A senior White House official confirmed on Monday what reporters on the ground in Georgia have known since their first glimpse of the ongoing hostilities: Russia’s invasion of Georgia was not a hastily-improvised event, in response to provocation, but had been planned well in advance.
Russia moved the equivalent of two heavy divisions into the mountainous terrain of northern Georgia, in addition to mobilizing its navy to blockade the Georgian coast and its air force to launch hundreds of bombing raids. These are not the type of things any modern nation can do overnight. Russia’s planning shows foresight, and intent.
So besides reasserting Russia’s control over its “near abroad,” and opposing the expansion of NATO into Georgia, what is czar Vladimir Putin’s game?
Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has accused Russia of seeking to control energy routes from the Caspian. Georgian officials have told reporters that Russian aircraft have bombed portions of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil and gas pipeline dozens of times since hostilities began. Russia has denied the attacks. So has pipeline operator, British Petroleum.
But a reporter from the London Daily Telegraph witnessed the damage from one Russian air strike over the weekend, during which “over 50 missiles” were fired against a stretch of the pipeline on the outskirts of Tbilisi.
"I have no doubt they wanted to target the pipeline, there is nothing else here," a policeman who witnessed the attack told The Telegraph’s reporter.
Why would the Russians attempt to take out the recently-built pipeline, which carries energy resources from Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan to Western Europe?
Because the Russians and their strategic partner, the Islamic Republic of Iran, have been opposed to the pipeline since it was first planned in the mid-1990s. Through terrorist proxies in Turkey, where the pipeline feeds into the Ceyhan terminal on the Mediterranean, they have repeatedly sabotaged it.
The Clinton administration worked with British Petroleum and with the governments of Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey to get this pipeline built. Today, it brings approximately one million barrels of oil per day to Europe, just under 7 percent of the European Union’s daily consumption.
The routing from Baku, the Caspian Sea capital of Azerbaijan, through Georgia to Ceyhan in Turkey, was specifically designed to bypass both Iran and Russia. Alternate routes for bringing the energy riches of the Caspian Sea basin to Europe were proposed by those two countries, but the United States wisely opposed them.
The “pipeline politics” of the 1990s correctly sought to bring Azerbaijan and Georgia closer to the Western orbit, while eroding the “inevitability” of Iran as the most cost-effective route for bringing oil to market (in this case, to oil terminals in the Persian Gulf).
To a lesser extent, the Clinton administration sought to weaken the potential Russian stranglehold on Caspian oil production and European supplies by not giving Russia a key to the spigot.
But Putin has shown he doesn’t need a key. If he wants to shut down the pipeline, terrorist attacks and Russian fighter-bombers will do the trick quite nicely. The message to Europe is crystal clear: defy Russia, and Putin will shut down Europe’s oil and gas supplies.
Just days before the Russian invasion of Georgia began, a terrorist attack in Turkey caused British Petroleum to shut down the pipeline temporarily. The attack was allegedly the work of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that reportedly has received support from Moscow in the past.
Sources in Tehran with close ties to senior regime officials tell me that Iran’s leaders are “looking and laughing” at the slaughter in Georgia, because they feel they will benefit from the closure of the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline, as well as from Russia’s Cold-War style confrontation with the West.
Iran derived an added, and possibly unsuspected, benefit from the recent fighting when Georgian president Saakashvili ordered the 2000 Georgian troops on duty with the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq to return home to guard their nation’s capital.
“The Georgian soldiers had been guarding Iran’s border with Iraq,” my sources in Tehran say. “This will put new pressure on the United States and Iraq, and in the meantime make it easier for the people who want to cross the border from Iran” to carry out terrorist attacks against the U.S. and our Iraqi allies.
The timing of the current conflict in Georgia has not been lost on Iran’s leaders. “They are convinced that Russia will not help the United States at the U.N. Security Council in getting a new sanctions resolution,” my sources say.
There are many objective reasons to believe that the Russians will refuse U.S. efforts to get a 4th U.N. Security Council sanctions resolution against Iran.
Just two days before the invasion of Georgia, Russia again came to the aide of the Iranian regime, even as the United States and its allies were counting on Russia’s support to increase pressure on Tehran.
At issue was a hard deadline that expired on August 2 for Iran to suspend its nuclear programs. Asked several days later if Iran’s refusal to give a clear answer to the U.S.-backed package of incentives presented through the European Union in Geneva, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly I. Churkin, pretended there was no deadline, and called Iran’s stalling tactics “negotiating opportunities.”
Russia’s double-talk on Iran is reminiscent of Cold War propaganda, when Soviet “diplomats” lied egregiously without even a smirk of shame. Putin’s actions are a throwback to the era of superpower rivalry.
Right at the center of this deadly mix lies Iran. Russia has long considered the Islamic Republic of Iran as a strategic partner. Throughout the 1990s, they helped Iran build the long-range ballistic missiles that today are pointed at Israel and tomorrow will be able to reach Europe. They also helped Iran to develop its nuclear capabilities, and earlier this year delivered enriched uranium fuel for Iran’s reactor at Bushehr.
Just one week ago, few would have believed it was in Russia’s interest to fight a full-blown conventional war in Europe. Who can say with confidence that Putin believes it is in Russia’s interest to oppose a nuclear-armed Iran?
After all, an Iran armed — or better yet, capable of arming itself — with nuclear weapons would dramatically shift the strategic balance in the Persian Gulf against the United States and our allies. A nuclear-capable Iran would make the United States more hesitant to project power, for fear of the consequences. And it would undoubtedly have a dramatic impact on the price of oil, which would benefit both Russia and Iran.
A new chapter in the Great Game has begun. Putin knows it, and is fully engaged. Are we?
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