There aren't many issues on The Bug Pit's radar that have much political resonance in Washington (or elsewhere), but the Russia-Georgia war is by far the most significant. As someone who had already been following the region for a while before the 2008 war, it was dispiriting to see how, over the few days that that war lasted, how polarizing the issue became. Before the war, there wasn't a conservative or liberal way to see Georgia -- pretty much everyone in the small cohort of people who paid attention to the Caucasus, no matter what their political views, understood that Russia was aggressive, Georgia was reckless, and that could end badly there. But over the short duration of the war, people who had never previously paid attention to the region tried quickly to figure out what was going on, and the easiest way to do that is to make it a partisan issue. So conservatives said Russia started the war, liberals said Georgia started it, and then a couple of weeks after the shooting stopped, everyone more or less stopped thinking about it, and their opinions calcified at that. So when you write about the Georgia war, you expect a little more attention -- people in Washington's ears perk up, and they read to see whether you confirm their bias about what happened, or if you're a warmongering neocon/feckless stooge of the Kremlin.
Rice and Saakashvili at a July 2008 press conference in Tbilisi
Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says Georgian President Saakashvili alienated potential NATO allies by "letting the Russians provoke him" into starting a war over South Ossetia. That's in her new book where, as with the controversy over Uzbekistan, she portrays herself as the voice of reason, in this case trying to contain the impulsive Saakashvili while also restraining the more bellicose members of her own administration.
She describes a meeting in Tbilisi with Saakashvili before the war broke out:
He's proud and can be impulsive, and we all worried that he might allow Moscow to provoke him to use force. In fact, he himself successfully provoked conflict in another breakaway part of the country, Adjara, and benefited when it had been reintegrated into Georgia through domestic and international pressure. The precedent, we feared, might make him think he could get away with a repeat performance in the territories located closer to Putin's beloved Sochi.
She urged Saakashvili to sign a non-use-of-force agreement, and he refused.
"Mr. President, whatever you do, don't let the Russians provoke you. You remember when President Bush said that Moscow would try to get you to do something stupid. And don't engage Russian military forces. No one will come to your aid, and you will lose," I said sternly.
Here's how she describes the start of the war, the evening of August 7:
Despite Georgia's unilateral ceasefire earlier in the day, South Ossetian rebel forces continued shelling ethnic Georgian villages in and around the capital, Tskhinvali. In response, the Georgian military commenced a heavy military offensive against the rebels..."
Now that the Bush administration has been gone a few years, its principals are coming out with memoirs of their time in the White House, and with them come a little more insight into U.S. government policymaking in the oughts. My colleague Giorgi Lomsadze has already reported on the small furor that Condoleezza Rice's new book has made among Armenian-Americans, but she's probably not going to make Donald Rumsfeld, or the government of Uzbekistan, any happier.
Like Rumsfeld, she recounts into the internal debate in the administration about how to respond to the massacre at Andijan, which was particularly delicate given that the U.S. was then maintaining a key air base at Karshi-Khanabad. Rumsfeld, you'll recall, in his own memoir called the U.S. response to Andijan “one of the most unfortunate, if unnoticed, foreign policy mistakes of our administration" because it privileged human rights concerns over strategic interests. In her book, Rice explains her side of the story, and how she won over President George W. Bush:
We'd crossed swords, for instance, on Uzbekistan where, after bloody riots in May 2005, State had issued a tough human rights report against the regime. The Uzbek president, Islam Karimov, had responded by threatening to expel us from the military base that he'd allowed us into at the time of the invasion of Afghanistan. Let us recall that we'd paid a small fortune for the privilege, but the dictator felt no obligation to honor that deal and said so.
A 2008 event in which U.S. special operations soldiers trained their Kyrgyzstan counterparts was a "success" -- except for the part when the Americans were relieved of their money and their weapons by the Kyrgyz. That's the unlikely assessment given by a U.S. embassy official in a Wikileaked cable.The cable was written in January 2009 for General David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. Central Command, ahead of his visit to the country.
