The conflict between Russia and the pro-US regime of Georgia has been a decisive turning-point in Russia’s relations with Washington and has taken us to the brink of a new Cold War.
For the first time in almost twenty years, the West faces a resurgent Russia that has put the trauma of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resulting chaos behind. Today’s Russia is run by a younger leadership with autocratic efficiency, confident because of its vast energy resources and determined to resist American hegemony, by force if necessary. The crisis in Georgia goes beyond the Caucasus region. Its roots lie in America’s overwhelming ambition to expand and its tendency to make colossal miscalculations under the Bush presidency.
It is often said that the first casualty of war is truth. Behind the fog of disinformation coming from Washington, London, Tbilisi and, indeed, Moscow, the fact remains that the Russian invasion came after Georgia’s bombardment of the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The vast majority of residents in the enclave are Russian citizens and Moscow had deployed its peacekeepers there. Many experts in Europe are depressed over the events in Georgia and blame hardliners in the Bush administration for provoking the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakasvili, to adopt the aggressive posture that has brought this disaster.
What we see in Georgia is a classic proxy war between Russia and America, which has become heavily involved in the republic since a popular revolt in late 2003 ousted Eduard Shevardnadze from power, with Western help. Today, US troops occupy Georgian military bases of the Soviet era, on the southern fringe of Russia. America provides weapons, training and intelligence to the Georgian armed forces. America’s involvement, which began under the umbrella of the ‘war on terror’ after 9/11, has since become much more. If President Bush had his way, Georgia would be granted membership of NATO as part of the alliance’s expansion around Russia.
The impoverished former Soviet republic is, in effect, a pawn in the broader US design to encircle Russia. It is also located in a region which has some of the largest energy reserves in the world. For the Kremlin, the prospect of NATO coming so close to its southern borders is a step too far. Fortunately, some NATO members, most notably France and Germany, also do not see Georgia either as a full democracy or a stable country. And many in the alliance and the European Union have doubts about Saakasvili’s ability to take mature decisions.
In an era when America has assumed the right to launch pre-emptive strikes, it is difficult to see the Kremlin behaving differently. The prospect of Georgia joining NATO, which might deploy nuclear weapons on Georgian territory, is simply not acceptable to Russia. Remember the Cuban missile crisis of 1962? At the time, Soviet nuclear missiles, deployed just 90 miles from the coast of Florida, brought America and the Soviet Union close to a disastrous war and the Soviets were forced to back down. Does the White House not know history? Or do the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration not care?
Saakasvili’s decision to order the bombardment of the Russian-majority South Ossetia gave the Kremlin a convenient cover to invade Georgia, just as the Bush administration had found it expedient to invade Iraq in March 2003 based on claims that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. Russia is playing for bigger stakes now just as America did in Iraq a few years ago.
About one-fifth of Georgia has fallen under Russian military occupation and the Kremlin leadership seems to be in no mood to entertain the idea of Georgia’s territorial integrity in any negotiations sponsored by the West. There are daily condemnations of Moscow in the Western capitals. However, the West is powerless to prevent the Russians doing anything they want in Georgia.
This US-Russia proxy war in the Caucasus region has created a serious humanitarian crisis. President Saakasvili, the pro-US leader of Georgia, has been humiliated. Its chances of joining NATO are negligible after the latest events. They have demonstrated that the West cannot and will not intervene militarily to protect Georgia from the Russian threat. The most important clause in the NATO constitution says that an attack on one member-state will be regarded as an attack on the whole alliance, which will use all possible means to protect the member-state under threat. NATO’s inability to defend Georgia now is a defeat for the West. It is difficult to see how the alliance will accept the republic as a member.
The description by President Bush of the Russian action as ‘disproportionate and unacceptable’ is laughable in the context of America’s own conduct in its foreign wars in recent years. Washington should be more worried about the damage the crisis has done to its authority in the world. Diplomacy was never a strong point of the Bush administration. The blunders in Washington and Tbilisi have made the conduct of relations with Russia much more difficult. They may also have created other problems for the next occupant of the White House, for an increasing number of countries around the world may begin to look to Russia now that it has risen again.
DEEPAK TRIPATHI, a former BBC foreign correspondent and editor, is now a researcher and an author. He is writing a book on the Bush presidency. His website is http://deepaktripathi.wordpress.com.