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The West Marches East, Part 2: Georgia Starts a War, Russia Draws a Line
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
Originally posted at The Hampton Institute
19 June 2014
In Part 1 of this series – ‘The West Marches East’ – I examined the circumstance that while Russia has received the majority of the blame for the more than six-month-crisis in Ukraine, these events did not take place in a vacuum, and, in fact, the Western powers and institutions – notably the United States, NATO and the European Union – have broke promises made at the end of the Cold War to expand NATO – a Western military alliance that was created in opposition to the Soviet Union – to Russia’s borders. Simultaneously, the European Union has expanded eastwards, bringing Eastern and Central European countries within its orbit and in adherence to its economic orthodoxy. Further, many NATO powers had worked together to promote ‘colour revolutions’ across much of Eastern Europe over the previous decade or so, helping to overthrow pro-Russian leaders and replace them with pro-Western leaders.
After nearly a quarter-century of Western expansion – militarily, politically, economically – to Russia’s borders, Russia has had enough. But Ukraine was not the first instance in which Russia has been provoked by the West into a response that the West subsequently declared as an act of imperial “aggression.” In 2008, the small Caucasus nation and former Soviet republic of Georgia started a war with Russia, leading to Russia’s invasion of the tiny country, effectively ending nearly two decades of NATO and Western expansion. This report examines the 2008 war in Georgia and the roles played by Russia and the NATO powers.
Setting the Stage
As documented in part 1, Georgia was – in 2003 – subjected to a NATO sponsored ‘Colour Revolution’ which removed the previous leader and replaced him with a pro-Western (and Western-educated) politician, Mikeil Saakashvili. In December of 2003, Georgian defense officials met with the U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to discuss enhancing military cooperation between the two countries. The US had sent roughly 60 military trainers to Georgia in 2002, but the Georgians had been lobbying for a US military base in their country.
Instead, the Pentagon decided to ” privatize its military presence in Georgia” through a security contractor, Cubic, which signed a three-year $15 million contract with the Pentagon to support the Georgian ministry of defense. The team from Cubic would engage in training and equipping the Georgian military, as well as protection for the oil pipeline that was to take oil from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Turkey through Georgia. Western diplomats suggested that the country could become a “forward operations area” for the US military, “similar to support structures in the Gulf.” In return for the program, Georgia agreed to send 500 soldiers to Iraq.
As the BBC reported in 2006, Georgia was discarding its ties with Moscow and instead, leading “westwards – towards NATO, and perhaps eventually the European Union.” US military instructors were in the country “to drive that change,” training Georgian soldiers to manage checkpoints in US-occupied Iraq. Georgia was largely uneasy with Russia due to the fact that Moscow provided – since the early 1990s – moral and material support to the country’s two breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. A Georgian corporal deployed in Iraq was quoted in the New York Times in 2007 saying, “As soldiers here [in Iraq], we help the American soldiers… Then America as a country will help our country.” This reflected the implicit thinking within Georgia up until the 2008 war.
In early April of 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush said he “strongly supported” Ukraine and Georgia’s bids to join NATO, despite the enormous objections from Russia, which would then see NATO powers located directly on its borders. Bush made the comments following a NATO meeting, where France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg all opposed the U.S. position of fast-tracking Georgian and Ukrainian membership into NATO, seeing it as ” an unnecessary offense to Russia.” Shortly after Bush made his announcement, a former Russian armed forces chief of staff said that Russia would ” take military and other steps along its borders if ex-Soviet Ukraine and Georgia join NATO,” claiming that “such a move would pose a direct threat to its security and endanger the fragile balance of forces in Europe.”
Within Georgia and its separatist regions, which were home to Russian soldiers, tensions were increasingly flaring over the summer months of 2008. With both sides undertaking provocative measures, there was a growing awareness that war could break out. In July of 2008, following her visit to the Czech Republic where she signed an agreement to base part of a new U.S. missile defense system in the country, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Georgia to meet with the country’s leadership. At that time, U.S. military forces in the region had begun joint exercises with soldiers from Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan. The exercises were taking place less than 100km from Russia’s border, with roughly 1,000 U.S. soldiers and an equal number of Georgian troops. As Rice arrived in Georgia, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement accusing Georgia “of pushing the region towards war through actions openly supported by the United States.”
Then-Russian President Dmitri Medvedev later explained that as tensions escalated into July of 2008, he was in contact with his Georgian counterparts. However, following Secretary Rice’s July 2008 visit to Georgia, he claimed, “my Georgian colleague simply dropped all communication with us. He simply stopped talking to us, he stopped writing letters and making phone calls. It was apparent that he had new plans now. And those plans were implemented later.”
Indeed, as the New York Times noted, when Rice went to Georgia, she had two different goals, one private, and one public. Privately, she reportedly told the Georgians “not to get into a military conflict with Russia that Georgia could not win.” However, in public, standing alongside the Georgian president, Rice spoke defiantly against Russia and in support of Georgia and its “territorial integrity” in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Standing next to the president, Rice declared that Russia “needs to be a part of resolving the problem… and not contributing to it.” The NYT claimed that these public statements of support for Georgia – and antagonism toward Russia – not to mention the fact that the US was engaging in large-scale military exercises with Georgians, expanding military installations all across Eastern Europe and providing Georgia with military advisers, had the combined effect of sending the small country “mixed messages ” about U.S. support for a war with Russia.
