Monday, August 11, 2008

"Now we see the violence inherent in the system"

I don't pretend to be a student of Caucasian politics and strategy ... a few impressions of the current unpleasantness in Georgia :

a) you might think it's all about oil

Local police recorded 51 strikes. "I have no doubt they wanted to target the pipeline, there is nothing else here," said Giorgi Abrahamisvili, a policeman who witnessed the attack. "It was terribly intense, the smell of cordite spread everywhere. I had to abandon my car and hide in a ditch but the jets weren't interested in other targets."

BP operates the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which transports one per cent of the world's oil needs, or one million barrels a day from Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean. A spokesman played down the impact of the strike, pointing out that pumping was suspended last week because of a terrorist attack in Turkey. "At the moment the pipeline is not running at any capacity, because there was a fire," the spokesman said. Georgia is a crucial link in a three country energy corridor vital to Western Europe's oil and gas supply. The £2 billion pipeline is the only major conduit for Central Asian resources not under Russian control.

b) but South Ossetia and Georgia were in conflict long before :

On March 15, 1918, the Ossetian peasants rose in rebellion and managed to hold off an offensive by a Georgian People’s Guard punitive detachment commanded by an ethnic Ossetian officer, Kosta Kaziev. The fighting culminated in the town of Tskhinvali which was raided by the rebels on March 19, 1918. Tskhinvali’s Georgian population was massacred and the town was looted. The People’s Guard regained the control of Tskhinvali on March 22.

On May 8, 1920, the Ossetians declared a Soviet republic in the Roki area on the Russian-Georgian border. A Bolshevik force from Vladikavkaz crossed into Georgia and helped the local rebels to defeat a Georgian force in the Java district. The rebellious areas were effectively incorporated into Soviet Russia. However, Lenin’s desire to keep peace with Georgia at that time and eventual military failures of the rebels forced the Bolsheviks to distance themselves from the Ossetian struggle. The Georgian People’s Guard under Valiko Jugheli crashed the revolt with great violence. The insurgents were defeated in a series of hard-fought battles. Several villages were burned down and some 3,000 to 7,000 were killed during the hostilities. About 20,000 Ossetians were forced to seek refuge in Soviet Russia.

c) A Fistful of Euros has - or had - some bloggers on the ground in Georgia.

d) I must confess I can't quite see the driver behind the push for surrounding Russia with NATO members. NATO was set up as a mutual defence pact aimed squarely at the old Soviet Union. While Turkey, on the borders of Asia, has been a member since 1950, the alliance was, as its name (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) implies, created to defend the democracies of Western Europe and to keep open the sea and air lanes between Europe and the USA. Georgia is a very long way from the Atlantic coast.

Russia thinks that NATO expansion is aimed squarely at surrounding and isolating her. Speaking without much knowledge, it certainly looks that way. Anyone know what's going on, if this is in fact true, and if so why ? After all, there's another former Communist state that's both expanding economically (and by extension, in military capability) at an unprecedented rate - a state that is also starting to project its power on a global scale. What's so dangerous about Russia ?

There is, IMHO, an inherent problem with expanding an organisation like the EU or NATO beyond what might be said to be its 'natural' borders. As long as you're using air power to zap an opponent without retaliatory capability - as in Kosovo and Serbia - no worries. Except for the people being hit. But when your opponent has the ability to give you a hard time, and you need to put boots on the ground, then questions about Pomeranian grenadiers become relevant. Although we may not have liked it, it was probably generally accepted that had Red Army tanks rolled across the North German plain or into Italy, we would fight. I'm not at all sure how people would feel about fighting for Latvia or Lithuania, who are already NATO members. Who in Western Europe, let alone America, is going to fight for Belarus or the Ukraine ?

e) it wasn't as if you couldn't see it coming. April 2008 :

Officials from Georgia are embarking on a major diplomatic offensive in Europe, fearing that Russia will do everything possible to destabilize the country before NATO membership talks can begin in December. David Bakradze, the Georgian foreign minister, who met Friday with his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said his country was becoming caught in a bitter struggle between the West and Russia as it tried to anchor its political and security institutions solidly in Euro-Atlantic organizations and rid itself of Russian influence.

At stake in the coming months, Bakradze said, is whether the West will bow to Russian pressure and possibly trigger a domino effect or stand firm until Moscow backs down. "If you draw lines and give Russia a free hand here, it will never work," Bakradze said in an interview with the International Herald Tribune. "If Russia is given a free hand, it will extend to other parts of Europe. Russia thinks it still has the right to interfere. But we say to the Europeans, if there is any appeasement towards Russia over the way it deals with us, it will have repercussions for other countries."

f) from the same IHT piece, the baneful influence of the Kosovo settlement :

Germany, in particular, strongly opposed offering Georgia the fast track. In interviews at the time, Steinmeier said Moscow had already had a hard enough time accepting the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, whose unity Russia had supported.

