In a nutshell the role of Georgia for the West is to allow it to access Caspian basin energy while bypassing Russia and Iran. Something that quite simply can’t be done without Georgia’s acquiescence.
There is certainly a certain degree of rational sense in the European and U.S. desire for this outcome. I.e. Why not lessen your energy dependence on any single source, in this case Russia, if you possibly can? Diversification is hardly evil by definition. For Russia on the other hand the desire to maximize their involvement in the evolving Caspian energy matrix is a business strategy as common as dirt. In fact such maneuvering is considered as natural as a physical law when the West is on the winning side of such stratagems. When we are at it we call it “consolidation” and praise the “synergies” and “economies of scale” it is presumed by our elites to allow.
The following is what is at stake in Georgia as far as the energy question goes.
Georgia has no significant oil or gas reserves of its own but it is a key transit point for oil from the Caspian and central Asia destined for Europe and the US. Crucially, it is the only practical route from this increasingly important producer region that avoids both Russia and Iran.
The 1,770km (1,100 miles) Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which entered service only last year, pumps up to 1 million barrels of oil per day from Baku in Azerbaijan to Yumurtalik, Turkey, where it is loaded on to supertankers for delivery to Europe and the US. Around 249km of the route passes through Georgia, with parts running only 55km from South Ossetia.1
It is, however, those matters that are outside of the question of energy that are leading this relatively banal struggle for economic advantage to turn violent. As I see it, first and foremost among these factors is the fact that the U.S. shredding of international law in its invasion and occupation of Iraq has opened the door to all sorts of similar pandemonium. Would Russia or Georgia be so militarily emboldened in their response to a political issue if the U.S. were not so flagrantly flouting the rules of the game that the great powers have more or less lived by for the last sixty years? It seems unlikely. That the U.S. is today forced to go to the U.N. to broker this dispute straddles the border between surrealism and poetry.
The second most important point is the fact that Gorbachev was promised that in return for reformation of the U.S.S.R. NATO would not expand eastward. To say that this promise has not been honoured is one of the greater understatements of the new millennium. Which is saying something given how hard of a time hyperbole has had keeping up to reality in the last eight years.
Another factor more difficult to rank but of some importance is the fact that the economic collapse of Russia was publicly cheered by the very same clique that controls the reins of power in the U.S. today. This is a group to which Russian hardliners have no intention of paying the slightest attention. Beyond these contemporary facts is the history of the region. Georgia was a province of the Russian empire for about 200 years before the economic implosion of the FSU. To have it fall to a National Endowment for Democracy-sponsored “Rose Revolution” is for Russian nationalists historically akin to what Mexican nationalists felt and still feel about their loss of territory to the U.S.
Given all of these factors it was a foregone conclusion that Russia would not sit quietly by while the peacekeepers that it had placed on the ground — at Georgia’s request — were being shot at and in some cases killed. It was equally doubtless that Russia would view the sudden influx of tens of thousands of refugees and a military assault against the pro-Russian South Ossetia with extreme displeasure. One need only look as recently as Israel’s response to Hezbollah’s attack on Israeli soldiers to understand the lengths to which great powers will go to remind small powers of their place in the world. I.e., to suffer quietly and accept what they are allowed.
To date, at least there have been no surprises from the Russian side. They were always going to be able to crush the Georgians militarily and it was entirely predictable that they would do so if provoked to this degree. The Georgian President and military knew this better than anyone. Which begs the usual questions: Why? Why now? What’s next? The first is easily answered. The Georgian President is hoping to stoke nationalist sentiment, resentment of Russia, and to force the West’s hand. The answer to the second question is equally clear.
The Bush administration has been more strategically and tactically wedded to the idea that violence is a legitimate means of achieving political ends than any U.S. administration since the Vietnam war. They have also dedicated more of the country’s resources to this end than any administration since the Second World War. The Georgian President and his advisors obviously decided that this means of politics might well be a less valuable currency under the next U.S. administration.
The final question in this tried and true declension is not so easily answered but what would such articles be without at least an attempt to predict the unknowable? My guess is that the Georgian President has grossly overplayed his hand. The shooting of peacekeepers being the act most likely to blowback on his strategy. One would think that the creation of tens of thousands of refugees and what is being described as a “potential humanitarian catastrophe” would be the action more likely to impact negatively. What this completely rational but mistaken view fails to take into account is the fact that four million displaced Iranians and a full fledged humanitarian catastrophe has been let slide by every body with the power to lay blame. There is also the compounding fact that there is a desire bordering on lust by the West to put peacekeepers in Sudan and so the shooting of peacekeepers must necessarily be very gravely and publicly frowned upon. Even if they are Russians.
We are also surely going to see more than one iron being struck in these last few months before Bush and Cheney take their final wave to the Rose garden from the Presidential chopper. India for example has obviously concluded that a crack down in Kashmir no matter how violent will be given carte blanche by the U.S. Pakistan is rightfully beginning to feel more than a bit nervous of the squeeze play the India-U.S. alliance represents. The Pashtun’s being the most likely to suffer the heaviest blows in the next few months. (With apparently no relief no matter who is the next President.)
It is also very interesting at this time to contrast the U.S. reaction to this conflict with its reaction to Israel’s smashing of Lebanon. In this case there was an immediate call for ceasefire by the U.S. In the case of Lebanon the U.S. did all it could to block the call for a ceasefire. On American television today there is a relentless parade of images of destruction and talks of a “humanitarian catastrophe”. Whereas the level of destruction that was visited on Lebanon was treated as a “he said, she said” affair as if both sides suffered equally. When it was shown at all.
For the record, so far at least, the response by Russia hasn’t been 1/1000 as destructive to the infrastructure and people of Georgia as was Israel’s destruction of Lebanon. And there is precisely no chance that Russia will litter Georgia with a million or so cluster bombs a day or two before the ceasefire. What the U.S. has done to Iraq on the other hand is so far off the scale that there is quite simply no comparison. This is of course not to say that Russia should be allowed to destroy Georgia or excuse Russia’s part in these events. It is merely another example of why so much of the world views the U.S. position on such matters to be so unpersuasive.
One final note. The West-leaning President of Georgia Mikheil Saakashvili has recently seen fit to raise the military budget of the country from $30 million to $1,000 million and sought and is receiving military equipment and advice and training from the U.S. and Israel. When one compares the U.S. response to Cuba’s desire to be free of foreign domination, and Cuba’s military alliance to the U.S.S.R., Russia’s response to Georgia’s actions and alliances once again appears a model of restraint. A very sad indictment indeed of the way that this world of ours is run for us all by our “betters.”