Grave mistake to blindly criticize Russia

Throughout the election campaign so far there has been the usual inter-party mudslinging, attempted character assassinations and a number of political mountains made from otherwise innocuous molehills.

All news perspective seems lost when the saga of the U.S. financial meltdown gets overshadowed by calls for Agricultural Minister Gerry Ritz to resign over a controversial joke made during a conference call in late August.

Admittedly Ritz’s attempt at black humour was tasteless given the circumstances and the fact that the listeriosis outbreak has claimed the lives of 17 Canadians. However, were it not for the mid-election media feeding frenzy it is unlikely that this snippet from what was thought to be a private conversation would ever have been aired in public.

That said, some of the more significant comments which have been made on the campaign trail have been completely overlooked by the press corps.

For instance, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was quoted as saying NATO’s failure to accept Georgia into the alliance at last April’s summit led directly to the armed clashes with Russia in August.

"I think if we had taken a stronger position on the membership of (Georgia and the Ukraine), we would not have had the Russian aggression," said Harper, adding, "I think that showing weakness or hesitation encourages this type of behaviour on the part of Russia."

At the April NATO summit, Canada supported the U.S. initiative to hasten the entry of Georgia and the Ukraine into the alliance, but the motion was blocked by several European countries. Both Germany and France opined that such a move would serve as an unnecessary provocation to Russia. Of particular concern was the fact that Georgia has two simmering sovereignty issues, in the autonomous regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, along the Russian border.

During the bloody clashes that heralded Georgia’s secession from the former Soviet Union South Ossetian and Abkhazian forces declared their own independence from the central Tbilisi Georgian government. Since 1994, this situation has remained unresolved, with Russian peacekeepers deployed in the buffer zones.

In recent referendums Abkhazia and South Ossetia have voted to remain affiliated with Russia rather than accept the administration of Tbilisi. As events unfolded during the summer, the caution of the European NATO countries proved well-founded. On Aug. 8, following a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili launched a bold military attack to overwhelm South Ossetia.

As the world’s attention was focused on the opening ceremonies of the Bejiing Olympics, Georgian tanks rolled into the disputed territory. Although former Russian president Vladimir Putin was en route to China, the Georgian strike did not take the Russians by surprise.

Within hours, well-prepared Russian armoured divisions had entered from North Ossetia, routed the Georgians from South Ossetia and advanced into the Georgian city of Gori.

Despite all the war-drum banging and fear-mongering in Washington, it soon became clear that Russia was not intending to annex all of Georgia, let alone invade the rest of the free world. Having made their point, and demonstrated their dominance, the Russian tanks drew back inside the previous boundaries of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

To bolster its position, Russia has now formally recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent countries. With their proxy, Georgia, bloodied in this first round, the U.S. has pledged additional support for Saakashvili, flown home 2,000 Georgian soldiers from their mission in Iraq and dispatched warships to deliver "humanitarian aid" to Georgia’s Black Sea ports. For those familiar with the Caucasus region, its strategic importance is clearly understood.

It is a minefield of inter-ethnic conflicts, the epicentre of Russian, Iranian and Turkish zones of influence, not to mention the most vital conduit of oil on the planet — including the central Asian and vast Caspian Sea reserves. America is playing a dangerous game by provoking a revitalized Russian Bear at the very entrance of its own den.

By blindly supporting Bush’s position in this developing drama, Harper is making a grave mistake.

Of course, it would be difficult for Canada to plot any alternative course due to the fact that we maintain absolutely no diplomatic footprint in the entire Caucasus. All of the complex intrigue in the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan is monitored remotely from the Canadian Embassy in Ankara, Turkey — 1,000 kilometres away.

As an endnote to his comments on the Georgia crisis, Harper declared "Russia does not have a right to dictate decisions outside its own borders."

Given our lack of independent intelligence in the Caucasus, I humbly suggest that the same could be said of Canada in this instance.

[Source: By Scott Taylor, Chronicle Herald, Can, 22Sep08. Scott Taylor is the publisher of Esprit de Corps military magazine and author of several books]

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The Question of South Ossetia
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