Russia and Georgia: Caucasian Calculus

War clouds refuse to disperse a year after Georgia waged war against Russia. On the anniversary of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s ill-fated invasion of South Ossetia 8 August, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev warned: “Georgia does not stop threatening to restore its ‘territorial integrity’ by force. Armed forces are concentrated at the borders near Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and provocations are committed,” including renewed Georgian shelling of the South Ossetian capital Tskhinvali.

What is the result of the Ossetia fiasco? Did Russia “win” or “lose”? Has it put paid to NATO expansion? What lessons did Saakashvili and his Western sponsors learn? Analysts have been sifting through the rubble over the past few weeks.

Some, such as Professor Stephen Blank at the US Army War College, dismiss any claim that Russia was justified in its response, that “even before this war there was no way Georgia was going to get into NATO.” He insists that Russia lost, that its response showed Russian military incompetence and weakness, resulting in huge economic losses, with the EU now seeking alternative energy sources and the US continuing to resist Russian sensitivities in its “near abroad”. Georgetown University Professor Ethan Burger compared the situation to “Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia”, with the US playing the role of plucky Britain facing the fascist hordes. Apparently Burger sees the Monroe Doctrine as a one-way street. Tell that to the Hondurans.

Indeed, the Russian military is a shadow of its former Soviet self, as is Russia itself, having been plundered by its robber barons and their Western friends over the past 20 years. Although the Georgian army fled in disarray, “major deficiencies in operational planning, personnel training, equipment readiness and conducting modern joint combat operations became evident,” though “it proved that it remains a viable fighting force,” writes Vladimir Frolov at

And the West, angry at the de facto Russian “win” in Ossetia, pulled out many stops to undermine the Russian economy afterwards. Beside the $500 million military operation itself, “capital flight” reached $10 billion and currency reserves decreased by $16 billion. Overall, it is estimated that the war cost Russia $27.7 billion.

Other analysts, such as German Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) analyst Alexander Rahr, see the war as a blip in East-West relations. “The West has forgotten the Georgian war quickly. Georgia and Saakashvili are not important enough to start a new Cold War with Russia. The West needs Moscow’s support on many other issues, like Iran. The West is not capable of solving the territorial-ethnical conflicts in the post-Soviet space on its own. The present status quo suits everyone.” He even predicts that if Moscow decides to stay in Sevastopol after 2017, “there will be no conflict over this issue with the West.”

Sergei Roy, editor of the Russian Guardian, notes that the conflict produced “greater clarity or, to use a converse formula, less indeterminacy both in the international relations and domestically.” He recalls that Putin tried to reach Bush on the hotline established for precisely such crises. “There simply was no response from the other side. Dead silence,” a definite sign of that other side’s “direct complicity in Saakashvili’s bloody gamble.” Roy mourns that superpower rivalry is alive and well, though “Russia, has done everything it realistically could (ideologically, politically, militarily, economically, culturally) to embrace and please the West. Everything, that is, except disappearing entirely. But disappear it must.”

Roy is referring to the overarching US/NATO plans to promote instability and disintegration throughout the former Soviet Union (and not only).The strategy is Balkanisation of the Caucasus (Dagestan, Chechnya and other autonomous regions), with the same strategy applicable to Iran, Iraq and China. The principle being, “Don’t fight directly, use secessionist movements within your adversary to weaken him.” Though on the back burner as a result of the Ossetia setback, the US has been perfecting this strategy for decades now, most infamously in Yugoslavia, sometimes by direct bombing and invasion, sometimes by bribery, NGOing and colour revolutions.

While Western media accuses Russia of doing this in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia are best viewed as stop-gap entities asserting Russian hegemony in a world of US-sponsored pseudo-democracies. A new, more sober Georgian political regime which recognises the situation for what it is and establishes a pragmatic, even cooperative relationship with Russia could probably negotiate some kind of compromise within the Commonwealth of Independent States, though according to leader of the Georgian Labour Party Shalva Natelashvili, “Dozens of Latin American states, Bolivia, Venezuela, Cuba, Honduras, Ecuador and others, intend to recognise Abkhazia and so-called South Ossetia. While our poor president is busy preserving his throne, Georgian disintegration continues and deepens.”

