Whew. What a lot of hubbub in the Caucasus! And the whirlwind amongst the geopolitical blowhards who are trying to figure it all out is such that it’s disturbing local weather patterns. You know the scene: a butterfly flaps its wings in the Caucasus, and spawns a tornado a half a world away. What is becoming clear is that Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili (Misha to his friends) acted recklessly in the 7 August shelling of the South Ossetian capitol, Tskhinvali, theoretically in response to Russian troops moving through the Roki tunnel from North to South Ossetia and otherwise raising a ruckus. He was reckless, but his recklessness was not a function of excess aggressiveness, it was because he fell into a Russian trap. Russia had been conducting flyovers of the region, staged massive military maneuvers on the border and otherwise rattled sabers. That they could switch from “peacekeeping” to “ousting the aggressor” at the drop of a shapka ushanka (hat) is just too convenient for anyone to not be at least tempted to cry wolf (mixed metaphors, anyone?). Just like in Chechnya, only this time the Russians said they were doing just what Georgia said it was doing this time: restoring order within a sovereign state.
Russian preparations for this “emergency response” included an impressive amount of– drum -roll, please – propaganda. Citizens in the Caucasian region who read the Russian papers are reported to believe that the whole conflict is a sham; just Western hot air, lies and more lies. Russians living in S. Ossetia said their friends and family in Russia proper simply didn’t believe them when they said the region was in bloody disarray; the disinformation was that good (unless, of course, I’m the one who’s been bamboozled by Western hoopla…). The usual suspects – the US, Israel and the UK – are blamed for arming and training Georgian forces. Ukraine is fingered as well, perhaps proactively, for just basically leaning towards NATO. In turn, Ukraine’s president Victor Youschenko, along with four other leaders of former Soviet States stood in solidarity with Saakashvili at a well-attended protest in Tblisi, where a lot of brave, feisty, intensely democratic oratory was heard. That was nice, as far as mice roaring goes.
You never know until you know, though. There does seem to be an emerging post-Soviet Bloc with Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia participating in joint military exercises and generally palling around. Particularly galling to Russia is that they all get together, along with Europe to create energy transit routes across the Caspian which bypass Russia. Follow the money! It can be argued that one of the primary goals Russia had in orchestrating this crisis was ideological, rather than pecuniary. Not only Georgia, but the rest of Russia’s “near-abroad” which had slipped under the iron curtain were being warned that Russia is still in charge and that the Western powers to whom those former SSRs have been gravitating can not be counted on. I mean, even though Misha and Bush have created their own little mutual Appreciation Society, who dashed to Misha’s rescue? Not his BFF Bush. Bush sent a planeload of humanitarian aid. Thanks. You really shouldn’t have.
So Russia was right to point that out – perhaps a less lethal mode of communication could have been used, but old Soviets never die, they just keep on revolting. It worked in Czechoslovakia in 1968, why not now? No, really, Russia has a point; we aren’t to be trusted. But its objection to the anti-missile radar array being built in Poland and the Czech Republic is, to quote Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers: “booooooogus!” The Russians say (well, the ones who stay on message, anyway; there’s been an official or two quoted as saying that the Polish system is squat.) that the US is targeting Russia with the interceptors. Analysts report that the system is nowhere near capable of whacking any long-range missiles Russia might care to lob that way; its designed to parlay short-range missiles. To actually be a counter to Russian munitions, it would take hundreds of interceptors, not the tens of interceptors that are actually in the plans. No, it is all rhetoric designed to drive a wedge between Europe and the tarnished but not yet sufficiently humbled US, as well as one between the New Europe, nee SSRs and Old Europe, located a bit farther from the Bear’s claw.
Destabilizing Georgia also serves another Ursine purpose (since you asked…): casting a shadow on the viability of the Nabucco pipeline (remember? follow the money.), planned to carry Caucasian and Central Asian energy to Europe. Both Nabucco and the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipelines cross Georgian soil. The aim of those pipelines was to bypass dependence on Russia’s Gazprom, which has proven prone to whimsical refusals to supply promised gas to its naughty neighbors in winter. Perhaps Europe will have to settle for diversification over completing an end run around Russia as it slowly emerges from its post-Soviet hibernation.