Caucasus crisis

Print edition : September 12, 2008

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili in Tbilisi on August 15. Georgian troops launched an assault in the breakaway region of South Ossetia within a month of a visit by her in July. It is inconceivable that Washington was in the dark about what Saakashvili was up to.-IRALLI GEDENIDZE/POOL/REUTERS

The geopolitics of energy lies at the core of the conflict between Russia and a NATO-inclined Georgia in the Caucasus.

THE brusque, brief, brutal conflict in the Caucasus in early August fell just short of a war. Nonetheless, it was Clausewitzean it was indeed politics by other means.

To be sure, the killing of tens of hundreds of people in the Caucasian region of South Ossetia in a sudden military onslaught by Georgia will turn out to be a landmark event in post-Soviet Russias relations with the West. Conceivably, a chapter in the post-Cold War era is ending. Blood has been drawn in the Caucasus, which history shows, is never easy to wipe away. Feuds are known to run for decades even if they bear verisimilitude to family squabbles.

The crisis in southern Caucasus was slowly building up ever since Kosovo, the breakaway province of Serbia, declared independence in February. Historians will assess Kosovos independence as a bend in the post-Soviet transition of Eurasia. Kosovos independence was not inevitable, but the United States precipitated it since it was geopolitically desirable and quite achievable. It was a masterstroke in geopolitics. It served many purposes.

First and foremost, it decisively advanced the U.S. agenda of purging the Balkans of Russias presence as a Slavic power, which began with the systematic dismantling of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It was a pre-requisite to shaping the Black Sea region another playpen of Russian history as a U.S. sphere of influence so that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) can take a leap forward to the Caucasus, the notoriously soft underbelly of the Russian empire.

The agenda is still unfolding. The entities that were born out of the Yugoslav state are being systematically inducted into NATO; the U.S. has set up military bases in Romania and Bulgaria and has become for the first time a Black Sea power; NATO conducted its first-ever military exercise in the Black Sea with Ukraine in July; NATO membership for Georgia (and Ukraine) is on the table.

As of August, 45 countries, including major European powers France, Germany and the U.K., have been persuaded by the U.S. to accord recognition to Kosovo. Russia was expected to retaliate by fostering separatism in Georgia and Moldova, but, contrary to expectations, it adopted a shrewd policy of garnering the worldwide opinion against political separatism. Tactically, it suited Moscow that Tbilisi harboured the hope that with Russian goodwill a settlement could be eventually worked out with its breakaway provinces.

In other words, Moscow hoped to work on the diplomatic plane by getting Tbilisi to reciprocate the Russian goodwill and spirit of accommodation. Simply put, Moscow expected that as a quid pro quo Tbilisi would remain sensitive to Russias regional interests.

A significant body of opinion always existed within the Kremlin that Georgia was never quite irredeemably lost to the U.S. following the colour revolution of November 2003 and that with patience and tact and a judicious play of the factors of history, culture and economic ties, Tbilisi could be made to appreciate over time that friendly relations with Moscow were in its long-term interest. Indeed, a similar train of opinion also existed in Tbilisi in a muter form, though that Georgias future cannot be on an antagonistic path vis-a-vis Russia and a course correction by the Mikheil Saakashvili regime was in order.

As the economic crisis worsened and lawlessness grew in Georgia in the recent past, Russian diplomacy began shifting gear in Tbilisi, encouraging elements that stood for better relations with Russia. Up to a point, Moscow did the right thing. But it failed to factor in the point that from President Saakashvilis perspective, as his authoritarian regime got more and more unpopular and the debris of misgovernance, corruption and venality began to accumulate, it paid to whip up xenophobia.

That is why Moscow protested when it began to be known that with encouragement from the U.S., Tbilisi had embarked on a plan to increase dramatically its military budget 30 times in recent years. This move by Georgia went side by side with the growing U.S. assistance in training its army.

U.S. PRESIDENT GEORGE W. Bush with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on August 8.-GUANG NIU/POOL/REUTERS

Moscow began asking a pertinent question, as to who it was that Tbilisi visualised getting into a war with. Moscow proposed that an agreement could be signed, committing all protagonists to the non-use of force in settling differences. But Tbilisi would not have such an agreement, neither would Washington prevail upon it to accept one. Washington also closed its eyes when clandestine supplies of weapons began pouring into Tbilisi. In July, the U.S. Department of Defence funded a military exercise with Georgia. In retrospect, the turning point came when U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tbilisi in July.

