While the eyes of the world have been focused on the Summer Olympics in Beijing, events have been unfolding in Georgia that may portend a seismic shift in the political and military balance of power in the world, particularly in Europe.
The Russian Bear has awakened from her long hibernation, emerged from her cave, and like most bears who do so, she is hungry. And it seems that Georgia makes a nice morsel to break the fast before moving on to something more substantial.
This isn’t the Georgia that Sherman marched through in 1864. This is the Republic of Georgia, a small country of approximately 69.7 sq km and 4.6 million people around half the size and population of the state of Georgia) nestled between Russia and Turkey fronting on the Black Sea. Like many parts of Europe and Asia, the area has been overrun many times by many groups of people including the Romans, Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols.
The Russian Empire, under the Czar Alexander I, took possession in 1802 and held Georgia until the Russian revolution. Georgia then enjoyed three short years of independence until it was forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union in 1921. It remained part of the Soviet Union as the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) until the Soviet Union fell in 1991. It has been an independent state since that time.
Like many countries in that part of the world, it has a mix of religions and ethnic groups, but is predominately Orthodox Christian (83.9%) with Muslims (9.9%) making up the second largest religious group. Ethnically, 83.8% of the country is Georgian, 6.5% Azeri, and 5.7% Armenian. Ethnic Russians make up 1.5% of the population. The country itself consists of nine regions and two autonomous republics, the later being Abkhazia and Ajaria.
So what about “South Ossetia”, a name that figures prominently in the current fighting (such as it is) between Russia and Georgia?
South Ossetia is an area in Georgia that is occupied by ethnic Ossetians, who it is believed settled this area from Asia hundreds of years ago, and who speak a language remotely related to Farsi, the language spoken in Iran. Logically, if one has an area called “South Ossetia”, one might expect there to also be a “North Ossetia” as well; in this case one would be correct in that expectation. Across the border, inside Russia, there is indeed an area called “North Ossetia” which is also settled by ethnic Ossetians.
The area has been politically unstable since before the fall of the Soviet Union. It has not improved since, and is another area of Georgia, along with Abkhazia, which has declared its political independence from Georgia. Be that as it may, neither area is recognized among other nations as “independent” and both are considered by the international community as being part of Georgia.
Hostilities have ensued off and on since 1989. Russian peacekeepers were sent to the region while it was still under the control of the Soviet Union. Since then the area has been home to a combination of Russian, Georgian, and Ossetian peacekeepers.
Under former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, things quieted down some. With the ascent of the current President, Mikheil Saakashvili, things have once more come to a head.
President Saakashvili was first elected on 4 Jan 2004 with an astounding landslide victory of 96% of the votes cast. He ran on a platform of opposing corruption, improving pay and pensions, and increased relations with the outside world. He is strongly pro-Western and has sought membership for Georgia in both NATO and the European Union. As a show of solidarity, Georgia has contributed 2000 troops to the U.S. led coalition in Iraq.
Needless to say, this does not sit well with Russia, who still considers Georgia to be part of their “empire” despite its current status as an independent nation.
President Saakashvili is also particularly forceful when it comes to separatist elements within Georgia, particularly as it regards Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Like Abraham Lincoln here in the United States during the War Between the States, he does not view those who would declare independence from Georgia in a favorable light. He did offer significant autonomy and economic development aid to the region, but independence from Georgia was not an option.
The government of Georgia does not recognize the descriptor “South Ossetia”, as it implies that political bonds exist between it and “North Ossetia”. Indeed, the Georgian government rejects the modifier “North” entirely, insisting that the area termed “North Ossetia” is the only Ossetia, and therefore prefacing Ossetia with “North” is misleading. Georgia refers to the area as the Tskhinvali region of the province of Shinda Kartli.
As one might expect, this does not sit well with the separatists. In Nov 2006, an unrecognized referendum was held and Ossetians voted overwhelmingly to restate their demands for independence from Georgia. Simultaneously, ethnic Georgians in the region voted just as overwhelmingly to stay part of Georgia. Clashes between Georgian and separatist forces have intensified.
Although the international community does not recognize South Ossetia’s bid for independence, Russia is sympathetic. It has been claimed by some that Russia has been supplying arms to the separatists; a claim Russia categorically denies. What is certain is that Russia has offered Russian passports to South Ossetia’s citizens, and reportedly 70,000 of them have taken them up on the offer, effectively making them “Russian citizens”. And Russia has vowed to defend its “citizens” in South Ossetia.
On 7 August, just hours after President Saakashvili declared a cease-fire with separatist fighters in South Ossetia, the Georgian military began shelling the provincial capital of Tskhinvali. This was followed by a massive military offensive, which the Georgians said was intended to end the shelling of Georgian civilians by South Ossetian separatists.
