2008:  Think Piece written by John Dillon.  By the time you read this, I should be in deepest Siberia – the University of Novosibirsk, to be specific — talking about Plato; and I was actually hoping there to meet, among others, a Georgian colleague, Levan Gigineishvili, who is himself a pretty serious Platonist. My Russian hosts assure me that Levan has his visa, and should be there, but I am not so sure. This circumstance, at any rate, gives me a somewhat more personal interest in the current goings-on in the Caucasus than I might otherwise have, interesting though they are.

The roots of the present crisis go back a long way, but the factors that immediately led to it deserve very careful analysis. Such analysis will, I think, reveal that, sadly and alarmingly, what we are in the midst of is something that I predicted some weeks ago, but did not expect to see manifest itself quite so soon, and that is a ‘crisis’ on the international front fabricated by the Bush administration to distract the U.S. electorate from the true issues in the coming election .

After all, how did this business blow up in the first place? We are told that Ossetian nationalists (perhaps, admittedly, egged on by their Russian protectors) on August 7 launched an attack on a squad of Georgian policemen, killing a few of them. This in turn provoked Georgia’s hot-headed President, Michael Saakashvili, to launch an all-out attack on South Ossetia’s capital, Tskhinvali, on August 8, which destroyed much property and killed many civilians.

Predictably, the Russians came to the aid of their protegés, and we all know what happened after that. Hostilities appear to have largely ceased, but it is equally clear that the Russians have not withdrawn very far, and now have no intention of allowing Georgia to assert any sovereignty over either South Ossetia or Abkhazia, both enclaves containing peoples quite distinct from, and hostile to, the Georgians. Ideally, they would like to discredit, and ultimately depose, Saakashvili, who is an American-educated disciple of the neo-cons behind the Bush administration, and who is in constant touch with Senator John McCain.

Now I would not wish to suggest that Mr. Putin is an innocent party in this little caper. All I would ask is that we look at the situation from the Russian point of view. What they see happening is an unrelenting series of moves from the Americans to subvert, first, the former Warsaw Pact members of Eastern Europe, such as Poland, the Baltic States, Romania and Bulgaria, and then various component nations of the former U.S.S.R., such as the Ukraine, Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and nations in the Caucasus, such as Armenia and Georgia, with a view both to encircling Russia militarily, and securing a non-Russian outlet (through Georgia) for the very considerable reserves of Central Asian oil.

The notion that such countries as Georgia and Ukraine should be admitted into NATO is perfectly monstrous. It was bad enough enrolling the Eastern Europeans, after the Warsaw Pact dissolved, but this would be madness. Suppose that Georgia, in an evil hour, had been admitted to NATO, where would that leave us now? Sending off a military expedition “to save gallant little Georgia”, even as in 1914 they set off to save gallant little Belgium?

In any case, NATO is an essentially Cold War entity, and it is high time that it was wound up, just as the Warsaw Pact was, instead of extending it provocatively to encircle Russia. Europe is quite capable now of looking after itself, and is much better advised to pursue cooperation rather than confrontation with the Russians, instead of assisting in the machinations of the White House.

For there are machinations afoot, no doubt about it. It has been pointed out before this that Mr. Randy Scheunemann, a top aide of John McCain, was until March last the official lobbyist in Washington for the government of Georgia, and through his good offices there is constant communication between President Saakashvili and McCain. It is also true that, while most Asmericans know and care little about foreign policy, a good diplomatic/military crisis does tend to unite them behind the President — even such a discredited specimen as George W – and that in turn rubs off on his chosen presidential candidate, who is thus given a chance to sound tough and ‘decisive’ about taking on the Russkies.

And this has already paid off, it would seem, in the polls. McCain has actually drawn slightly ahead of Obama in the latest poll, and if they can keep this issue on the boil for a while, there he will probably stay. But Mr. Putin is not a fool, and he is not to be trifled with, and this caper could well get out of hand. I am put gloomily in mind of Thucydides’ account of the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, arising from niggling and apparently trivial confrontations at the periphery of the Greek world, and blowing up into a full-scale conflict.

I must say that I don’t feel that we are really in that sort of atmosphere in the present case, but it is nonetheless reprehensible to be playing these sort of games for electoral purposes, and these things are always capable of taking on a life of their own. However, I look forward to repeating my views very shortly over a convivial vodka to my Russian hosts – and who knows, since I believe that there is now an Irish pub in Novosibirsk, perhaps even over a Guinness!