Transcript: Ron Suny - Russia/Georgia Conflict

The following interviewwas conducted by Suzi Weissman for her program "Beneath the Surface" on KPFK, August 11, 2008. Transcribed by Meleiza Figueroa.

Suzi Weissman: We're going to begin tonight with the growing war between Russia and Georgia. Russia's troops have broadened their attacks on Georgian targets, and it's looking pretty grim. I’ve invited Ronald Grigor Suny, who's a professor of social and political history at the University of Michigan. He’s also an emeritus professor of political science and history at the University of Chicago, and is the expert on the national question in the Caucasus. He has two books on that issue: The Making of the Georgian Nation, and Looking Toward Ararat: Armenia in Modern History. He's also written on the Soviet experience, in a new book on the young Stalin. Ron Suny, welcome to Beneath The Surface.

Ron Suny: Thank you Suzi.

SW: I'm really glad to have you. This is just kind of catching the world by surprise as most people are looking at the pyrotechnics in China; and even in the first day, watching Putin and Bush sitting together and then all of a sudden noticing that the carnage is unbelievable in Georgia. So maybe we can just do a quick little background on what's actually happening.

RS: Well, this conflict has fairly deep roots, but I wouldn't say it's historic and goes back into the ages. Russia and Georgia are neighbors; Russia's been an imperial power over Georgia, but Georgia achieved its independence at the beginning of the nineties, and the current series of problems and clashes really stems from this period.

SW: And the president, Mikhail Saakashvili, who's very pro-Western, I'm wanting to ask if this is one of the things...because he clearly is talking not about, or the US is talking not about, if Georgia will join NATO, but when. And of course, the Bush Administration supported Georgia in its "Rose Revolution," all of which is an insult to Russia; and Georgia did start this round. So what should we know about this?

RS: The media has been a little bit - in this country at least - a little bit irresponsible. It seems to be shoving all the blame for this on Russia. The background is very important: that since the mid nineties, that it's really for the last 16 years, been a situation in which two tiny enclaves, really little republics within Georgia - Abkhazia and South Ossetia - were in conflict with Tbilisi (Georgia’s capital) and its government. And these two enclaves were guarded against Georgian incursion - because the local people didn't want to be under Georgian control - by Russian peacekeepers. So Russians managed an agreement with Georgia, actually, to protect these little enclaves until there was a negotiated settlement. Now the problem was that Russia was perfectly happy with the status quo, with these frozen conflicts which went on for more than a decade. But Georgia - particularly after this young and dynamic and a little bit impetuous president came to power, Mikhail Saakashvili - Georgia wanted to change things. Georgia wanted to end the frozen conflict and bascially re-integrate these areas into Georgian statehood. Which makes sense, it's perfectly legitimate, but one - the people of those regions didn’t want to be in there, and two - Russia was very upset with Georgia because of the number of clashes, insults, humiliations, and particularly because Georgia has turned so emphatically toward the United States - Americans are training Georgian troops - and because it wants to become a state in NATO. And that is simply unacceptable to Russia.

SW: And that clearly is the issue; but as you said, the American media is - well, I guess “bias” is a word that comes to mind - but we're hearing that this is like the Soviet invasion of Finland, or Czechoslovakia, or Hungary, a defining moment that will define the rest of this century, and is the Cold War back. But what I have to ask - and I know you've written a piece that will be in the New York Times tomorrow and is on the New York Times online right now - what was Saakashvili thinking? Did he really imagine, with his tiny little army, that he could take on the Russian army?

RS: Well, I asked that question in that piece that is on the New York Times online, because I actually don’t have a firm answer. I think this is an irrational, or at least an extraordinarily ill-considered move on the part of Saakashvili. Now, there were clashes going on between the peacekeepers there and the Georgians for a while, that flared up and flared down. But last week, just as Putin went off to Beijing to be with Bush and see the Olympics, and the president of Russia, Medvedev, went off on a cruise on the Volga, Saakashvili decided to launch this attack. And I must say, a rather vicious attack.

SW:2000 people killed I think, isn't it?

RS: We don't know the exact numbers, and in wars these figures tend to be exaggerated. But at least hundreds were killed, and some say as many as 2000, in rocket attacks and a tank assault against this capital, Tskhvali, of this little South Ossetian enclave. And the Russians then reacted quite forcefully. I think the Georgians thought - Saakashvili thought that if we do it fast, we establish ourselves there, set up a local government loyal to Tbilisi, maybe the Russians in their confusion will step back, or not come in. That was obviously a miscalculation. Moreover, Saakashvili is playing the Western card. And if you watch the news tonight, in fact it seems like he's having some success. That is, both presidential candidates have come out against Russia, and the president spoke very forcefully on the White House Lawn against Russia. So the media, at least in this country and in some of Europe, is very much anti-Russian. Russia is now the aggressor; Russia is now the imperial power invading Georgia.

