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6 Aug, 2009 07:04

“Biden is simply a man who has trouble controlling his mouth” – NY scholar

Georgia’s invasion created a new reality: the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Professor of Russian Studies at New York University Stephen Cohen talks with RT on what lessons have been learned from the war.

RT: You were one of the very few American scholars, if not the only one, to label the war in South Ossetia that took place last August as a proxy war. What specific tensions that ignited that war do you believe still exist and what changes and improvements have been made over the past year?

Stephen Cohen: No improvements over the past year! That’s easy to say. In this country, I don't know about Moscow, the war in Georgia is treated as a kind of accidental war, an unexpected development, or some kind of conspiracy by Moscow that nobody knew about. That’s all false!

Any intelligence observer that was paying attention could see that the expansion of NATO ever closer to Russia's borders, and then eventually right on Russia's borders, in the Baltics for example. And then the declared intention of Washington to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and along the way arming the Georgia military with weapons that would qualify it for NATO membership was going to lead to something bad and dangerous. And it did.

There are mysteries about why and how it began and that is why the leader of Georgia, Saakashvili, attacked South Ossetia. We don’t know for sure why it happened then. But what we do know is something like that was likely to happen unless the situation changed, particularly the nature of the Georgian regime, and the declared Western intention, the American intention, to push NATO there. Since then, so far, from what I can tell, nothing has changed. And I don't think anybody should be surprised if there’s another violent episode in or around Georgia.

RT: There have been several reports that Washington may place US monitors in Georgia working in conjunction with the EU mission already there. The Russian Foreign Ministry was quick to respond to this, saying that this move may increase the potential for another conflict in the region. Taking into account the role of the US in last August’s events, how do you believe this is going to play out?

S.C.: Putting American monitors in the EU monitoring group is a terrible idea. All you have to do, if you're American, is imagine the reaction if an American gets killed. Even if we don't know who killed him. Russia will be blamed. When an American is killed, the popular opinion, or at least the elite, is retribution. We’ve seen that happen over the years. We don’t want any more Americans there. Moreover, there are already Americans in Georgia. Lots of them. Military minders, as they are called. People teaching the Georgians how to use the weapons; how to perform strategic maneuvers. There is also a very large American intelligence community in Georgia.

There are too many Americans. Something approaching an American military presence. Approaching, but not fully yet. That’s exceedingly dangerous for two reasons. First of all, it clearly strengthened Saakashvili, the Georgian leadership. To think last August that the US would stand behind it if it attacked South Ossetia. Whether it had such assurances from Washington, I don't know. But psychologically it created that impression in Saakashvili’s mind.

Secondly, you don’t want Americans on what is now the frontline of an unfolding Russia-America cold war. We don’t want any Russians there either. That is why we’re having a proxy war, as I call it. That is a war between Russia and a Georgian regime and a military that the US created and thought it was fighting for American interests. Whether it was or was not doesn’t matter – it is exceedingly dangerous regardless.

The Georgian war of 2008, a proxy war between US and Russia, had the potential to be the new Cuban Missile Crisis. That's how dangerous it was potentially. That has not been recognized and so the right lessons have not been learnt, even though a year has passed because the same rhetoric, the same dynamics, the same thinking in the US and possibly in Moscow is still with us.

RT: The US Vice President on a recent trip to Ukraine and Georgia pledged America's support to both countries. However, Mr. Biden did urge Georgia not to use any military options to regain its former territories. But by pledging support could this be interpreted as America will still help them join NATO and what does this mean when it comes to Washington’s policy towards Russia?

S.C.: It is not correct, as people are saying that what Vice President Biden has done and said about Russia both while he was in Georgia and Ukraine and when he returned to the US to the Wall Street Journal, is simply a man who has trouble controlling his mouth. He represents a very powerful point of view in Washington, everything that he said and did regarding Russia.

Second, the US does not want another Georgian war. We can't help Georgia. We are bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our military is stretched to its limits. However, the purpose of the Biden visit, the statements he made, was for several reasons. One was to state the anti-Russian point of view very clearly here in the US and make it clear that there are at least two points of view in the Obama administration. That's very important.

Secondly, it was to tell Moscow that we are going to defend Ukraine and Georgia in various ways, which means we still lay claim to those two small countries as our sphere of influence now. We've laid claim to them. What is NATO? It's a sphere of military influence.

Thirdly, it was probably what Biden did to our factions in Georgia, but particularly in Ukraine, where the leader of Ukraine, Yushchenko, has almost no public popularity at all. And the people in opposition are moving away from his anti-Russian position. And it's an attempt by the US to continue to support a pro American lobby there.

The worst part of what Biden did is make clear to Moscow that the anti-Russian viewpoint remains supreme in Washington.

This means that the enemies of the reset in Washington have created more enemies of the reset in Moscow. And it makes it very hard to change American policy and American-Russian relations for the better. Whatever was achieved by Obama will be erased by that.

RT: You have written a lot over the past twenty years about Washington's approach towards Moscow in your book. Your highlight could be called imperialism or hypocrisy in one part of your book. You write, “When American bombers attacked Serbia on behalf of Kosovo it was defending human rights. When Russian forces crossed into Georgia, on behalf of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, it was an affront to civilized standards and completely unacceptable. This is what we've heard in the past.” My question to you is do you believe this dual standard policy will continue under President Obama from what you have seen so far in his short tenure?

S.C.: This dual standard policy will continue under Obama unless he personally rejects it. Unless Obama becomes a heretic. On this dual standard, I want to emphasize that what I say to you on Russian TV, I say the exactly the same to Americans. I say, “Fellow Americans, when we bombed Serbia and Kosovo, we said it was virtuous.

When the Russians came to the defence of Ossetia against an American sponsored regime, in Georgia, we said it was neo-imperialism, and unacceptable. When we build bases on Russia's borders, we say it’s carrying democracy. When Russia protests those bases, we say they are autocratic and imperialist. We are using two sets of standards. Think about it Americans, is this a way to build a policy with the country, Russia, that is most essential today to our national security? Is this the way to go?”

RT: Were any lessons learned in the terrible conflict in South Ossetia and the deaths of so many people?

S.C.: It is the worst part looking back a year later. At the time there was reason to hope in the US that the lesson had been learnt. Don’t put bases on Russia’s borders. Don’t incite political conflicts that could spin out of control there. But first of all a mythology has been created about how that war began.

For example, a New York Times reporter, a very good reporter, wrote that the tinderbox exploded in Ossetia. No it didn't! Saakashvili ignited it. It didn't explode by itself. The more common formulation is Russia began the war by invading Georgia. That is what not happened.

The EU report, which has so far been suppressed, has found clearly that Georgia began the war. But the mythology in America today, in every newspaper, and it’s what we are teaching our children, in school today, is that Russia, in 2008, did a very bad thing and invaded poor little Georgia. And now we have to defend Georgia against Russia imperialism. That is false so therefore the lesson learnt is false. What is the lesson? The lesson is Biden has been travelling around preaching we have to be strong, we have to not negotiate with Russia, we have to make demands on Russia, or else. So that's the wrong lesson. And we have to continue to support the Georgians militarily. That's the wrong lesson. And the tragedy here is there is a solution but it's not permitted in the mainstream discussion in the US which guarantees Georgia’s and Ukraine’s political sovereignty along with guarantees to Moscow that there will be no foreign bases in those countries.