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The end of the post-Cold War era: U.S. sets bear trap in the Caucasus

By M K Bhadrakumar

Aug 13, 2008


On a day that China showed its firepower and set new frontiers for global razzmatazz, with about 80 world leaders watching and cheering, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games should have been Friday's lead news story. But events in the Caucasus dictated otherwise.


The killing of thousands of people in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia will turn out to be a landmark moment in post-Soviet Russia's relations with the West. Friday's Georgian attack on South Ossetia was intended as a provocation. The attack killed 13 Russian soldiers and injured 150 and took over 2,000 civilian lives, mostly Russian citizens. The South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali has been all but razed. Over 30,000 refugees have crossed the Russian border.


The crisis in the Southern Caucasus has been slowly building since Kosovo, the breakaway province of Serbia, declared independence in February. By August, 45 countries have been persuaded by the United States to accord recognition to Kosovo, including major European powers France, Germany and Britain. Russia was expected to retaliate by fostering secessionism in Georgia and Moldova, but, contrary to expectations, Russia adopted a shrewd policy of garnering worldwide opinion against political separatism.


Tactically, it suited Moscow that the Georgia harbored 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 Georgia to reciprocate the Russian "goodwill" and spirit of accommodation. Simply put, Moscow expected that as quid pro quo, Tbilisi would be sensitive to Russia's interests in the Caucasus.


A significant body of opinion always existed within the Kremlin that Georgia was never quite irrevocably lost to the US following the "color revolution" of November 2003, and with patience and tact and a judicious play of the factors of history, culture and economic ties, Tbilisi could be made to appreciate that friendly relations with Moscow were in its long-term advantage. Indeed, a similar train of opinion also existed in Tbilisi - in a muter form, though - that Georgia's future cannot be on an a antagonistic path with regard to Russia and a course correction by the President Mikheil Saakashvili regime was in order.


As an economic crisis and lawlessness grew in Georgia in the recent past, Russian diplomacy began shifting gear in Tbilisi, encouraging the elements that stood for better relations with Moscow. Up to a point, Moscow was right in doing so. But it failed to see that from Saakashvili's perspective, as his authoritarian regime became more and more unpopular and the debris of misgovernance, corruption and venality began to accumulate, it paid to whip up xenophobia. Russia was the best target, as nothing inflames Georgian passions better than the issue of the country's integrity.


That is why Moscow protested when it began to be known that with encouragement from the United States, Tbilisi was embarking on a plan to dramatically increase its military budget 30 times. This Georgian move went side-by-side with growing US assistance in training the Georgian army. Moscow began asking a pertinent question as to who it was that Tbilisi visualized getting into a war with.


Moscow proposed that an agreement could be signed committing all protagonists to commit to non-use of force in settling differences. But Tbilisi wouldn't have such an agreement. Nor would Washington prevail on Tbilisi to accept one. Not only that, Washington closed its eyes when clandestine supplies of weapons began pouring into Tbilisi. In July, the US Department of Defense funded a military exercise with Georgia. In retrospect, the turning point came when US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tbilisi last month.


Saakashvili drew inspiration from Rice's statements endorsing Georgia's claim for membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and open backing of the Georgian stance in its standoff with Russia. It is a moot point whether Saakashvili unilaterally drew conclusions from Rice's diplomatic gesture or a tacit Washington-Tbilisi understanding came about.


At any rate, Saakashvili let loose the dogs of war within a month of Rice's visit to Tbilisi. 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 Olympics. On balance, it is inconceivable Washington was in the dark about how Saakashvili's mind was working.


One gets a sense of being in a time machine back in the Cold War. The master plotters in Washington will now keenly watch how Medvedev's leadership in the Kremlin handles the crisis. They will look for clues whether he has Putin's iron fist and steely nerves. When Putin took over in 2000, a similar test awaited him in Chechnya. He set about doing what Russia had to do. But times have changed. Chilly winds have begun blowing in East-West relations.


Indeed, the question remains: what are Russia's options? An enormous humanitarian catastrophe needs to be averted as many thousands of Ossetian civilians lie buried in the debris left by Georgia's large-scale offensive supported by tanks, combat aircraft, heavy artillery and infantry. Meanwhile, Russia must act with one hand tied behind its back. Western propaganda is raring to go.


The think-tank Stratfor, which often echoes the US intelligence community, has already portrayed that a "defining moment" has come in the post-Cold War era and the world is witnessing "the first major Russian intervention since the fall of the Soviet Union [in 1991]". It visualized that former Soviet republics bordering Russia would now be "terrified of what they face in the long run".


Tbilisi also switched tack to rhetoric. The US-educated Georgian president Saakashvili said, "This is not about Georgia any more. It is about America, its values." Faraway in Beijing, US President George W Bush promptly agreed.


Bush said he is "deeply concerned" and that Russian intervention is a "dangerous escalation ... endangering regional peace". He added, "We call for an end to the Russian bombings, and a return by the parties to the status quo of August 6."


But at the outbreak of violence, Russia had tried to have the United Nations Security Council issue a statement calling on Georgia and South Ossetia to immediately lay down weapons. However, Washington was disinterested. As the Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, put it, there was an "absence of political will" within the Security Council. It seems Washington expected that a quid pro quo could be worked out as well on a new UN Security Council resolution imposing tougher sanctions on Iran, which the US has been pressing for, and Russia hitherto resisting.


