Monday, August 18, 2008

339. Georgia Gambles ... and Loses!

What follows is the most concise and (comparatively) objective account I have been able to discover after several days of trawling the Net. It comes from ABC (Australia) and the original article can be found here:

The war in the Caucasus: looking underneath the propaganda blanket

By Alexey D Muraviev

Posted Thu Aug 14, 2008 11:06am AEST
Updated Thu Aug 14, 2008 11:39am AEST

On 12 August, President Dmitry Medvedev declared the end to Russian military operations in Georgia on the basis that they have accomplished set tasks: Georgian forces were pushed back from Southern Ossetia and their fighting capability was seriously curtailed. However, the end of the Russian counter-offensive will not halt the information war that carries on.

In his highly emotional article on the ongoing conflict in Southern Ossetia, Mr Grigol Ubiria was quick to identify Russia as the root cause of the problems in the south-eastern Caucasus and the world in general. The conflict over Southern Ossetia is a complex multi-layered phenomenon that requires a balanced analytical approach. To be able to get a comprehensive picture, apart from the viewpoints of the United States and Georgia, Russia's motives and strategic intentions have to be examined also.

Russia's claims about its traditional role in the area are based on the history of its engagement in regional affairs. The nation's influence over the Caucasus was established in the 18th century as a result of the nation's prolonged struggle with the Ottoman Empire. After yet another war with the Ottomans (1768-74), Russia secured the Crimean Peninsula, the Sea of Azov and further south along the Black Sea coast. In 1783, the Russian Empress Catherine II (the Great) and the ruler of two Georgian provinces (Kartly and Kakhetiya) Irakliy II signed the so-called Georgian Treaty, according to which Russia offered Eastern Georgia a status of a protectorate and guaranteed the safety of the local Orthodox Christian population against the neighbouring Ottoman Empire. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1787-91, the Russian protectorate was extended to the rest of Georgia.

However, Russia's current hard-line actions in Southern Ossetia are driven not just by the understanding of its historical role in regional politics but primarily by the following considerations.

Immediate response

Russian officials claim that the use of force against Georgia is legitimate and refer to Article 51 (the right of self-defence) of the United Nations charter. These arguments are based on accusations that Georgian military forces attacked Russian peacekeepers (stationed in the area since 1992) as well as Russian citizens living in Southern Ossetia.

Antagonistic relations with the government of Mikhail Saakashvili

Throughout the 1990s the relations between Russia and Georgia remained problematic. Georgian officials (Gamsarkhurdiya and Shevarnadze) continuously accused Russia of intervening in its domestic affairs, while the Russians blamed official Tbilisi in playing the 'Russian neo-imperial' card in an attempt to secure financial and political backing of Western nations. Georgia was accused of harbouring Chechen separatists and Al Qaeda terrorists, particularly in Pankissi Gorge (the deployment of US military forces into Georgia in 2002 was formally motivated by counter-terrorism agenda).

However, after Mikhail Saakashvili came to power in November 2003, bilateral relations seriously deteriorated. By prioritising above all relations with the United States (before the 2005 visit of US President George W Bush to Tbilisi one of the main streets was named after him, an example that says it all) Mr Saakashvili continuously undertook steps that intimidated Moscow, including:

* Active role in forming the pro-US regional security structure GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova), formed in 1997 and aimed at cutting off Russia from south-western Europe, the Caucasus, and Caspian Sea region.
* Persistence in joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and an offer to the United States to deploy elements of Anti-Ballistic Missile Defence (ABM) on its territory, both moves viewed by the Russians as threatening their national security.
* Massive defence modernisation program with the fastest growing military budget in Europe (risen by 30 times over the past seven years reaching a figure of $US1 billion in 2007). US active involvement in forces training and upgrades (the total contribution of the United States towards Georgia's rearmament reached $US40 million).
* Non-diplomatic and often offensive anti-Russian rhetoric as part of the regular lexicon of Georgian politicians (on one occasion Mr Saakashvili said that he wanted to learn judo to beat up then Russian president Vladimir Putin).

Growing geopolitical rivalry with the United States

When Mr Bush visited Georgia in May 2005 he described the country as a regional 'beacon of democracy'. However, the US's overwhelming support for Georgia is driven not so much by the global approach of 'exporting democracies' and by particular concerns about the nation's form of governance but by rather clear geopolitical and military-strategic considerations. Continuing to view Russia as one of its principal rivals, the United States uses Georgia to reduce Russia's influence in the Caucasus and to drive it away from the Black Sea region (effectively dismantling the 18th century gains). A friendly Georgia could also be used to put extra political-military pressure on Russia in times of international crisis. The Russians view this in the context of the transforming strategic environment (expanding NATO, deployment of ABM in Europe and the Pacific, US penetration of the former Soviet space).

Another major consideration is the geopolitics of pipelines. Georgia plays a key role as a transit state in the US-led transnational Ceyhan energy project aimed at offering a transport route for Caspian and Central Asia oil that would bypass Russia. Adding to that, Georgian ports are also used for the transit of energy resources. This represents an economic challenge to the Russians who strive to become the energy superpower, by becoming the principal deliverer of energy resources.

In this context, the conflict over Southern Ossetia is not a war between Russia and Georgia (de jure, it cannot be classified as a war as neither side declared war on its opponent). De facto, it is a proxy conflict between Russia and the United States over the strategically important area.

Where from here

The declared ceasefire does not mean the end of hostilities. Russia has shown an intent to keep its military presence in the area and indicated support for backing South Ossetian and Abkhazian claims for independence (on par with other reasons such as pragmatic desire to have friendly buffer zones and weaken hostile Georgia, the Russians will use the Kosovo precedent to justify such an action).

Another difficulty arises from Russia's refusal to deal with Mr Saakashvili. Effectively, Russian officials are incriminating Georgian authorities in state-sanctioned terrorism. Georgia was accused of ethnic cleansing against Ossetians. Adding to that, on August 11, the head of Russia's Federal Security Service (counter-intelligence) Aleksandr Bortnikov accused Georgian secret services of planning terrorist attacks in Russia. It is likely that the Russians will continue to insist on Mr Saakashvili's resignation.

While large-scale military operations may be coming to an end, the political war over Georgia is likely to escalate, particularly in the context of the upcoming US presidential elections.

It is clear that Russia has won a military campaign and Mr Saakashvili has suffered a humiliating military and political defeat. After all, if you continuously tease and hurt the bear, he will retreat first, roar loud but eventually counter attack. However, so far it is not winning the information war. Over the past four years the Russians did amazingly well in restoring their national might and international reputation and prestige. Now, they have to engage in aggressive damage control over what seems clear to them was a just war.

Dr Alexey D Muraviev is a strategic affairs analyst and an award-winning lecturer in International Relations and National Security at Curtin University of Technology. He is one of Australia's leading experts on Russia's strategic and defence policy.

Here is an article with some interesting background info from the New York Times.