Exclusive: Russia’s Attack on Georgia: What to Do With the Awakened Bear: Part One of Two

I.             Current Situation
As most of the world focused on the Olympics in Beijing, Russia invaded Georgia, after months of deliberate planning. They created the conditions necessary to wage an effective information campaign, using deception and influence operations, and they took advantage of a UN peacekeeping environment, using their positioned “Russian Peacekeepers” to train and resource Ossetian separatists. They followed with some of their best airborne and armored forces for shock and effect. The decline in Western Europe’s willingness to employ any kind of military response to threats like these, the “petro hostage” situation Russia has imposed over these countries, and the over commitment of U.S. forces in other conflicts have combined to set the stage for Russia to go on the offensive. With a puny army, lack of allied support, internal separatists, miscalculation, and its geographic position, Georgia was left nearly helpless.
Moscow accomplished its objectives: it reinforced the breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, diminishing Georgia’s claims to sovereignty; threatened the future use of competitive Central Asian gas and oil pipelines; secured a portion of its periphery between the Black and Caspian seas; achieved payback for NATO’s actions in Kosovo; put a stake in the ground against continued NATO expansion; threatened the future governance of Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili; and, for at least their own people, returned to a great power status.
NATO’s image of strength and guarantee has been challenged. New prospective NATO members are having second thoughts; the reintegration of Abkhazia and South Ossetia into Georgian sovereign control will not occur; and Russia is now motivated to repeat this type of geopolitical bullying and aggression supported by a growing economic/military machine.
The United States will not go to war with Russia over Georgia. The Middle East and Southwest Asia are more important than the Caucasus, at the present time, to the United States. Georgian President Saakashvili has asked the West to stay united, provide immediate material and political support, and use European political and financial institutions as leverage against Russia. To date, little has been done to counter Russia’s violation of the U.S. Charter for Georgia or use of force against the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia.
II.            Background
The stark geopolitical implications of Russia’s invasion of Georgia and its aftermath have faced Washington with a situation similar to that of a patient diagnosed with a full-blown cancer after having willfully disregarded unmistakable symptoms for a long time. Russia’s naked aggression against Georgia and continued occupation of the sovereign territory of a UN fellow member has finally put an end to years of American appeasement of Moscow in the vain hope that wishful thinking would somehow produce a civilized partner and an ally in the war on terror. As a result, we’re again facing an aggressive revisionist power willing to throw its military, economic, and political clout around and openly disdainful of the West and its interests. It is certainly not as powerful militarily as the Soviet Union once was, but it more than compensates for military weakness by the fact that our European allies are increasingly dependent on Moscow for their essential energy needs. It is thus not a surprise that Washington’s reaction – to say nothing of that of Western Europe – to this flagrant violation of international law has been timid and uncertain. Nor is it entirely clear that the United States fully comprehends the implications of what just happened and what needs to be done to make sure that it does not happen again.
To do that, a brief review of the evolution of Putin’s Russia into a revisionist power with increasingly belligerent, fascist-like propensities, and the history of the Russian-Georgian conflict is in order.
Putin’s eight year tenure as president has witnessed the nearly complete transformation of Russia from the chaotic and often corrupt, but nonetheless fairly democratic rule of Boris Yeltsin, into a harshly authoritarian system which suppresses political opposition by all legal and extra-legal means, not excluding the physical elimination of political opponents. With few exceptions, it has done away with freedom of speech, including curtailing foreign broadcasting, such as that of Radio Liberty, and transformed the judicial system into an instrument for the political persecution and economic disenfranchisement of those not conforming. In the economic realm, the state role in the economy has been dramatically expanded, leading to the effective merger of state and corporate power – a key attribute of the fascist state, according to Mussolini – a merger best exemplified by the transformation of the state gas and oil monopoly, Gazprom, into a major instrument for promoting Russian great power ambitions internationally.
Putin has been able to accomplish all of this, virtually without opposition, because of his great fortune in coming to power in 2000 as oil and gas prices began their unprecedented climb. In the very first year of his rule, Russia’s export revenues from oil and gas exports rose a staggering 83% and 50%, respectively, to $50 billion, a figure expected to reach $200 billion this year. Financial windfalls of that magnitude have allowed the Kremlin to gradually improve the Russian people’s standard of living, while enacting a large-scale rearmament program.
Through it all, Putin pursued a jingoistic, rabidly anti-Western, and anti liberal foreign agenda that is best encapsulated in his 2005 statement that the collapse of the Soviet Union, a regime guilty of the murder of 30 million of its citizens, was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. In practical terms, his quest to restore Russia to great power status has followed two parallel tracks. In the “near-abroad” of former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe, Putin has used blatant intimidation, coercion, and economic blackmail, including turning off energy supplies –most recently to the Czech Republic - to force neighbor states to submit to Moscow’s dictates and prevent them from allying with the West; while in Western Europe, the strategy has been a combination of pious talk about the reliability of Russian supplies with subtle, and not so subtle, reminders of the region’s energy dependence on Moscow’s good will. And there is no question that the Europeans have foolishly let themselves become dangerously dependent on Russian gas and oil with no realistic alternatives in the near future. Currently, Gazprom supplies over 50% of the EU’s gas imports, including 40% of German needs and 25% and 20% respectively of those of Italy and France. A dependence that is certain to increase dramatically as two new Russian-controlled pipelines to Europe come on stream in the next few years.
