The State of the Game: The U.S., Russia, and the South Ossetian Conflict

As of Saturday, 16 August, both the Russian and Georgian sides of the conflict over the “unrecognized republics” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia had signed a six-point cease-fire agreement stipulating that Georgian forces must move back to their bases, while Russian troops are supposed to draw back to pre-conflict positions. The agreement does, however, leave the Russians some room to take additional “security measures” and reports continue to come in of Russian troops moving closer to the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. Russian forces have been destroying Georgian military installations and equipment as well.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration has continued to call for the complete withdrawal of Russian forces, while Russian President Dmitriy Medvedev has hinted that Moscow will not stop short of recognizing the independence of the disputed regions (Medvedev said that after the recent events “it’s unlikely Ossetians and Abkhazians will ever be able to live together with Georgia in one state”). Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has been more blunt, reportedly telling U.S. Secretary of State Rice that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili must go and that the West can “forget about” Georgia’s territorial integrity. The White House has used the crisis to clinch a deal with Poland on deploying anti-missile defense systems there, reportedly including Patriot-2 interceptor systems. The Russians have responded by warning that this could make Poland a target (Colonel General Anatoliy Nogovitsyn, deputy chief of the Russian general staff, warned that Poland is “exposing itself to a strike”). According to Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, the deal also includes a clause about a “mutual commitment” between the two countries to come to one another’s assistance “in case of trouble,” a clear reference to Russia. So Washington may be concluding a mutual defense pact with Poland, which, like other Eastern European states and former Soviet republics, is nervously watching the events unfold in Georgia.

Judging by the reaction of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who has issued an order that Russian warships must give notice before entering Ukrainian waters, Kiev is nervous about Moscow using a territorial dispute–in this case, over the Crimea–as a pretext for a move against Ukraine. The Russians have an agreement on keeping the Black Sea fleet at its historic base at the Crimean port of Sevastopol through 2017, and Russian officials have already said that the fleet will ignore Yushchenko’s order, which could open the door to a Russia-Ukraine confrontation. Moscow has mounted a media campaign partly blaming Kiev for the South Ossetian crisis, since Ukraine, along with the United States, other NATO member countries, and Israel, has been supplying arms to the Georgian army. The United States and Israel have trained the Georgian army and Saakashvili has counted on both U.S. and Israeli support, while Moscow contends that Kiev was encouraging the Georgians to launch an attack on South Ossetia, but the finger pointing doesn’t stop there.

In the United States, presidential candidate John McCain has blasted the Russians and pushed for Georgian NATO membership. “NATO’s decision to withhold a Membership Action Plan [MAP] for Georgia might have been viewed as a green light by Russia for its attacks on Georgia, and I urge the NATO allies to revisit the decision,” McCain said (Saakashvili also makes the same claim–he wanted to move forward with a MAP in April). Russia’s Izvestiya on 13 August blamed American neo-conservatives for Georgia’s moves on South Ossetia, with Vice President Cheney and McCain playing the main roles in the plot to “whip up anti-Russian hysteria” and help McCain win the November election. For his part, Barrack Obama has also endorsed continuing the process of bringing Georgia into NATO.

To recap, as of 16 August, the United States and Russia have moved closer to confrontation resulting from a series of events over a number of years, including continued NATO expansion, Western support for the independence of Kosovo (The Russian argument has been that Kosovo has set a precedent–how are Kosovo and South Ossetia different?), and agreements on deploying U.S. anti-missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, while Russia is moving to re-assert its power in the former Soviet Union. The crisis over the “unrecognized” republics in Georgia has intensified the frictions and cooled Russian relations with the West, but especially with the United States, even further. U.S. media and the blogosphere’s reporting on the turn of events in Georgia has tended to be partisan, one side warning of a resurgent Russia as a security threat, the other endorsing Russian resistance to NATO expansion. One side tends to see the Russians as the culprits; the other is closer to the Russian position, blaming Washington. In view of the stakes, a more dispassionate review of the interests of the key players and the machinations behind the conflict in Georgia might give readers a chance to decide for themselves where U.S. interests lie and who is to blame.

Neoconservatives have been conspicuously anti-Russian (see my article in the July issue of Chronicles), but Washington sources say that Saakashvili was repeatedly warned not to use military force to resolve the dispute over South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Briefly, both territories want independence from Georgia, if not incorporation into the Russian Federation. Moscow took a hand in the 90’s to insert itself into the dispute as a peacekeeping force. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has continued to press for NATO expansion eastward as the Warsaw Pact broke up, deepening ties with Azerbaijan, Georgia, Ukraine, the Baltic states, and former Warsaw Pact member states, as well as establishing ties with former Soviet Central Asian republics. The United States, the EU, and major Western energy companies are very interested in undermining Russia’s position as near monopolist on oil and natural gas pipeline routes to the West. Georgia has been an alternative route for oil from the Caspian basin. NATO membership would have solidified the alternative route via a NATO security guarantee and somewhat weakened Moscow’s ability to use energy as a card in political and diplomatic frictions with the West.

In Tbilisi, Saakashvili has been frustrated by the reluctance of some NATO members to fast track Georgian membership. Two points have especially blocked the fast track Saakashvili has eyed: First, the territorial disputes and the presence of Russian troops in both Abkhazia and South Ossetia; and second, Saakashvili’s strong arm repression of internal opposition. Saakashvili may have been banking on the second merely being an excuse–it was the lack of willingness by some Western European powers to confront Russia that was the real reason for stalling on Georgian NATO membership.

