Thursday, August 28, 2008

Arctic Sea Ice Update

The Arctic sea ice meltdown seems to be approaching historical proportions as per Arctic Sea Ice News and Analysis:

"Sea ice extent has fallen below the 2005 minimum, previously the second-lowest extent recorded since the dawn of the satellite era. Will 2008 also break the standing record low, set in 2007? We will know in the next several weeks, when the melt season comes to a close. The bottom line, however, is that the strong negative trend in summertime ice extent characterizing the past decade continues."

BTW the Northwest Passage is or will be open momentarily.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Wisconsin Visitors to the Twin Cities

With the upcoming Republican convention heading for the Twin Cities visitors from nearby states are making plans. The visitors from Wisconsin promise to be a diverse lot including Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice. Interestingly in case of too much Peace and Justice Milwaukee's finest have stepped to do their part to "protect the convention". Protect from what is not exactly clear. From the Journal Sentinal:

"Milwaukee aldermen voted 13-0 Tuesday to send 36 police officers to help protect the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., next month.Police Chief Edward Flynn also revealed for the first time that he and Deputy Inspector Denita Ball will travel to St. Paul to observe the Milwaukee unit’s performance for one or two days of the four-day convention. Flynn said he believed the federal government would pay all expenses for him and Ball, even though they won’t be there for crowd control.

St. Paul police appealed to other Midwestern law enforcement agencies — including the Wisconsin State Patrol and the Madison Police Department, which aren’t sending officers — for help in dealing with the crowds of spectators and protesters expected to descend on the convention Sept. 1-4. Both President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney plan to speak at the convention.

Because the U.S. Secret Service is in charge of convention security, the federal government is reimbursing all police costs.

Flynn told the Common Council he wanted to send a platoon from his Major Incident Response Team partly in the spirit of mutual aid, and partly to give his officers valuable training to prepare for presidential candidate visits in an election year.

The chief promised aldermen that police would maintain full staffing throughout the city while their colleagues are away. All of the officers involved will use time off to attend the convention, and the federal government will pay them at overtime rates, Flynn said.

Ald. Jim Witkowiak said his constituents were worried that police response time in Milwaukee would deteriorate during the convention. But Witkowiak said he was reluctantly supporting the deployment for training purposes, based on commitments from Flynn and his command staff to maintain normal service levels.

Council President Willie Hines Jr. said aldermen may have responded differently if the request came earlier in the summer, when major incidents have been more common. But with crime down, the assurances that the trip wouldn’t affect police service and wouldn’t cost local taxpayers anything were the keys to approving Flynn’s request, Hines said.

Mayor Tom Barrett’s spokeswoman has said Barrett supports the deployment for the same reasons.

In response to questions from aldermen, Flynn said his officers would be on the front lines alongside St. Paul police, but they wouldn’t have arrest powers. That means they could handcuff suspects, but officially a St. Paul officer would make the arrest and the Milwaukee officer would be considered a witness, the chief said.

Wisconsin State Patrol Superintendent Dave Collins refused to send any of his state troopers after state lawyers ruled they couldn’t have arrest powers.

St. Paul police spokesman Tom Walsh said the State Patrol and Madison police agreed to send officers but then backed out. Collins said he never agreed to anything. Madison Police Capt. Tom Snyder told the St. Paul Pioneer Press that he had voiced interest months ago in sending officers, but the formal request from St. Paul came too late to work out schedule conflicts with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Badgers football home opener and an Ironman triathlon.

In addition to officers from other cities, St. Paul police will receive logistical support from the Minnesota National Guard, Walsh said.

The council interrupted its August recess to approve Flynn’s request and to grant late applications from downtown bars seeking permission for outdoor liquor sales during the 105th anniversary festivities for Harley-Davidson Inc. Hines took pains to note the recess was not a monthlong vacation."

