Despite clear warnings from the United States and Europe, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev this week recognised the independence of the rebel Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After its short but bloody war with Tbilisi, Moscow’s latest move ups the ante in a stand-off with the West that has some analysts predicting a new Cold War.
"This was always part of the plan to destroy Georgia and show the world who’s boss," says the head of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS), Alexander Rondeli. "They’d already decided [on independence]months ago."
Medvedev himself has made it clear that US and EU support for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia this year was a key reason for Russia’s military action in Georgia, which has led to a wider confrontation with the West. "We’re not scared of anything, including the prospect of a Cold War — but of course we don’t want it," Medvedev said on Kremlin-sponsored Russia Today television during the week.
Analysts say there is now virtually no chance Russia will withdraw its support for independence for Abkhazia and South Ossetia – both of whom have been promised Russian military support if they are attacked. "Russia is not going to go back on what it has done, in the same way that the United States and Europe are not going to go back on Kosovo," says the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) Tbilisi-based Caucasus expert Lawrence Sheets, a 20-year veteran of the region.
How things stand for ordinary people in Abkhazia and South Ossetia right now is unclear. Journalists trying to get into South Ossetia, barely 30 kilometres from Tbilisi, are being threatened, abused and turned back at checkpoints manned by Ossetian militiamen at villages such as Alkhagori. According to Alexander Rondeli, of the Georgian Foundation for Strategic and International Studies (GFSIS), Georgians returning to their villages inside South Ossetia are being killed by Ossetians. "That’s not ethnic tension," says Rondeli, "that’s ethnic hatred already. It’s a disaster, what’s happening."
Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes. And despite two weeks of heavily publicised aid deliveries from overseas, aid workers say that little is actually getting through to those who need it, due to distribution problems, arguments among agencies over what approach they should take, and the continuing Russian military presence.
As Russian troops continue to hold key territory and infrastructure — like the major Black Sea oil port of Poti, which forced the United States to redirect a shipload of aid to Batumi to the south — Russia’s neighbours are nervously coming to terms with the message it has sent. Azerbaijan has stopped piping its Caspian Sea oil and gas (along with much of Kazakhstan’s) through Georgia to the Georgian and Turkish coasts; Ukraine is looking at beefing up its military and has raised the idea of charging more for Russia’s Black Sea fleet to base itself at the Crimean port of Sevastopol; and Kazakhstan is considering pumping more of its oil and gas directly through Russia instead of building an undersea pipeline to Azerbaijan.
Baku, which loses $50 million every day that Georgian pipelines are empty, has already started shipping light crude through Iran — undermining US efforts to financially isolate Tehran over its nuclear program. And as the war started, Russia warned Poland it had made itself a "100 per cent" target for nuclear attack after Poland signed a deal with Washington to allow part of its new missile shield to be based on Polish soil. According to Thomas Goltz, an author and academic who has written several book on the Caucasus, "The most disastrous part of this thing is that it has exposed the hollowness, the emptiness of this thing called NATO, this thing called the West, this thing called Europe, and particularly this thing called the United States of America."
While most former Soviet republics are worried, it’s NATO aspirant Ukraine that may be next to attract Russian attention. "What has happened is a threat to everyone, not just for one country," Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko warned during a visit this week by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband aimed at bolstering the pro-Western Kiev administration. "Any nation could be next, any country. When we allow someone to ignore the fundamental right of territorial integrity, we put into doubt the existence of any country," said Yushchenko, who almost died in a mysterious poisoning after he led his country’s 2004 Orange Revolution.
Ukraine’s population of 47 million includes a large Russian minority which is particularly well represented in its southeastern Crimean peninsula, an area with a long history of separatist movements. "It would take just a few levers to make something go down in Crimea," Sheets says, adding that to achieve strategic goals in that region, Russia would be more likely to stir local dissent to trigger political ructions rather than resorting to direct military action.
The agreement for Russia’s fleet to use Sevastopol is due to expire in 2017 and Yushchenko has said it will not be renewed, another issue weighing heavily on Russia’s mind. It relies on its warm water Black Sea fleet. Two years ago, Kiev accused Moscow of stirring protests over a NATO naval exercise in Crimea called Operation Sea Breeze. The "hypothetical" scenario behind the operation imagined a breakaway peninsula caught between a totalitarian government and a democratic one.
Russia is displaying a high level of immunity to diplomatic slaps on the wrist. It wields veto power in the United Nations Security Council, and at the moment all major Western military forces are mired in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Moscow has already said it no longer cares about its bid to join the World Trade Organisation, nor is it concerned about threats to take the 2014 Winter Olympics away from the Russian city of Sochi, just north of Abkhazia. "Russia doesn’t care about respectability," says Rondeli. "Russia only cares about respect and fear." Russia also controls about 40 per cent of Europe’s oil and gas supplies, giving it major economic leverage and fuelling both its income and national pride with record-high energy prices.
At the same time, some analysts — such as the ICG’s Sheets — warn against alarmism, suggesting that Russia’s actions are prone to over-interpretation. Of the anxious response by some former Soviet states, he says: "It’s psychological scar tissue after being part of the Soviet Union for so long."
At this point, about a dozen US-led NATO naval vessels have moved into the Black Sea. They are helping deliver water, tents, medicine and food to war victims and at the same time show some level of force to Russia, analysts say. For its part, the Russian Black Sea fleet led by the cruiser Moskva is more active than normal.
According to US-based think-tank Stratfor.com, "The West, which has consistently backed the idea of Georgia’s territorial integrity, broadly condemned the [independence]move, but has taken no action beyond rhetoric. Nor is it likely to in the short term. The West could deploy naval forces that can outmaneuver and box in Russia as a whole, but that requires time and political will.
"In the meantime, Russia has forces on the ground in the two territories and loads more nearby. The West doesn’t. The Russians clearly are the ones determining the reality on the ground, and that — for now — is that."
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