The Russian position is clear. Moscow sees itself as being the victim of massive Western propaganda -- a media manipulation that has portrayed Georgia as the victims rather than the aggressors.
"The very scale of this cynicism is astonishing -- the attempt to turn white into black, black into white and to adeptly portray victims of aggression as aggressors," Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said on Monday. And then he got cynical himself.
A distraught Georgian woman leaving her hometown of Gori following Russian shelling on Tuesday.Foto: Getty Images
"They of course had to hang Saddam Hussein for destroying several Shiite villages," Putin said. "But the current Georgian rulers, who in one hour simply wiped 10 Ossetian villages from the face of the earth are players that have to be protected."
The mistrust, in short, is deep. Even after Georgia announced its unilateral cease-fire on Monday, Russia continued fighting, insisting that Tbilisi too had not completely stopped operations. Now, Moscow too has announced an end to the violence. But a major question continues to loom: Is a return to the pre-war status still possible? Wouldn't such a solution simply presage a resumption of the current conflict? Wouldn't violence break out again?
No Surprise to Anyone
The war in the Caucasus isn't merely an escalation in the long-standing conflict between Georgia and its breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Rather, it has also highlighted the opposing geopolitical interests of Russia, Europe and the US. The voices in the West calling for Georgia's "territorial integrity" to be protected came as no surprise to anyone. Neither did the Kremlin's decision to send its tanks into the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali. In both cases, each side was merely following its established political strategy. The Kremlin had to react militarily to Georgia's offensive, just as the US had to insist on Georgia's unity -- otherwise both powers would have lost credibility.
In recent years, Russia expanded its mediation role in the conflicts between Georgia and its renegade regions until it ended up as the de facto protector of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Both regions are economically dependent on Russia, their inhabitants have Russian passports and draw pensions from Russia. Their internationally isolated governments regard Russia as the only reliable partner.
Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili took a big gamble with his military offensive against South Ossetia, which began last Thursday evening. Can Georgia seriously have believed it could face down the Russian army? Hardly. It was obviously banking on the support of Europe and especially of the US. But the West's solidarity has so far been limited to words. The Georgian leader quickly responded by taking on the victim's role -- and likened Russia's behavior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Suddenly he started talking about "Russia aggression" even though he himself had launched the offensive against Tskhinvali.
True Geopolitical Aims
But the Kremlin is no less skilled at spin. Moscow is playing the role of humanitarian power, as self-less saviour of the oppressed South Ossetians. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said his most important task is "to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens wherever they are." Putin described the actions of Georgian troops in South Ossetia as "genocide."
Russia's professed concern for its citizens masks its true geopolitical aims and its determination to keep control of the conflict-ridden Caucasus.
But not all Russians accept this strategy. Alongside the gushing reports in Russia's media, there has also been a certain amount of critique in recent days. The daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta complained, of course, that the West, by condemning "Russian behavior in sovereign Georgia," appears to have forgotten who started the aggression. But in the editorial pages, the paper wrote about some of the myths that the war had helped debunk. One of those, commentator Julia Petrovskaya wrote, was the Western myth that Russia wanted to destroy democracy in Georgia. Another, though, was the myth perpetrated in Russia that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili was pursuing genocide in South Ossetia.
The war in the Caucasus has not done much to change the situation there, Petrovskaya wrote. "Georgia hasn't distanced itself from NATO as Russia might have hoped, and it also has not become closer to NATO as Saakashvili seems to have counted on when he gave the order to march toward Tskinvali." In short, the commentator writes, "Russia is without a doubt vastly superior militarily and can bring the rebel territories back under its control. But strategically, it will not win."
So what comes next? When is the war at an end? At the moment, even with Russia's announcement that hostilities are coming to an end, there are more questions than answers. One thing, though, is sure. Neither Russia nor the US wants to become involved in a wider war in the Caucasus.
The West has demanded that the "territorial integrity" of Georgia be respected -- code for keeping both South Ossetia and Abkhazia formally part of Georgia. Such an arrangement is not to the Kremlin's liking -- should Saakashvili retain control of the two regions, Georgia's eventual NATO membership, which Moscow would like to prevent, becomes more likely.
But an official recognition of independence for the two provinces would also be inconvenient for Russia. Were that to happen, Russia would have to explain why independence is right for South Ossetia and Abkhazia but not for Chechnya. The region's current instability, in other words, is not likely to improve any time soon.
Still, Russia isn't likely to give up any control over the Caucasus. And there is even a chance that the Moscow bear hug might become tighter. The residents of both South Ossetia and Abkhazia turned to Russia to prevent excessive Georgian control. But they also aren't keen on too much Russian control -- a risk now that Moscow has taken them firmly under its wing.
Should both sides completely withdraw its forces from the region, the conflict won't just disappear either. Even were Russia and Georgia to return to the status quo, there is little assurance that fighting wouldn't resume again soon. Peace, in that case, would merely be the calm before the next storm.