Russia’s invasion of Georgia in response to Georgia’s reckless invasion of South Ossetia from August 8, 2008 has prompted concern about a resurgence of Russian power. It is unclear why Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili moved into South Ossetia, a region monitored by Russian military peacekeepers, knowing that Russia would react. Was he expecting military assistance from the West?
Georgia was absorbed into the Russian empire in 1801. Following Georgia independence in the early 1990’s NATO uneasily designated two areas containing significant ethnic Russian populations, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as Russian peacekeeper occupied zones. The major element upsetting this shaky status quo is a large scale Russian counter-attack beyond these two zones and deep into Georgian territory.
This aggression provides a warning that Russia can no longer be written off as a spent, ex-communist empire. It has oil and gas that the West, particularly Europe, needs with increasing desperation. Russia is conscious that energy, plus its traditional military power, give it strength is has not enjoyed since the 1970’s. Rising energy prices have boosted Russia’s economy enabling Russia to avoid any need to move towards true democracy or a genuine free market economy.
The Georgia issue generates more questions than answers. Is Russia’s attack intended to highlight the dangers of including a contested Caucasian state within the otherwise stable NATO membership? In April 2008, at a NATO summit in Bucharest, President Bush proposed that Georgia and Ukraine be admitted to NATO. This policy was not accepted in NATO due to fears it would offend Russia.
European countries that are also heavily dependent on Russian gas, Germany and Italy, see incorporation of Georgia into NATO as something to avoid. To them Georgia is already a flashpoint and confrontation over it would provide a reason for Russia to disrupt gas supplies.
The attack on Georgia may also be Russia’s way of warning Ukrainians what may happen to Ukraine if it grows too close to the West and joins NATO. While Russia's attempt to use Russian minorities as a pretext for control or intervention has been most obvious in Georgia, Ukraine, which has a Russian minority of 17 per cent, is also under threat. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is supporting Georgia by exploiting the fact that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet remains in Ukraine’s Crimean port of Sevastopol under a leasing agreement which expires in 2017. Yushchenko has threatened to prevent Russian ships that may be involved in the Georgian conflict from returning to Sevastopol.
The US may have benefited from the Georgian invasion in that fear of Russia may have accelerated Poland’s decision to host US anti ballistic missiles. Poland joined NATO in 1999 but may feel that only by hosting a key US base can it gain real protection from Russia. The US may also be backing Georgia to stoke Russia’s aggressive tendencies thus providing a threat for a revitalised NATO under American leadership.
Russian interest in the South Caucuses also includes a desire to control the flow of energy exports to Western Europe. A key oil pipeline (known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline) passes through Georgia while bypassing Russian territory. Russia would prefer to push out its borders to encompass this pipeline or, failing that, to control the pipeline indirectly by again transforming Georgia into a Russian puppet state.
Cyberwarfare has added a new dimension to the Georgian conflict. Reports are that Russia hackers may have been directing an online attack against the Georgian government internet infrastructure since late July 2008. Cyber attacks against Georgia may be similar to those Russian hackers directed at Estonia last year. Georgian hackers however have counter-attacked against government websites in Russia and South Ossetia.
With the US heavily involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan, it has been largely left to negotiations between European states, Russia, Georgia and France to attempt a resolution to the Georgian conflict. It remains to be seen whether Russian troops will withdraw to their August 8 positions within the South Ossetian and Abkhazian zones of Georgia.
A reality in the face of Russia’s aggression is that Georgia should not be encouraged by Western declarations of future NATO membership unless there is consensus within NATO that Georgia can join and be protected militarily. Applying the NATO joint defence tripwire model to Georgia may be hazardous when Russian troops or “peacekeepers” are already standing on the tripwire. Broadening the NATO membership should not be used as a way of encircling and isolating Russia. With finite resources NATO does not appear to have the will or strength to defend small, Caucasian states while key NATO members are occupied elsewhere, including the Middle East.
The conflict in Georgia involves more questions than answers. What is certain is that Russia is rising again. Western intelligence, diplomatic and military resources need to increasingly address or counter Russia’s emerging power.
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