Russia’s war on Georgia, its biggest military adventure since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, is a definitive signal of its powerful resurgence. Just as importantly, it has demonstrated the limits to the American appetite for further foreign entanglements in the midst of the US’s campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, during a period of growing economic difficulty at home.
This war is not primarily about the breakaway Georgian regions of South Ossetia or Abkhazia, or even about Georgia itself — beyond Moscow’s failed aim of ousting Tbilisi’s strongly pro-Western President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Rather it is about Russia sending a timely message to the rest of the world — especially to those neighbours who were once part of the Soviet Union — that it is again a power to be reckoned with and is prepared to take the military option in support of its strategic aims.
It is also showing these nations, who have in many instances become very friendly with the West, that having such relationships with NATO and the US doesn’t guarantee those powers will go to war on their behalf.
"This has been a seismic event," says US academic, author and journalist Thomas Goltz who has covered the Caucasus since the fall of the Soviet Union, sitting at a Tbilisi cafe.
"This is, if you want to call it, the revival of the cold war, or whatever terms you want to use."
Russia knew the United States and the rest of the world would condemn its actions against Georgia. But the stronger the condemnation from Washington and other Western capitals, the more it highlights the difference between what they say and what they can actually deliver in terms of protection.
For almost two decades, Russia has felt humiliated by the US and the West, and the decision by Western powers to back Kosovo’s independence over Moscow’s clearly stated objections was the breaking point for a nation buoyed by high energy revenues and resurgent military capability under hardline president and now Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin.
It wanted to strike. It knew there was little the US or Europe could do, either militarily or diplomatically over Georgia — neither Putin nor his protégé, President Dmitry Medvedev — really care about being called nasty names by NATO or anyone else. Russia has veto rights in the UN Security Council, so it is safe there, too. And NATO is divided.
Georgia was an easy choice. It’s small, its military had nine combat planes and 80 tanks compared with Russia’s 1,500 planes and 8,000 tanks, US-educated and backed Saakashvili can be brash and imprudent, and Georgia is the main supply route for Caspian Sea oil and gas to reach Western markets directly rather than be piped through Russia.
And it had the unstable and disputed territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the Russian border, where violence has been simmering for some time. Despite the presence of about 130 US military advisers, the Georgian armed forces appear chaotic in the field. Troops moved into South Ossetia without rations and were easily routed by the Russian advance.
"South Ossetia is just an excuse — it’s not even just an excuse," says Aleksander Rondeli, who heads the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS) in Tbilisi.
In the words of the International Crisis Group‘s Lawrence Streets, a 20-year veteran of the Caucasus, "Obviously, the main goal is to send the West a very strong message that Russia is a country to be reckoned with; that for the last 20 years ‘we’ve been treated like crap; you ignored even considering our position on Kosovo; and now we are going to show you who’s boss’."
Apart from the symbolic use of the US military to spearhead the delivery of foreign relief aid to tens of thousands of refugees, about the best the world community can do is issue statements, block Russia’s entry to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) amid the latest stalled round of talks, and make vague threats about the fate of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, just north of Abkhazia.
That will not scare Putin or Medvedev.
And the US delivery of relief itself is concerning many aid workers. It’s one thing to get supplies into the country. It’s another to have a reliable logistical network to deliver them to those who need them.
Neither the US nor Georgian militaries can do that at the moment, especially in Ossetia, leaving it up to a mish-mash of local and foreign NGOs. The US Government’s aid agency, USAID, is involved, but it doesn’t have the capacity itself to deliver that aid. What was an organisation with 13,000 staff during the Vietnam War had been slashed to just 2300 people by 2001. When its budget was doubled to $14 billion after 9/11, it got just 100 more staff.
So it now does little more than oversee expensive for-profit contractors on lucrative deals where they have a guaranteed percentage margin on top of all costs, and which is grappling with accusations of waste, mismanagement and racism over its programs in Afghanistan.
It refuses to comment on those allegations.
Amid concerns over aid delivery, the United States chose to send a destroyer — a warship, not a transport ship — through the Bosphorous and into the shallow port of Batumi, instead of a more appropriate shallow draught vessel with a bigger cargo load capability. Once in port, it could not even dock and needed to transfer cargo from offshore. The urgent supplies waited five hours while the captain spoke to the media.
The shipment included bottled water, which was completely unnecessary. There is already a good supply of potable water, even in war zones such as the central Georgian city of Gori. In areas where there may not be, aid workers say cheap portable field purification units and chemicals are more efficient than shipping in thousands of tonnes of water in plastic bottles. Aid groups working with USAID are also still in the dark about how these supplies will be physically delivered.
