Norma Percy’s documentary on the rule of Vladimir Putin gains in stature each week. Of course, it has not been without its critics, who dismiss it as pro-Putin propaganda and have sent the programme’s consultant, Angus Roxburgh, into a spin. Most of these criticisms have related to the narrator’s allegedly prejudiced tone, his use of the word separatists when he should apparently use ‘freedom fighter’ and the absence of some of the more widespread conspiracy theories, such as Edward Lucas’ well-plotted account of how a series of suspicious apartment bombings in Moscow in 1999 prefigured a coup of sorts.
However valid these critiques are on their own account, they obscure the breadth of sources used and interviews given. To have Condoleezza Rice, so recently US Secretary of State, and Sergei Lavrov, still the Russian foreign minister, discussing open sores in public can only benefit the historian or journalist. Moreover, there is certainly enough scope for viewers to pass judgement against the Russian side to the story, such as the accounts given by Rice and Lavrov of the infamous telephone conversation in which Russia effectively demanded that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvilli step down as a precondition of peace talks.
The programme does not deal a decisive blow to either the Georgian or Russian account of what is known as the 2008 South-Ossetian War, but neither does it pretend to umpire. Given the twin benefits of disinterestedness and hindsight, the War begins to appear a foolish endeavour. Russia, with its unfortunate habit of getting itself involved in skirmishes on behalf of what it sees as persecuted minorities, only to be painted as the aggressor and be humiliated by the ceasefire (The Crimean War and 1914 come to mind), looks to have come off no better here.
Georgia, whose desperation to join NATO was part of the provocation for Russia’s involvement, set back its chances of joining any Western Alliance by some years. America found itself conflicted and wrong-footed, whereas the EU chalked up a first major success in peacekeeping terms by broking the ceasefire and commissioning a report into the causes and conduct of the War.
Putin, Russia & The West undoubtedly leaves some questions open, and here are two important ones:
1. To what extent was the War the result of short-term factors, or the actual events on the ground in South Ossetia, and
2. Does this shed any light on our attitudes to nationalist separatism in the 21st Century?
At the turn of the millennium it became apparent that the unresolved political status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had become more difficult to manage and that there was no clear-cut solution in sight. At the same time, geopolitical changes became manifest, among them NATO’s eastward enlargement and a new international interest in the Caucasus region, linked to extended security considerations and energy supplies.
EU Report into the South-Ossetian War
Percy spends a perhaps slightly unhealthy amount of time on the summitry and general deal-making which is central to Great Power relations. Given the charisma of Secretary Rice and the twists and turns of American policy, this is understandable from a programming point of view, yet any case against the Americans on the basis of inconsistency or weakness towards Russia (or indeed Georgia) is summarily dismissed by Rice.
Ultimately, missile-defence shields or MAP must have played a limited role in Russia’s decision-making, for the former was irrelevant to Georgia and the latter ought to have persuaded Russia that it was on the brink of taking on the whole of NATO under Article 5. Control of oil pipelines may have played a slightly more significant role, which is hinted at in the EU report into the crisis, yet the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia was already unsustainable in 2008 and escalated very quickly.
We may never know how far Russia would have been content to continue supplying separatists with armour (a peculiar understanding of the peacekeeping role mandated to them) and kept their distance, had Georgian troop not begun shelling separatist positions. The EU Report is quite damning of the Georgians, calling their initiative illegal and disproportionate; Russia also comes in for criticism, for threatening to push on to Tbilisi, but her limited right to defend South Ossetia is relatively hard to obscure.
Had George W Bush not called Georgia a ‘beacon of freedom’ in 2005, hubris might not have got the better of Saakashvili as it undoubtedly did. Most significantly, however, this was a conflict zone that the UN saw fit to forget and at no point was it considered a big enough issue to raise until Nicholas Sarkozy bravely took it upon himself to broker a ceasefire after five miserable days.
As a power with traditionally strong links to the region and understandably enough, important political, economic and security interests there, Russia was given the role of facilitator in the Georgian-Abkhaz and the Georgian-Ossetian negotiation processes, and that of a provider of peacekeeping forces. This formula, while seemingly in line with the rules of Realpolitik, seriously affected the existing political equilibrium in the region. It meant in practice that these two conflicts could be settled not alone, when the sole interests of the Georgians, the Abkhaz and the Ossetians were duly reconciled, but that the interests of Russia had to be satisfied as well.
Were there no provision in the Constitution of the Russian Federation mandating her leaders to protect ethnic Russians overseas, such a policy would remain popular and would most likely still be pursued. The diaspora of Russians over the lands formerly under control of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union make this element of Russian foreign policy unavoidable, however one constitutional anomaly present in both the Russian and Georgian basic laws render diplomacy as effective as a blunt, rusty knife.
To deny dual citizenship, as both these countries (and others) do, is to deny a portion of each population representation. In another area, it has cost Russia some of her best talent, but in Georgia it elevated the fate of ethnic Russian Georgians from an ambassadorial matter to a foreign policy one.
Another mistake, quite forgivable at the time, was to grant to Russia the responsibility for peace-keeping in her ‘Near-Abroad’, thus formalising the sphere of interest which the EU Report sets out to crucify. Of course, Britain and the US have both intervened in areas geographically and historically close to themselves, yet the distinction between the Falklands or Grenada and the breakaway regions of Georgia is that neither Western power outwardly pledged to uphold the status quo while (not so) secretly attempting to unsettle it. This may have made sense while Russia was dealing with the old Soviet hand, Eduard Shevardnadze, but it became untenable under an independently-minded Georgian regime. The EU, which scored a first and last notable success with the ceasefire, has proved to be a relatively level-headed mediator in this role.
Was the West hypocritical about the Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia? No more so than Russia herself, which is trying to prevent the exact same consequence in Chechnya, to take one example. The Russian Empire and the Concerts of Great Powers have long since passed, yet the similarities between 2008 and 1856 do often bear out. It is this sense of pathos and waste, rather than intrigue, which Percy would do well to draw out.