No arrest powers but at least a chance beat the shit out of those who take too literally the Bill of Rights.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Georgian Potpouri

The Georgian Russian Osettian Abkhazian American Israeli stand-off has cooled a bit and I've had a chance to review various reactions including the video above which reflects Russian concerns with the mental health of Mr. Saakashvili that aren't frequently noted in the American media. Some of the most insightful comments have, ironically, come from the U.S.Among my favorites include Jim Kuntsler from "Clusterfuck Nation", who sets the scene very well:

" For one thing, the latterly explorations of this very old oil region -- first opened to drilling in the 19th century -- proved somewhat disappointing. US officials had been touting it as like unto "another Saudi Arabia" but the oil actually produced from the new drilling areas of Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and the other Stans turned out to be preponderantly heavy-and-sour crudes, in smaller quantities than previously dreamed-of, and harder to transport across the extremely challenging terrain to even get to the pipeline head in Baku.
Meanwhile, Russia got its house in order under the non-senile, non-alcoholic Vladimir Putin, and woke up along about 2007 to find itself the leading oil and natural gas producer in the world. Among the various consequences of this was Russia's reemergence as a new kind of world power -- an energy resource power, with the energy destiny of Europe pretty much in its hands. Also, meanwhile, the USA had set up other client states in the ring of former Soviet republics along Russia's southern underbelly, complete with US military bases, while fighting active engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, if this wasn't the dumbest, vainest move in modern geopolitical history!
It's one thing that US foreign policy wonks imagined that Russia would remain in a coma forever, but the idea that we could encircle Russia strategically with defensible bases in landlocked mountainous countries halfway around the world...? You have to ask what were they smoking over at the Pentagon and the CIA and the NSC?
So, this asinine policy has now come to grief. Not only does Russia stand to gain control over the Baku-to-Ceyhan pipeline, but we now have every indication that they will bring the states on its southern flank back into an active sphere of influence, and there is really not a damn thing that the US can pretend to do about it."

Another alternative source would be Dmitri Orlov who has impeccable credentials:

"It turns out that I am somewhat qualified to write on the subject: when I was in grad school (linguistics) I studied Abkhaz, the curious language spoken by the indigenous population of the separatist republic of Abkhazia. (Abkhazia is involved in the current conflict, working to flush Georgian forces out of the Kodor gorge, which is the one piece of their territory that remains under nominal Georgian control, as well as providing volunteers to help the South Ossetian side.) Later, finding that the Abkhaz side was woefully underrepresented, I started a web site, ("Apsny" being the Abkhaz word for Abkhazia), where, with help from Prof. Hewitt of the School of Oriental and African Languages in London, Prof. Chirikba, an Abkhaz linguist, and many others, I tried to present facts uncurried by extreme nationalist sentiments. At that time, the internet was dominated by the Georgian side, which was eager to accuse the Abkhaz of atrocities while discounting their own role in the bloody and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to regain control of the breakaway republic, in which some ten thousand people had died and many more had been displaced. For my diligent service, which spanned more than a decade, I received voluminous hate mail and many death threats from the Georgian side, as well as official expressions of gratitude from the Abkhaz side. Be that as it may, I find both the Georgians and the Abkhaz quite amazing, I am sure that the world would be much poorer without them, and I wish they would leave each other in peace, so that I can go and visit either place as I wish."

I especially appreciated the following:

"To the conquering Russians, Georgia represented the rich, creamy heart of the incredibly tough nut of the Caucasus region. In contrast to the many small and taciturn mountain tribes, many of them either Moslem or animist, here was an Orthodox Christian nation with great traditions of art, music, architecture, poetry, an unparalleled joie de vivre, and a delicious national cuisine. Georgians easily secured for themselves a pleasant role within the empire. Leaving administrative chores to the Russians and commerce and the trades to the Armenians, they were free to indulge in more pleasant pursuits, such as feasting, falconry, and entertaining foreign visitors. This trend had carried over into Soviet times, making Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic a favored tourist destination, a prosperous place complete with amusing wines, delicious food, an exuberantly friendly population that spoke your language, and majestic mountains for a backdrop. In the interest of maintaining public order, the Russians tried to be even-handed in their treatment of the non-Georgian tribes. Knowing full well just how much trouble they can be, they administered their territories as autonomous units within Georgia. One of the more glaring exceptions to this was the arbitrary administrative inclusion of Abkhazia within Georgia, which was done by Joseph Stalin (Dzhugashvili), who was a Georgian, and which in many ways laid the ground for the current conflict.