Kosovo has had two repercussions. The dismemberment of a chunk of Serbian territory at NATO and EU behest - if not gunpoint - has both cheesed off Russia and given her a blueprint for intervention in South Ossetia and Abhkazia. After all, like Kosovo, the two territories contain lots of people who wish to leave the parent state, a minority of (if you like) loyalists, and a history of bad blood and ethnic strife. Russia can claim to be protecting the majority Ossetian community against the Georgians, just as KFOR protected the majority Kosovo Albanians against the Serbs.

g) so far the US /EU offers of NATO membership have given Georgia the great benefit of Russian invasion, and given the US/EU the great benefit of the third largest coalition force in Iraq - 2,000 men - being withdrawn. While the game is not yet played out, we can say that so far the process hasn't done much for either party - or their relationship. Is America going to do anything ?

In recent years, Bush has lavished praise on Georgia — and the so-called Rose Revolution that brought Mikheil Saakashvili to power — as a model of democracy-building. The feeling was mutual: when Bush visited Tbilisi in 2005, the authorities estimated that 150,000 people showed up to see him. He famously climbed up on a platform and wiggled his hips to loud Georgian folk music.

Those exuberant days seemed very distant around Gori on Sunday, as people fled, leaving behind corn fields and apple orchards. A group of men tried mightily to push a truck with a blown-out tire, but it got stuck on the road, and they finally abandoned it ...

The grimmest among the Georgians were the soldiers, haggard, unshaven and swinging their Kalashnikovs. A group of them had piled onto a flatbed truck, crowding on in such numbers that some were sitting on the roof, their feet dangling over the windshield. One, who gave his name as Major Georgi, spoke with anger.

"Write exactly what I say," he said. "Over the past few years, I lived in a democratic society. I was happy. And now America and the European Union are spitting on us."

h) I don't see Russia as a major long-term imperial power as long as her demography is still pretty disastrous. While the number of births is rising, the number of early deaths is more than keeping pace - and those Russian citizens who ARE having babies tend to be, like the Chechens and Ingush, Muslims near the periphery of Russian territory - perhaps more of a problem than a solution to Moscow. Russians still abort more children than they give birth to each year. Furthermore, the culture of many educated Russians is becoming more ... individualistic ? European ? - well, whatever makes psychology students get purple hair and a stud in the chin. What I think we may well see are attempts to gather more ethnic Russians back into the Russian State. I'd be nervous if I lived in an ex-Soviet state with a large ethnic Russian minority - and there are a few of those.

i) where are the anti-war left ? I don't see them here in any numbers. Or here. Or here. Or here. Looks like those Georgians shouldn't have cheered for Bush so wildly.


Sam Tarran said...

The real problem with Russia taking over Georgia, informally or formally, is that it will control a part of the BTC oil pipeline, a route specifically created to avoid Russia and Iran. 30% of that pipeline is actually owned by our very own BP.

True, we have no formal alliance with Georgia, but in strategic terms, it can't be a good thing to let Russia control the supply of oil from the Caspian and further tighten its grip upon its dependents on the Continent.

Yaffle said...

Ironic isn't it? The Germans and others failed to support Georgia's entry into NATO because they didn't want to upset the Russians, on whom they depend for fuel. As a result, the Russians may by force gain even more control over W Europe's fuel supply.

But I think Russia's motivations are more than just geo-economic. A few Westernised liberals aside, there is still a large part of the Russian mentality that sees national well-being and prestige as a zero-sum game - things to be gained at someone else's expense.

Georgia's mistake has been to Westernise too late. The Baltics did it in the 1990s when Russia was too weak to object. No longer.

Anonymous said...

I was under the impression that it was a bit more complicated than that. South Ossetia had proclaimed its own desire to leave Georgia. Georgia, no doubt emboldened by moves to incoporate it into NATO, decided it was having none of it - and subsequently bombed South Ossetia killing many civilians. No doubt the West would have shown appropriate disdain for this - accept that South Ossetia wished to leave Georgia to become part of Russia again.

At the moment it seems the Russians don't actually have any designs on Georgia itself. I suspect that the Russians are less concerned about being surrounded by NATO than they are about the NATO anti-ICBM shield which potentially alters the balance of power w.r.t. MAD. In any case they could hardly be considered "surrounded" by NATO with China on the South East flank, the ocean to the west, the arctic to the north and the himalayas to the south. Of course, they may have more to fear from a growing China with demographic problems of its own. There are good reasons why the Chinese might seek to expand into an underpopulated Russia. The Chinese have taken the trouble to work closely with the Russian military - which means they know exactly what they are up against.

Anonymous said...

"Georgia's mistake has been to Westernise too late. The Baltics did it in the 1990s when Russia was too weak to object. No longer."


Georgia's other mistake was to place itself east. Whereas the crafty Baltic states placed themselves west of Russia, close to the heartland of Europe.

Also Georgia has been bound up with the Russian/Soviet empire for a long time while the Baltics were only recent additions.

Homophobic Horse said...

""Write exactly what I say," he said. "Over the past few years, I lived in a democratic society. I was happy. And now America and the European Union are spitting on us."

Oh but they always planned on spitting on you. He clearly hasn't heard of multiculturalism.

You know Georgia is the wayward step-child of Russia. Russia has saved Georgia from itself more than once in the past. If Georgia stays away from NATO and the EU it will still exist in a hundred years time. Can't say the same for mighty Britain.

"The real problem with Russia taking over Georgia, informally or formally, is that it will control a part of the BTC oil pipeline, a route specifically created to avoid Russia and Iran. 30% of that pipeline is actually owned by our very own BP."

It is a very good thing for this oil to be out of the hands of Muslims and NATO.