well, there's certainly a substantial US interest in making sure that the pipeline to continues to flow, that it's not damaged, the oil and gas continue to get to Western markets. I really don't see, though, this as a kind of 19th-century attempt by Russia to grab a geo-strategically important natural resource. This is not a scramble for pipelines by any stretch of the imagination. The fact that, as a side benefit of this intervention, Russia gets to make the United States and its Western allies rather nervous about oil supplies, perhaps even have a short-term affect on the market, that might be strategically a side benefit to Russia, but I don't see that as being one of the primary considerations here.

GG: Right. Now, my last question is this: Early on in the Bush presidency, before 9/11 and certainly after, there seemed to be the predominant sentiment that the US and Russia had ample opportunities for forging alliances, that the range of these common interests, in terms of opposition to Islamic radicalism and other interests, and maintaining social order in troubled parts of the world that could threaten the interests of both countries. Obviously there was the famous meeting between Bush and Putin after which Bush heaped praised on Putin's soul and character.

There seems to be a fairly radical change from the 2001, 2002, '03 period to now where we're almost back to, at least among certain factions, talking about Russia as some sort of cold warrior mentality, that it's returning to its ways, you see even now you see comparisons between Putin and Stalin, really over the top rhetoric. Even leaving aside the grave and obvious overstatements, what accounts for the obvious change from one of potential alliance to now overt acrimony between the two countries over the last few years?

CK: Well, I think there's a psychological component to this and a strategic component to it. The psychological component is that many of the opinion shapers in the United States - the folks who write on op-ed pages, editor page editors, and even really on-the-ground journalists - many of them spent a great deal of the early 1990s having quite legitimately a very hopeful attitude about Russia's future. They saw in Russia a country with this magnificent and ancient culture that was going suddenly to transform itself from a communist dictatorship into a Western style liberal democracy. And they put a lot of faith and hope in the Russian people and the Yeltsin leadership at the time, and in economic reformers this would happen relatively quickly.

It turned out to be a terrible disappointment and you now have in the United States in particular - and I should say you don't find this really in Europe or in Britain - a whole class of opinion leaders in the United States who are writing from a perspective of incredible disappointment with Russia, and therefore their views often become extremely acrimonious because they've been disappointed by the way that the Russians or the Russian leadership has handled itself, that Russia didn't become overnight the kind of liberal democracy that many of those working in and writing about Russia had believed that it would be.

The strategic component is this: that since 2003, from the Russian perspective, but not only from Russians' perspective, the United States has become the revolutionary power in global affairs. A country that was for decades committed to stability as the primary value, has now sacrificed a focus on stability for revolution, if you like. Regime change, a term that Vitaly Churkin, I think he scored one up on the US ambassador to the UN by pointing out that the term regime change was not a Russian concept but an American one. This focus on democracy at all costs.

The expansion of a military alliance of the old spheres previously held by the Soviet Union or by its military alliance, the Warsaw Pact. And so Russia sees itself really as the status quo power now - the United States in many ways, although we wouldn't see this term, sees itself as a kind of revolutionary power. It's a remarkable change from the nature of things during the Cold War, when ostensibly it was the Soviet Union that was seeking to export revolution around the world, and the United States being the country interested in the status quo.

GG: That's interesting. Professor King, thanks so much for your time this morning, it's been very interesting and I appreciate it.

CK: Okay. Thanks very much.

By Glenn Greenwald

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