Saakashvili drew inspiration from Condoleezza Rices statements endorsing Georgias claim for NATO membership and openly backing the Georgian stance in its standoff with Russia. It is a moot point whether Saakashvili unilaterally drew conclusions from her diplomatic gesture or a tacit Washington-Tbilisi understanding came about.

At any rate, Saakashvili let loose the dogs of war within a month of Rices visit. And he acted with immaculate timing when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was on summer vacation and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had left Moscow to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. On balance, it is inconceivable that Washington was in the dark about what Saakashvili was up to.

Indeed, what next? Essentially, it boils down to what the U.S. game plan is. Saakashvili is a progeny of the rose revolution in Georgia, which was financed and stage-managed by U.S. intelligence in November 2003. Southern Caucasus constitutes a critically important region for the U.S. since it straddles a busy transportation route for energy like the Indian Ocean or the Persian Gulf. It can be used as a choke point. (The rose revolution itself was staged on the eve of the commissioning of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which undercut Russian role in the Caspian oil.) Simply put, keeping Georgia under U.S. control is an imperative for the rollback of Russian influence in the Eurasian region.

The geopolitics of energy lies at the core of the conflict in the Caucasus. The U.S. suffered a series of major reverses in the past two-year period in the great game over Caspian energy. Moscows success in getting Turkmenistan to commit its entire gas production to Gazprom, Russias state-controlled energy giant, for export was a stunning blow to the U.S. energy diplomacy. Moscow has now made a similar offer to Azerbaijan to buy all its gas on highly attractive terms that the Western companies cannot match. Similarly, the U.S. failed to get Kazakhstan to jettison its close ties with Russia, especially the arrangement to route its oil exports primarily through Russian pipelines.

The brilliant success of Russian energy diplomacy puts a question mark on the viability of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which was commissioned in 2005 with U.S. funding and political support. Similarly, the progress of Russias South Stream project, aimed at transporting energy to the Balkan and southern European countries, and the failure of the U.S.-sponsored Nabucco gas pipeline project (which broadly has the same orientation as South Stream) are setbacks to Washington. All in all, Moscow handed down to the George W. Bush administration, whose ties with Big Oil are legion, a historic defeat in the struggle for energy.

Washington cannot accept a situation where Russia remains Europes principal energy partner, as that would enable Moscow to build up rapidly the sinews of a broad-based economic and political partnership with major European powers, which are eventually bound to challenge the U.S. trans-Atlantic leadership.

THIS FIVE-STOREY apartment block in the Georgian town of Gori, 80 kilometres from Tbilisi, went up in flames after a Russian warplane dropped a bomb on it on August 9, killing at least five people, a Reuters reporter said.-DAVID MDZINARISHVILI/REUTERS

Casting Russia in adversarial terms is fundamental to Washingtons European project. The raison detre of NATO, which is visualised as a core instrument of U.S. global strategies in the 21st century, dissipates if the alliance loses sight of an enemy at the gates. The extraordinary line-up in Europe Germany, France and Russia opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was a shocking eye-opener to U.S. strategists of what the future could portend if Moscows odyssey to become part of a common European home made headway.

Thus, in geopolitical terms, a flashpoint in the Caucasus at this juncture suits Washington. A furious propaganda barrage against Russia has begun. The U.S. statements virtually overlook the Georgian onslaught on South Ossetia and attempt to portray Russia as a regional power with aggressive, predatory instincts. Washington is foisting an opinion on Europe that Moscow is bullying Tbilisi. This propaganda aims to strengthen Washingtons case for inducting Georgia into NATO.

At NATOs summit meeting in April in Bucharest, it became apparent that despite its robust attempts for months, Washington needs to overcome resistance within NATO on Georgias membership, especially from Germany, France, Spain, Greece and Italy. Unsurprisingly, European countries see the senselessness of provoking Moscow and creating new East-West barriers when they face no real security threats from a resurgent Russia and that too, when the imperatives of energy security are on everyones mind.

As a compromise formula, the summit meeting decided that NATO Foreign Ministers would revisit the topic at their upcoming meeting in December. The December meeting will also be the last major NATO event of the Bush era. Georgia has been a pet project of the Bush administration, and its induction into NATO makes a fine legacy. The war in the Caucasus comes in handy for the Bush administration to press for Georgias (and Ukraines) induction into NATO.

Indeed, Georgias membership of NATO would have far-reaching strategic implications. With it, NATO would cross over from the Black Sea region to the approaches to Asia. It would constitute a great leap forward for the alliance, which was not even sure until recently ostensibly, at least of its post-Cold War destiny in the 21st century. Georgias NATO membership would ensure that the U.S. arc of encirclement of Russia gets strengthened.

