Georgia on Moscow's Mind
The August mini-war between Russia and Georgia was not simply a local conflict about ethnic groups. It has huge implications for the NATO alliance and Europe's future energy security.
by Paul Kieffer
The guns of August are now silent in the Caucasus region, following a two week conflict between Russia and Georgia, which was formerly part of the Soviet Union. European and American news media had different accounts on who was to blame for the outbreak of hostilities. It seems clear that on August 1 South Ossetian separatists attacked a military vehicle used by Georgian military observers, injuring five soldiers. This wasn't the first such incident in recent years, and in the past Georgia had repeatedly assured its neighbors that it wanted to settle the South Ossetia impasse by peaceful means.
Instead of an immediate response to the attack, it was six days later when Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili sent his troops into the rebel province of South Ossetia on August 7. Early the next morning Russian troops entered the province from the north. Saakashvili may have misjudged Russia's response, or at worst he walked into a trap laid for him by South Ossetian separatists and the Russians themselves.
Russia pressed the attack by bombing Georgian military installations well beyond the borders of the rebel province. Within days Russian troops had also entered undisputed Georgian territory from South Ossetia and another rebel province to the west, Abkhazia. By the time a ceasefire was in place, some 1700 people were dead and 120,000 Georgians were left homeless.
But why would Russia be so interested in South Ossetia? The Georgian province borders Russia but is within the internationally recognized borders of Georgia. However, for over a decade the Georgian government has had little control over the province after it declared its independence in the mid-1990s. Prior to last month's fighting, Russia had frequently warned Georgia against military action to drive separatists out of South Ossetia. In addition, in the last decade many South Ossetians obtained Russian passports and do not consider themselves to be part of Georgia.
The real issue for Russia is not an ethnic conflict, since South Ossetians and Georgians have lived together for decades without major ethnic tensions. Russia's disproportionate display of force against a country with insignificant military assets appears to reflect a geopolitical strategy to counter encirclement by the NATO alliance. It also sends a clear message to Europe about energy dependency.
Russian response to encirclement by NATO?
The strategic direction of Russia's foreign policy must be viewed in terms of the Soviet Union's demise. As the dominant region of that state, Russia was basically synonymous with the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union ceased to exist, Russia lost one fourth of its territory and about one third of its raw energy resources. In addition, the fear of being entrapped or surrounded has been a hallmark of Russian foreign policy for over a century, pre-dating the rise of the Soviet Union.
When the four World War II allies agreed on a peace treaty in May 1990 that ended the official state of hostilities with Germany and allowed the two German states to unite, the handwriting was already on the wall for the Soviet Union. With Hungary and then the German Democratic Republic ("East Germany") having opened their borders to the west the previous summer, the Iron Curtain had become porous.
Moscow foresaw the loss of its Eastern European alliance and the eventual integration of its members into a growing European community of nations. As a result, it seems Moscow's view is that during the negotiations on German reunification it obtained a verbal promise that there would be no expansion of the NATO alliance eastward. Of course, no such assurance can be found in the official treaty signed in Moscow. Moscow sees the enlargement of NATO to include former east block countries like Poland, the Baltic States, Hungary, etc. as a violation of an informal understanding on Eastern Europe's future.
Add to that mix this year's April NATO summit held in Bucharest, Romania, where U.S. President George W. Bush urged America's NATO partners to put the Ukraine and Georgia on an accelerated path for membership in the alliance. Bush's plan was a direct challenge to German chancellor Angela Merkel. With tensions between Georgia and Russia and energy disputes between Russian energy giant Gazprom and the Ukraine in recent years, Merkel was concerned that Bush's plan would offend Russia. After all, Germany gets a lot of its energy from Russia, so good relations between the two countries are important. (Germany is Russia's biggest single trading partner, having transacted $52.8 billion in bilateral trade in 2007.) One month prior to the Bucharest summit, German Chancellor Angela minced no words about her country's position on Georgia's bid to join NATO: "Countries that are enmeshed in regional and internal conflicts cannot become NATO members." "It's too early," she added upon her arrival in Bucharest for the NATO meeting.
Viewing NATO's encirclement of Russia from Moscow's eyes helps to understand Russia's response to Bush's proposal. Although the Cold War is over, having the NATO alliance directly on Russia's territorial border from the Baltic to the Black Sea gives some observers the impression of a reverse Cuban missile crisis. Before the summit, Russia's foreign minister Sergej Lawrow had warned NATO against "playing with fire," and Russia's NATO ambassador Dimitri Rogozin announced a "dramatic shift" in his country's relationship to NATO if the two countries were put on a fast-track for membership.
