For several years after the implosion of the Soviet empire, and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. assured Boris Yeltsin and his successor Vladimir Putin that Washington was not interested in expanding NATO’s writ to include former Soviet republics. That assurance was ignored when the three Baltic states were voted in to the NATO club.
The U.S. then pushed hard to add Georgia to the NATO roster, but Europe’s NATO members pushed back. At last April’s NATO summit in Bucharest, the 26-country alliance split as Russia lodged a strong protest which said the promise to extend membership to now independent republics that were once part of the Soviet Union was “a huge strategic mistake.”
If tiny Georgia with 4.5 million people were part of the NATO alliance today, the U.S., Canada and NATO’s European members would technically be at war with Russia. Article 5 of the NATO treaty makes an attack against one member an attack against all. And following Russia’s attack against Georgia last week, pro-American, Harvard-trained Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili said Moscow would not have dared lunge into South Ossetia, and bomb Georgian targets, if his country had been a member of NATO.
This is debatable. NATO could not have responded anyway. The U.S. flew back the 2,000 Georgian troops assigned to Iraq. The White House is already committed to a two-war drain in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of the NATO troops in Afghanistan — with the exception of Canadian, British, Dutch and U.S. — are not authorized to fight, hamstrung as they are by caveats voted by their national parliaments.
With only 19,500 U.S.-trained regular soldiers, seven obsolete aircraft and 100 aging tanks, there wasn’t much Georgia could do to stem the Russian tide.
Moscow’s strategic planners took advantage of NATO’s predicament to deal a major setback to American interests on their Georgian border. Twin thrusts of about 100 tanks each quickly pushed Georgian troops out of the disputed South Ossetian province, where over half the population of 70,000 carry Russian passports.
The Russians bombed the Black Sea port of Poti (a staging post for oil and other energy supplies), the military part of the capital’s Tbilisi international airport, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (which moves oil from the Caspian Sea to Turkey), Gori (Stalin’s birthplace) and opened a new front by moving into another disputed province, Abkhazia, long a victim of ethnic clashes.
President Saakashvili declared a state of war and called for a cease-fire. In its best Cold War tradition, as when the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979, Moscow said its citizens in South Ossetia were threatened and called for assistance.
Saakashvili also said Russia’s military had opened yet another front by dispatching units of its Black Sea Fleet, still based in the Ukraine, to Abkhazia, a second Georgia province. Ethnic cleansing of Georgians in Ossetia and Abkhazia’s disputed Kodoro Gorge were underway, the president added. Claims and counter-claims were hard to verify. Moscow claimed it had “completely liberated” Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia. And Georgia counter-claimed with 12 Russian aircraft shot down (two of them confirmed).
With almost all of the Western world’s decision-makers, along with most of their people, on vacation at the beginning of the second week of August, Moscow clearly calculated to wrap things up in Georgia before street protests could get underway in the West. Prime Minister Putin was still at the Olympic Games in Beijing when Russian tanks lunged into Georgia. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was in charge in Moscow where he pledged to “force the Georgian side to peace.”
Putin and his military strategists have been nursing a major grudge against the Bush administration for the way it announced, without any prior consultation with Moscow, the installation of anti-ballistic defenses coupled with over-the-horizon radar in Poland and the Czech Republic, both designed to protect NATO Europe and the U.S. from Iran’s nuclear tipped intercontinental missiles.
The U.S. strategic projection estimates Iran with this kind of capability by 2011. Moscow was also miffed by the way Western capitals ignored Russia’s objections to recognizing Kosovo’s independence from Serbia.
The Bush administration cannot afford to alienate the Medvedev-Putin team any further. It needs Russia’s help to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But this may no longer be forthcoming. In which case, some of the Gulf states are already speculating this may be the moment President Bush selects to order airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
The Kuwait Times reported two additional U.S. carrier groups were heading for the region and that Kuwait had begun finalizing its “emergency war plan.” Thus, the cynics say Russia’s blitz against Georgia and America’s and/or Israel’s blitz against Iran would cancel each other’s propaganda advantage.
For the average Georgian, the West had left them in the lurch, without so much as probation for NATO membership, called “Membership Action Plan.” At the very least, Moscow will re-annex the two contested Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, each with its own language.
NATO credibility has far more at stake in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is making steady inroads. NATO’s European fighters (Britain and Holland) and Canada’s are committed to keep up combat operations for two more years. But Afghanistan requires an open-ended commitment of at least five to 10 years. If Barack Obama is elected president, he has pledged to move troops from Iraq to Afghanistan.
In Pakistan, a new civilian government is yet to gain traction in the tribal areas that straddle the Afghan border and where Taliban and a-Qaida are still operating with impunity. Pak security forces (Frontier Corps) pulled out of the Bajaur tribal agency with heavy casualties after a three-day siege. The area was littered with bodies and burnt vehicles. FC, which had fighter bombers and Cobra helicopter gunship support, abandoned bodies, trucks, and large quantities of ammo.
Taliban guerrillas were also back in force in Swat, a scenic tourist attraction in Pakistan proper, where they wore head-to-toe burqas to befriend a police post. After tying the hands of eight policemen, they began shooting, and killed them all. Similar incidents are now daily fare.
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