THE RECENT EVENTS in Georgia, which have seen Russian aircraft bombing positions in the country, caused upwards of 2,000 deaths and, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), forced as many as 100,000 from their homes, are in and of themselves alarming, as they bear all the hallmarks of a return to the Cold War.
The immediate crisis in the Caucasus stems from the unresolved issue of South Ossetia, an autonomous province within Georgia under the Soviet Union that, along with Abkhazia, fought a war against Georgia in 1991 and 1992, followed by the creation of a tripartite (Russian, Ossetian and Georgian) peacekeeping contingent in 2004 to maintain the “status quo.” Split in half and with an estimated 200,000 internally displaced persons on its hands, the country of 4.5 million people remained highly unstable, with Tbilisi receiving support by the West while separatist elements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia were backed by Russia.
Beyond those causes are years of US-led NATO encroachment on former Soviet territory, which Moscow’s considers an attempt to put Russia in a straightjacket, with Georgia and Ukraine set to become the latest members of the Atlantic security alliance. Added to the mix are US plans to deploy a missile defense system in Russia’s backyard, as well as the Caucasus’ strategic location as an oil pipeline network linking the Caspian Sea shelf and the Mediterranean Sea basin.
While Russia’s aggression against Georgia — an intervention that went far beyond providing assistance to ethnic Russians in South Ossetia and involved the bombing of civilian areas well inside Georgian territory — is in no way excusable, the strategic context brought about by the US/NATO-engineered East-West divide has allowed demagogues like Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to portray Russia as a victim rather than an aggressor and to interpret the pullout of some 2,000 Georgian troops from Iraq so they could return home to defend their country as part of a US conspiracy against Russia.
This self-serving interpretation of events provides the cover of legitimacy — if only domestically — needed to justify a war of aggression against a smaller country and makes it far more difficult for the international community to pressure Russia to end its aggression against a sovereign state.
Were it not for the ammunition provided by the West’s posture, it would have been far easier for the international community to criticize Moscow and act to end, if not prevent, the conflict before it deteriorated.
The ramifications of the current situation in the Caucasus could be severe for Taiwan, as Moscow’s increasingly close ally, Beijing, looks on and carefully analyzes the reaction from the international community.
Just like Moscow, Beijing has sought to break free of what it perceives as attempts by the US to encircle it within its region, and just as with Georgia, Beijing has come to see Taiwan not as a problem between China and Taipei, or between two sovereign states, but rather as part of a battle against US encroachment in its own sphere of influence.
Also worrying for Taiwan is that Russia has historically considered South Ossetia to be part of its territory and therefore a “domestic” problem, just as Beijing has long argued that Taiwan is part of China.
If Russia was able to launch its assault against Georgia under the pretext of defending ethnic Russians and Russian territory from a Georgia that is perceived as a pawn in the US empire, then there is nothing to prevent Beijing from reaching the same conclusion when it comes to Taiwan.
The next days and weeks will therefore be of the utmost importance as the international community formulates its response to the crisis in the Caucasus. While bearing their share of the blame for boxing Russia in, the US, NATO countries and the international community must state in no uncertain terms that violation of a sovereign state’s integrity will not stand and that there would be severe consequences for Russia if it continued its aggression.
As the International Crisis Group wrote last Tuesday: “Russia has no legitimate security interests justifying its advance beyond the boundaries of South Ossetia and Abkhazia ... [Its] advances and attacks raise real doubts about Russia’s intentions with respect to Georgia ... [and] appear aimed at undermining Georgia’s capacity to function as a state.”
The greatest security threat to Taiwan’s future security would be for the West to issue a mild reprimand and not take Moscow to account for its war crimes, or fail to come to Georgia’s assistance if war were to continue. This is not a lesson the world wants Beijing to learn.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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