Monday, August 18, 2008


The political section of the Mainissue is back after a long vacation, and just in time too. As we all know by now, a lot has gone in the Caucuses in the last week or so. All the details of what took place to ignite the war between Russia and Georgia are still not sufficiently worked out, but at this point it appears that what happened was that Georgia decided to try and take back the rebellious enclave of South Ossettia as the worlds attention was focused on the opening night of the Olympics. Georgian forces quickly made headway into South Ossettia, a region where most of the people identify with Russia, but Russia, clearly very prepared for such a move by Georgia, quickly pushed the Georgians back and were soon entering Georgian territory.
Acquisations were flying between the politicians of both warring countries, each one accussing the other of starting the war along with war crimes which undoubtadly occurred. Russias quick response does suggest that they were preparing, prepared for, or in the process of starting, a war with Georgia. For the last couple of months Russia has been acting as if they had plans. The most notable indication that Russia was stepping up pressure in the region came with the handing out of Russian passports to the residents of South Ossettia, a move to claim the territory as Russian and lay the groundwork for future military action in protection of "Russian citizens" if events should escalate.
Georgia, and especially its president, Mikheil Saakashvili, on the other hand, were bellicose and overly enthusiastic to start a war that, without the support of Europe, the U.S., or NATO, was impossible for it to win. It is still unclear how Georgia could have made such a blunder. Insiders and pundits talk about possible encouragement and pressure coming from within the Bush administration as well as other neo-conservatives within the government. Military aid and training from the U.S. has been steadily increasing since the Clinton years, and this, along with Georgian participation in the Iraq War as, up until this war started, the third largest contingent in the "Coalition of the Willing" probably made the Georgians think they had more international support than they did.
While culpability for the war is still not clear - perhaps because both sides had much to do with starting it - there is very little doubt about the outcome. Russia unequivocally won the war militarily. They were also able to meet what was clearly their main objective: taking South Ossetia, once and for all, from Georgia. So far they have not succeeded in ousting Mr. Saakashvili; his popularity has recently been heightened though that could change soon enough.
Most importantly for Russia, they have managed to scare the U.S. and Europe. They have brought home the reality that the West has very little leverage in the region when push comes to shove. And this matters, since oil is involved.
What is interesting in the diplomatic response to the conflict is the differing approaches taken by Europe and the U.S. A little understanding of what is at stake is needed in order to fully appreciate why the U.S. and Europe are acting so differently. Europes largest energy provider is Russia. Over 1/4 of all natural gas brought into Europe comes from Russia. Geopolitically, such a situation where one country dominates the energy resources of another is not good. When that one country is Russia and its energy dependant is not one country but a whole region - Europe - than the problem is serious.
In the nineties the U.S. and Europe sought to fix this geopolitical problem on the horizon by courting the recent breakaway states of the former USSR. The plan was to build oil pipelines circumventing the then weak Euro-Asian goliath with an imperial past - Russia. Things got of to a good start as Russia was embroiled in social, political, and economic chaos. But when Russia got back on its feet, it began to rationilize its geopolitical energy policy. It became clear very quickly that the pipelines skirting the new Russian borders were not just an annoyance that gave Russia's past provences great favor in the West, they also threatened Russian energy hegemony. The EU's fractured foreign policy offered Russia an opening to break apart concensus by striking bilateral deals with EU member states, thus staveing off the eventual goal of a united EU policy towards Russia. To further delay, or hopefully end, EU plans to open up a compeating energy tap in Turkey, Russia also stepped up the pressure on surrounding countries eager to strike deals with the West. Georgia was a particularly enticing location to stop an oil pipeline, since years of ethnic strife in the region could quickly and easily be fanned to Russia's advantage. Thus the conflict in Georgia began, and the regions people's peace and security, whether they realize it or not, are casualities of this sad geopolitical struggle.
When the war began, the differing circumstances of the U.S. and Europe became clear in how their diplomats approached the problem. The U.S. took a combative stand against Russias actions, decrying it as illegal and warrenting international condemnation. Europe, for the most part, was more concilitory, trying to stop the war quickly but not push Russia too hard, and definitely not condemn it outright. The reasons for the differing approaches are obvious when one considers oil. The U.S. gets far less oil and no natural gas from Russia. Europe, as we have seen, is tethered to Russia for a large portion of its energy. Noticably, the UK took up the U.S.'s line of attack on Russia. Why? Because the UK, like the U.S., imports very little oil from Russia - very little oil at all for that matter thanks to the North Sea - and no natural gas. They can afford to be hard-asses.
Now if the U.S. and Europe were working in conjunction on this diplomatic action it could possibly be construed as a genius solution to getting Russia to back off, allowing NATO countries to have their cake and eat it too. The U.S. often did seem to be acting as Europes foil. Unfortunately, I do not think this was what was going on. Europe was acting out of its interests, the U.S and UK theirs. In the end, there is very little good news that has come out of the conflict - not even to mention the sad outcome for all those civilians involved in the conflict.
It is clear now that there is very little that Europe or the U.S. can do if Russia chooses to flex its military muscles, and Russias powerful position sitting atop large oil and gas reserves allows it a lot of flexibility.
What leverage does the U.S. and the EU have? Not much really. There is the possibility of withholding talks on Russian WTO (World Trade Organization) membership, though stalling negotiations once again could do more harm than good and put Europe in an awkward position. The U.S. has been sending supplies and troops to the region for a while. It could send more, though there aren't many to spare and the act would be provocative. There are probably enough there as is to convince Russia not to risk a larger war by entering Tblisi. The U.S. has also announced that it will end joint military exercises with Russian troops, a move without much consequence.
All and all the last weeks turmoil is another problem for the U.S., but more so for Europe. Moreover, it is another indictment of this administrations lackadaisical foreign policy. It was bad policy (or worse still if the administration actually encouraged Georgia) to not warn Georgia that during lean times such as these, U.S support, especially militarily, would not be forthcoming if a conflict developed. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have sapped the U.S. military's ability to be a deterrent. The consequences of this are beginning to be clear.

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