Their being so well coddled within the fold of the great empire cultivated in the Georgians a sense of exceptionalism and entitlement vis à vis their smaller and poorer neighbors, which, once the Soviet Union collapsed and the Russians departed, gave rise to a particularly rabid, venomous, and ultimately self-destructive brand of nationalism. The first post-independence Georgian leader, Zviad Gamsakhurdia, was killed rather quickly. Part of his nationalist rhetoric involved labeling other tribes, such as the Abkhaz and the Ossetians, as newcomers and gypsies, who are only welcome as "guests" on Georgian soil. Next up was Eduard Shevardnadze, who was Foreign Minister of the USSR under Gorbachev, and who was more or less handed Georgia as his personal fiefdom by the West, as his reward for idly standing by and smiling pleasantly while the Berlin wall was being torn down. He was given UN recognition and foreign aid, and told to go ahead and try to preserve "Georgia's territorial integrity." At this he failed miserably, causing a senseless bloodbath and a flood of refugees. Shevardnadze slowly sank into a morass of corruption and national decay, until finally even the West decided that he smelled bad and unceremoniously replaced him with a shiny new face: the American-educated Mikhail Saakashvili. And this brings us to the current conflict, which he started. It is unclear why he decided to start it, but then his American education might offer a clue: the US doesn't seem to need good reasons to start wars either.

It may be difficult for some people to grasp why it is that the Abkhaz or the Ossetians do not much fancy suddenly becoming Georgian, so let me offer you a precise analogy. Suppose Los Angeles, California, were to collapse as the USSR once did, and East L.A. quickly moved to declare its independence. Suppose, further, that the 88% of its population that is Hispanic/Latino voted that the other 12% were free to stay on as "guests," provided they only spoke Spanish. The teaching of English were to be forbidden. After some bloody skirmishes, East L.A. split up into ethnic enclaves. Then some foreign government (say, Russian, or Chinese) stepped in and started shipping in weapons and providing training to the Latino faction, in support of their efforts to restore East L.A.'s "territorial integrity." As a non-Hispanic resident of East L.A., would you then (1) run and hide, (2) stay and fight, or (3) pick up a copy of "Spanish for Dummies" and start cramming?

The Abkhaz and the South Ossetians have made their preference very clear by applying for and being issued with a Russian passport. That's right, the majority of the present native population of these two "separatist enclaves" are bona fide citizens of the Russian Federation with all the privileges appertaining thereto. Lacking any other options, they are happy to accept protection from Russia, use Russian as their lingua franca, and fight for their right to be rid of Georgians once and for all. One of the privileges of being a Russian citizen at this stage, when Russia has recovered from its political and economic woes following the Soviet collapse, is that if some foreign entity comes and shells a settlement full of Russian citizens, you can be sure that Russia will open one amazingly huge can of whoop-ass on whoever it feels is responsible. Add to that the atrocities allegedly perpetrated by the Georgian forces, such as finishing off wounded Russian peacekeepers, and you can see why the normally shy and reticent Russian army might get behind the idea of making sure Georgia no longer poses a military threat to anyone. The Georgians have really done it to themselves this time, and we should all feel very sorry for them. They are not evil people, just incredibly misguided by their horrible national politicians. The West, and the US in particular, bear responsibility for enabling this bloodbath by providing them with arms, training, and encouraging them to fight for their "territorial integrity."

Don't expect these subtlies to see the light of day in the U.S. anytime soon.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Georgia Israel Connection

With each day it becomes more obvious who is involved with the Georgian-Russian fiasco and the finger points more and more to the Neo-Con Right and their Israeli Partners in Insanity, the same folks who lead us into Iraq and would love to see the same irrationality in Iran. As the Israeli source says:

"Israel is following with great concern the developments in South Ossetia and Abkhazia and hopes the violence will end," its foreign ministry said, adding with uncharacteristic doveishness, "Israel recognizes the territorial integrity of Georgia and calls for a peaceful solution."

There is a reason for this that is quite obvious as explained in Electronic Intifada:

"While Israel was keen to downplay its role, Georgia perhaps hoped that flattery might draw Israel further in. Georgian minister Temur Yakobashvili -- whom the Israeli daily Haaretz stressed was Jewish -- told Israeli army radio that "Israel should be proud of its military which trained Georgian soldiers." Yakobashvili claimed rather implausibly, according to Haaretz, that "a small group of Georgian soldiers were able to wipe out an entire Russian military division, thanks to the Israeli training" ("Georgian minister tells Israel Radio: Thanks to Israeli training, we're fending off Russian military," Haaretz, 11 August 2008).

Since 2000, Israel has sold hundreds of millions of dollars in arms and combat training to Georgia. Weapons included guns, ammunition, shells, tactical missile systems, antiaircraft systems, automatic turrets for armored vehicles, electronic equipment and remotely piloted aircraft. These sales were authorized by the Israeli defense ministry (Arie Egozi, "War in Georgia: The Israeli connection," Ynet, 10 August 2008).