No doubt contributing to these ‘mixed messages’ was when – at the very same news conference with President Saakashvili – Rice was asked a question about a potential conflict with Iran, to which she replied that, “We will defend our interests and defend our allies… We take very, very strongly our obligations to defend our allies and no one should be confused of that.” Apparently, Georgia was a little confused.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and Georgia declared independence, the two regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia gained de facto independence in the early 1990s following conflict between the breakaway regions and the central state. Following this brief period of fighting, tensions were largely reduced, though Russian ‘peacekeepers’ were on the ground monitoring the fragile balance. That balance was upset when Saakashvili became president in 2004, making one of his pledges “national unification.” By 2008, when tensions were reaching a breaking point, there were over 2,000 American civilians in Georgia, according to the Pentagon, with over 130 U.S. military trainers and 30 Defense Department civilians.
Another facet to the increased tensions was the fact that Georgia was an important conduit for a major pipeline, bringing oil from Baku in Azerbaijan through Georgia and to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. When the pipeline was completed in 2006, it was the second-longest pipeline in the world, and its construction and use was specifically designed to “bypass Russia, denying Moscow leverage over a key resource and a potential source of pressure.” As Jonathan Steele wrote in the Guardian, the resulting war was about more than pipeline politics, however, as it represented “an attempt, sponsored largely by the United States but eagerly subscribed to by several of its new ex-Soviet allies, to reduce every aspect of Russian influence throughout the region, whether it be economic, political, diplomatic or military.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline was built by a consortium of major Western energy corporations, and was “the first pipeline on former Soviet territory that bypasse[d] Russia,” which “was strongly backed by the US as a way of loosening Moscow’s grip on the Caspian’s oil wealth.”
When War Broke Out
On August 7, 2008, war broke out. Georgia claimed that it was responding to an attack on the country by separatists in South Ossetia and Russian aggressors. However, independent military observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) who were deployed in the region refuted the Georgian government’s claim, and instead reported that, “Georgia’s inexperienced military attacked the isolated separatist [South Ossetian] capital of Tskhinvali on Aug. 7 with indiscriminate artillery and rocket fire, exposing civilians, Russian peacekeepers and unarmed monitors to harm.” While Georgian President Saakashvili presented the Georgian military actions as “defensive,” in response to separatist and Russian shelling of Georgian villages, the OSCE monitors were unable to confirm that such villages had been attacked, with no shelling heard in the villages prior to the Georgian bombardment of Tskhinvali. Two senior Western military officials who were stationed in Georgia, working with the Georgian military, told theNew York Times that, “whatever Russia’s behaviour or intentions for the enclave, once Georgia’s artillery or rockets struck Russian positions, conflict with Russia was all but inevitable.”
A year after the war, an EU-commissioned report which took nine months to compile concluded that despite much of the blame at the time of – and since – the war being directed at ‘Russian aggression,’ the conflict began “with a massive Georgian artillery attack.” The “damning indictment” of Georgia, however, blamed both Georgia and Russia for committing war crimes during the conflict, and noted that the conflict resulted from months and years of growing conflict. However, the report flatly stated: ” There was no ongoing armed attack by Russia before the start of the Georgian operation… Georgian claims of a large-scale presence of Russian armed forces in South Ossetia prior to the Georgian offensive could not be substantiated… It could also not be verified that Russia was on the verge of such a major attack.” However, Vladimir Putin stated in 2012 that Russia had drawn up plans to counter a Georgian attack as far back as 2006 and 2007, when he was president. Still, while the Russians were clearly aware – and preparing – for a war, it was ultimately Georgia that fired the first shots.
Months before the war broke out, according to documents and interviews obtained by the Financial Times, senior U.S. military officials and U.S. military contractors were inside Georgia training special forces commandos. The two contractors, MPRI and American Systems, both of which are based in Virginia, were responsible for training the Georgian special forces as part of a program run by the Pentagon. The Pentagon had previously hired MPRI to train the Croatian military in 1995, just prior to the Croatian military’s invasion of the ethnically-Serbian region of Krajina, “which led to the displacement of 200,000 refugees and was one of the worst incidents of ethnic cleansing in the Balkan wars.” MPRI, of course – in both cases – denied “any wrongdoing.” The first phase of the training in Georgia took place between January and April of 2008, and the second phase was due to begin on August 11, with the trainers arriving in Georgia on August 3, four days before the war broke out.
Just prior to the outbreak of war, as U.S. diplomatic cables showed, the U.S. Embassy in Georgia knew and reported about the fact that Georgian forces were concentrating their forces near South Ossetia, “either as part of a show of force or readiness, or both.” The U.S. ambassador reportedly told Georgian officials “to remain calm, not overreact, and to de-escalate the situation.” As the diplomatic cables from Georgia revealed, unlike in neighboring countries, U.S. diplomats in Georgia “relied heavily on the Saakashvili government’s accounts of its own behavior” and embraced the “Georgian versions of important and disputed events.” Whereas in other regional countries, U.S. diplomats would report to Washington on their “private misgivings” about their host countries’ claims, in Georgia, the Saakashvili government’s “versions of events were passed to Washington largely unchallenged.”
