Thursday, August 21, 2008


War in Europe- and worse to come

The outbreak of a war between two nation states is never cause for celebration, but the hostilities in the Caucasus recently are more dire and portentous than most. A flawed, but indisputably elected, government came close to being swept away in an invasion by a hulking, nationalist power whose leaders are accountable only to themselves and to a secretive elite founded in intelligence agencies and economic cabals. At a time when the world was supposed to be concentrating on the coming-out party of the next great superpower, China, statesmen instead find their eyes being drawn to the next great threat to world peace: a bullying and revisionist Russia, intent on restoring an unrepresentative client government into a country which had been desperately trying to claw its way out the Russian sphere of influence. The potential consequences ought to serve notice to a complacent West, which faces a security challenge greater it has been willing to recognize.

The current crisis has been simmering ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but its sudden escalation has taken many by surprise. Accusations of who started what have been flying backwards and forwards, but what seems to have happened is that the Georgians responded to the latest bout of low-intensity fighting around the enclave of South Ossetia by making a long-planned – and long-desired – move to reassert central government authority over the renegade province. With Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin out of the country at the Olympic opening ceremony in Beijing, Georgia made a quick and sudden assault on the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, hoping to brush aside Russian peacekeepers and present a fait accompli to the outside world before Russia could react.

The move was a gamble, and the Georgians did not bet well. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev quickly took control of the situation (until Putin was able to get back, at least) and ordered reinforcements from Russian North Ossetia into the conflict zone before the Georgians could consolidate their hold over the South. (Russia had been engaging in its annual war games in North Ossetia, designed to intimidate Georgia, in the month before war broke out.) Georgia failed to close off the Roki tunnel, a 4km lifeline between the two Ossetias, and Russian heavy armour, armoured personnel carriers and supplies were able to pour through quickly, while Russian air power pummeled Georgian positions. The Georgians were forced into a fast retreat to the town of Gori, south of Tskhinvali and just 80km from Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Russian jets bombed Georgian bases throughout the country – including a military installation where American defense advisors are based and the international airport just before a European Union negotiating team led by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was due to land. Meanwhile, egged on by Russia, authorities in the other Georgian renegade province of Abkhazia declared a state of war with Georgia and had their existing Russian peacekeepers quickly bolstered by 4000 paratroopers and ships from Russia’s Black Sea fleet. By the time that the cease-fire was declared, Russian troops had taken over Gori and were occupying large parts of the country, with checkpoints just 30km from Tbilisi and the key strategic port of Poti under Russian control. Georgian bases and military hardware have been systematically destroyed, with Russian activities to weaken and emasculate Georgia continuing after the cease-fire broke out. The Russians now claim that the cease-fire gives them right to set up a buffer zone inside Georgia around South Ossetia – which the Georgians deny – and that South Ossetia and Abkhazia should be granted independence as they clearly have no interest in remaining within Georgia. Georgia insists upon its own territorial integrity. An impasse appears to have been reached, but it is a fragile one.

The background of the conflict goes back decades. When Georgia became independent upon the break-up of the USSR, numerous regions declared their own state of autonomy free from the writ of the national government. South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Ajaria fit into a broader pattern of local elites making power-grabs which was also visible in such places as Nagorno-Karabakh (which was the cause of a lingering armed conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan), Transdniestria in Moldova, and Chechnya, which the Russian army quashed brutally in another lingering conflict whose most recent phase began in 1999 at the behest of then-Prime Minister Putin.

Georgia was ruled through much of the 1990s by Eduard Shevardnadze, who was a liberalizing Foreign Minister of the USSR under Gorbachev in the 1980s. A rigged election in 2003 saw massive street protests (dubbed the ‘Rose Revolution’), the departure of Shevardnadze from power, and the election of Mikheil Saakashvili, an American-educated lawyer and something of a firebrand. Controversial reforms in subsequent years dented Saakashvili's reputation. Tbilisi saw massive protests at the end of 2007 in support of the opposition and against a government which was perceived to be cheating in parliamentary elections; after an outcry at the forcible suppression of these protests, Saakashvili backed down and won re-election as President in a poll which was deemed to be mostly free and fair. (The appalling quality of the opposition candidates made his ongoing popularity particularly plausible.) His reputation has also been dented abroad: Germany in particular views him with suspicion (partly because he has made a habit of being irritating to Russia) and blocked Georgia’s application to NATO earlier in the year.

One of the biggest issues facing Georgia was dealing with its frozen conflicts. Shortly after Saakashvili came to power, the authorities in Ajaria were peacefully swept aside and central government authority restored; Saakashvili longed to do the same in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The two pseudo-statelets have become infamous as dens of lawlessness and centres for smuggling, and ongoing low-level hostilities have kept Georgia permanently on edge. Most ethnic Georgians were kicked out of the two regions in 1991, and the fearful regional rulers turned to Russia for protection. The Russians, resentful over their loss of power, influence and territory, were happy to step in to prevent their new neighbour becoming too well-established. Russian troops were sent in as “peacekeepers” (under an international mandate, despite Georgian scepticism) to prevent the Georgians from attempting to militarily reassert control over their territory, and Russian passports were issued to Abkhazians and South Ossetians in a move designed to give Russia a lasting justification for its military presence. According to a senior State Department source quoted in last week’s Time magazine, the South Ossetian government is almost entirely under the control of the FSB, the Russian security service.