Training also involved officers from Israel's Shin Bet secret service -- which has for decades carried out extrajudicial executions and torture of Palestinians in the occupied territories -- the Israeli police, and the country's major arms companies Elbit and Rafael.

The Tel Aviv-Tbilisi military axis appears to have been cemented at the highest levels, and according to YNet, "The fact that Georgia's defense minister, Davit Kezerashvili, is a former Israeli who is fluent in Hebrew contributed to this cooperation." Others involved in the brisk arms trade included former Israeli minister and Tel Aviv mayor Roni Milo as well as several senior Israeli military officers.

The key liaison was Reserve Brigadier General Gal Hirsch who commanded Israeli forces on the border with Lebanon during the July 2006 Second Lebanon War. (Yossi Melman, "Georgia Violence - A frozen alliance," Haaretz, 10 August 2008). He resigned from the army after the Winograd commission severely criticized Israel's conduct of its war against Lebanon and an internal Israeli army investigation blamed Hirsch for the seizure of two soldiers by Hizballah.

According to one of the Israeli combat trainers, an officer in an "elite" Israel army unit, Hirsch and colleagues would sometimes personally supervise the training of Georgian forces which included "house-to-house fighting." The training was carried out through several "private" companies with close links to the Israeli military.

As the violence raged in Georgia, the trainer was desperately trying to contact his former Georgian students on the battlefront via mobile phone: the Israelis wanted to know whether the Georgians had "internalized Israeli military technique and if the special reconnaissance forces have chalked up any successes" (Jonathan Lis and Moti Katz, "IDF vets who trained Georgia troops say war with Russia is no surprise," Haaretz, 11 August 2008).

Yet on the ground, the Israeli-trained Georgian forces, perhaps unsurprisingly overwhelmed by the Russians, have done little to redeem the image of Israel's military following its defeat by Hizballah in July-August 2006.

The question remains as to why Israel was involved in the first place. There are several reasons. The first is simply economic opportunism: for years, especially since the 11 September 2001 attacks, arms exports and "security expertise" have been one of Israel's growth industries. But the close Israeli involvement in a region Russia considers to be of vital interest suggests that Israel might have been acting as part of the broader US scheme to encircle Russia and contain its reemerging power.

Since the end of the Cold War, the US has been steadily encroaching on Russia's borders and expanding NATO in a manner the Kremlin considers highly provocative. Shortly after coming into office, the Bush Administration tore up the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty and, like the Clinton administration, adopted former Soviet satellite states as its own, using them to base an anti-missile system Russia views as a threat. In addition to their "global war on terror," hawks in Washington have recently been talking up a new Cold War with Russia.

Georgia was an eager volunteer in this effort and has learned quickly the correct rhetoric: one Georgian minister claimed that "every bomb that falls on our heads is an attack on democracy, on the European Union and on America." Georgia has been trying to join NATO, and sent 2,000 soldiers to help the US occupy Iraq. It may have hoped that once war started this loyalty would be rewarded with the kind of round-the-clock airlift of weapons that Israel receives from the US during its wars. Instead so far the US only helped airlift the Georgian troops from Iraq back to the beleaguered home front.

By helping Georgia, Israel may have been doing its part to duplicate its own experience in assisting the eastward expansion of the "Euro-Atlantic" empire. While supporting Georgia was certainly risky for Israel, given the possible Russian reaction, it has a compelling reason to intervene in a region that is heavily contested by global powers. Israel must constantly reinvent itself as an "asset" to American power if it is to maintain the US support that ensures its survival as a settler-colonial enclave in the Middle East. It is a familiar role; in the 1970s and 1980s, at the behest of Washington, Israel helped South Africa's apartheid regime fight Soviet-supported insurgencies in South African-occupied Namibia and Angola, and it trained right-wing US-allied death squads fighting left-wing governments and movements in Central America. After 2001, Israel marketed itself as an expert on combating "Islamic terrorism."

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez recently denounced Colombia - long one of the largest recipients of US military aid after Israel -- as the "Israel of Latin America." Georgia's government, to the detriment of its people, may have tried to play the role of the "Israel of the Caucasus" -- a loyal servant of US ambitions in that region -- and lost the gamble. Playing with empires is dangerous for a small country.