The war certainly destroyed any prospects of Georgia’s membership in NATO (which were very real, despite Blank’s denial). However, NATO plans for Georgia and Ukraine stubbornly proceed apace. Ex-deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs Matt Bryza brought Saakashvili $1 billion as his parting gift to rebuild tiny Georgia’s military in conformity to NATO specifications. Oh yes, and to train Georgian troops bound for Afghanistan. In other words, to prepare Georgia for incorporation into US world military strategy, whether or not as part of NATO. After all, Colombia isn’t part of NATO and is getting the same red carpet treatment, a conveniently placed ally in the US feud with Venezuela. Perhaps NATO’s Partnership for Peace can do the trick with Georgia.

The new Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, Tina Kaidanow, explained her qualifications for US-sponsored Balkanisation in April: “I worked in Serbia, in Belgrade and in Sarajevo, then in Washington, and I went back to Sarajevo and am now in Kosovo.” Andrei Areshev, deputy director of the Strategic Culture Foundation, warned on that her new appointment “is an attempt to give a second wind to the politicisation of ethnicity in the North Caucasus with the possibility of repeating the ‘Kosovo scenario’.” The US will simply continue its double standard of recognising Kosovo’s secession while arming Georgia and Azerbaijan to overturn the independence of Abkhazia, Nagorno Karabakh and South Ossetia — none of which “seceded” from anything other than new post-Soviet nations they never belonged to.

All this petty intriguing masks a much more important result of the Russian response to last summer’s provocation. Very simply, Russian resolve prevented a 1914-style descent into world war. This time, quite possibly a nuclear war, especially in light of Russia’s much taunted military weakness in relation to the US. A desperate nation will pull out all the stops when backed to the wall, which is where the US and its proxy NATO have positioned Russia. “Had Russia refrained from engaging its forces in the conflict, the nations of the northern Caucasus would have serious doubts about its ability to protect them. This would in turn lead to an array of separatist movements in the northern Caucasus, which would have the potential to start not only a full-scale Caucasian war, but a new world war,” according to Andrei Areshev.

Plans for carving up Russia by employing Yugoslav-style armed secessionist campaigns were laid out in 1999 when the conservative Freedom House thinktank in the United States founded the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, with members including Zbigniew Brzezinski and neocons Robert Kagan and William Kristol, according to Rick Rozkoff at This frightening group has now morphed into the American Committee for Peace in the Caucasus “dedicated to monitoring the security and human rights situation in the North Caucasus.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently confirmed that plans around last August’s war were on a far larger scale than merely retaking South Ossetia and later Abkhazia, that Azerbaijan was simultaneously planning for a war against Armenia, a member of the Russian-sponsored Collective Security Treaty Organisation. NATO-member Turkey could well have intervened at that point on behalf of Azerbaijan, and a regional war could have ensued, involving Ukraine (it threatened to block the Russian Black Sea fleet last summer) and even Iran. Ukraine has long had its eyes on pro-Russian Transdniester. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this tangled web could come unstuck in some Strangelovian scenario.

Just as the origins of WWI are complex, but clearly the result of the imperial powers jockeying for power, the fiasco in Georgia can be laid squarely at the feet of the world’s remaining imperial superpower. The mystery here is the extent of Russian forbearance, the lengths that Russia seems willing to go to accommodate the US bear. Over the past decade, Russia watched while the US and NATO attacked Yugoslavia, invaded Afghanistan, set up military bases throughout Central Asia, invaded Iraq, assisted regime collapse/change in Yugoslavia, Georgia, Adjaria, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, and schemed to push Russia out of the European energy market. The question is not why Russia took military action but why it hasn’t acted more decisively earlier.

And, now, why it has given the US and NATO carte blanche in Afghanistan. The US continues to strut about on the world stage and, with its Euro-lackeys, to directly threaten Russia with war and civil war, taking time out to sabotage its economy when it pleases. Its plans for Afghanistan as a key link in its world energy supplies (which could, of all goes well, exclude Russia) are well known. The Russians are also not unaware of evidence of US complicity in the production and distribution of Afghanistan’s opium, even as the US piously claims to be fighting this scourge. Sergei Mikheev, a vice-president of the Centre for Political Technologies, said, “NATO’s operation in Afghanistan is dictated by the aspiration of the US and its allies to consolidate their hold on this strategically and economically important region,” which includes Central Asia. He criticised Russian compliance with US demands for troop and materiel transport. According to Andrei Areshev, “Russia’s position on this issue has not been formulated clearly.”

More ominous yet, writes Sergei Borisov in Russia Today, the operation in Afghanistan is “a key element of the realisation of the project of transforming the alliance into an alternative to the UN.” While the original invasion of Afghanistan was rubber-stamped by the UN, it was carried out by the US and NATO, and the UN has been merely a passive bystander ever since. NATO is being transformed from a regional organisation into a global one: “If the norms of international laws are violated, then with time the Afghan model may be applied to any other state.”

