Proxy War in Caucasus: Wider Ramifications

When Mikheil Saakashvili launched the highly provocative attack on South Ossetia, he obviously relied on Western support. After all, was it not the United States, Turkey and Israel that provided him with hundreds of tanks, armoured vehicles, warplanes, gunboats and other weaponry and trained thousands of his troops? Did not President George W. Bush declare Georgia America’s “strategic partner” in the Caucasus? And did not Georgia reciprocate by supplying the third-largest military force in the occupation of Iraq? So the Georgian President’s estimate was, once he could provoke Russia into a retaliatory "aggression", the fait accompli would force the US and NATO to get directly involved in the conflict in his favour.

The gamble proved counter-productive. While some NATO members criticised his foolhardiness, from his principal mentor he got little more than rhetoric. In fact that was what a frustrated Saakashvili said on CNN at the height of the conflict. Action was more important than rhetoric, he said: "We should realize what is at stake here for Americans... America is losing the whole region."

But George W. Bush could hardly help it. With his armed forces bogged down in a couple of losing wars, he could do little more than ferrying the 2,000 Georgian troops engaged in Iraq back to the war zone in Ossetia and Georgia. Vladimir Putin on the other hand exploited the overextended state of the US military to win a quick victory that largely wrote off years of heavy American political and military investment in Georgia. He was away in Beijing when the craftily timed attack was launched, with President Medvedev on vacation, and world attention focused on the Olympics. But the Russian counter-attack was swift and decisive, compelling Georgia to sign a truce that contained two important concessions on its part. First, Georgia committed itself to no further use of force in South Ossetia, and second, the agreement contained no reference to Georgian territorial integrity.

The US president, the Republican presidential candidate and much of the Western press have, as expected, termed Russia the aggressor. But the people of South Ossetia think otherwise. Even Western magazines like Los Angels Times have recognised that they do not see a political future for themselves within Georgia and aspire after national sovereignty while having closer ties to Russia. This was clearly revealed in a referendum in 2006. Many men and women hold Russian passports and the Russian rouble is the going currency. Many of the elderly receive pensions from Russia.

Historical facts also militate against the Georgian claim over this region. Though bordered on three sides by Georgia, South Ossetia (population 70,000) held the status of an Autonomous Oblast (Region) within the Soviet Federation for full 70 years. The neighbouring Republic of North Ossetia-Alania has maintained its status as an autonomous republic within the present-day Russian Federation. The Ossetians have a distinct Persian-related language and culture, which was largely preserved within the USSR despite authoritarian interventions by Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Georgia abolished South Ossetia’s autonomous status and rights and annexed the small nation, as they did with Abkhazia, another small, autonomous nation strategically located on the Black Sea and surrounded by Georgia. In the ensuing struggle, both nations declared independence from Georgia in 1991.

This led to a prolonged standoff, with both Georgian and Russian “peacekeepers” stationed in South Ossetia under a 1992 agreement. The Georgian attack of 8 August ended the standoff or status quo, razing capital Tskhinvali to the ground, killing 13 Russian soldiers and anywhere between 1,000 to 2,000 civilians and forcing tens of thousands of refugees cross over to Russia. That Moscow wanted to preserve peace in the region was indicated not long ago when it moved a resolution in the United Nations Security Council calling on Georgia and South Ossetia “to renounce the use of force.” It was U.S. and British representatives who blocked it in a clear confirmation of their support for Georgia’s continued “use of force” against Ossetia. And just on the eve of the recent attack there was a massive three-week military training exercise in Georgia, in which 1,000 US troops participated.

And this is in perfect sync with the record of US strategic build-up in the whole region. In the early 1990s, the United States and Europe had pledged not to expand NATO into Eastern Europe, promises which were quickly broken. In 1998, the US spearheaded the incorporation into NATO, of a whole number of newly independent states that had been either part of the Soviet Union or allied to it through the Warsaw Pact, including Estonia, Latvia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Bulgaria. In 1999 the US launched the air war against Serbia. Cluster bombs and depleted uranium were freely used. Despite strong popular opposition in Poland and the Czech Republic, the U.S. military also pushed ahead with a plan to place a U.S. anti-missile system in each of these two countries, raising another threat to Russia.

In 2001, the US withdrew from the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the very next year set up military bases in the former Central Asian Soviet republics of Uzbekistan (closed later at the insistence of the Uzbek government) and Kyrgyzstan. At the end of 2003, the US engineered the "Rose Revolution" in Georgia, which brought Saakashvili to power. In 2004, NATO admitted a new group of states formerly aligned with Russia—Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. One year later Washington orchestrated the "Orange Revolution" that toppled a pro-Russian government in Ukraine and replaced it with a pro-American regime. Then in February this year the US recognised and supported Kosovo’s “independence” from Serbia -- a step towards the creation of a “Greater Albania”, expected to be a US pawn in the Caspian chessboard.

All this went on without hardly any serious resistance from the Russian Federation. But August 2008 signalled a major shift. For the first time, post-Soviet Russia used military force outside its borders. Thus far and no further, it seemed to warn. "This was a proxy war” – observed Alexander Rahr, Russia expert at Germany's Council on Foreign Relations – “not about South Ossetia, but about Moscow drawing a red line for the West". Indeed, the recent conflagration was but a continuation of a prolonged conflict between an aggressive US and a resurgent Russia for access to and control over petroleum and natural gas supplies in Central Asia and the Caspian Basin. And in less than a week it became clear who emerged victorious.

The war in the Caucasus has brought to surface and further intensified the divisions in NATO. Washington is hell-bent on the induction of Georgia into the alliance, because that would greatly strengthen the arc of encirclement of Russia. But it suffered a rare defeat at a NATO summit last April when President Bush argued strongly for initiating this process, with several members including Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Belgium firmly opposing the proposal. When U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tbilisi in early July, she strongly reiterated the U.S. position – a demand voiced even more aggressively by John McCain. “We need a new Western approach to this revanchist Russia", McCain wrote after the war, and repeatedly stated that Russia should be excluded from the Group of Eight until it changed its behaviour. But the European Union, which depends on Russia for 40 per cent of its energy needs, failed to even issue a statement on the Georgian crisis because there was no consensus. And very significantly it was the President of France who brokered the truce between Georgia and Russia.

The decisive counter-attack followed by prompt withdrawal has definitely bolstered Russia’s image and position on the ground at the cost of America’s. The latter’s drive for shaping up a unipolar world has also taken a further beating. But it is only biding its time. US military aircrafts and naval forces are already in the war zone to deliver ‘humanitarian and medical supplies’ – which Saakashvili welcomed as “definitely an American military presence” – and there is no reason to believe US imperialism will not react. The cause of peace and progress now demands that, after teaching the regional bully and its global mentor a very good lesson, Russia will consolidate its moral and diplomatic victory and avoid getting trapped in any prolonged military operations in the Caucasus.

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