The five-day war between Russia and Georgia lasted from August 7 – 12, leading to a decisive Russian victory and a humiliating defeat for the US-puppet regime in Georgia. Months of ‘mixed messages’ and indecision and divisions within the Bush administration directly led to the conflict, inflaming internal confrontations within the Bush administration itself. A New York Times article tells this brief story based upon interviews with diplomats and senior officials in the US, EU, Russia and Georgia. Five months before Georgia started the war – in March of 2008 – President Saakashvili had gone to Washington to lobby for NATO membership at Congress, the State Department and the Pentagon. Bush promised the Georgian president ” to push hard for Georgia’s acceptance into NATO.”
In early April, President Bush flew to the Russian resort city of Sochi where he met with President Putin. Putin delivered Bush a message: “the push to offer Ukraine and Georgia NATO membership was crossing Russia’s ‘red lines’.” The United States, however, clearly underestimated Russia and Putin’s determination to adhere to those ‘red lines’. Meanwhile, Vice President Dick Cheney saw Georgia as a “model” for the administration’s “democracy promotion campaign,” and continued to push for selling Georgia more arms and military equipment “so that it could defend itself against possible Russian aggression.” Opposing Cheney were Secretary of State Rice, National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns, who were arguing that ” such a sale would provoke Russia, which would see it as arrogant meddling in its turf.”
While the official line of the Bush administration after the war broke out was to blame Russia, quietly and internally, top U.S. officials noted that Georgia was largely to blame, and that U.S. officials had contributed to that process by sending confused messages. Indeed, as some administration officials reported, the Georgian military had created a “concept of operations” plan for a military operation in South Ossetia which “called for its army units to sweep across the region and rapidly establish such firm control that a Russian response could be pre-empted.” As early as January of 2008, Georgia’s Ministry of Defense laid out plans in a “strategic defense review” which “set out goals for the Georgian armed forces and refers specifically to the threat of conflict in the separatist regions.” U.S. officials had reportedly warned the Georgians that, ” the plan had little chance of success.”
Indeed, as the war was under way, debates were raging within the Bush administration regarding the possible US response. In particular, tensions started to erupt between Bush and Cheney, as Cheney’s office felt that when Bush had previously met Putin in April, his silent response to Putin’s warning “inadvertently gave Russia the all-clear to attack.” There was discussion within the administration (from Cheney’s side of the debate) of launching air strikes to halt the Russian invasion. After four days of talks with the National Security Council (NSC), George Bush “cut off the discussion,” siding with his somewhat more rational advisers, as there was “a clear sense around the table that any military steps could lead to a confrontation with Moscow.”
Putin had also spoken with Georgian president Saakashvili in February of 2008, where he warned the Georgian president: “You think you can trust the Americans, and they will rush to assist you?” Putin then reportedly claimed that, ” Nobody can be trusted! Except me.” Interestingly, in this respect, Putin happened to be correct.
European governments were not big fans of Saakashvili, either, seeing him as “an American-backed hothead who spelled trouble.” During the five-day war, French President Nicolas Sarkozy shuttled between Russia and Georgia attempting to negotiate a ceasefire. Sarkozy reportedly told the Georgians: “Where is Bush? Where are the Americans?… They are not coming to save you. No Europeans are coming, either. You are alone. If you don’t sign [the ceasefire], the Russian tanks will be here soon.”
The day after the war began, the Russians called an emergency session at the United Nations to find a resolution to the conflict. The Russian’s proposed a short, three-paragraph draft resolution calling on all parties to “renounce the use of force.” This phrase ran into opposition from the United States, France and Britain, who claimed the phrase was “unbalanced” because it “would have undermined Georgia’s ability to defend itself.” The US, British and French opposition to “renounce the use of force” led to a collapse of diplomatic attempts at the UN to end the fighting, according to the New York Times. When the French President eventually negotiated a ceasefire on August 12, at least one senior U.S. official (presumably Cheney) was reportedly ” appalled” by the ceasefire text.
Erosi Kitsmarishvili, a former Georgian diplomat and ambassador to Moscow (and confidante of President Saakashvili) caused controversy within Georgia when he testified at a parliamentary hearing in Georgia in November of 2008 that Georgian officials were responsible for starting the war. He said that he was told by Georgian officials in April of 2008 that they had “planned to start a war in Abkhazia,” saying that they “had received a green light from the United States government to do so.” However, he added, the officials later decided to start the war in South Ossetia instead, believing that ” United States officials had given their approval.” He discussed the July 2008 meeting between Georgian officials and Secretary of State Rice, saying, “Some people who attended the meeting between Condoleezza Rice and Saakashvili were saying that Condoleezza Rice gave them the green light for military action,” though U.S. and Georgian officials “categorically denied this information.”