Check out this extraordinary paragraph:
We assess Kyrgyz Special Forces to be among the best in the region and very receptive to SOF [special operations forces] engagement. In August 2008, we conducted training with the Alphas, the operational arm of the State Security Committee. While the training was a success, it was marred by the seizure by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, of the team's equipment, to include personal items, money and all the team's weapons kits. The Embassy has engaged the Kyrgyz Government up to the Presidential level to secure the release of the equipment but, to date, they have returned only a small portion of the weapons. The incident has also highlighted the need for increased coordination between the U.S. and Kyrgyz authorities to ensure smooth, successful future training engagements. Your visit can help move us closer to resolution of this issue.
Ever since Almazbek Atambayev won last month's presidential elections in Kyrgyzstan and promptly announced that he would close the U.S.'s Manas air base, there has been a lot of handwringing about Manas's future. Those inclined to armchair geopoliticking saw it as a victory for Russia, while others dismissed it as a bargaining ploy, an attempt to squeeze more money out of the Pentagon next time the terms of the base came up for negotiations. After all, that's what happened in the past when Kyrgyzstan's government threatened to close the base. But Lincoln Mitchell, writing in The Faster Times, has a different interpretation:
The situation today is different. Atanbaev’s position does not appear to be a case of simply trying to line his pockets with more American money, but has expressed his view based on his country’s geographical and strategic proximity to Russia and a fear that having a U.S. air force base just outside of his country’s capital could create security concerns for Kyrgyzstan. While this position is not what the U.S. wants to hear, it is also reasonable and can plausibly said to be representing the interests of the Kyrgyz people.
Atambayev in fact campaigned on a promise to close the base, calculating -- apparently correctly -- that that was a winning position. Mitchell continues:
Heads of government of the SCO states pose in St. Petersburg
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization held a prime minister-level meeting on Monday in St. Petersburg, and from the outcome it appears the group is continuing its trajectory away from being a security group -- as it appeared to be in the mid-oughts -- toward being a more economically oriented body.
Most intriguingly, the proposals that came out of the meeting seem to dovetail remarkably with those of the U.S. and its New Silk Road -- i.e., building infrastructure in Central Asia to help the region become a hub of commerce between Europe and Asia, along the way building prosperity and stability. Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said that Moscow would contribute $500 million to the CASA-1000 electricity project, by which hydropower from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan would be transmitted to India and Pakistan. And he endorsed the idea of the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline. Both of those projects, you'll recall, are also centerpieces of the U.S.'s new New Silk Road initiative. Putin's speech at the SCO meeting echoed some of Washington's rhetoric of the New Silk Road:
I believe that we need to form a strong infrastructural outline of the Shanghai Organisation. Primarily, we need this in order to further expand our respective national economies, and to create new points of growth and additional opportunities for the people of our nations. Secondly, this will help realise the huge transit potential of the region and secure its role as a link between Europe and the Asian-Pacific Region.
A train crash in southern Uzbekistan in late September led to speculation that it was related to U.S. military transport to Afghanistan on the Northern Distribution Network, but the U.S. says the cargo on the ill-fated train wasn't theirs.
The crash happened September 25 near Tangimush, in Sukhandarya province. It doesn't seem to have been acknowledged by the Uzbekistan government, but some witnesses reported the news to Radio Ozodlik (in Russian) and took photos. Four people were killed.
This is the same line that was the subject of a Wikileaked cable that this blog mentioned a few months ago. In that cable, a local informant reported to the U.S. embassy in Tashkent that the new line, which was being used for NDN cargo, was built on such steep terrain that it necessitated riding the brakes on such a long descent that they were glowing red by the time it reached the bottom:
XXXXXXXXXXXX's description of current operations on the Karshi-Termez rail line is cause for concern. XXXXXXXXXXXX underlined this by saying he himself refused to travel on the line under current conditions. His description of wheels that are red hot by the end of the mountain crossing implies that a train wreck is possible in the literal sense.
