Britain’s impotence over war in Georgia

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The international response to the military action of Russian and Georgian imperialism in and around South Ossetia was mixed. While only a small minority of ruling classes attacked Georgia (Cuba and Kazakhstan among them), the condemnations of Russian imperialism took many forms.

In Europe, countries like Germany, France and Italy were more restrained in their criticisms, partly out of pragmatism - they are very aware of their dependency on energy supplies from Russia. More importantly, perhaps is the fact that Germany and France in particular have for a long time been pursuing a particular, more conciliatory approach towards Russia. By contrast, the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Sweden and Britain were prepared to make the strongest denunciations of Russian aggression, quickly resorting to images of the Cold War. In the words of Foreign Secretary David Miliband, this was a "chilling" reminder of the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.

What do these criticisms really amount to? If you look at the US, the only military superpower in the world, you can see how little the condemnations mean. Dick Cheney, the US Vice President, visited Georgia and could say little more threatening than "Russia's actions have cast grave doubt on Russia's intentions and on its reliability as an international partner". Miliband and Tory leader David Cameron also went to Georgia. The latter said that the West should be doing more, without actually spelling out what that might be, other than increasing ‘diplomatic pressure'. Miliband just went through the usual routine on the violation of Georgia's territorial integrity.

That's all that Britain can do. Financially constrained by a deepening economic crisis, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, its armed forces already overstretched, it can only afford empty rhetoric. It's true that some of the British have been more forceful in their language, but that will be like water off a duck's back to the likes of Putin and Medvedev. Gordon Brown, for example, in an article entitled This is how we will stand up to Russia's naked aggression' (Observer 31/8/8), said it was necessary to demonstrate "to Russia that its actions have real consequences". Apart from Britain wanting to reduce its energy dependence on Russia, there's no way of knowing what these "consequences" could possibly be.

Brown said there was a need to re-evaluate NATO's "relationship with Russia, and intensify our support to Georgia". What support? At least the US could announce a $1bn aid package to Georgia, and the IMF a loan of $750m. Britain is giving £2m to the Red Cross.

Both Labour and Tory figures have talked of the need to ‘fast-track' Georgian and Ukrainian membership of NATO. What would that accomplish? Poland and the Czech Republic have joined NATO, but US plans to incorporate them in its missile defence system have only lead to threats from Russia. The US has armed and trained Georgian forces for years, but always warned Saakashvili not to be so provocative. He thought he would still get military support during a conflict with Russia. How wrong he was. Neither the US, nor Britain (nor Poland etc) was going to war with Russia over South Ossetia.

If British ‘support' for Georgia is flimsy, its criticisms of Russia also look pretty thin in the light of its own actions. It recognised a breakaway Kosovo despite Serbian protests, yet denounced Russian recognition of breakaway South Ossetia. It took part in the bombings of Serbia and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but condemned the Russian presence in Georgia. British imperialism has little to offer except hypocrisy.  

Car 05/09/08

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