When the war broke out, the United States military airlifted Georgian troops from Iraq back to Georgia to participate in the fighting against Russia. In the Pentagon, a 28-year-old junior staffer, Mark Simakovsky, “almost overnight… became a key policy adviser” to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and other top administration officials. Serving as the Pentagon’s country director for Georgia, he “used his expert knowledge and contacts throughout the government and in Georgia to quickly gather information about developments on the ground.” He was pivotal in shaping the Pentagon’s response to the crisis, including the coordination of airlifting 2,000 Georgian soldiers from Iraq back to Georgia.
Within a week of the Georgian war ending on August 12, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that the United States “would not push for Georgia to be allowed into NATO” during an upcoming emergency meeting of the NATO countries in Brussels, in what the New York Times reported as, “a tacit admission that America and its European allies lack the stomach for a military fight with Russia.”
However, NATO foreign ministers were expected to reaffirm that they would eventually like to see both Georgia and Ukraine join NATO, but not to fast-track the process through the Membership Action Plan (MAP), for which Georgia and the US had previously been lobbying. In November of 2008, Rice affirmed that the US was no longer attempting to fast-track Georgian and Ukrainian membership into NATO, largely due to opposition from France and Germany . In 2011, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev stated that if Russia hadn’t invaded Georgia in 2008, NATO would have expanded already to include Georgia as a member.
In late August, Russian commanders were reportedly “growing alarmed at the number of NATO warships sailing into the Black Sea.” The U.S. said it was delivering “humanitarian aid on military transport planes and ships,” though the Russians suspected that the Pentagon was shipping in weapons and military equipment “under the guise” of humanitarian assistance.
Weeks following Georgia’s defeat, officials at the White House, Pentagon and State Department were “examining what would be required to rebuild Georgia’s military.” The U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, stated during a news conference that Georgia was ” a very important country to us” and that the U.S. would continue to pursue a “military-to-military relationship.” Both Democrats and Republicans proclaimed their unyielding support for Georgia, as both the John McCain and Barack Obama presidential campaigns had “cultivated close ties” to President Saakashvili. John McCain’s wife and Senator Joe Biden (who would become Obama’s Vice President) had gone to visit Georgia in August of 2008, just following the end of the war.
In early September, President Bush promised $1 billion in ” humanitarian and economic assistance” to help rebuild the country following the war, making Georgia one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel, Egypt and Iraq. Comparatively, in the previous 17 years, the United States had provided a total of $1.8 billion in aid to the country. The European Union also pledged to contribute funds to Georgia, as did the International Monetary Fund (IMF), declaring its intention to provide the country with a $750 million loan.
In September of 2008, Vice President Dick Cheney flew to Georgia “to deliver a forceful American pledge to rebuild Georgia and its economy, to preserve its sovereignty and its territory and to bring it into the NATO alliance in defiance of Russia.” Cheney, who arrived in Georgia a day after the U.S. announced a $1 billion rescue package to help the country, then flew to Ukraine to deliver a similar message. Russia, meanwhile, was entrenching its control over the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, recognizing their independence from Georgia and keeping military units stationed within them.
Cheney’s visit, which began in Azerbaijan, then to Georgia and Ukraine, was orchestrated to confirm that the U.S. had “a deep and abiding interest” in the region, and notably in terms of ensuring that these and neighboring countries remained “free from a new era of Russian domination.” Cheney was the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Azerbaijan since it gained independence in 1991. Underscoring the importance of the BP-led pipeline transporting oil from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey, Cheney’s first meetings in Azerbaijan were not with political officials, but with representatives from BP and Chevron.
In the last weeks of the Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice and the Georgian Minister of Foreign Affairs signed the U.S.-Georgian Charter on Strategic Partnership. This was followed up by the Obama administration, holding the first meeting of the Strategic Partnership Commission meeting in Washington on June 22, 2009, marking the launch of four bilateral working groups on “democracy, defense and security, economic, trade and energy issues, and people-to-people cultural exchanges.” The Strategic Partnership reflected U.S. commitment “to deepening Georgia’s integration into Euro-Atlantic institutions and enhancing security cooperation,” including eventual membership into NATO.
The Obama administration sent Vice President Joe Biden to Georgia in July of 2009, with Saakashvili lobbying for the U.S. to sell the country weapons, which Russia strongly opposed, considering the rearmament of Georgia to be ” more serious than whether Georgia enters NATO.”
In 2010, Georgia began a “serious push” to lobby the U.S. for “defensive weapons,” notably air defense and anti-tank systems. To help achieve this objective, Georgia spent roughly $1.5 million at four top Washington, D.C. lobbying firms over the course of the year. Meanwhile, Russia had been “intimidating” many of Georgia’s past arms suppliers, including Israel and other Eastern European nations, not to resume arms sales to the country.
In 2010, the United States also resumed its military training exercises in Georgia, which have continued in recent years, much to Russia’s displeasure. However, Saakashvili lost the 2012 elections and was replaced with a billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili, who had made his fortune in Russia, leading to slightly improved relations with Putin. In 2013, Russia accused the U.S. of ” putting peace at risk” by holding joint military exercises in Georgia.
