A reinvigorated and self-confident Russia flexed its muscles and concluded a decisive victory over America’s ally, Georgia, yesterday after a cruel, six-day war.
America’s Cold War rival had been a simple spectator to events on its borders since the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. The independence declarations of former Soviet republics, NATO’s expansion eastwards to its doorstep and the American military presence in Central Asia had left the former superpower with a feeling of powerlessness and loss of pride that the NATO bombing of its historical ally, Serbia, in 1999, only deepened.
With its first military action abroad since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, Russia announced that those days of passivity are over and its determination to shape events on its periphery, however bloody, has returned. Georgia, a former Soviet republic located on Russia’s southern border, became the first country to learn the harsh lesson that comes with a Russian revival.
Late last week, Georgia had attacked South Ossetia, a region that had separated from it in the early 1990s, killing ten Russian peacekeepers in the initial onslaught, awakening the Russian bear. Russian forces dashed Georgian hopes of quickly reincorporating South Ossetia and re-establishing its territorial integrity, by driving the Georgian army back, and then following it into Georgia proper.
With a victorious Russian army in hundreds of tanks poised to attack Tiblisi, Georgia’s capital, and under attack from air and sea, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili accepted a six-point peace plan yesterday evening. It was hammered out in Moscow yesterday between President Dimitri Medvedev and France’s President Sarkozy. Sounding like the head of a colonial power contemptuously dealing with a native uprising, Medevev said Georgia had been “punished."
“The aggressor has … suffered very significant losses,” affirmed the Russian president, who has only been in office 100 days. “Its military has been disorganized.”
According to the peace accord, both sides agreed to withdraw their troops to their pre-war positions and to renounce violence to resolve the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, another Georgian region whose secession Georgia has also disputed.
Besides the hundreds of dead and 100,000 refugees the war created, the most important local result is that Georgia has lost South Ossetia and Abkhazia, at least for the foreseeable future. Showing the world who’s calling the shots now in the Caucuses, Medvedev cynically stated that the two regions must be allowed to decide their own futures.
But Russia, observers note, had already been preparing a “silent annexation” of the rebellious regions by issuing Russian citizenship to a reported 90 per cent of their inhabitants and by supporting their weak economies. And some believe Russia’s support for Georgia’s secessionist areas was simply a counter-reaction to western countries’ recent recognition of Kosovo.
“When the West ignored Russia’s wishes by recognizing Kosovo’s independence, the unrecognized territories in the Caucuses seemed like a convenient tool for exacting revenge,” wrote Alexander Golts in the Moscow Times.
However, the recently concluded war had much wider implications than just the fate of two small, relatively unknown pieces of real estate. As with most local wars, there are geopolitical interests involved. And this one was no different.
One of the most important was Georgia’s application for NATO membership. The West had misjudged how strongly Vladimir Putin was against the western alliance’s expansion into the Caucuses. Only last Saturday, he warned NATO against Georgia’s acceptance.
Russia has probably achieved its aim of preventing Georgian inclusion into NATO, which was the recent conflict’s main goal. The war and its violence-prone, secessionist regions have most likely convinced enough NATO members that Georgia is too unstable and not worth the risk of hostilities with a determined Russia. Besides, the candidate member is located in the powder keg Caucuses Mountains where four wars have broken out since the Soviet Union’s demise 17 years ago.
Georgia’s defeat in the war is a loss and a challenge for America. Under President Mikhail Saakashvili, who came to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution, Georgia had turned to the West. It had provided troops, trained by America and Israel, to both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts and received well over a billion dollars in American aid since 1991. For George Bush, according to one observer, Georgia was “a showpiece of democratization and market economy.”
America was reportedly also enjoying warm relations with the oil-exporting Caucasian country of Azerbaijan next door to Georgia. A closer friendship with this government may have provided America with a desirable presence on the Caspian Sea near resource-rich Kazakhstan.
But all that may now be lost as Russia’s other war aim, to regain control of the Caucuses, is now realizable. George Bush rightly accuses yesterday’s victor of wanting regime change in Georgia, recognizing the Kremlin will now try to overthrow Saakashvili and install a pro-Moscow government. However, the Georgian people may do this themselves the next election, as some hold their president responsible for the disaster that has befallen their country.
“It’s a disgrace,” one Georgian told a German newspaper about the war’s outcome. “We don’t need such a government.”
Because of Georgia’s defeat, the all-important gas and oil pipelines that lessened Europe’s dependency on Russia as an energy supplier are also now less secure. Georgia was an important transit area for one such line and the future site of another. During the war, Russia showed its regard for Georgian oil facilities when its navy reportedly destroyed Poti, Georgia’s oil-exporting port.
Lack of NATO resolve in helping Georgia against Russia negatively affected the alliance as well. Members that were once Soviet republics know that being Russia’s neighbor can be a bad thing, which is why they joined and why they are fully supporting Georgia in the conflict. But after observing NATO’s inaction, they now fear the alliance will not protect them in a confrontation with Russia as well.
And these former Soviet republics are right to fear the aggression and expansion of a resurgent Russia. U.S. diplomat George Kennan wrote in 1944 that the Kremlin sees only “vassals or enemies”, while Eastern European expert Ariel Cohen noted Putin spoke last spring about “dismembering” the Ukraine, a former Soviet republic and, like Georgia, a NATO candidate. In which case, the world can expect the Russian bear hug to begin squeezing another target very soon.