It is within the framework of this forceful power play by the Kremlin that the invasion of Georgia must be seen. For Georgia is not only a former Soviet republic that had the temerity to become democratic and turn to the West, but also transit territory for the only two pipelines bringing Caspian oil and gas to the West not controlled by Russia.
It is hardly a coincidence, therefore, that all available evidence points to a pre-meditated and meticulously planned invasion, despite vehement Russian propaganda and much uninformed Western commentary to the contrary, an invasion pursuing objectives that had little to do with “protecting Russian citizens” from Georgian “aggression.” It is worth noting here, that the Russian citizens invoked were South Ossetian citizens of Georgia that were given Russian ‘foreign’ passports which do not entitle them to live in Russia and that Georgia’s military move in Tskhinvali was in response to days of indiscriminate shelling of peaceful Georgian villages from that Russian-controlled city, which continues to be part of sovereign Georgian territory according to international law.
Moscow’s objective, as events since the invasion have proven beyond doubt, went far beyond a simple land grab and aimed to politically and economically destabilize Georgia, install a puppet regime in Tbilisi if possible, and, last but most, convince governments, oil companies, and international investors that operating pipelines not approved by the Kremlin is an extremely risky venture. Putin has clearly failed to remove President Saakashvili from power, but with his military still occupying strategic parts of the country and the West’s soft-peddling of his refusal to withdraw, he appears successful in all other aspects.
It would be useful to sum up Russia’s record in Georgia before pondering alternative Washington policies. It is not generally known, except to the Georgians, that this was the third unprovoked invasion of the tiny and ancient land by Russian armies. The first one, in 1801, resulted in Georgia’s incorporation into the Russian empire. The second followed a brief interlude of independence and brought about the annexation of Georgia by communist Russia in 1922, just a year after Lenin’s Bolsheviks had signed a non-aggression treaty with Tbilisi.
Worse was to come in the post-Soviet era. Unhappy about Georgia’s early decision to opt out of the Soviet Union, Russia conspired with non-Georgian ethnic groups in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which had enjoyed a privileged status under Soviet rule, to dismember Georgia. In Abkhazia, this led to Moscow-organized and supported violence against the ethnically Georgian majority of genocidal proportions in the years 1992-1993. Paramilitary vigilante battalions, Cossacks, and assorted mercenary detachments organized and armed by Russia – including one commanded by future Chechen terrorist leader Shamil Basayev – killed an estimated 30,000 Georgians in an orgy of mass murder of innocent civilians. The rest of the Georgian population, estimated at 250,000, fled Abkhazia in what must be one of history’s best examples of a region ethnically cleansed of its majority population.
The same process, with pretty much the same means, has now been completed in South Ossetia as well. Ossetian paramilitary thugs and a battalion of Chechen ‘spetznaz’ cutthroats, known as ‘Vostok,’ looted and burned down ethnic Georgian villages, as the Russian command watched approvingly. As a result, Georgians, who made a third of the population previously, are no longer to be found in South Ossetia.
III.           What’s to be Done
The first thing that must be said is that for the Bush Administration, and even more so for the one that will replace it in January, to do nothing apart from talk would be to invite very serious trouble with Russia down the road. We have to realize that the closest historical comparison to what happened in Georgia is not the Soviet put down of the Prague Spring in 1968, as some have argued, but the Nazi takeover of the Sudetenland in 1938 under the pretext of protecting ethnic Germans. Just as Russia’s brazen aggression in Georgia pursues a much larger agenda, the Nazis’ Sudetenland grab was but the first step in a game plan that eventually rendered the old continent asunder; and, just like the European powers of the day believed they could appease Hitler by signing on to the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, their compatriots of the present are reluctant to see naked aggression for what it is.
In this respect, it is useful to revisit Donald Rumsfeld’s much maligned discussion of new vs. old Europe. The fact is that the ‘new’ formerly communist Eastern part of the continent clearly sees the acute danger posed by a revisionist Kremlin and is willing to stand up to it, while the ‘old’ western part either does not, or pretends not, to see it. For America, this means that we’re likely to have to face Moscow with a divided alliance, provided, of course, that Washington is first able to get rid of its own costly illusions about Russia under Putin and admit that its own policies for the past eight years have failed.
What then is to be done? The one thing that must not be done is what is already being argued in Europe, and that is to take the convenient defeatist position that there is really nothing that can be done. To put it simply, Russia must first be told, in no uncertain terms, that it will pay a severe price if it persists in acting as an international outlaw, and simultaneously a comprehensive set of policies must be initiated to make sure that the cost of aggression exceeds its putative benefits for the Kremlin. Only the United States can lead such an effort, and it must do so without delay.
Part Two will continue Friday with examples of policies that are likely to be effective.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Alex Alexiev is a contributing editor to familysecuritymatters.org and vice-president for research at the Center for Security Policy in Wash. D.C. He is the author of a forthcoming book on shariah finance titled Jihad on Wall Street: Shariah Finance in the War Against America. David L. Grange is president and CEO of the McCormick Foundation; Chuck de Caro is President of Sea Aerospace Ground Evaluations (SAGE), and S.K. Swanson is and advisor for Delphi International Research.

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