Bidzina Ivanishvili was the Georgian Prime Minister from 2012 to 2013, during which time Saakashvili was still president. As the Economist reported in October of 2013, weeks before the Georgian presidential elections to replace him, Saakashvili, who came to power through the U.S.-sponsored ‘Rose Revolution’ in 2003, had, in the following decade, “fought and lost a war with Russia, cracked down on the opposition, dominated the media, interfered with justice and monopolized power .” No wonder Cheney saw him as an ideal representation of America’s “democracy promotion” project.
The billionaire oligarch prime minister, Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest man, had put his weight behind a presidential candidate, Giorgi Margvelashvili, who subsequently won the October 2013 elections. Under reforms implemented by Saakashvili, the role of president would become “largely ceremonial, with the bulk of power resting with the prime minister.” Ivanishvili proclaimed his intention to turn Georgia into a ” perfect European democracy.”
In May of 2014, months into the Ukrainian conflict, NATO announced its intentions to find ways of bringing Georgia ” even closer” to the military alliance. Just days earlier, both France and Germany “assured Georgia that a deal bringing it closer to the European Union would be sealed soon.”
Georgian officials were holding “extensive discussions” with US and German and other NATO members seeking ways to accelerate the country’s membership into NATO. Whereas previously, the US and NATO powers had decided to put Georgia’s NATO membership on the backburner, the conflict in Ukraine had changed the situation. Georgia’s Defense Minister stated: “Clearly, what’s happening in Ukraine impacts the thinking in Europe… Now it’s very different.” The Defense Minister went to Washington in May 2014 to visit with Vice President Biden and U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
And so, in the more than ten years since Georgia’s U.S. and NATO-supported colour revolution, the West – particularly the United States – have increased Georgia’s military capabilities, armed and trained its forces, all the while aggravating Russia as NATO and Western military, political and economic influence spread ever-closer to its borders. This ultimately resulted in a war. Though, since then – and with the recent conflict in Ukraine – it is clear that rearming Georgia and further aggravating Russia is back on the agenda.
The hypocrisy and imperious expansionism of the West in Georgia is but a minor reflection of a similar process which has been taking place across much of Eastern Europe, and most especially in Ukraine. Thus, despite the never-ending proclamations of “Russian aggression,” it is once again the Western powers, NATO, the EU, the IMF and especially the United States that are the most to blame for the current conflict in Ukraine.
The 2008 war in Georgia had seemingly put an end – or a halt – on NATO’s eastward expansion. Russia had – after 18 years of NATO expansion – finally drawn a line in the sand over how much it was willing to put up with. It was clear, then, that a similar process with Ukraine, a much larger and more strategically significant country than Georgia, was sure to incur a military response from Russia. If anything, the only surprise is that Russia’s military response has been so minimal, comparatively speaking; at least, for the time being. But as this process continues in response to Ukraine’s crisis, and as NATO and the U.S. military, the EU and the IMF accelerate their advance eastward, future conflict is seemingly all but inevitable.
No doubt, when that conflict comes, we will once again hear the amnesic proclamations of “Russian aggression” and Western benevolence.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, chair of the Geopolitics Division of The Hampton Institute, research director for Occupy.com’s Global Power Project and the World of Resistance (WoR) Report, and hosts a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.
The West Marches East, Part 1: The U.S.-NATO Strategy to Isolate Russia
By: Andrew Gavin Marshall
17 April 2014
Originally posted at The Hampton Institute
In early March of 2014, following Russia’s invasion of Crimea in Ukraine, the New York Times editorial board declared that Russian President Vladimir Putin had “stepped far outside the bounds of civilized behavior,” suggesting that Russia should be isolated politically and economically in the face of “continued aggression.”
John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, lashed out at Russia’s ” incredible act of aggression,” stating that: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped up pre-text.” Indeed, invading foreign nations on “trumped up pre-texts” is something only the United States and its allies are allowed to do, not Russia! What audacity!
Even Canada’s Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, proclaimed Russia’s actions in Ukraine to be “aggressive, militaristic and imperialistic ,” threatening “the peace and stability of the world.” This is, of course, despite the fact that Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea took place without a single shot fired, and “faced no real opposition and has been greeted with joy by many citizens in the only region of Ukraine with a clear majority of ethnic Russians.”
Indeed, Russia can only be said to be an “aggressive” and “imperial” power so long as one accepts the unrelenting hypocrisy of U.S. and Western leaders. After all, it was not Russia that invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq, killing millions. It is not Putin, but rather Barack Obama, who has waged a “global terror campaign,” compiling “kill lists” and using flying killer robots to bomb countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and even the Philippines, killing thousands of people around the world. It is not Putin, but rather, Barack Obama, who has been sending highly-trained killers into over 100 countries around the world at any given time, waging a “secret war” in most of the world’s nations. It was not Russia, but rather the United States, that has supported the creation of “death squads” in Iraq, contributing to the mass violence, civil war and genocide that resulted; or that has been destabilizing Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation, increasing the possibility of nuclear war.