Neither the Georgian nor the US military can do it, so it’s up to a collection of uncoordinated NGOs. Access to the neediest zones is not guaranteed by either the Russians or the Georgians.
Some commentators have suggested Saakashvili, at once extremely intelligent, but inflammatory, impulsive and known for a fondness for rattling Russia’s cage even before he came to power, was tricked into stepping up Georgia’s offensive in ethnically mixed South Ossetia.
True or not, he had little choice. With Russian-backed Ossetian forces pounding mainly Georgian villages in Ossetia with artillery, the political risk to Saakashvili of losing those villages was as dangerous as the risk of Russian retaliation.
People close to Saakashvili say he was warned by Washington against going in.
How many people were killed or fled from their homes during both the Georgian and the Russian offensives will not be known for some time. Each side accuses the other of atrocities.
The irony is that in invading Georgia, Russia has, if anything, strengthened Saakashvili’s position and undermined the divided and shambolic opposition, which has called a moratorium on debate or criticising the president. Georgians’ intense and emotional nationalism means that even people on the streets who opposed Saakashvili before the fighting now stand united behind him.
On Tbilisi’s broad Rustaveli Avenue of churches, opera halls, brand-name boutiques and street stalls leading past Parliament to Freedom Square, about the strongest criticism of the President now is that he may have miscalculated. But the feeling is that the Russian response was unacceptable and Georgians must stand together to save their nation. Especially since everyone here knows that getting rid of Saakashvili himself was a major Moscow aim.
"I don’t think that he will be overthrown," says Rondeli. "We don’t like overthrowing presidents. We are fed up with it. And I think that because of the character of Russian aggression and the way they behaved in Georgia, Saakashvili will be preserved by Georgians."
The war is already having an impact on Russia’s nervous neighbours and has deepened divisions within NATO between countries such as the US — who wanted Ukraine and Georgia to be given NATO membership — and nations such as France and Germany that opposed their membership at NATO’s Bucharest meeting in April and now consider themselves lucky to have dodged a bullet by not being dragged into the Russia-Georgia conflict.
Kazakhstan is now considering pumping its oil through Russia, instead of sending it by tanker across the Caspian to Azerbaijan, which then pipes it through Georgia. Such a move also threatens the fate of a planned undersea pipeline from Aktau in Kazakhstan through the Caspian to the Azeri capital of Baku. Azerbaijan itself is losing $50 million a day through cut-offs in three oil and gas pipelines from Baku through Tbilisi to the Georgian Black Sea coast or to Turkey. At least one disruption was blamed on an attack by Kurdish rebels on the Turkish side.
However, bomb craters from Russian air strikes mark the sides of the pipelines in Georgia and analysts say Moscow has sent a clear message it can sever them any time it likes.
According to US-based think-tank Stratfor.com, "now that Russia has established a firm military presence in Georgia, [it is]highly likely that all three lines will continue to operate, or not, at the pleasure of the Kremlin."
Ukraine is re-examining its defence strategy and force levels. Russia’s only warm sea naval fleet is stationed in Sevastopol, in Ukraine’s Crimea — a mainly ethnic Russian zone that Moscow wants back.
Meanwhile, Belarus’ President Aleksander Lukashenko, who has been working on closer military cooperation with Moscow but at the same time trying to strengthen ties with the West, is now likely to move more into Russia’s orbit.
In Azerbaijan, President Ilham Aliyev, who has been playing Russia off against the US, called an emergency meeting of his cabinet after the Georgian invasion and is now likely to shift towards Russia, if only out of concerns about oil and gas shipments. Azerbaijan has only just started making real money from its oil and gas fields. And its reserves will not last long. The country is poorly developed, poverty is rising and it simply cannot afford to lose that revenue, especially with a presidential election in October.
While Europe needs Russia for oil and gas, Washington needs it for Iran.
The US not only wants Moscow to back sanctions against Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program, but it’s also keen to prevent Russia selling weapons to Tehran, especially the advanced S-300 air defence system.
At one level, Russia’s war is also about fear. It fears military and democratic encirclement. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, St Petersburg was almost 2600 kilometres from the nearest NATO state. Now, it’s less than 100 kilometres from NATO member Estonia. Georgia’s much-lauded democracy, while questionable (with most independent observers believing there were serious irregularities in the emergency 2007 elections that gave Saakashvili a fresh five-year term from January) is also seen in Moscow as an encroaching Western threat to Russia itself.
But most of all, the war is about reasserting Russia’s dominance and its traditional sense of empire.
As Stratfor says, "Russia has been an empire for centuries. The last 15 years or so were not the new reality, but simply an aberration that would be rectified."
"And now it is being rectified."
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