At press time, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev declared a halt of military operations against the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
The Russian incursion into Georgia has been roundly criticized in the press, with many of the same think-tank pundits that pushed for the US invasion of Iraq now calling for American action against the Russian bear, drawing parallels to Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia.
Sergei Khrushchev, a senior fellow at Brown University, sees it differently.
The son of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev — best known for his standoff with John F. Kennedy during the Cuba Missile Crisis — says that despite the clamor about geo-political interests and pipelines, it’s a case of Russia coming to the aid of its citizens.
Trouble started brewing between South Ossetia and Georgia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. According to Khrushchev, when the South Ossetians declared themselves autonomous in 1990, then-Georgian president Zviad Gamsakhurdia vowed to “exterminate” them. After a few years of skirmishing, hostilities ended with South Ossetia declaring victory and self-proclaimed independence. An uneasy peace ensued over the last 15 years, and the United Nations still considers the province officially part of Georgia.
Khrushchev points out that current Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili is cozy with the Bush Administration. With an American election just months away, Khrushchev surmises that Saakashvili saw this as a last chance to take advantage of the relationship, lobbing artillery shells into Tskhinvali — the South Ossetian capital — last Friday, hoping “his good friend” Bush “will send the Marines.”
Russia “is not interested in Georgia,” says Khrushchev, but could not stand by as the South Ossetians, who hold full Russian citizenship, were being attacked: “Our enemy is killing us and you do nothing.”
Pointing to reports of alleged Georgian atrocities against the South Ossetians (Tskhinvali has been flattened, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said thousands of citizens had been killed), Khrushchev reminds us that Bush “started two wars” after the attacks on 9/11 killed 3000 American citizens.
The Russians are similarly sending in their troops “to protect their citizens,” he says.
It’s not about oil, says Khrushchev. He thinks the Russians will neither stay long nor try to take control of an American pipeline there.
It’s no different than Kosovo declaring its independence, says Khrushchev.
He draws a parallel: “if your wife wants to divorce you, you have to accept this — not kill her.”
He guesses that the Russians don’t want the expense of a long occupation like the one experienced by the US in Iraq, though they will likely create a buffer area as they pull back into Ossetia.
And despite Russia’s overwhelming numbers, Khrushchev says these battles have demonstrated yet again the precarious state of the Russian military: a lack of precision weaponry, and Georgian forces shooting down some of its planes.
And what if Georgia were given a free hand in South Ossetia?
“They will kill these people,” says Khrushchev.