Georgia was set to press forward on a Membership Action Plan at the December NATO meeting. Meanwhile, Russia was strengthening its troop contingent in South Ossetia. George Bush, who has been Saakashvili’s close ally, is set to leave office in November and Tbilisi could not be sure of how the elections would turn out or what a new president, especially Obama, might do. Saakashvili appears to have been counting on strong U.S. support. Once Georgian troops moved into South Ossetia at the end of the first week in August and Russia reacted with more troops, armor, and air power, Saakashvili seemed to plead for U.S. backing, saying that “it’s not about Georgia any more…It’s about America, it’s about values. We are a freedom-loving nation that is right now under attack.” As noted above, since then Saakashvili has bitterly blamed NATO reluctance to take in Georgia as the reason for Russian intervention. Saakashvili probably hoped for a strong Western response, winning a media campaign that would cast Russia as the aggressor, and the West pressing for the Russians to leave the disputed territories, replaced by international peacekeepers (which the six-point cease-fire could open the door to, at least theoretically). Then the case for NATO membership would be boosted, while Saakashvili could consolidate his position domestically as the national leader engaged in a struggle with the Russian aggressor.

Russia’s rapid response suggests that Moscow had planned the Georgia intervention ahead of time. Moscow military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer has claimed that Moscow began planning an assault in April, when a frustrated Vladimir Putin attended a NATO meeting in Brussels and it became apparent that in spite of Russian warnings, the West would eventually move forward with NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine. More sharply-worded Russian warnings followed, but the United States continued to forge ahead with the expansion plan and with agreements on deploying missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, which Moscow sees as part of a plan to encircle Russia. Russian units in the guise of peacekeepers were moved into Abkhazia, and the boosting of the Russian contingent in South Ossetia was on track. According to Felgenhauer, the plan evolved toward war aiming to exclude Georgians from both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, remove Saakashvili, and prevent Georgia’s inclusion in NATO. In principal, Moscow was prepared to recognize Georgia’s territorial integrity, in return for the country’s transformation into a confederacy and elections that would chose a Georgia president to Moscow’s liking.

The Jamestown Foundation’s Vladimir Socor has written that Moscow staged a series of provocations to bait Saakashvili, including the 3 July attempted assassination of Dmitry Sanakoyev, head of the Tbilisi-backed interim administration of South Ossetia. Russian warplanes began flights over Georgian territory, partly to deter reconnaissance missions by Georgian drone aircraft, obscuring the Russian preparations for conflict in South Ossetia (there were several incidents involving Russian warplanes and Georgian drone aircraft dating back to March). Roadside bomb attacks were aimed at Georgian police in the disputed region and Ossetian troops fired at Georgian-populated villages in the region, stepping up the attacks at the end of July and early August. Moscow, according to Socor, was aiming at blocking Georgia’s entry into NATO by frightening the Western powers with a possible confrontation. As related by Socor, the series of events leading up to Russian intervention closely resembled that of incidents in the disputed Trans-Dniester region of Moldova, as well as in Abkhazia, in the 90’s.

In the corridors of Russian power, the “clan” machinations were in full swing. According to sources in Moscow, the “siloviky” wing of the Russian elite–a group of former and serving security and police officials who have personal ties to Premier Putin–saw the war as a chance to shift the balance of power in their favor and undermine efforts by their apparatus opponents (“liberals”) to use President Medvedev as a lever in their battle with the siloviky. For months, the talk in Moscow has been of a possible “thaw” in Moscow–and the purge of the “siloviky.” Both sides in the battle have attempted to drive a wedge between the members of the Medvedev-Putin “tandem” and secure the ouster of their enemies. This does not mean that the liberals are doves. What seems to be happening in the aftermath of the Russian intervention is an attempt by one side to capitalize on war to boost siloviky influence and prevent their being purged, while the liberals hope to use the six-point plan to mend fences with the West and halt the siloviky ascendance. Both sides are intimately connected to Russia’s oil and natural gas companies, especially gas monopoly Gazprom and oil major Rosneft, as are both Medvedev and Putin. Oil, gas, and pipeline politics, as well as the material interests of influential people in the West, play a role in the West’s interference in Georgia. The material interests of Russia’s billionaire bureaucrats are even more at stake. Losing the political battle means losing access to Russia’s assets–and it could mean prison or worse.

Meanwhile, in South Ossetia, Russian sources say regional boss Eduard Kokoyty is using anti-looting measures (looters are to be shot) as a cover to move against his political opponents. Kokoyty is the reputed boss of smuggling operations in the region, has been the beneficiary of Moscow’s money, and he does not intend to give up that position.

The picture of what is happening in Georgia and the machinations that may have taken place in Washington, Moscow, and Tbilisi in recent months remains obscure, but a close look at the available evidence suggests that there may be parties in each capital who might benefit from an aggressive stance. The game of bluff, saber rattling, and political maneuvering has resulted in a conflict that potentially could pit the Western powers–or perhaps the United States alone–against Russia. In the West, some see Russia as an aggressive threat that must be stopped, or at least as a rival for controlling energy export routes from Eurasia. In Tbilisi, the Georgians have counted on playing Washington against Moscow in a desperate and risky game. In Moscow and Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, political power, national pride, and the personal and material interests of ruling clans are driving events. The last thing that seems to be of any real concern is the ordinary people who are caught in the crossfire. Great powers have played such games before, stumbling into war.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.