I asked the State Department about the September crash, and this is the statement they provided:
Some media reports indicated that the train was carrying fuel; however, the cargo did not belong to the US government. This route is also used for commercial cargo transportation, and this appears to have been a commercial cargo shipment...
Russia is trying to get its putative allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization to adopt unified official positions on issues from human rights, terrorism and even World War II history, with the aim of making the group speak with a single voice on foreign policy issues. That's according to a report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant and summarized in English by Ferghana News. According to Kommersant, CSTO members received a draft nine-page document of the "collective directives" on September 26, and that the issue will be formally taken up at a CSTO summit in Moscow next month.
From Ferghana's account:
A nine-page long paper embraces such areas as countering attempts of falsification of the history (primarily meaning the history of the World War II), as well as areas like international security and disarmament, anti-missile defense, cooperation between CSTO and OSCE with NATO, situation in Afghanistan, response to international terrorism, drugs and organized crime, as well as human rights. The countries of the alliance are going to make joint statements and coordinate their positions in respect to the above issues in front of such organizations as UN, OSCE and other international forums.
Russia's envoy to the CSTO Igor Lyakin-Frolov told Kommersant: "Collective directives -- this is an important tool to determine the main targets of our common foreign policy." And he added that a key goal of this was to gain NATO recognition of the group:
[T]he new initiative should, according to Mr. Lyakina-Frolov, "make the CSTO visible and important international institution with a serious military and political weight, which will be listened to in the world...
Afghanistan's neighbors agree to cooperate on Afghanistan, but where's Uzbekistan?
Foreign ministers from Afghanistan and its neighboring countries gathered in Istanbul yesterday to discuss plans for maintaining stability in Central Asia after the U.S. and NATO start pulling their troops out of Afghanistan in 2014. At the meeting, participants signed a document (pdf) supporting what is called the "Istanbul process." The document is full of the sort of lofty platitudes that meetings like this usually produce, and is uncontroversial enough for countries with such diverse interests as China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran to have signed on. In a briefing after the meeting, a senior State Department official noted the broad support the statement got:
[W]e thought it was also interesting that Afghanistan’s neighbors and near-neighbors, and I include here Pakistan, India, China, Russia, Iran – as you’ll see from the statement, have really spoken in one voice to assure Afghanistan of their support for Afghan-led reconciliation and transition to Afghan national security forces.
But one country was conspicuously missing in the list of signatories: Uzbekistan.
Uzbekistan was one of the 14 countries that, as recently as Monday, State Department officials were calling "key partners" in this. But the final list included only 13 signatories. And the State Department statements do not mention Uzbekistan at all. (All of the other post-Soviet Central Asian states signed on.)
Georgia's billionaire/politician Bidzina Ivanishvili has given his first press conference in which he expanded on his views on defense and foreign policy, which have been the matter of some speculation since he entered the political arena.
He reiterated, but in stronger terms, his previous assessment that it was Georgia, not Russia, who started the war over South Ossetia. From Civil.ge's report:
Citing Tagliavini report, Ivanishvili said that it was Georgia, which had triggered off the August war with Russia. He said that President Saakashvili responded to shelling of Georgian villages in the conflict zone in August, 2008 with “absolute recklessness by shelling Tskhinvali.”
He also cited a resolution of the Parliamentary Assembly of Council of Europe (PACE) and said that both the resolution, supported by the Georgian delegation, and Tagliavini report were saying that Georgia started the war. He was apparently refereeing to the PACE’s October, 2008 resolution, which at the time was at the time became an issue for debates in the Georgian politics.
“Everyone in the world knows everything very well. [The Georgian authorities] are trying to mislead the Georgian population; Saakashvili’s [version] is: Russia’s started the war and we have won it… We should learn to face the truth,” he said.
I'll be very curious to see how that goes over in Georgia.
However, if Georgia's Western allies are wondering whether he would continue Tbilisi's strong partnership with them, Ivanishvili said he would maintain Georgia's troop presence in Afghanistan, but was evasive on the question of NATO membership: