“For weeks,” a recent New York Times article begins, “rumors have flown about the foreign fighters involved in the deepening conflict in Ukraine’s troubled east, each one stranger than the last: mercenaries from an American company, Blackwater; Russian special forces; and even Chechen soldiers of fortune.” You might be able to add Israelis to that list according to reports.
Korrespondent.net writes that the so-called Aliya battalion of Russian-Israelis has arrived in the Donetsk People’s Republic. “Today a group from Israel joined with our militia. It’s called the Alyia battalion which was formed in 2002 from immigrants to Israel from veterans from the Red Army and CIS countries,” says Donetsk’s deputy people’s governor Pavel Gubarev. “They protect settlements in the occupied territories and promptly sent 20 highly trained fighters to Slavyansk with experience in the Soviet and Israeli armies, and in two weeks are ready to bring 200 soldiers to fight the Nazis.”
News that Aliya was going to Donetsk emerged in early May when Izvestia ran an interview with its commander, Roman Ratner. “I want to state outright that this is a private initiative. We have no relations with the Israeli government, and it doesn’t support us in any way. This is a personal affair for each fighter—as their concern for fascism. Members of our battalion are concerned about the events in Ukraine, especially after the tragedy in Odessa.”
According to Ratner, Aliya includes former paratroopers, special forces, snipers, canine handlers, medics and other specialists. They promise to serve as peacekeepers—in the name of the Donetsk Republic—to “force [both sides] to peace.” Or in the words of Avigdor Eskin, a right-wing Russian-Israeli, who has often spoken about the “fascist junta” in Kyiv in Russian and Israeli media and initiated the plan to send Aliya to Ukraine, “The battalion will be present so the Banderovtsy can’t burn people alive.”
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Anatol Lieven: “What is in fact better: authoritarian control from above or mass hysteria from below”?By Sean — 10 years ago
[T]here was another way in which the world seemed to revolve backward during the Valdai, which was if anything even more disturbing. During two lunches over the course of the conference, the president and prime minister of Russia spoke with us for a total of almost seven hours, answering unscripted questions without the help of aides. The foreign minister, deputy prime minister and deputy chief of the general staff spoke with us for several more hours. The chances of this happening in George Bush’s Washington, or indeed most other Western capitals, are zero.
On the other hand, I was told, several U.S. experts who had been invited refused to come because they were afraid that to be seen to talk with Russian leaders would hurt their chances of being selected for jobs in the next U.S. administration, or even their candidate’s chances of being elected president. In particular, they were afraid of attending a conference including meetings with the presidents of Abkhazia and South Ossetia—even though they had the option of not attending them. The idea that it was their duty as analysts to find out what these people are thinking evidently did not occur to them.
In the course of the discussions, we heard a great deal from Russian participants about Russian national interests, and about international peace, stability and cooperation against global threats; but not one word of ideology. The tone was sometimes harsh, but entirely pragmatic. On the other hand, from the U.S. administration and presidential candidates we’ve heard a flood of ideological clichés from the cold war about defending democracy and spreading freedom—platitudes with absolutely no relevance to the reasons for or the circumstances surrounding the war over South Ossetia.
Of course, taken as a whole, U.S. society is much more open and democratic than Russian society; but this is no longer necessarily true of American politicians or Washington elites when it comes to key issues of foreign policy. As for most of the U.S. media, its response to the war over South Ossetia demonstrated that it can on occasion be every bit as hysterically one-sided and willfully inaccurate as the Russian one. Indeed, in this case it was parts of the U.S. media which told by far the biggest single lie—namely the outrageous suggestion, in the face of all the known facts, that it was Russia and not Georgia that started this latest war.
Over the course of our lunch in Sochi, Vladimir Putin congratulated the U.S. media ironically on this performance—they acted “as if they had been given an order.” This raises the interesting question of what is in fact better: authoritarian control from above or mass hysteria from below. The way things are going, we will get plenty of opportunities to study this question in the years to come.
By Sean — 10 years ago
Dmitri Medvedev announced the end of what he’s calling “peace enforcement” operations in Georgia, officially ending five days of fighting. “I have made a decision to end the operation to force Georgian authorities to peace,” he said in a meeting with his military staff. Fighting is still being reported, which isn’t surprising. War machines are easy to turn on. Turning them off requires a big wrench.
The final (preliminary) tally? Russia says about 2,000 civilians killed by the Georgian military; 18 Russian troops and 52 wounded. Russia used 9,000 troops and 350 armored vehicles. The Georgians claim 150 deaths and hundreds injured. Robert Guliye, the mayor of Tskhinvali, reports that 70% of his city’s buildings have been damaged or destroyed. Of the 30,000 residents, only half remain. So far there are no estimates on the amount of ordinance used in the conflict.
This is a big day for Dima. His first military victory as bat’ka. What no flight suit, big banner, and slogan? Surely Dima, you can squeeze some more political capital out of this?
I’m sure he will once he gets out from under Putin’s shadow. Putin, at least in the Western press, has been the face of the war, the little evil demon everyone loves to hate. A headline in the NY Times says it all, “Russia, and Putin, Assert Authority.” How does the Times come to this startling conclusion? Well, it uses a new theory to understand Russian politics: “The Rolled up Sleeves Theory.”
In recent days, Mr. Putin has appeared on television with his sleeves rolled up, mingling with refugees on the border with South Ossetia — the very picture of a man of action.
By contrast, Mr. Medvedev is shown sitting at his desk in Moscow, giving ceremonial orders to the minister of defense.
Putin looks all tough, Medvedev, always the bureaucrat, sits behind a desk. While Putin gets a firm talking to from Bush in Beijing, Medvedev cruises on the Volga. One wonders if the continued stress on Putin in the Western press is really because he is in charge or because he’s become the perfect villain, a kind of “Man of Action” action figure. Apparently, the answer is all in the rolled up sleeves.
Another way to look at the dyarchy is to wonder if balance even matters. Clearly, each man has their roles, and Dima, with his sweet smile and boyish looks, just doesn’t have the image (yet) to deal with international condemnation. Putin’s been around the block. Putting him up in front of the camera is a good PR move. I’m sure the Russians knew they were going to take all the shit no matter what they did. So why take the chance of having the new Prez get the beatdown. Dima is just too mild mannered and sensitive to deserve all that. Plus, Putin doesn’t give a rats ass about Bush and Cheney, let alone McCain and Obama. Basically, Putie’s position on all their blustering is “Save for the who gives a shit channel.”
Can you really blame the Russians? The anti-Russia propaganda machine immediately went into full swing as if all the talking points, footage, interviews and talking heads were already in the medai pipe. Black PR was already assembled. Reuters and other news outlets used staged photos in its reporting. Now CNN is being accused of using footage of wrecked tanks and blown out buildings from the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali and claiming it was Gori. Rumors and Georgian PR of Russia’s movements were swallowed throughout (even by myself). Fiction became fact. For example, there were constant reports that Russia took Gori but come to find out they didn’t. Reports are coming out about cyberattacks on media. Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English language channel, was crippled by alleged Georgian DDoS attacks (DDoS attacks were used by the Russians against Estonia during the Bronze Soldier affair) as was RT correspondent and commentator Peter Lavelle’s blog. Georgian officials also claimed that their sties were victim to Russia cyberattacks.
To get a sense of how thick the PR is take this passage from Ames’ “Georgia Gets Its War On . . McCain Gets is Brain Plaque”
The invasion was backed up by a PR offensive so layered and sophisticated that I even got an hysterical call today from a hedge fund manager in New York, screaming about an “investor call” that Georgian Prime Minister Lado Gurgenidze made this morning with some fifty leading Western investment bank managers and analysts. I’ve since seen a J.P. Morgan summary of the conference call, which pretty much reflects the talking points later picked up by the US media.
These kinds of conference calls are generally conducted by the heads of companies in order to give banking analysts guidance. But as the hedge fund manager told me today, “The reason Lado did this is because he knew the enormous PR value that Georgia would gain by going to the money people and analysts, particularly since Georgia is clearly the aggressor this time.” As a former investment banker who worked in London and who used to head the Bank of Georgia, Gurgenidze knew what he was doing. “Lado is a former banker himself, so he knew that by framing the conflict for the most influential bankers and analysts in New York, that these power bankers would then write up reports and go on CNBC and argue Lado Gurgenidze’s talking points. It was brilliant, and now you’re starting to see the American media shift its coverage from calling it Georgia invading Ossetian territory, to the new spin, that it’s Russian imperial aggression against tiny little Georgia.”
The really scary thing about this investor conference call is that it suggests real planning. As the hedge fund manager told me, “These things aren’t set up on an hour’s notice.”
War is waged through imagery and propaganda mediated by the government official, the public relations agent and the investment banker. Unfortunately for Georgia, its seems that Saakashvilli’s little adventure is going to cost them. The Bank of Georgia has halted all loans and suspended online banking for fear of mass withdrawals and capital flight. Georgia’s economic future, which until a week ago looked bright, is now in question.*****
Now that the fighting is winding down, the main question is: what is to be done? What to do with Saakashvilli? Surely, things can’t go on as they did. The use of violence has essentially provided the answer: South Ossetia will split from Georgia. Permanently. It’s only a question of when. Violence has redefined the theater of politics.
Many have pointed out that the South Ossetians and Georgians lived in peace in everyday life. The same was said about the Serbs, Bosians, Kosovars, Shia, and Sunnis. But violence is an act of creation as much as destruction. Violence concretizes Identities. As Franz Fanon pointed out in a different context, violence initiates a series of acts of mutual and self recognition. It is first the recognition of the Other. “They are the Georgians, we are Ossetians.” Second, it is an act of self-recognition. “We, Ossetians, are here!” Or “We, Georgians, are here!” Lastly, violence is a strange recognition of one’s own humanity. As Sarte wrote in his “Preface” to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, “Don’t be mistaken; it is through this mad rage, this bile and venom, their constant desire to kill us, and the permanent contradiction of powerful muscles, afraid to relax, that they become men.” Is it possible that this five day war has created a new sense of Ossetianess? Of Georgianess?
And what of Russians? The media chorus has announced that for Russia the South Ossetian War was a declaration of Russia streghten. A kind of perverted “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it!” True, the Russian leadership has been tired of America’s finger wagging and double dealing for too long. It’s quick response in South Ossetia was a statement that Russia is back. It dashed Georgia’s NATO ambitions with guns and bombs in a mere five days. The Europeans were already reluctant about letting Georgia into the gang. Now there is no way they’re going to grant NATO membership to Georgia and risk being drawn into a future military conflict with Russia. Sure, they may like Saakashvilli’s pro-Western prostrations, but at some point they become a burden.
In Russia, the war was a prime-time sensation. It captivated the nation, intrestingly not unlike Russian football. As Kommersant reports,
Indeed, the Olympics, feature films or soap operas were practically of no interest to the Russians older than 18 years. The nation was watching the news, doubling and tripling the ratings of news programs. News spots won the first five lines in Top 20, which had happened in peacetime very long ago given that it is the height of summer now.
Russia’s political parties were all towing the line in their own belligerent fashion. Duma Speaker and United Russia leader, Boris Gryzlov exhumed Hitler and declared that Saakashvilli should put in prison. “There is no other place for him,” he said. Just Russia’s Sergei Mironov also played the Hitler card. As did the Communists. Zyuganov called Saakashvilli’s actions “fascistic.” Georgia’s attack on South Ossetia was a “war crime.” There is a specter haunting Eurasia . . .
The outcry in the Duma had its populist antecedent. Andrei Bely’s Movement Against Illegal Immigration announced that it will raid places where Georgians gather in Moscow. On Monday, 500 members from the pro-Kremlin youth groups Nashi, Molodaya gvardiia, and Mestnye staged an Orthodox pray-in for God to stop Georgia’s aggression. Orthodox prayers were accompanied with the slogans, “Ossetia, we mourn with you!” and “Saakashvili is a hitman.” Unsurprisingly, Nashi has taken to the war. War, whether real or virtual, has always been truer to its calling. On its website, it echoed calls that Saakashvilli is a war criminal and demanded that Georgian athletes be expelled from the Olympics. They even demanded that the bronze medal the Georgians won in women’s shooting should be revoked. Nashi and Mestnye also staged a 300 strong rally in front of the Georgian embassy in Moscow. Perhaps commentators are right and Nashi has indeed lost its purpose. They just lack the umph of three years ago. No 50,000 or 100,000 beaming youths in red and white T-shirts on the streets. One would thinka real war would be a perfect opportunity to mobilize the masses. It just goes to show that History does indeed occur twice. The first time as tragedy and the second as farce.
As for the Russian public, poll figures provided by the Levada Center show that Russians firmly support (71%) South Ossetia in the conflict and the vast majority (80%) think that South Ossetia should join Russia (46%) or become an independent state (34%).
Finally, the peace plan drawn up between Medvedev and French President Sarkozy has been released. Its six points are as follows:
1) Non-use of force.
2) Stop all military action.
3) Free access to humanitarian aid.
4) Georgian troops return to their previous positions before the conflict.
5) Russian troops return to the lines they held before the start of the military operation. Before an international solution is worked out Russian peacekeepers are taking up an additional security role.
6) The start of an international discussion over the future status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
It seems that Saakashvilli will keep his job. That is of course there isn’t talk behind the scenes of him bowing out “gracefully.” It does sound like a good time for him to “spend more time with his family.”
By Sean — 3 years ago
Roman Torgovitsky, Harvard-trained biomedical scientist, social entrepreneur and founder of the Wounded Warrior Ukraine project, an NGO seeking to provide psychological rehabilitative assistance to Ukrainians affected by the visible and invisible wounds of war. You can donate to the project here.
Music: Black Sabbath, “War Pigs,” Paranoid, 1970.