The NATO ties would facilitate deployment of the U.S. missile defence system in Georgia. The U.S. aims to have a chain of countries tied to partnerships with NATO brought into its missile defence system stretching from its allies in the Baltic and Central Europe, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, India, and leading to the Asia-Pacific. The anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system is a crucial component of the U.S. strategy to neutralise the strategic capability of Russia (and China) and to establish its nuclear superiority the (Churchillian) doctrine that propelled the U.S. post-Second World War search of absolute security and crafted the Cold War containment of the Soviet Union.

In immediate terms, though, from Washingtons perspective, there is nothing like getting Russia bogged down in the Caucasus if it saps Russias capacity to play an effective role on the world stage. It is all too apparent that Moscow dreads a full-blown war in the Caucasus and is desperately keen to avoid one.

Russias foreign policy gives No. 1 priority to the countrys integration with Europe. Indeed, if Russia accedes to the long-standing demand by South Ossetia to become part of the Russian Federation, it becomes fodder for Western criticism that a revanchist Kremlin annexes territories. But if Moscow remains passive, the Caucasus could become Russias bleeding wound and Russias prestige in Europe would diminish.

But variables, inevitably, remain in politics, when the situation is still evolving. One, the U.S., along with its key camp followers in Europe the U.K., and Baltic and Central European countries needs to consolidate quickly a pan-European opinion against Russia. The stance taken by Germany, Italy, Spain and France is of utmost importance.

Two, it still remains to be seen if Europe lines up behind the U.S. for a confrontation with Russia. There is widespread scepticism in Europe about U.S. policies in general. Three, shepherding European opinion in the direction of Georgias NATO membership is a tough endeavour. Unsurprisingly, the major European powers remain reluctant about the western alliance being drawn into a role as Tbilisis protectors as that might revive a Berlin Wall in Europe and roll back the peace dividends of the end of the Cold War.

Four, Russias thinking regarding frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space, too, is evolving. In response to the belligerent U.S. stance supportive of Saakashvili, Moscow may harden its stance and become more assertive in its support of the South Ossetians and Abkhazians, while remaining just short of endorsing their unilateral independence from Georgia. Moscow might also conclude that Saakashvilis close ties with Washington preclude any scope for Russian-Georgian reconciliation so long as he keeps power in Tbilisi.

RUSSIAN SOLDIERS DETAIN a man who carried a weapon in his car at a checkpoint in Gori on August 14.-GLEB GARANICH/REUTERS

The million-dollar question is the impact on the world order. Clearly, a hefty slice of post-Cold War history and politics is breaking away and the correlation of forces is transforming. Post-Soviet Russias relations with the U.S. will never be the same again. The message from Moscow is that it has had enough of the U.S. containment strategy and selective engagement of Russia and that it will dig in and reassert its regional and international influence.

Indeed, without being confrontational or reverting to a bloc mentality, Russia has a host of options. It will set out exploring robustly the frontiers of a multipolar world order. The Kremlin would be aware that its firm and decisive response meshes with the overwhelming domestic public opinion, which militates against the U.S. relentless triumphalism in humiliating Mother Russia through the past two decades.

Needless to say, the future course of Russian-American relations is bound to have its reverberations on a multitude of templates in contemporary world politics. Countries ranging from Venezuela to Iran to China will be watching closely. Again, the impact on regional politics will be profound. The fact remains that on a host of regional issues there are serious limits to the U.S. capacity to force its will on the world community be it Afghanistan and Central Asia or the new Middle East or the security of the Asia-Pacific. Equally, the global agenda terrorism, climate change, nuclear non-proliferation, energy security can be addressed meaningfully only with inclusive participation.

To be sure, Russian power is on display. The biggest trump card that Moscow arguably holds is that it has learnt from the mistakes of the Cold War. It will not allow itself to be bogged down in rigid ideologies. It is neither confrontational nor in a mood to fight proxy wars. It will carefully husband resources while insisting on pursuing legitimate national interests. Its multi-vector approach in foreign policy gives enormous flexibility and scope for pragmatism.

All in all, there is great sophistication in Russian diplomacy. Simply by articulating the case of a democratised world order and the rule of international law, it echoes a world sentiment. The U.S. faces an unprecedented challenge ever since Woodrow Wilson searched gingerly for a U.S. role in mainland Europe.

The writer is a former ambassador belonging to the Indian Foreign Service, who twice served in the Soviet Union.

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