What is the US game plan? To begin with, Saakashvili is a progeny of the "color revolution" in Georgia, which was financed and stage-managed by the US in 2003. Georgia and the southern Caucasus constitute a critically important region for the US 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. Simply put, keeping it under control as a sphere of influence is highly advantageous for the pursuit of US geopolitical interests in the Eurasian region. A rollback of Russian influence therefore becomes a desirable objective.


The geopolitics of energy lies at the core of the conflict in the Caucasus. The US has suffered a series of major reverses in the past two years in the great game over Caspian energy. Moscow's success in getting Turkmenistan to virtually commit its entire gas production to Russian energy giant Gazprom for export has been a stunning blow to US energy diplomacy. Similarly, the US has failed to get Kazakhstan to jettison its close ties with Russia, especially the arrangement to route its oil exports primarily through Russian pipelines.


There are consequently uncertainties over the viability of the much-touted Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project, which was commissioned in 2005 with US funding and open political support. Similarly, Russia's South Stream project aimed at transporting Russian and Caspian gas to Balkan and southern European countries and the failure of the US-sponsored Nabucco gas pipeline project (which broadly has the same orientation as the South Stream) have come as setbacks to Washington.


In geopolitical terms a flashpoint in the Caucasus at this juncture suits Washington. A furious propaganda barrage against Russia has begun. It is already at a high pitch. US statements have virtually overlooked the Georgian onslaught on South Ossetia and the attack on Russian peacemakers. The focus is on the Russian response to the Georgian provocation. An attempt has begun to portray Russia as the aggressor. Washington is carefully cultivating an opinion in Western capitals that Moscow is "bullying" Tbilisi.


This propaganda is bound to strengthen Washington's case for inducting Georgia into NATO. At NATO's summit meeting in April, it became apparent that despite its robust attempts for months, Washington needs to overcome resistance within NATO on Georgia's membership, especially from Germany, France and Italy. The European countries are wary of provoking Moscow and creating new East-West barriers, especially at a time when the imperatives of energy security are in everyone's mind.


A compromise formula was therefore worked out at the summit in Romania that the NATO foreign ministers at their meeting in December will revisit the topic of Georgia's membership claim. Rice made it clear in Romania that the US was not going to thrown in the towel and walk away, but would insist on the issue. Now, 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 for the Bush era. The war in the Caucasus at this juncture comes in handy for the Bush administration to press Georgia's (and Ukraine's) induction into NATO.


Georgia's membership of NATO has far-reaching strategic implications. With the induction of Georgia, NATO crosses over from the Black Sea region to the approaches of Asia. It constitutes a great leap forward for the alliance, which wasn't even sure until recently - ostensibly, at least - of its post-Cold War destiny in the 21st century.


Georgia's NATO membership ensures that the arc of encirclement of Russia by the US is strengthened. NATO ties facilitate the deployment of the US missile defense system in Georgia. The US aims to have a chain of countries tied to "partnerships" with NATO brought into its missile defense system - stretching from its allies in the Baltic and Central Europe, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, India, and leading to the Asia-Pacific.


From Washington's perspective, there is nothing like getting Russia bogged down in the Caucasus if it saps Russia's capacity to play an effective role on the world stage. It is all too apparent that Moscow dreads a full-blown war erupting in the Caucasus and was desperately keen to avoid one.


Moscow is fundamentally averse to any confrontation with the West. Its foreign policy gives top priority to Russia's integration with Europe. But Washington's best hope is that with some degree of "bear-baiting", at some point Moscow will lose patience and hit out, even if that might affect Russia's image in Europe.


Indeed, if Moscow 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 Russia's "bleeding wound" and Moscow's prestige in the post-Soviet space diminishes.


In sum, it belies logic that Saakashvili acted impulsively. Georgians have a reputation for being hot-tempered, but he is also a trained lawyer - trained in the US. He can't be so naive about the facts of life and the certainty that he would get a bloody nose if he tried to take on the Russian army.


What are the facts? According to Jane's, Georgia has 26,900 military personnel against Russia's 641,000; 82 main battle tanks against 6,717; 139 armored personnel carriers against 6,388; and seven combat aircraft against 1,206. Still, the indications are that on Monday, Georgia resumed the bombardment of Tskhinvali and Russian positions in the region, killing three more Russian peacekeepers. Russia's military losses have now risen to 18 men killed, 14 missing and over 50 wounded.


US military aircraft on Sunday transported 800 Georgian troops serving in Iraq, along with "about 11 tons of cargo, back to Georgia". Conventional wisdom would have us believe that the US can ill-afford a Georgian "pullout" from Iraq. The 2,000-strong Georgian contingent was involved in the sensitive task of interdicting Shi'ite militiamen from smuggling arms across the Iranian border. As an American scholar put it, "A US airlift of 2,000 Georgian troops to fight Russian ones at this juncture does not look friendly to Moscow."


The point is, the Bush administration cannot afford to fail in this Caucasian venture. It will be seen as needlessly having blood on its hands unless US diplomacy successfully turns the tide in its favor and takes matters to their cold, logical conclusion - induction of Georgia into NATO.


Washington has barely four months to achieve this objective. But it is not a tall order. If the Bush administration succeeds, a page in history is written. We may conclusively say goodbye to the post-Cold War era. Russia's relations with Europe and the US can never be the same again. Blood has been drawn, after all. The Beijing Olympics, in comparison, pale in significance.


Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.


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