In this context, Georgia’s desire to boot the Russians out and reassert control seems less like wanton aggression and more like a desperate weariness with a debilitating status quo. Georgia’s inability to exert control over its own territory has been a constant distraction, a barrier to economic development and genuine block to a state of normalcy. Georgia has also been regularly harassed by the Russian air force (which shot down an unmanned Georgian drone a couple of months ago and made frequent incursions into Georgian airspace) and bullied economically and socially, with its citizens subject to travel bans and humiliating deportations, its gas supplies being cut off in the middle of winter, and its produce being blocked from being exported to Russia under the cynical old Russian trick of creating politically-motivated sanctions on the basis of trumped-up bureaucratic obstacles. Georgia has been provoked and bullied for years, and the temptation to do something about it and pluckily assert itself was clearly great and understandable – but still, ultimately, foolish. By tempting Georgia to shoot down Russian planes in Georgian airspace, by shooting down unmanned Georgian drones, and indeed by handing out Russian passports in South Ossetia in recent months so as to enable a vigorous “defence” of Russian “citizens”, Russia has clearly been trying to goad Georgia into providing a casus belli for armed intervention. Georgia’s actions played directly into the Russian trap, giving Russia a justification to open the full-scale hostilities that it has been longing to let loose: from Russia’s perspective, the upstart little fly which has been buzzing around annoyingly is now finally being swatted back into its rightful place and shown who’s boss.

But the Russian case is by far the weaker. Just as calling its soldiers “peacekeepers” (even though, as in Transdniestria, they largely lack international legitimacy and the consent of the host country) does not actually make them peacekeepers, accusing Georgia of “genocide” does not mean that genocide has actually taken place. Although it seems clear that Georgia’s ill-judged offensive did cause deaths of civilians in Tskhinvali, the shrill Russian claims of thousands of deaths were clearly a number plucked out of thin air, with Russia later admitting that 133 South Ossetian civilians had died - a number consistent with deaths as a by-product of a military campaign, but not a scale of destruction resembling genocide or ethnic cleansing. Russia’s own military response has hit civilian areas, with the Russian reputation on civilian casualties from Chechnya not being remotely enviable. (The Russian concern for the safety of its citizens wasn’t quite so strongly felt if they were Chechens, it seems.) The far-fetched accusations flying backwards and forwards present a distraction which the Russians happily use to carry on doing whatever they decide to.

Russia refuses to acknowledge Georgian sovereignty over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and has made clear it expects them to become independent; such independent states would be a joke, and would inevitably end up annexed by Russia in the long run unless Russia decides to maintain them as a flashpoint, providing a ready-made excuse to provoke further hostility with Georgia whenever it sees fit. Frustratingly, there is little that Georgia, or the West, can do about this. There is, rightly, no desire to confront the Russian army; the risk of broadening the conflict would be far too great. But as it happens, the situation in Georgia has actually presented the world with a moment of clarity, and the Russian military victory is leading quickly towards a tremendous diplomatic rout. What the Russian government has failed to understand is that the surest way to unite your enemies against you is to swagger around like a bully. Like Germany in the years leading up to the First World War (when pointless small acts of German aggression managed to unite the other great powers into the Triple Entente, an anti-German alliance), Russia may yet achieve with its aggression what was politically impossible for a divided West to manage on its own.

This has been seen already. Germany, which put the brakes on the Georgian and Ukrainian applications to NATO earlier in the year, has reaffirmed that both should be admitted; Chancellor Merkel said that Georgia should become a member while visiting President Saakashvili in Tbilisi. Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population and an incipient territorial dispute with Russia over ownership of the Crimea (which was part of Russia in Soviet times and only transferred to Ukraine for administrative reasons in the dying days of the USSR), ordered the Russian black sea fleet to restrict its movements after it was involved in sinking the Georgian navy. (Russia retained a giant Soviet-era naval base in the Crimea.) When Russian military commanders responded that they took orders only from the Russian President, Ukraine offered the West access to its early-warning radar systems. Meanwhile, Poland, which had been dithering about the details of an agreement with the United States to host interceptor missiles for the US Missile Defense shield, came to quick agreement with America and inked the deal this week. Russia decided today to “end” its military cooperation with NATO, a day after an emergency session of NATO froze Russian ties with Partnership for Peace, the main vehicle for Russian cooperation with NATO. The clear next steps are that Russia will be summarily evicted from the G8 (it would be a travesty for Dmitri Medvedev to be allowed to stand alongside the leaders of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan as an equal at next year’s summit in Sardinia), and for its aspirations of joining the World Trade Organization to be thoroughly quashed (Georgia itself has a veto on that one).

