A New Cold War?

US columnist Thomas Friedman's theory that no two nations with McDonald's branches in them have fought a war with each other (The Lexus and the Olive Tree, 1999) has been proved wrong yet again, as Georgia and Russia fought a scenic and old fashioned war that also involved air strikes and naval battles in addition to ground attacks. And one can't say this latest conflict is just remotely connected to the events that proved the Pulitzer winning author wrong the first time round - the NATO bombing of Russia's ally Serbia in 1999, which in the long run led to Kosovo's declaration of independence early this year. In true Caucasus tradition, an eye for an eye.

By all accounts, Russia did not start it (even US commentators have had to admit that the initial Russian response to Georgian shelling of South Ossetian villages was "appropriate", it was only
after they crossed the physical line deep into Georgia that they crossed the line, so to speak). But how delighted the Russians must have been when the US-educated Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a former American citizen, and his 29-year-old Defence Minister Davit Kezerashvili, a former Israeli citizen, provided them with the opportunity to have a go at them as if they were sitting ducks. And sitting ducks they were.

The Israeli-trained Georgian army is not a bad one, by most standards, armed with sophisticated western, Israeli and Ukrainian weapons. However, Saakashvili's dreams of earning himself a place in history by starting World War III - the Russia vs the West face-off that never happened even during the Cold War - remained exactly that: a dream. Frantically crying for help, he became the prophet of impending doom - the Russians are out to get Eastern Europe. All he got was humanitarian assistance from the US. 

Saakashvili must have been banking on a lot more than that. Ever since the ‘Rose Revolution' in 2003, which saw the back of former president Eduard Shevardnadze, Saakashvili's highly pro-western government has been eager to get into the NATO. Always a thorn in Russia's side, it even sent 2,000 of its best troops to Iraq to support US-led forces to occupied Baghdad (they were promptly called back after Russia struck). And, of course, there are the Baku pipelines.

But how likely is it, even by neo-con standards, that the US would want to get itself bogged down
in the Caucasus, right in Russia's own backyard, while it's fighting a war in Iraq? Evidently not much, as last month's events proved. What happens in the Caucasus, better stay there. Even Israel, which had considerable stake in Georgia, largely through personal connections and arms hustlers, has gradually been trying to distance
itself from Saakashvili's upstart government because the last thing it would want is to have both Russia and Iran against it. It's okay to sell a few weapons or unmanned drones here and there, but to make it too obvious is courting disaster.

Somewhere, there could be a lot of relief that a significant chunk of the European Union was not terribly keen on getting Georgia into the NATO. Who would want to anger the Russians? With Georgia as the only route into the west for Caspian Sea oil and gas not controlled by Russia or Iran (Armenia has its differences with Turkey, and is seen as too close to Russia), the memo might have been to just stay put. Georgia missed the memo.

As Georgia licks its wounds, Russia has emerged stronger than ever in the post-Soviet era and President Dimitry Medvedev (read ‘Prime Minister' Vladimir Putin) sees it fit to dictate terms. And the people of South Ossetia and Abkhazia would see themselves better off under a distant Moscow than an alarmingly nearby Tblisi.

For the Americans, who have a different Georgia on their minds, this was also an opportunity to judge their presidential candidates, real-time. John McCain and Barack Obama released their respective statements as Russia invaded its tiny neighbour. While Obama's statement was largely filled with feel-good outrage and the need for the Security Council (of which Russia is a member with veto power!) to sort this out, McCain was more direct at hinting a NATO role.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, the US has signed a missile shield deal with Poland, and we all know who that is aimed at. Maybe the Cold War has begun again.