All of these actions are considered to be a part of America’s strategy to secure ‘stability,’ to promote ‘peace’ and ‘democracy.’ It’s Russia that threatens “the peace and stability of the world,” not America or its NATO and Western allies. That is, of course, if you believe the verbal excretions from Western political leaders. The reality is that the West, with the United States as the uncontested global superpower, engages the rest of the world on the basis of ‘Mafia Principles’ of international relations: the United States is the global ‘Godfather’ of the Mafia crime family of Western industrial nations (the NATO powers). Countries like Russia and China are reasonably-sized crime families in their own right, but largely dependent upon the Godfather, with whom they both cooperate and compete for influence.
When the Mafia – and the Godfather – are disobeyed, whether by small nations (such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, et. al.), or by larger gangster states like China or Russia, the Godfather will seek to punish them. Disobedience cannot be tolerated. If a small country can defy the Godfather, then any country can. If a larger gangster state like Russia can defy the Godfather and get away with it, they might continue to challenge the authority of the Godfather.
For the U.S. and its NATO-capo Mafia allies, Ukraine and Russia have presented a complex challenge: how does one punish Russia and control Ukraine without pushing Russia too far outside the influence of the Mafia, itself? In other words, the West seeks to punish Russia for its “defiance” and “aggression,” but, if the West pushes too hard, it might find a Russia that pushes back even harder. That is, after all, how we got into this situation in the first place.
A little historical context helps elucidate the current clash of gangster states. Put aside the rhetoric of “democracy” and let’s deal with reality.
The Cold War Legacy
The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991 witnessed the emergence of what was termed by President George H.W. Bush a ‘new world order’ in which the United States reigned as the world’s sole superpower, proclaiming ‘victory’ over the Soviet Union and ‘Communism’: the age of ‘free markets’ and ‘democracy’ was at hand.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 prompted the negotiated withdrawal of the Soviet Union from Eastern Europe. The ‘old order’ of Europe was at an end, and a new one “needed to be established quickly,” noted Mary Elise Sarotte in the New York Times. This ‘new order’ was to begin with “the rapid reunification of Germany.” Negotiations took place in 1990 between Soviet president Gorbachev, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, and President Bush’s Secretary of State, James A. Baker 3rd. The negotiations sought to have the Soviets remove their 380,000 troops from East Germany. In return, both James Baker and Helmut Kohl promised Gorbachev that the Western military alliance of NATO would not expand eastwards. West Germany’s foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, promised Gorbachev that, ” NATO will not expand itself to the East.” Gorbachev agreed, though asked – and did not receive – the promise in writing, remaining a “gentlemen’s agreement.”
The U.S. Ambassador to the USSR from 1987 to 1991, John F. Matlock Jr., later noted that the end of the Cold War was not ‘won’ by the West, but was brought about “by negotiation to the advantage of both sides.” Yet, he noted, “the United States insisted on treating Russia as the loser .” The United States almost immediately violated the agreement established in 1990, and NATO began moving eastwards, much to the dismay of the Russians. The new Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, warned that NATO’s expansion to the East threatened a ‘cold peace’ and was a violation of the ” spirit of conversations ” that took place in February of 1990 between Soviet, West German and American leaders.
In 1990, President Bush’s National Security Strategy for the United States acknowledged that, “even as East-West tensions diminish, American strategic concerns remain,” noting that previous U.S. military interventions which were justified as a response to Soviet ‘threats’, were – in actuality – “in response to threats to U.S. interests that could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door,” and that, “the necessity to defend our interests will continue.” In other words, decades of justifications for war by the United States – blaming ‘Soviet imperialism’ and ‘Communism’ – were lies, and now that the Soviet Union no longer existed as a threat, American imperialism will still have to continue.
Former National Security Adviser – and arch-imperial strategist – Zbigniew Brzezinski noted in 1992 that the Cold War strategy of the United States in advocating “liberation” against the USSR and Communism (thus justifying military interventions all over the world), ” was a strategic sham, designed to a significant degree for domestic political reasons… the policy was basically rhetorical, at most tactical.”
The Pentagon drafted a strategy in 1992 for the United States to manage the post-Cold War world, where the primary mission of the U.S. was “to ensure that no rival superpower is allowed to emerge in Western Europe, Asia or the territories of the former Soviet Union.” As the New York Times noted, the document – largely drafted by Pentagon officials Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney – “makes the case fora world dominated by one superpower whose position can be perpetuated by constructive behavior and sufficient military might to deter any nation or group of nations from challenging American primacy.”
This strategy was further enshrined with the Clinton administration, whose National Security Adviser, Anthony Lake, articulated the ‘Clinton doctrine’ in 1993 when he stated that: “The successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement – enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies,” which “must combine our broad goals of fostering democracy and marketswith our more traditional geostrategic interests.”
Under Bill Clinton’s imperial presidency, the United States and NATO went to war against Serbia, ultimately tore Yugoslavia to pieces (itself representative of a ‘third way’ of organizing society, different than both the West and the USSR), and NATO commenced its Eastward expansion . In the late 1990s, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic entered the NATO alliance, and in 2004, seven former Soviet republics joined the alliance.