In the longer term, Russian actions demand a stronger response. It was clear from the Russian government’s treatment of Yukos (and the politicized behaviour of Gazprom) that the Russian economy is not genuinely free-market; it was clear from the shambolic Russian parliamentary elections earlier this year that Russia’s commitment to democracy is shaky at best. The most important thing that needs to happen is in Western Europe, which needs to wake up to the damaging nature of its relationship with its giant neighbour to the east. Russia supplies natural gas for most of Europe, with demand set to grow as a consequence of economic growth and the decline of North Sea production. At present, European countries purchase their gas individually, and Russia pursues a policy of divide and rule. Existing gas networks allow Russia to cut off countries in Eastern Europe either for supposed non-payment of bills or because of mysterious “technical problems” arising concurrently with political disputes. Ukraine and Estonia – as well as Georgia and the Russian vassal state of Belarus – have already had their gas supplies temporarily closed off following political disputes. The Nord Stream pipeline that Gazprom is building in the North Sea (direct to Germany) and the South Stream pipeline running through the Balkans through Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary to Austria will give Russia enough flexibility to be able to easily cut off supplies to the nations in between itself and Western Europe, which it still regards as its sphere of influence. Russia currently picks away individual countries from the European consensus – including Germany, Hungary and Bulgaria – on a divide and rule strategy that is working extremely well.

European nations need to combat this urgently. In the long run, a major shift away from natural gas and other fossil fuels can generate energy independence for European nations: wind, solar and nuclear power capacity needs to be ramped up urgently and on a much larger scale than has been seen up to now. This should be an absolute priority in any case for environmental reasons – which ultimately dwarf matters of geopolitics – but as the health of the planet does not seem to be a sufficient motivator, perhaps national security can finally give alternative power the kick-start that it needs.

In the shorter run, though, Europe needs to find an effective way to undermine Russian power over western energy markets. Luckily, there are certain steps that Europe can take in this direction. The problem is not one of insufficient leverage. Russia may be a monopoly supplier of European gas, but as it happens, European countries are Russia’s only customer, meaning that Europe is a monopsony buyer – and has significant bargaining leverage as a result. The problem is thus one of coordination: European countries need to commit to a mechanism whereby their purchasing needs are met by a central buyer, most likely through a mechanism of the European Union. This would increase solidarity between European countries and present a united face to Russia; it would also protect individual European countries from the vicissitudes of an unreliable and aggressive trading partner. The impact on Russia would be high. Although its population numbers 140 million, gas sales are the only reason that it is flush with cash; its GDP, even at purchasing power parity, is no larger than that of the United Kingdom. A Europe which recognizes its own power and presents a united front will be one which is more secure, and will keep Russia safely contained, with its troops out of the countries of Eastern Europe permanently.

All of this will come too late for Georgia, which is the tragedy at the heart of the current mess, and a genuine long-term response may not be quick enough for the coming challenges. The Baltic states may be beyond Russia’s reach militarily, but bullying and cyber warfare there can expect to be stepped up. Transdniestria will become a flashpoint if Russia wants it to, and can be used to keep Moldova (Europe’s poorest country) in line. The biggest challenge in the post-Georgia era will be in Ukraine, which will in all likelihood be torn apart if the current confrontational course persists. Ukraine is already subject to incipient Russian territorial claims over the Crimea; it is also a nation divided, with the Russian-speaking east much more sympathetic to Moscow than the Ukrainian-speaking west. With Ukrainian politicians already accusing each other of disloyalty and of serving the Russian agenda, as President Yuschenko did to Prime Minister Tymoshenko earlier this week. The strategic uncertainty surrounding the country is immense – and it could become a major flashpoint in the future.

The strategic map of Europe therefore looks more gloomy now than it has any time since the early 1980s. Hopefully the tragedy befalling Georgia at present will galvanise a sleepy West into a coordinated response that will finally address the immense strategic challenge presented by a Russia which is increasingly aggressive and nationalistic. For too long, western countries have ignored the signs that Russia was the major strategic challenge which exists today; now, perhaps, after the tragic invasion of Georgia, Russia will finally be treated as such.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


"The Bear Has Come Out Of Hibernation"

It's extremely frustrating not to have enough time at present to do a full treatment of the situation in Georgia, which I have been following extremely closely and with a great deal of alarm. (After writing a lengthy piece on the subject, I decided to sleep on it and awoke to discover that the situation had changed, meaning that some hefty rework is required.)

In the meantime, I would strongly encourage anyone with an interest in some analysis on the subject to avoid the BBC and the daily newspapers, pretty much all of whose reporters were bussed in at the very last minute once it turned into a hot war, and who all seem to think that Georgia's assault on South Ossetia was the point at which the story began. (They clearly haven't been reading their own papers: anyone who had been paying attention to the regurgitated wire agency reports published in the same news outlets would know that this is nonsense.)

Instead, I recommend, predictably, an excellent piece of analysis in The Economist, which has been closely covering Georgia for ages and even predicted the war's imminence before it broke out; also, less predictably, a heroic and comprehensive piece of reporting in Time magazine, whose correspondents and links in the Caucasus and in Russia are well-developed and authoritative. I will check back in later in the week, perhaps after we see the outcome of today's emergency NATO meeting, which will contain clues as to how the dust is going to settle.

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