SW: And it seems you asked the right question, Ron Suny, because no one seems to care what the Abkhazians or the Ossetians want. And of course, they do have Russian passports now, so that Putin can say that Russians are being killed. I don't know, maybe you can illuminate us on whether or not they want to be part of Russia. But it seems clearly that people just want the Cold War back. Cheney's immediate reaction was that Russia will have to answer for its aggression, even though Bush was downplaying that in the beginning, now you say he's made a statement that's stronger. This is pretty serious trading of aggression or bellicose statements, is it not?

RS: No, it's very, very serious. Things like this have happened in the past. The Americans go back and forth. On the one hand, they want to be Russia’s partner, or they'd like Russia to be our partner. They want Russian support in, say, dealing with the Kosovo situation, where we're on one side and Russia's on the other. They want Russians to help us in the negotiations with Iran. If Russia doesn't come around, then Iran will have a much freer hand in developing its nuclear power. So we need Russia; Russia's a big state, it has real interests in this area, and the United States on the one side thinks it can deal with it and work together. On the other side, step by step, very gradually, the Americans sort of keep pushing at Russia. Russia is very sensitive to humiliation. They want to put rockets in Poland and in Czechoslovakia, right close to Russia. We want to have Ukraine and Georgia inside NATO, which is something the Russians don't want. If you look at the map, many east European states and Baltic states are in NATO; Turkey is. If you add Georgia and Ukraine, Russia’s basically surrounded on its western and southern flanks by NATO. And that's really unacceptable to a great power.

SW: And in fact, George Kennan said that this was the single biggest foreign policy blunder of the United States in fifty years, when it was expanding NATO; first to all of the opponents of Russia during the Cold War and not to Russia itself. And it seems that - I'm not favoring Putin's crackdown on democracy, labor and everything else that he's done, not to mention that we're only talking about Putin and not Medvedev, that he's asserted his power - but it seems like he's trying to contain the continuing disintegration [of the former Soviet Union], is he not?

RS: Well that's true, and he's rebuilding the state - you understand he's no democrat, he's a very authoritarian figure, he believes in Russia as a great power and they want to create a more centralized state, you know, kind of state capitalist state or something like that. So Putin in some ways is admirable; he's very competent, he's obviously very smart and incredibly tough. But he can be extraordinarily brutal, and he can personalize politics. And somehow he has a real antipathy towards Saakashvili, who he feels has humiliated and insulted Russia. So they really want to get rid of him. Now the real question at the moment is: Will Russia play smart, take back those two enclaves, reestablish itself as the "legitimate peacekeeper" in the region, but not attack any further Georgian territory, Georgian cities, outside of those enclaves? But they have of course bombed Gori, they've moved troops apparently outside the enclaves towards the city of Senaki in western Georgia. And this of course does change things. If they in fact try to do that, or divide Georgia, or take extra territory, then one - Russia has de-legitimized its own source of authority for doing this, for moving into the enclaves in the first place, and secondly - every power, Europe, NATO, the United States, would have to reassess its views about Russia's long-term aims.

SW: And do you think that given all of that - I heard one report earlier as I was driving in that Saakashvili was in hiding - I guess the question is whether his presidency is over. And then, as you mentioned, what message does it send to Ukraine and other much larger former republics, now independent nations, what do they have to fear? And then, I guess finally - because we almost are out of time - how important is the oil pipeline to all of this?

RS: The oil pipeline is important; it's not the central thing in this particular clash, obviously. Russia would love to control as many oil pipelines as it can, but that pipeline is on and running, and Russia has plenty of oil and access to oil pipelines, so this is a small irritant. The bigger questions are: what's going to be the future with Saakashvili? I think he's seriously been wounded, weakened by this event. As I said in the New York Times, any leader who initiates a fight, then loses it, loses popularity - as Olmert discovered in Israel and Bush has learned in Iraq. So that's an important thing. But the second thing is, we need to lower the rhetoric about Russia. Russia is not interested in an imperial policy of re-integrating, territorial expansion, controlling the domestic and foreign policy of its neighbors. What Russia is interested in, sees itself as the velikaya derzhala, a great power; what it wants is some hegemony and recognition of its primary role in what it considers close to home, its sphere of interest. And that's something that the United States and Europe has been unwilling to concede.

SW: And of course I think, Ron Suny, that that is the most important point, and then the question of course becomes: what kind of desperation is there in this country to ratchet up the rhetoric without really seeming to consider the consequences? Because we've all seen Putin and Bush looking into each other's eyes lovingly, and then all of a sudden you've got this kind of rhetoric that increases the danger. And just finally, if you could answer, what you think that's about.

RS: If the United States, as was expressed earlier in the Bush Administration, has a strategic plan of it being the only world superpower, and of there being no serious contenders, no regional hegemons in the world, then inevitably there's a clash between America, China, Russia, and any other power that sees itself as having regional interests. If, on the other hand, the United States pulls back some of this strategic ambition and begins to see that there are various players in the world, that it is a multipolar world, we are still in some sense number one in terms of military might, but there are other powers that have other interests that may clash with us - why are we fooling around in a place like Georgia? Sure, we should promote democracy and we could support them. But should we encourage antagonism to a giant neighbor on the part of a small power? I think not.

SW: Thank you so much, Ron Suny, we'll ask you back to talk about how this is playing in Georgia when it all settles down, and I really look forward to that.