Perhaps it’s a case of “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” While a direct attack like that of last August simply had to be met head-on, Russia has to be careful not to unduly provoke the US, which can unleash powerful forces against Russia on many fronts — economic, geopolitical, military, cultural — picking up where it left off in 1991 with the destruction of the Soviet Union. Russians are not cowards, but realists, and appear to be pursuing a holding action, hoping to wait out the US, counting on its chickens coming home to roost. Meanwhile, as Roy urges, Russia can use the current breathing space it have gained from pushing back the NATO challenge to “lick its armed forces into shape” and prepare for the next unpleasant surprise.

Eric Walberg is a journalist who worked in Uzbekistan and is now writing for Al-Ahram Weekly in Cairo. He is the author of From Postmodernism to Postsecularism and Postmodern Imperialism. His most recent book is Islamic Resistance to Imperialism. Read other articles by Eric, or visit Eric's website.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Annie Ladysmith said on August 18th, 2009 at 11:33pm #

    Russia is just dying to drop a nice big nuke on someone to assert what a BIG world power they still are, even though their country is in chaos and falling to peices around them. This is a very dangerous time, because they are weak with nothing to loose, i wouldn’t pick a fight with them just now. They know no-one, as in NATO, will lift a finger to stop them. However, Georgia if you do get nuked, be assured that the US Leader will reprimand Russia with some nasty words and an offer to negotiate a real peace so all may not be lost afterall.

  2. Francesco Rossi said on August 19th, 2009 at 12:00am #

    Georgia must recognize indipendence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
    If the Georgia wants to enter in the OTAN it must do him without
    South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

  3. caucasus-pictures said on August 19th, 2009 at 3:36am #

    This article made me laugh. You blame the US for Balkanization of the Caucasus. Now that is really something. It was the West, including the US, that refused to acknowledge an independent Chechnya, for the fear of breaking up Russia and an uncontrolled proliferation of atomic weapons. In fact, for centuries it has been Moscow, balkanizing the Caucasus by stirring tensions between the different peoples (“divide et impera!). On the other hand side, this made Russian rule over the Caucasus look indispensable.
    In fact, the roots of Georgian-Russian/Ossetian/Abkhazian conflicts weren’t even touched in your article. Your truly biased article aims at bashing the West / NATO / capitalism / the CIA etc. It has very little to do with Georgia itself.

  4. Michael Kenny said on August 19th, 2009 at 6:52am #

    Slightly less absurd than Mr Walberg’s usual rant, but President Mubarak’s favourite Canadian has still given us a few good laughs. And even shot himself in the foot yet again!

    He’s still trying to deny the humanity of 95% of the human race (which includes himself!) by claiming that the peoples of ex-Yugoslavia or the ex-Soviet Union are some sort of talking apes who can be manipulated like Pavlov’s dogs and are too dumb to notice it, even 20 years after the event. If any of those peoples wanted to come back together, what is stopping them? But of course! How silly of me! It’s that mind-boggling ray that the US thought police bounce off a satellite from their black helicopters and which reduces everybody (except, for some odd reason, Serbs and Ossetians!) to blindly obedient American stooges!

    His foot, shot and in his mouth. He is right to say that Russia does not want a repetition of 1914. But neither does any other European democracy and that is precisely the miscalculation which undid the Israeli lunatics’ plan for Georgia. Once it became clear that the European members of NATO were not, under any circumstances, going to support Georgia, the whole manipulation came unstuck. Indeed, at that point, what the rest of Europe wanted was, precisely, that Russia should give Georgia a thrashing both to scupper its chances of joining NATO and to remind Saakashvili of the basic rule of modern European political culture, namely, that there must never again be war in Europe. By pointing to 1914, Mr Walberg has highlighted the pragmatic political project that underlies the entire European integration movement, notably Mr Walberg’s hated EU! Like it or not, Mr Walberg, Europeans are coming together and are united by an instinctive determination not to repeat the deadly mistakes of the 20th century. The one thing Europeans hate more than each others’ guts is the thought of their own guts spilled out on the roadway! Georgia was a lovely example of that instinctive reaction at work.