In 1991, roughly 80% of Russians had a ‘favorable’ view of the United States; by 1999, roughly 80% had an unfavorable view of America. Vladimir Putin, who was elected in 2000, initially followed a pro-Western strategy for Russia, supporting NATO’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, receiving only praise from President George W. Bush, who then proceeded to expand NATO further east .
The Color Revolutions
Throughout the 2000s, the United States and other NATO powers, allied with billionaires like George Soros and his foundations scattered throughout the world, worked together to fund and organize opposition groups in multiple countries across Eastern and Central Europe, promoting ‘democratic regime change’ which would ultimately bring to power more pro-Western leaders. It began in 2000 in Serbia with the removal of Slobodan Milosevic.
The United States had undertaken a $41 million “democracy-building campaign” in Serbia to remove Milosevic from power, which included funding polls, training thousands of opposition activists, which the Washington Post referred to as “the first poll-driven, focus group-tested revolution,” which was “a carefully researched strategy put together by Serbian democracy activists with the active assistance of Western advisers and pollsters.” Utilizing U.S.-government funded organizations aligned with major political parties, like the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) channeled money, assistance and training to activists (Michael Dobbs, Washington Post, 11 December 2000).
Mark Almond wrote in the Guardian in 2004 that, “throughout the 1980s, in the build-up to 1989’s velvet revolutions, a small army of volunteers – and, let’s be frank, spies – co-operated to promote what became People Power.” This was represented by “a network of interlocking foundations and charities [which] mushroomed to organize the logistics of transferring millions of dollars to dissidents.” The money itself ” came overwhelmingly from NATO states and covert allies such as ‘neutral’ Sweden,” as well as through the billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundation. Almond noted that these “modern market revolutionaries” would bring people into office “with the power to privatize.” Activists and populations are mobilized with “a multimedia vision of Euro-Atlantic prosperity by Western-funded ‘independent’ media to get them on the streets.” After successful Western-backed ‘revolutions’ comes the usual economic ‘shock therapy’ which brings with it “mass unemployment, rampant insider dealing, growth of organized crime, prostitution and soaring death rates.” Ah, democracy!
Following Serbia in 2000, the activists, Western ‘aid agencies’, foundations and funders moved their resources to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, where in 2003, the ‘Rose Revolution’ replaced the president with a more pro-Western (and Western-educated) leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, a protégé of George Soros, who played a significant role in funding so-called ‘pro-democracy’ groups in Georgia that the country has often been referred to as ‘Sorosistan’. In 2004, Ukraine became the next target of Western-backed ‘democratic’ regime change in what became known as the ‘Orange Revolution’. Russia viewed these ‘color revolutions’ as “U.S.-sponsored plots using local dupes to overthrow governments unfriendly to Washington and install American vassals.”
Mark MacKinnon, who was the Globe and Mail‘s Moscow bureau chief between 2002 and 2005, covered these Western-funded protests and has since written extensively on the subject of the ‘color revolutions.’ Reviewing a book of his on the subject, the Montreal Gazette noted that these so-called revolutions were not “spontaneous popular uprisings, but in fact were planned and financed either directly by American diplomats or through a collection of NGOs acting as fronts for the United States government,” and that while there was a great deal of dissatisfaction with the ruling, corrupt elites in each country, the ‘democratic opposition’ within these countries received their “marching orders and cash from American and European officials, whose intentions often had to do more with securing access to energy resources and pipeline routes than genuine interest in democracy.”
The ‘Orange Revolution’ in Ukraine in 2004 was – as Ian Traynor wrote in the Guardian – ” an American creation, a sophisticated and brilliantly conceived exercise in western branding and mass marketing,” with funding and organizing from the U.S. government, “deploying US consultancies, pollsters, diplomats, the two big American parties and US non-governmental organizations.”
In Ukraine, the contested elections which spurred the ‘Orange Revolution’ saw accusations of election fraud leveled against Viktor Yanukovich by his main opponent, Viktor Yuschenko. Despite claims of upholding democracy, Yuschenko had ties to the previous regime, having served as Prime Minister in the government of Leonid Kuchma, and with that, had close ties to the oligarchs who led and profited from the mass privatizations of the post-Soviet era. Yuschenko, however, “got the western nod, and floods of money poured into groups which support[ed] him.” As Jonathan Steele noted in the Guardian, “Ukraine has been turned into a geostrategic matter not by Moscow but by the US, which refuses to abandon its cold war policy of encircling Russia and seeking to pull every former Soviet republic to its side.”
As Mark McKinnon wrote in the Globe and Mail some years later, the uprisings in both Georgia and Ukraine “had many things in common, among them the fall of autocrats who ran semi-independent governments that deferred to Moscow when the chips were down,” as well as being “spurred by organizations that received funding from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy,” reflecting a view held by Western governments that “promoting democracy” in places like the Middle East and Eastern Europe was in fact “a code word for supporting pro-Western politicians .” These Western-sponsored uprisings erupted alongside the ever-expanding march of NATO to Russia’s borders.