After Bush's request was not approved, NATO Secretary General de Hoop-Scheffer stated his belief that if the two countries wanted to be part of NATO, membership for Georgia and Ukraine would be just a matter of time. That response was disappointing for both countries, but perhaps more for Georgia, where 77 percent of Georgians had voiced support for NATO membership in a national referendum held last January.
European observers wonder whether Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili's decision to use force in South Ossetia might have been a tactic to put the issue of Georgian NATO membership back on the alliance's agenda. Most analysts believe that he totally misjudged the level and intensity of the Russian response. With its military response Russia appears to be drawing a line in the sand on NATO's eastward expansion. It has sent a clear signal to the west that the alliance will have to contend with Russian intervention if Georgia becomes a NATO member and any attempt is made to reign in the rebel provinces of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Divide and control
Viewed strategically, Russia sees Georgia as an outpost of American foreign policy. America, not Europe, pushed for Georgian NATO membership. While last month's mini-war was being waged, America sent humanitarian relief supplies via military transport channels – an unusual step for a third party when two countries are at war. By contrast, Europe waited until the fighting was over.
Within Europe the immediate response to Russia's military response was mixed. The former east block countries of Poland and Estonia were quick to condemn Russia's action in sharp tones. It seems no coincidence that after 18 months of negotiations between the United States and Poland over a new missile shield for Europe – with part of the military hardware to be installed on Polish territory – the two countries signed an agreement while Russian planes were bombing targets inside Georgia.
The European response farther to the west was different. The other western European nations did condemn the Russian response, but their words were much less forceful than their eastern European counterparts. The United Kingdom was an exception with its stern reaction. French President Sarkozy was the butt of criticism when his initial proposal for a cease fire did not include any demand that Russian troops withdraw from Georgian territory.
With the disagreement within NATO on how to proceed with Georgia's bid for membership, it seems Russia's disproportionate response may be part of a tactic to put a rift between America and its NATO partners in Europe and to probe the "old Europe"–"new Europe" divide.
The flow of energy from east to west
Before the dust from the August mini-war had settled, analysts in Europe were questioning what Russia's real motives for its intervention may have been. Although Russian planes bombed military sites in Georgia, observers noted that the east-west energy pipeline routes did not appear to be affected, although the oil pipeline was shut down for two days. It seemed almost as if Russian pilots had strict orders not to bomb near those routes. While that might seem like a cautious approach on Russia's part, it also sends the message of, "We could have if we had wanted to."
A large part of the energy resources that Russia lost when the Soviet Union disintegrated are located in the region surrounding the Caspian Sea. According to some American estimates, as much as one third of the world's oil reserves are found in this area. Georgia itself has no oil or natural gas resources worth mentioning, but all energy transported from Azerbaijan to the west, avoiding Russian territory, flows through Georgia.
There is no question that the oil and gas pipelines routed through Georgia give the country strategic importance. A major oil pipeline from Baku in Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey came online in 2005 and will eventually supply one million barrels of oil a day. A southern Caucasus gas pipeline runs through Georgia to Turkey and is being extended to Austria with completion scheduled for 2012. Europe considers this pipeline essential to reducing its growing dependence on Russian natural gas.
In an editorial titled "The Bear and the Mouse", Josef Joffe, publisher-editor of the respected German weekly "Die Zeit" urged German chancellor Angela Merkel to be firm with Russian President Medvedev:
"Do you want to be a wealthy, respected power or be like the old Russia – unsure and aggressive, fearful and bullying? We can't wage war and don't want to, but we will not allow you to bring the last pipelines outside of Russian control into the hand of the Kremlin" ("Die Zeit", August 14, 2008).
Bible prophecy seems to indicate that Europe will also look elsewhere to solve its growing energy dependency on Russia. In earlier articles I have repeatedly outlined the future emergence of a final resurrection of the Roman Empire immediately preceding the prophesied return of Jesus Christ to this earth. That revival, like the original empire, will be centered in Europe. It is the power called the "king of the north" in the final verses of Daniel 11, where it is prophesied to enter the Middle East including the Holy Land. While religion will be a factor in this prophetic development, geopolitics and economics will also have their part as they so often do in human conflict (James 4:1-2).
Approximately 60 percent of the world's oil reserves and 40 percent of the world's natural gas reserves are located in the Persian Gulf region of the Middle East – an energy magnet for a continent (Europe) that will be importing 90 percent of its oil by the year 2030.
The Georgian-Russian conflict of August 2008 is just one small part of the larger puzzle involving the future relationship between Russia and Europe, Europe and the United States and the issue of Europe's growing dependence on imported oil and natural gas.
• Paul Kieffer, August 21, 2008