  5. balkas b b said on August 19th, 2009 at 7:07am #

    once and if russian plutos obtain a strong rule of russia; comparable to that of american plutocratic rule, russia wld even join nato.

    and that wld leave only china and a few weaklings in a struggle to achieve a more democratic rule along with some basic huamn rights such as to be informed, medically treated/educated.

    it can be noted that all recent wars were waged by lands with a plutocratic
    rule. US, Canada, Australia, UK are in near total grip of plutocrats.

    so, world plutocrats are united like never before to obtain a planet and impose world-wide strong or total plutocratic rule.
    if russia wld strive for a more democratic rather than more and more plutocratic governance, it wld be targeted by entire plutocratic world.
    Strong alliance with china and a few other lands, might succeed in put a stop to plutocratic theft of land and subjugation of the low]er] classes. tnx

  6. Jeff said on August 19th, 2009 at 8:26am #

    The march has been on for over 300 years in this version of OWO. This march will succeed in one of two ways: The world population will become worse than the nightmarish version of 1984 or the entire population will live and die the nightmare of a nuclear holocaust. ‘Reset’ The jockeying seen by many IS the “smoke and mirror” of the “agenda”. We all have opinion, we all postulate, and we all will not make one bit of difference in reality to the end game. The Imperialistic powers already know, actually they have written the rules of engagement, that they will lose some battles but they are still winning the war. Why is that?

    The reason is that we are losing our humanity while we die upon their chess board. Their hands also move the King and Queen upon that chess board. Therefore the pawns that we are mean absolutely nothing to them. For crying out loud open your eyes and look around. Do you really think that the King and Queen, in their own hour of need will not also sell we pawns out. The Rooks, Knights and Bishops are also fodder. Play the game sometime and let us see how your “hand” guides the pieces. You too will wash your “hands” of your King and Queen in that dire time for self preservation. That is called walking away from the board to create chaos another day.

    Anyone here, including myself, control the board? Think not.

    Guess we will just have to wait for the aliens to arrive to save humanity! LOL

  7. russell olausen said on August 19th, 2009 at 12:30pm #

    America Co. is always the pre-fight favorite, however at this point in time, is stretched thin around the globe. Russia has weaknesses that put it in a constrained position vis a vis America Co. but as a member of a group of potential unfriendlies the old domino effect is too real to ignore.The top dogs are all too wary to make too large bets with all the known unknowns out there, so as a poster says, the shuffling of pawns must go on.I do believe the Georgia move did fluster Russia but not enough to change their main calculations.America has no doubt been flustered much in the time since the Geargia blowup so everyone pull your hat down over the ears.

  8. David S. said on August 20th, 2009 at 2:23am #

    The opinion of any russian skin head couldn’t be more unobjective than this article. Either has the autor very bad analitycal skills or he is well paid from mother russia.


    rather will Italy collaps in north and south than Georgia recognizes these “states”

  9. giorgi murghvashvili said on August 20th, 2009 at 3:47am #

    The author seems to express ideas which contradict with each other. Europeans often forget that their prosperity is due to American aid . I can imagine the world in which the USA is not a player in Europe. In that world the 19 century like international system will emerge which is sure to lead to world war as it has done on two occasions . States are criticised in the article on the basis of having geopolitical interests (nato as a tool) and plaing tricks with Russia trying to desintigrate it. Russia on the other hand is praised for having the same geopolitical interests in the Caucasus and pursuing it harshly. I really can not understand the logic of the author.
    And the top of this brilliant thought is the proposition that if Georgia could have regained the full control of the breakaway regions it would lead North Caucasian separatists to rebellion. I can not understand how the precedent of unification can be viewed as stimulus for desintegration. i wonder if the article is aimed at Russian audience to concentrate their attention on foreign enemies leaving outside of their vision the economic collapse of Russia and negative effects of what it has done in august of the past yearreally giving a precedent to separatists .

  10. Jeff said on August 20th, 2009 at 9:13am #

    To: //giorgi murghvashvili said on August 20th, 2009 at 3:47am #//.
    The reason American aid led to prosperity is that over two world wars the overbearing might of late entry USM destroyed much of Europe so as to gain exclusive contracts for the rebuild. Once again, the victor rewrites history.

  11. giorgi murghvashvili said on August 20th, 2009 at 11:21am #


  12. Jeff said on August 20th, 2009 at 5:35pm #

    Well //giorgi murghvashvili said on August 20th, 2009 at 11:21am #//, could you point out in my post where there was that Criticism? Your yelling proves a point. When some are pointed to a view not of their liking they do what most do. BULLY OTHERS!!!

    My post pointed to fact, not a rhetoric view of what could have been. That is the problem with the “American” point of view. They have NONE!!!!