The following year – in 2005 – the Western-supported ‘colour revolutions’ hit the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan in what was known as the ‘Tulip Revolution’. Once again, contested elections saw the mobilization of Western-backed civil society groups, “independent” media, and NGOs – drawing in the usual funding sources of the National Endowment for Democracy, the NDI, IRI, Freedom House, and George Soros, among others. The New York Times reported that the “democratically inspired revolution” western governments were praising began to look ” more like a garden-variety coup .” Efforts not only by the U.S., but also Britain, Norway and the Netherlands were pivotal in preparing the way for the 2005 uprising in Kyrgyzstan. The then-President of Kyrgyzstan blamed the West for the unrest experienced in his country.
The U.S. NGOs that sponsored the ‘color revolutions’ were run by former top government and national security officials, including Freedom House, which was chaired by former CIA Director James Woolsey, and other “pro-democracy” groups funding these revolts were led by figures such as Senator John McCain or Bill Clinton’s former National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, who had articulated the national security strategy of the Clinton administration as being one of “enlargement of the world’s free community of market democracies.” These organizations effectively act as an extension of the U.S. government apparatus, advancing U.S. imperial interests under the veneer of “pro-democracy” work and institutionalized in purportedly “non”-governmental groups.
By 2010, however, most of the gains of the ‘color revolutions’ that spread across Eastern Europe and Central Asia had taken several steps back. While the “political center of gravity was tilting towards the West,” noted Time Magazine in April of 2010, “now that tend has reversed,” with the pro-Western leadership of both Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan both having once again been replaced with leaders ” far friendlier to Russia.” The “good guys” that the West supported in these countries, “proved to be as power hungry and greedy as their predecessors, disregarding democratic principles… in order to cling to power, and exploiting American diplomatic and economic support as part of [an] effort to contain domestic and outside threats and win financial assistance.” Typical behavior for vassal states to any empire.
The ‘Enlargement’ of the European Union: An Empire of Economics
The process of European integration and growth of the European Union has – over the past three decades – been largely driven by powerful European corporate and financial interests, notably by the European Round Table of Industrialists (ERT), an influential group of roughly 50 of Europe’s top CEOs who lobby and work directly with Europe’s political elites to design the goals and methods of European integration and enlargement of the EU, advancing the EU to promote and institutionalize neoliberal economic reforms: austerity, privatizations, liberalization of markets and the destruction of labour power.
The enlargement of the European Union into Eastern Europe reflected a process of Eastern European nations having to implement neoliberal reforms in order to join the EU, including mass privatizations, deregulation, liberalization of markets and harsh austerity measures. The enlargement of the EU into Central and Eastern Europe advanced in 2004 and 2007, when new states were admitted into EU membership, including Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.
These new EU members were hit hard by the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009, and subsequently forced to impose harsh austerity measures. They have been slower to ‘recover’ than other nations, increasingly having to deal with “political instability and mass unemployment and human suffering.” The exception to this is Poland, which did not implement austerity measures, which has left the Polish economy in a better position than the rest of the new EU members. The financial publication Forbeswarned in 2013 that “the prospect of endless economic stagnation in the newest EU members… will, sooner or later, bring extremely deleterious political consequences .”
In the words of a senior British diplomat, Robert Cooper, the European Union represents a type of “cooperative empire.” The expansion of the EU into Central and Eastern Europe brought increased corporate profits, with new investments and cheap labour to exploit. Further, the newer EU members were more explicitly pro-market than the older EU members that continued to promote a different social market economy than those promoted by the Americans and British. With these states joining the EU, noted the Financial Times in 2008, “the new member states have reinforced the ranks of the free marketeers and free traders,” as they increasingly “team up with northern states to vote for deregulation and liberalization of the market.”
The West Marches East
For the past quarter-century, Russia has stood and watched as the United States, NATO, and the European Union have advanced their borders and sphere of influence eastwards to Russia’s borders. As the West has marched East, Russia has consistently complained of encroachment and its views of this process as being a direct threat to Russia. The protests of the former superpower have largely gone ignored or dismissed. After all, in the view of the Americans, they “won” the Cold War, and therefore, Russia has no say in the post-Cold War global order being shaped by the West.
The West’s continued march East to Russia’s borders will continue to be examined in future parts of this series. For Russia, the problem is clear: the Godfather and its NATO-Mafia partners are ever-expanding to its borders, viewed (rightly so) as a threat to the Russian gangster state itself. Russia’s invasion of Crimea – much like its 2008 invasion of Georgia – are the first examples of Russia’s push back against the Western imperial expansion Eastwards. This, then, is not a case of “Russian aggression,” but rather, Russian reaction to the West’s ever-expanding imperialism and global aggression.
The West may think that it has domesticated and beaten down the bear, chained it up, make it dance and whip it into obedience. But every once in a while, the bear will take a swipe back at the one holding the whip. This is inevitable. And so long as the West continued with its current strategy, the reactions will only get worse in time.
Andrew Gavin Marshall is a 26-year old researcher and writer based in Montreal, Canada. He is Project Manager of The People’s Book Project, chair of the Geopolitics Division of The Hampton Institute, research director for Occupy.com’s Global Power Project, and hosts a weekly podcast show with BoilingFrogsPost.