Russian-NATO Competition Explodes in Georgian Conflict
The recent armed conflict between Russia and Geogia is a symptom and consequence of regional tensions, and of NATO-Russian maneuvering for influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
Georgia claims South Ossetia and Abkhazia as its own though these two regions have effectively been independent for some time.
South Ossetia declared independence in the early 1990s, though this is not recognized internationally. Its people are ethnically distinct from Georgians, and speak a language derived from Persian. Today, the majority of its citizens bear Russian passports.
Abkhazia also declared its independence in the early 1990s, and, like South Ossetia, its independence is not internationally recognized.
Tensions between Georgia and Russia turned hot after Georgia responded to a cross-border artillery barrage by South Ossetia. Georgia’s response was out of proportion with South Ossetia’s goading, and out of proportion with its capacity to commit to military action that would result in a winning outcome. Georgia went on a full offensive, moving troops in and occupying South Ossitia’s capital, Tskhinvali.
Georgia’s president, Saakashvili, was emboldened by NATO assurances of common security interest, especially by US efforts to convince NATO to accept Georgia as a full member of the alliance, despite strong German and French resistance. Many average Georgian’s believed that the West would provide military support in case of Russian military response. This misleading environment encouraged reckless military escalation by Saakashvili, who appears to have greatly misjudged the situation.
It is possible that the US, and president Bush, will use the conflict to goad other NATO members to accept Georgia’s membership, further tightening the strategic noose around Russia. Former Soviet block nations Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Poland and Slovenia are already members, putting Russia on edge. “The people of these … nations were captives to an empire,” Bush said, adding they “endured bitter tyranny. They struggled for independence.”
The same conflict may push other NATO members, mainly Germany and France who are familiar to war with Russia and are wary of cold and hot wars in their backyard, to grow more resistant to the idea of Georgian membership since it would require all of NATO to respond militarily should Georgia enter into a future war.
Word is that Georgia’s military has seriously damaged, even razed, Tskhinvali during its short occupation. Russia claims that over 2,000 civilians were killed during this push, though this has not been independently verified.
Russia responded to the assault by mobilizing its own nearby forces. Infantry and armour moved into South Ossetia and soon Russia was in control of Tskhinvali. They followed through with the attack, pushing deep into Georgia, with air support.
Soon after, Abkhazia declared immediate combat action against Georgian forces. Georgia’s position in the Kodori Gorge came under attack. The Gorge is the only significant strategic point in Abkhazia still under Georgian control.
Within days of the conflict starting Russia occupied the key cities of Gori and Poti. The occupation of Gori cut Georgia in half. The only major east-west highway runs through Gori. Poti is by far the most important port. Poti seems to have suffered air assaults targeting its port facilities, and Russia has been accused of using its occupying forces to sink ships belonging to the coast guard. Simultaneously, Russia’s Black Sea fleet has blockaded the Georgian coast, cutting off all trade and supplies.
There is now a formal cease fire though both countries seem regularly to be breaking the agreement while jostling for better strategic positions.
Georgia currently provides the only alternative energy corridor siphoning Central Asian oil and gas to Europe. All other pipelines run through Russia at some point. Georgia has three small yet significant lines running through it: the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, the Baku-Tblisi-Erzerum (BTE) pipeline, and the Baku-Supsa pipeline.
The first two end in Turkey and run near to Gori. Russia has shown that it can rapidly and easily shut down these lines. This has the effect of making this route a lot less inviting to potential investors, especially after the infrastructure damage that Georgia seems to have suffered.
The BTC pipeline was already shut down, pending repairs, after Kurdish fighters in eastern Turkey attacked it. This latest conflict may have delayed repairs. Furthermore, the BTE line was shut down as a cautionary measure during this conflict.
The much older Baku-Supsa route feeds onto tankers in the Black Sea and is from there transported to Europe by sea. The Russian blockade has essentially halted this line as well. Furthermore, if true that Russia has been destroying port infrastructure in Georgia’s main port, Poti, then this line may be compromised and greatly reduced in capacity.
It remains to be seen how US, NATO, and Russian struggles for regional supremacy play out in this war. Georgia’s abysmal handling of the situation has further weakened its claims on South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Once the fever of patriotic solidarity dissipates from Georgia, president Saakashvili may well find himself in a tough spot keeping power. The gross error of invading South Ossetia and promising direct Western support to citizens could feed strong opposition to his remaining in office.