The Return of Russia


The question of responsibility for the conflict in the Caucasus didn’t trouble us for long.  Less than a week after the Georgian attack, two French commentators, experts on all things, pronounced it “obsolete.”  An influential American neo-conservative had set the tone for them.  Knowing who started the conflict is “not very important,” Robert Kagan opined, because, “[i]f Saakashvili had not fallen into Putin’s trap this time, something else would have eventually sparked the conflict.”1  One hypothesis calls for another: if it had not been the young polyglot Saakashvili, a graduate of Columbia Law School in New York, who initiated a military operation, on the day of the opening ceremony of the Olympics no less, would Western governments and their media have held back their outrage against such a heavily symbolic act?

But when you know good and bad characters in advance, it is easier to follow the story.  The good, like Georgia, have a duty to protect their territorial integrity from separatist schemes hatched by their neighbors; the bad, like Serbia, would have to agree to the self-determination of their Albanian minority (Kosovo) . . . or else be subjected to the bombing by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).  The moral of the story gets even more edifying when, to defend his territory, the good pro-American president brings home a division of soldiers whom he sent . . . to invade Iraq.

On the 16th of August, President George W. Bush correctly invoked, with all seriousness, the “resolutions” of the “United Nations Security Council” and the “sovereignty and independence and territorial integrity” of Georgia whose “borders should command the same respect as every other nation’s.”  It follows that only the United States must have the right to act unilaterally when it perceives (or pretends) that its security is at stake.  In reality, this series of events follows a simpler logic: Washington uses Georgia (and vice versa) to work against Russia; Moscow uses not only South Ossetia but also Abkhazia to “punish” Georgia.

Since 1992, two reports of the Pentagon have explored the question of how to prevent a possible resurgence of the then crumbling Russian power.  These reports indicated that, to perpetuate the American hegemony born of the victory of the United States in the Gulf War and the breakup of the Soviet bloc, it was important to “[convince] potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role.”   And, failing to convince them, Washington must “discourage” them.  The main target of these considerations?  Russia, “the only power in the world with the capability of destroying the United States.”2

Can we then blame the Russian leadership for having experienced Western assistance to the “color revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia, former Warsaw Pact allies’ membership in the NATO, and the installation of American missiles on Polish soil as elements of the old strategy aimed to weaken their country, whatever its regime?  Besides, Mr. Bernard Kouchner, French Foreign Minister, admitted as much: “Russia has become a great power, which is worrisome.”3

The architect in 1980 of the very dangerous Afghan strategy of Washington (giving military support to Islamists to defeat communists. . .), Mr. Zbigniew Brzezinski has spelled out another aspect of the American design: “Georgia is of strategic importance because we have access through Georgia, through a pipeline that runs from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, through Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, down to Turkey, and to the Mediterranean Ocean, a pipeline which gives us access to the oil, and soon also the gas, that lies not only in Azerbaijan, but beyond it in the Caspian Sea, and beyond it in Central Asia.  So, in that sense, it’s a major and very important strategic asset to us.”4  Mr. Brzezinski cannot be accused of inconstancy: even when Russia was at its nadir in the era of Boris Yeltsin, he was trying to chase it out of the Caucasus and Central Asia to secure energy supply for the West.5  Since then, Russia has fared better, the United States worse, and oil is now more expensive.  A victim of its own president’s provocations, Georgia is being buffeted by the clash of these three dynamics.

1  Respectively, Bernard-Henri Lévy and André Glucksmann in the 14 August 2008 issue of Libération and Robert Kagan in the 11 August 2008 issue of the Washington Post.

2  Cf. Paul-Marie de La Gorce, “Washington et la maîtrise du monde,” Le Monde diplomatique, April 1992.

3  Interview, Journal du dimanche, Paris, 17 August 2008.

4  Bloomberg Television, 12 August 2008.

5  Zbigniew Brzezinski, Le Grand Echiquier, Paris: Bayard, 1997.

Serge Halimi is a French journalist of Tunisian origin.  He has written for Le Monde diplomatique since 1992 and served as the magazine’s editorial director since March 2008.  The original article “Retour russe” appears in the September 2008 issue of Le Monde diplomatique.  English Translation by Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at]

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