As for Israel itself, with the Bush Doctrine having failed to give birth to the "new Middle East" that the US needs to maintain its power in the region against growing resistance, an ever more desperate and rogue Israel must look for opportunities to prove its worth elsewhere. That is a dangerous and scary thing."

I suppose this may potentially involve the U.S. in the Iranian-Israeli conflict.God help us Inshallah.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Deadly Chickens Return to Roost in The Caucases

With the outbreak of war in the Caucasuses Americans are experiencing a new onslaught of mis-information that will assure that no one has any sort of historically informed sense of what really is going on. A good example was the address to the American people by Mikhail Saakashvili of Georgia that I happened to catch on CNN yesterday morning. There Saakashvili portrayed a small democratic nation being attacked with little regard for civilians, hospitals, small babies, and everything else that Americans hold dear, by Russians. And thus the Cold War is defrosted, warmed up, and served anew.
The American people may be forgiven for their usual state of historical amnesia but claims from the likes of Condeleeza Rice and George Bush of American impartiality and desire for peace should be viewed with suspicion to say the least.

F. William Engdahl provides an insightful look into the situation in an article written two weeks ago:

"The Caucasus Republic of Georgia as nations go does not appear to be a major global player. Yet Washington has invested huge sums and organized to put its own despot, Mikhail Saakashvili, in the Presidency in order to close a nuclear NATO iron ring around Russia. Now US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in Tbilisi making sharp statements against Moscow for supporting the independent neighbor states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in essence blaming Moscow for an imminent war Washington has incited in order to bring Georgia into NATO by the December NATO Summit.

The Western media has either ignored the growing tensions in the strategic Caucasus region or has intimated, as suggested by Condoleeza Rice, that the entire conflict is being caused by Moscow’s silly support of "breakaway" republics Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In reality, a quite different chess game is being played in the region, one which has the potential to detonate a major escalation of tensions between Moscow and NATO.

Since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, one after another, former members as well as former states of the USSR have been coaxed and in many cases bribed with false promises by Washington into joining the counter organization, NATO.

Rather than initiate discussions after the 1991 dissolution of the Warsaw Pact about a systematic dissolution of NATO, Washington has systematically converted NATO into what can only be called the military vehicle of an American global imperial rule, linked by a network of military bases from Kosovo to Poland to Turkey to Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1999, former Warsaw Pact members Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined NATO. Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia followed suit in March 2004. Now Washington is putting immense pressure on the EU members of NATO, especially Germany and France, that they vote in December to admit Georgia and Ukraine."

He further goes on to suggest that the U.S. has actively encouraged the Georgians in their nationalistic delusions and also connects the dots to Western policy in Kosovo:

"The Bush Administration is adding gasoline to the fire in the Caucasus. In Tbilisi on July 10 the US Secretary of State, Rice, told the press, "Russia needs to be a part of resolving the problem and solving the problem and not contributing to it. I have said it to the Russians publicly. I have said it privately."

The effect of her comments, blaming Moscow for the escalating tensions, is to signal US support for the Georgia side in their efforts to force Russian troops form South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

This past May Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh said he was willing to conclude a military treaty with Moscow similar to that between USA and Taiwan. "Abkhazia will propose to Russia the signing of a military treaty that would guarantee security to our republic," Bagapsh stated. "We are also prepared to host Russian military bases on our territory within the framework of this treaty. I would like to emphasize that this would not go against the precedents already existing in international practice. For instance, this treaty could be analogous to the treaty between the US and Taiwan."

Just as Moscow refuses to recognize the sovereignty of Kosovo, so Washington refuses to admit the sovereignty of Abkhazia. In May a senior US State Department delegation was in Abkhazia meeting with local Non Governmental Organizations there as well as the President. In the past, from Serbia to Georgia to Ukraine, Washington intelligence agencies have used various NGOs, the US Congress-financed National Endowment for Democracy, the CIA-linked Freedom House and Gene Sharp’s misleadingly-named Albert Einstein Institution to steer a wave of regime changes which became known as "Color Revolutions." In each case the new regime was pro-Washington and anti-Moscow as in the case of Saakashvili in Georgia and Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine. Both countries begin seeking NATO entry after the success of the US-financed Color Revolutions.

