Two of the world’s superpowers are currently involved in wars against small countries. The US invaded Iraq in 2003 to extensive international condemnation. More recently, Russia invaded Georgia in response to a Georgian attempt to seize South Ossetia. There are striking differences in these invasions and the world’s reaction to them.
The differences in these wars start long before fighting broke out. In the case of Iraq, the US pursued diplomatic efforts through the United Nations for twelve years before President Bush decided that an invasion was necessary. There were multiple UN resolutions that condemned Saddam Hussein and required UN inspections of Iraq’s weapons programs. UN resolution 1441 declared that Iraq was in “material breach” of the Gulf War ceasefire (resolution 687). Additionally, President Bush went to the US Congress for a resolution authorizing the use of military force against Iraq.
In the case of Georgia and South Ossetia, both areas were once under the control of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union. South Ossetia has historically been a part of Georgia. Georgia once again became independent after the breakup of the Soviet Union. South Ossetia attempted to declare its own independence from Georgia. A series of military clashes has occurred since the 1990s. Russia placed “peacekeepers” in South Ossetia and offered Russian passports to South Ossetians, effectively removing the area from Georgia.
In the months leading up to the outbreak of war, there were several artillery exchanges and skirmishes between Georgia and South Ossetia. On July 9, 2008, Russian jets violated Georgian airspace. About the same time, NATO denied Georgia’s application for membership after Russia strongly objected. These provocations led directly to the Georgian offensive on August 8.
Russian forces immediately repulsed the Georgian attack and launched counteroffensives. The Russian attacks were coordinated and had obviously been planned in advance. Russian forces drove deep into Georgia, splitting the country in half before agreeing to a ceasefire. Instead of pursuing diplomatic avenues to defuse the crisis, Russia took advantage of the situation to attempt to topple Georgia’s democratic government and intimidate other former Soviet republics such as the Ukraine. Instead of pursuing a UN resolution against Georgia’s attack, only Russia’s Security Council veto prevented the UN from condemning Russia itself.
There are striking differences in the governments of the invaded countries as well. Iraq was a dictatorship and an international pariah. It was isolated and condemned by numerous UN resolutions and sanctions. It was a supporter of terrorism and had programs focused on developing weapons of mass destruction. In fact, Iraq had possessed and used weapons of mass destruction in the past against both Iran and Iraqi Kurds.
On the other hand, Georgia is a democracy. In 2003, Georgians ousted former President Eduard Shevardnadze in the Rose Revolution. The nation is member in good standing of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and other international organizations. Georgia has been a staunch ally of the US in the War On Terror and had committed 2,000 soldiers to the war in Iraq. The US has helped to train and equip Georgian forces.
Russia, on the other hand, seems increasingly authoritarian and belligerent. Vladimir Putin, a former head of the Federal Security Bureau, the successor to the KGB, and two-term Russian President, is currently Prime Minister and is widely believed to wield the real power in Russia. Putin has destroyed the freedom of the press in Russia, undermined elections, replaced elected governors with appointees, and seized control of the judiciary. Numerous Russian journalists and dissidents critical of Putin have been mysteriously murdered. The most famous of these was Alexander Litvinenko, who was murdered in England in 2006 by radiation poisoning.
Oil did play a role in both wars. A key part of Iraq’s strategic importance is its location in the Middle East and its rich oil fields. Iraq used its oil to bribe UN and other world leaders to rearm after the Gulf War of 1991. The US has returned control of Iraq’s oil reserves to the fledgling Iraqi government.
While Georgia does possess minor deposits of oil, its strategic importance lies in the fact that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline runs through its borders. The BTC pipeline supplies the world with 1 million barrels of crude oil per day. This is about 1% of the world’s daily crude oil output. Russian control of this pipeline would give it power over the economies of much of Western Europe. Russia has threatened to cut off the flow of oil from other pipelines in the past, and even halted gas deliveries to the Ukraine in 2006.
The US was accused of a unilateral action in Iraq in spite of the fact that a large coalition of countries took part, including Georgia, whose troops were airlifted home to fight the Russians by the US Air Force. In contrast, Russia acted alone in their invasion of Georgia. The US gave Iraq repeated warnings and ultimatums before invading. Russia waited for a provocation from Georgia and launched a large-scale invasion without warning.
The ultimate aim of both wars is also likely to be different. In Iraq, the US goal has been to enable the Iraqi government to stand on its own. The Americans brought free elections and representative government to Iraq, and have, at times, been at odds with the positions of Iraqi officials.
The war aim of the Russians is likely to be much different. Over the past few years, Putin has threatened numerous neighboring countries. He threatened to aim Russian missiles at Europe if Czechoslovakia and Poland partnered with the US on a missile defense system. Similar threats have been made against former Soviet republics, such as the Ukraine, who have applied for membership in NATO. The invasion of Russia is a thinly veiled threat to nations such as Estonia and Lithuania as well.
Putin clearly wants to restore the Russian Empire. He has called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century.” If the Russian aggression in Georgia stands, it will not be the last country that Putin carves up in his quest to become a new Tsar. Russian diplomats have already stated that Georgia “can forget” about its provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Additionally, Putin’s Russia is also drawing closer to another international pariah, Iran. Russia is supplying Iran with nuclear reactors as well as updated air defense systems. Russia has also stymied UN attempts to pass sanctions or other measures against Iran’s nuclear program.
Russia’s invasion of Georgia is a true case of imperialist aggression. Vladimir Putin has ushered in a new era of hostility. He fully intends to rebuild the Russian Empire at the expense of the fledgling democracies.
This brings us to the final difference between Georgia and Iraq. When the US went to war against Iraq, “peace” activists around the world staged protests against President Bush and the United States. The reaction to Russia’s unilateral invasion of Georgia has been muted. Protests have largely been limited to nations in Eastern Europe that might be Putin’s next target. The deafening silence shows that most activists are not as pro-peace as they are anti-America.