What are the significant implications for US and UK foreign policy?
You could be forgiven for not being immediately familiar with the small mountain region of South Ossetia, and its capital Tskhinvali. Few people last week could have correctly identified it as (legally, at least) a province of Georgia, and fewer still would have known that its comparitively-peaceable sister region North Ossetia remained a part of the Russian Federation.
The two provinces consider themselves to be a single ethnolinguistic entity, and dispute Georgia’s claims to ownership of the Southern aspect of Ossetia. The Russians have long recognised the semi-autonomy of the region, and even allows the Cossacks to police their own region, as long as they do not act contrary to the activities of Russian law enforcement. Georgia’s insistence on its territorial integrity, supported by the Americans, means that it has fought skirmishes with South Ossetians, requiring Russian peacekeeping troops to maintain a ceasefire.
Under the cover of the Olympics, with Vladimir Putin abroad, Georgia moved its military into South Ossetia, taking the capital. Russia has responded, it says to protect its peacekeepers and citizens who are identified as Russian, and has driven the Georgian army out of the capital and is bombing deeper inside the former Soviet Republic. The UN Security Council has held two emergency meetings, but cannot agree language to demand a cease to the fighting. With many world leaders in China for the Olympics, or on holiday, this does not look like being resolved quickly, except by force.
This conflict could be significant for a number of reasons. Georgia is extremely keen to become a member of NATO – a position supported in principle by the US, with France and Germany the staunchest advocates against her admission. Russia is understandably opposed, seeing this as evidence that NATO is still strategically a means of chaining the Great Bear. Continental Europe lives in fear that angering Putin or Medvedev could have a detrimental effect on oil and gas supplies from the East. Russia is concerned that a broader alliance of NATO and former Soviet-bloc countries would threaten its growing presence on the global stage. It is worth noting that had Georgia already been admitted to NATO, then that organisation (including the US and UK) would be forced to help Georgia repel the Russian incursion into South Ossetia. How such a scenario might play out is beyond me.
The wider issue is that the international community has no agreed framework for the independence demands of small ‘nations’. This means that each case is taken on its merits, or rather is judged in terms of politics by each country adjudicating, which can lead to inconsistency. The US supports the integrity of Georgia’s borders, including keeping South Ossetia, and yet was an out-spoken advocate of Kosovan independence. One can only speculate on how the people of Grozny feel when they hear the Kremlin talk about the sovereign rights of the people of Ossetia to be autonomous.
In the US, most of the foreign policy questions for the candidates to take a position upon have centred (understandably) around Iraq and Israel/Palestine. If this conflict continues into the autumn, then both candidates will need to formulate complex yet saleable positions on how to deal with everything from perceived Russian aggression to the US support for small independence movements to reform of the United Nations Security Council. Conventional wisdom holds that all discussion of things military and overseas benefits John McCain, and there may be an ‘unreconstructed Cold Warrior’ vote that could be harnessed with more aggressive rhetoric against the Kremlin. Conversely, Obama may be seen as a leader more likely to pacify Russia’s militaristic tendencies, and to bring the international community along with him. Most American’s might prefer the Republican view of UN reform, but then any discussion that invoves the difficult names of former Warsaw Pact capital cities is perhaps not liekly to be as welcome for McCain’s campaign, given his recent mentions of ‘Czechoslovakia’ and ‘President Putin of Germany’.
In the UK, this will only intensify the spotlight on Foreign Secretary David Miliband, whose tenure at the FCO has been comparitively quiet when compared to his predecessors. The extent to which Gordon Brown wishes to deal with this crisis personally (as a world leader, or just to spite his likely-rival for the leadership) will be another key consideration.
We might not have known much of South Ossetia last week, but being a Presidential election year in the US (and maybe less than a year from a General Election in the UK), the conflict in this small mountain region could well have much broader consequences.