In all this Washington is definitely playing with potential nuclear fire by escalating pressure to push Georgia and Ukraine into NATO. The Foreign Minister of the Czech Republic, Karl Schwarzenberg on July 8 signed an agreement allowing US deployment of special radar facilities on Czech soil as part of the top secret US "missile defense" it alleges is aimed at rogue missile threats from Iran. As even former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger recently pointed out, the Bush Administration’s categorical refusal to pursue the 2007 counter-offer of then-President Vladimir Putin to station US radar at the Russian leased reconnaissance facility in Azerbaijan instead, was a provocative mistake. It makes abundantly clear that Washington is aiming its military strategy at the dismantling of Russia as a potential adversary. That, as I have written previously, is a recipe for a possible nuclear war by mis-calculation. Rice’s latest Caucasus and Czech visit only added to that growing danger. "

Mark Almond at the Guardian describes some additional background to Saakashvili's calculations and likens him to General Galtieri of Argentina and the ill-fated Malvinas war:

"Unlike in eastern Europe, for instance, today in breakaway states such as South Ossetia or Abkhazia, Russian troops are popular. Vladimir Putin's picture is more widely displayed than that of the South Ossetian president, the former Soviet wrestling champion Eduard Kokoity. The Russians are seen as protectors against a repeat of ethnic cleansing by Georgians.

In 1992, the west backed Eduard Shevardnadze's attempts to reassert Georgia's control over these regions. The then Georgian president's war was a disaster for his nation. It left 300,000 or more refugees "cleansed" by the rebel regions, but for Ossetians and Abkhazians the brutal plundering of the Georgian troops is the most indelible memory.

Georgians have nursed their humiliation ever since. Although Mikheil Saakashvili has done little for the refugees since he came to power early in 2004 - apart from move them out of their hostels in central Tbilisi to make way for property development - he has spent 70% of the Georgian budget on his military. At the start of the week he decided to flex his muscles.

Devoted to achieving Nato entry for Georgia, Saakashvili has sent troops to Iraq and Afghanistan - and so clearly felt he had American backing. The streets of the Georgian capital are plastered with posters of George W Bush alongside his Georgian protege. George W Bush avenue leads to Tbilisi airport. But he has ignored Kissinger's dictum: "Great powers don't commit suicide for their allies." Perhaps his neoconservative allies in Washington have forgotten it, too. Let's hope not.

Like Galtieri in 1982, Saakashvili faces a domestic economic crisis and public disillusionment. In the years since the so-called Rose revolution, the cronyism and poverty that characterised the Shevardnadze era have not gone away. Allegations of corruption and favouritism towards his mother's clan, together with claims of election fraud, led to mass demonstrations against Saakashvili last November. His ruthless security forces - trained, equipped and subsidised by the west - thrashed the protesters. Lashing out at the Georgians' common enemy in South Ossetia would certainly rally them around the president, at least in the short term."

He too illuminates American and European duplicity and the possible consequences:

"Western geopolitical commentators stick to cold war simplicities about Russia bullying plucky little Georgia. However, anyone familiar with the Caucasus knows that the state bleating about its victim status at the hands of a bigger neighbour can be just as nasty to its smaller subjects. Small nationalisms are rarely sweet-natured.

Worse still, western backing for "equip and train" programmes in Russia's backyard don't contribute to peace and stability if bombastic local leaders such as Saakashvili see them as a guarantee of support even in a crisis provoked by his own actions. He seems to have thought that the valuable oil pipeline passing through his territory, together with the Nato advisers intermingled with his troops, would prevent Russia reacting militarily to an incursion into South Ossetia. That calculation has proved disastrously wrong.

The question now is whether the conflict can be contained, or whether the west will be drawn in, raising the stakes to desperate levels. To date the west has operated radically different approaches to secession in the Balkans, where pro-western microstates get embassies, and the Caucasus, where the Caucasian boundaries drawn up by Stalin, are deemed sacrosanct.

In the Balkans, the west promoted the disintegration of multiethnic Yugoslavia, climaxing with their recognition of Kosovo's independence in February. If a mafia-dominated microstate like Montenegro can get western recognition, why shouldn't flawed, pro-Russian, unrecognised states aspire to independence, too?

Given its extraordinary ethnic complexity, Georgia is a post-Soviet Union in miniature. If westerners readily conceded non-Russian republics' right to secede from the USSR in 1991, what is the logic of insisting that non-Georgians must remain inside a microempire which happens to be pro-western?

Other people's nationalisms are like other people's love affairs, or, indeed, like dog fights. These are things wise people don't get involved in. A war in the Caucasus is never a straightforward moral crusade - but then, how many wars are?"