Russia scholar Michael McFaul of Stanford University summed up the use of overwhelming force by Russia in Georgia this week as nothing less than “a signal to everyone that Russia is back — and Russia is going to try and dominate this region of the world,” according to a report in The Los Angeles Times.
Last week, South Ossetian separatists — supported by Moscow — poured machine gun and mortar fire into neighboring Georgian villages. Georgia retaliated by attacking the separatist capital Tskhinvali with artillery, providing the pretext for Moscow’s invasion of Georgia.
Most recently, Russian soldiers drove into Georgia to open a second front in the escalating conflict — storming out of the Russia-backed breakaway republic of Abkhazia to seize control of a western army base, according to Associated Press reports.
What seemed at first to be minor clashes in tiny, faraway places that most Americans never heard of now has think tanks buzzing, with scholars and pundits alike resurrecting such iconic terms as “Cold War,” “Iron Curtain,” and “spheres of influence.”
Robert Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, put things in perspective in a Washington Post column:
“Historians will come to view Aug. 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Russia’s attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory…”
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who raced back from the Bejing Olympics to take command on the ground, charged that the U.S. has displayed a “Cold War mentality” in its friendship with leaders in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi, according to The Times.
The August 11, 2008 edition of the Christian Science Monitor shouted dramatically in a headline: “By going to war with Georgia, Russia is drawing a new Iron Curtain.”
Such polemics aside, the nation’s prodigious force of think-tankers has been burning the midnight oil analyzing just what Mr. Putin is up to.
This is the man who once famously declared that the collapse of the Soviet Union was “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” Could the Georgia conflict be but a first step in a Russian renaissance of power and influence?
Yes, declares Kagan, who writes further in his Post column that Putin “has reestablished a virtual czarist rule in Russia and is trying to restore the country to its once-dominant role in Eurasia and the world.
“Armed with wealth from oil and gas; holding a near-monopoly over the energy supply to Europe; with a million soldiers, thousands of nuclear warheads and the world’s third-largest military budget, Vladimir Putin believes that now is the time to make his move.”
But the Putin strategy reaches far beyond mere saber-rattling to impress what he perceives as the ever-encroaching West.
Ariel Cohen, senior research fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at The Heritage Foundation, has ferreted out what he believes to be the Putin strategy.
In his most recent Web Memo report, Cohen concludes, “Russia is engaged in a classic combined arms operation. The Black Sea Fleet is blockading Georgia from the sea and likely preparing a landing, while Russian ballistic missiles and its air force are attacking Georgian military bases and cities.”
The Russia scholar surmises that Putin’s goals for the war with Georgia are far-reaching and include:Expulsion of Georgian troops and termination of Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia and Abkhazia; “Regime change” by bringing down President Mikheil Saakashvili and installing a more pro-Russian leadership in Tbilisi; Preventing Georgia from joining NATO and sending a strong message to Ukraine that its insistence on NATO membership may lead to war and/or its dismemberment; Shifting control of the Caucasus, and especially over strategic energy pipelines, by controlling Georgia; and Recreating a 19th-century-style sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, by the use of force if necessary.
Expanding on his bullet points, Cohen notes that Putin spoke last spring about Russia “dismembering” Ukraine, another NATO candidate, and detaching the Crimea, a peninsula that was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, when both were integral parts of the Soviet Union.
Cohen further notes that Putin wants to demonstrate that he can sabotage at will American and European Union (EU) declarations about integrating Commonwealth of Independent States members into Western structures such as NATO.
“By attempting to accomplish regime change in Georgia, Moscow is also trying to gain control of the energy and transportation corridor, which connects Central Asia and Azerbaijan with the Black Sea and ocean routes overseas — for oil, gas and other commodities,” the scholar concludes in his memo.
Cohen’s overall recommendation for a response to the Russian aggression:
“The U.S. and its European allies should communicate to Moscow that Russia has much to lose — including hosting the 2014 winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, membership in the G-8, and access to Western markets — if the Georgian aggression is not stopped.”
But what is happening, in reality, as reaction to the Russian use of massive military force?
According to a report in The Times, Vice President Dick Cheney telephoned Saakashvili, assuring him that “Russian aggression will not go unanswered.”
Cheney’s spokeswoman, Lea Anne McBride, said the vice president told the Georgian leader that Russia’s continued attacks “would have serious consequences for its relations with the United States, as well as the broader international community.”
The Bush administration said Sunday that it would seek a resolution condemning Russia’s military actions. The issue here, however, is that Russia holds a veto as one of the five permanent members of the Security Council.
The council has been meeting since late Thursday, trying unsuccessfully to come up with a cease-fire agreement, according to a report in the The Times.
Meanwhile, the think-tankers continue to wrestle with this latest conflagration on the world stage.
Justin Logan, associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, worries that current U.S. presidential politics will only fan the flames:
“What makes the conflict relevant to the U.S. is that President Bush, as well as both presidential candidates, have supported giving Georgia a security guarantee via NATO membership.
“Why an American president would want to risk American blood and treasure — not to mention another Cold War — over a breakaway province in a country few Americans could even point to on a map is inexplicable and reckless.”
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