Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editor, The Nation
"The past week's events in South Ossetia are bound to shock and pain anyone.... Nothing can justify this loss of life and destruction. It is a warning to all."
–Mikhail Gorbachev, Washington Post, August 12
Former Soviet President Gorbachev's condemnation of Georgia's assault on Tskhinvali on the night of August 7, which precipitated the larger Russia-Georgia conflict, reminds us that if we had heeded his vision of a truly post-cold war world, we might not today be confronting such dangerous geopolitical gamesmanship. It should also remind us, as a wobbly cease-fire is put in place, that the conflict has been flagrantly misreported in this country.
I am heartsick at the violence and brutalities on all sides. Georgian, South Ossetian and Russian friends have all suffered. Yet commentary in the US media, almost without exception, has turned a longstanding, complex separatist conflict into a casus belli for a new cold war with Russia, ignoring not only the historical and political reasons for South Ossetia's drive for independence from Georgia but also the responsibility of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for the current crisis. So eager have commentators been to indict Vladimir Putin's Russia that they have overlooked Washington's contribution to the rising tensions.
[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/08/11/art.russian.army.jpg caption="Ramaz Kuchiev, far right, a former soldier in the Russian army and other men wait for their papers to be processed so they can join the Russian army to join the fighting in South Ossetia and Georgia"]
The Vladikavkaz City Recruiting Center in the Russian territory of North Ossetia lies just outside the main town, through a tall, steel gate. Inside, along a small driveway overlapped by tall pines, lie a parking lot, pavilion and fruit orchard. A low, two-story concrete building with peeling paint serves as the recruiting center. Men in clean, dark green fatigues organize would-be recruits. They are mostly men in their 50s and 60s who have already served but are too old now. Lots of gray hair and mustaches, gold teeth and cigarettes.
Around the courtyard, the potential recruits, men of all ages, squat and stand. There are half a dozen in their 20s; at least twice as many older men, some as old as 50. A group of 10 Cossacks — in their traditional blue breeches with a wide red stripe down the side, green tunic bedecked in medals and tall black riding boots — forms to one side. One man has a curled handlebar mustache and watery pale-blue eyes. The men in this group won't talk to the press and keep walking off to stand and talk in a circle in the orchard. But one told a reporter earlier that he had come all the way from Siberia to serve in the Russian operations across the border in Georgia and its breakaway region South Ossetia. They look like a rough, hard bunch.
A tall, athletic Serb in his mid-40s, with blue eyes and curly long blond hair, comes into the courtyard. He walks over to the group of Cossacks, picks the oldest one out of the group and gives him a big hug and a kiss on each cheek. According to two of the men in the courtyard, the Serb, who is wearing new fatigues and slightly worn Asolo hiking boots, had fought Bosnia and is now there to fight in South Ossetia and Georgia. He may have fought in Chechnya, but no one will say. I talk to him for a moment. He speaks some English but is more comfortable in his lightly accented Russian. "I've come to fight in South Ossetia alongside the Russians," he says.
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