INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: by Peter CoatesNews Weekly
Resurgent Russia's conflict with Georgia
, August 30, 2008
Russia may be warning Ukraine against joining NATO, writes Peter Coates.Russia's invasion of Georgia in response to Georgia's lawful but reckless military occupation of South Ossetia from August 8, 2008, has prompted concern about a resurgence of Russian power.
It is unclear why Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili moved in to South Ossetia, a region monitored by Russian military peacekeepers, knowing that the Russia would react. Was he expecting military assistance from the West?
Georgia was absorbed into the Russian empire in 1801. Following Georgian independence in the early 1990s, NATO uneasily designated two areas containing significant ethnic Russian populations, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as Russian peacekeeper-occupied zones. The major element upsetting this shaky status quo is a large-scale Russian counter-attack beyond these two zones and deep into Georgian territory.Military power
This aggression provides a warning that Russia can no longer be written off as a spent, ex-communist empire. It has oil and gas that the West, particularly Europe, needs with increasing desperation. Russia is conscious that energy, plus its traditional military power, give it the strength it has not enjoyed since the 1970s. Rising energy prices have boosted the economy, enabling Russia to avoid any need to move toward full democracy or a genuine free market economy.
The Georgia issue generates more questions than answers. Is Russia's attack intended to highlight the dangers of including a contested Caucasian state within the otherwise stable NATO membership? In April 2008, at a NATO summit in Bucharest, President Bush proposed that Georgia and Ukraine be admitted to NATO. This policy was not accepted by European powers due to fears that it would offend Russia.
European countries that are also heavily dependent on Russian gas, such as Germany and Italy, see incorporation of Georgia into NATO as something to avoid. To them Georgia is already a flashpoint, and confrontation over it would provide a reason for Russia to disrupt gas supplies.
The attack on Georgia may also be Russia's way of warning Ukrainians what may happen to Ukraine if it grew too close to the West and joined NATO.
While Russia's attempt to use Russian minorities as a pretext for control or intervention has been most obvious in Georgia, Ukraine, which has a Russian minority of 17 per cent, is also under threat.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko is supporting Georgia by exploiting the fact that Russia's Black Sea Fleet remains in Ukraine's Crimean port of Sevastopol under a leasing agreement which expires in 2017. Yushchenko has threatened to prevent Russian ships that may be involved in the Georgian conflict from returning to Sevastopol.
The US may have benefited from the Georgian invasion in that fear of Russia may have accelerated Poland's decision to host US anti-ballistic missiles. Poland joined NATO in 1999 but may feel that only by hosting a key US base can it gain real protection from Russia. The US may also be backing Georgia to stoke Russia's aggressive tendencies, thus providing a threat for a revitalised NATO under American leadership.
A key oil pipeline (known as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline) passes through Georgia while bypassing Russian territory.
Cyber-warfare has added a new dimension to the Georgian conflict. Reports are that Russian hackers may have been directing an online attack against the Georgian government internet infrastructure since late July 2008. Cyber attacks against Georgia may be similar to those Russian hackers directed at Estonia last year. Georgian hackers, however, have counter-attacked against government websites in Russia and South Ossetia.
With the US heavily involved in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Pakistan, it has been largely left to negotiations between European states - notably France - and Russia and Georgia to attempt a resolution to the Georgian conflict. It remains to be seen whether Russian troops will withdraw to their August 8 positions within the South Ossetian and Abkhazian zones of Georgia.
At the time of writing, Russia has failed to honour the ceasefire agreement brokered by France. Russian military units may still effectively control half of Georgia. Russian tanks have not withdrawn from the key city of Gori and still control Igoetti, just 35 kilometres from Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.Tripwire
A reality in the face of Russia's aggression is that Georgia should not be encouraged by Western declarations of future NATO membership unless there is consensus within NATO that Georgia can join and be protected militarily. Applying the NATO joint defence tripwire model to Georgia may be hazardous when Russian troops or "peacekeepers" are already standing on the tripwire.
The conflict in Georgia involves more questions than answers. What is certain is that Russia is rising again.- Peter Coates is an independent researcher who formerly worked for the Australian Government on intelligence and policy issues. His website is Peter Coates's Intelligence Blog at: spyingbadthings.blogspot.com