Russia responded, bombarding Georgian military and civilian targets, and sending troops and armor of their own into South Ossetia, driving the Georgians out of Tskhinvali. At this time they also attacked the cities of Gori, birthplace of Joseph Stalin, and Poti, a strategic Black Sea port which handles oil and other energy supplies, and attacked the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, which transports oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey. They also bombed the international airport at Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia.
Not stopping at the border, Russian troops plunged deep within Georgia proper. Several times they have said they would leave, but the Russian version of “leave” seems to bear little resemblance to the English meaning of the word. While columns of tanks have headed back toward Russia, in other parts of Georgia, Russian forces are digging in and vow to remain.
So why should we care? Other than, of course, the fact that Georgia, a free country with a democratically elected government has formally begged us for assistance?
Prior to this attack, Georgia had applied for membership in NATO and the EU. Neither has been approved as yet, so the Russian incursion cannot be considered an attack on a NATO country, or on the European Union.
Yes, Georgia attacked “South Ossetia” first. However “South Ossetia” is not recognized as a separate nation, even by Russia, although Russia’s not so subtle issuing of passports to separatists in South Ossetia is a definite indicator of where their sympathies lie, and a ready-made excuse to intervene to protect Russian “citizens” should Georgia ever do exactly what they attempted to do; put down what is essentially a rebellion within their own borders.
Russia’s actions in Georgia are a message, not only to Georgia, but to other sovereign nations on their borders; nations that were once part of the Soviet Union, and the Russian Empire before that. Indeed, Russia’s actions were also a message to the West, in particular to the United States, Europe, and NATO.
The message to Georgia was simple; mind your own business. Stop your attempts to join NATO or the EU and do what we say. We will allow you the illusion of “independence” because it suits us to do so. But don’t think that you can behave as if it were really so; we can squash you like a bug any time we like.
Issuing Russian passports to those in South Ossetia gives Russia the pretext to act any time they like under the guise of “protecting their citizens.” Georgia would do well to remember that.
Western Europe currently imports 40% of its gas from Gasprom, , a company controlled by the Russian state. These imports are expected to increase 50% by 2010, at which time they will be importing 60% of their gas from Russia.
And it isn’t just the gas. The pretty much all of the pipelines that transport the gas are owned by Gazprom as well. It is interesting to note that the man who up until recently led Gazprom is a man by the name of Dmitry Medvedev; now currently the President of Russia.
In fact, the only pipeline that Europe gets gas through that isn’t controlled by Russia, is the one that runs through Georgia. You know, the one the Russians bombed during their little incursion, but thankfully “missed.”
And if anyone thinks that the Russians can’t hit an oil pipeline if they really want to, I have some oceanfront property here in San Antonio that you might be interested in.
Oil pipelines are big and bulky, and they don’t move around much. Heck, they could strafe the thing with their jet fighters if they wanted to; they don’t need to hit it with an actual bomb. For that matter, they had ground troops in country as well; tanks included. If they really wanted that pipeline gone it would be.
The message to Europe was simple; we can shut off the gas we send you via our pipelines any time we want. And that one that runs through Georgia? You use it at our sufferance.
Hey NATO. Still considering membership for Georgia? Remember that clause in the NATO contract that says that an attack on a NATO member is an attack upon all? Are you willing to go to war over Georgia? How far do you think you will get when we cut off your energy supplies?
The message to the rest of the neighboring countries is similar. Your future is not with NATO or the EU. Your future, like your past, is with us. We have them by the short hairs. They will not come to your aid. The United States may talk big – but they won’t go to war over you. They not only lack the ability to do so, but they lack the will as well. We, on the other hand, can pretty much do as we please. See what happened in Georgia? It can happen to you too.
The message to the United States? We will not allow you to meddle in our backyard. What’s more, Europe will not either; Europe will pretty much do as we wish, since we control her energy. Don’t even think about NATO membership for Georgia or other countries on our border who have applied. You won’t like the result; a costly war you cannot win, or being revealed as a hollow shell; an alliance that is toothless and therefore meaningless.
Russian power is back, with leadership that is unafraid to use it. The balance of power has shifted.
Postscript: In what appears to be an effort to cement their gains in South Ossetia and Georgia, Russia’s upper house (the Federation Council) has voted 134 to 0 to recognize both South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. It must be approved by Russian President Medvedev before it becomes law.
Earlier, the USS McFaul, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, delivered 55 tons of humanitarian aid to Georgia. Two other US ships and a Coast Guard cutter are also enroute.