A Word From Afar: Much ado about Russians
A Word From Afar: Much ado about Russians
A Word From Afar is a regular column that analyses political/strategic/international interest.
The Russian counter-offensive in Georgia, which now has taken on the guise of a semi-permanent occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazian, has elicited a chorus of outrage from the West. It has also revealed three fundamental facts that the US and its allies are powerless to reverse, and which they may have unwittingly facilitated.
The first is that Russia is back as a major power. The Russian counter-offensive in Georgia (not invasion, as many claim) is its coming out party. Aided by massive Western investment in its energy infrastructure, from whose profits the Russian state rebuilt its military capability, Russia has emerged from the ruins of the mid-1990s to reassert its presence in what has traditionally been its most important geostrategic area of concern. This re-emergence was not sudden or unanticipated. For the last few years Russia has been slowly reestablishing its global military presence, including the resumption of long-range strategic bombing and submarine patrols (including off both US seaboards), signing of military assistance agreements with Iran and Venezuela, and negotiation of forward basing rights for its bombers and submarines in Cuba. Although it does not yet have the capacity to challenge US strategic supremacy as in the days of the Soviet Union, Russia has placed itself once again amongst the top three military powers in the world. The unimpeded erection of the new “Georgia Wall” is proof of that.
The second hard fact is that with its move into Georgia, Russia has altered the geopolitical landscape not only of the Caucuses, but also of Europe as a whole. This needs some explaining. Russian geostrategic thought has always been preoccupied with securing its western and southwestern flanks. Historically, it has been most often attacked from the West, and its traditional adversaries reside in Europe (and beyond). The Russians have always been keen to secure buffer zones between the motherland and western adversaries, and have always reacted with alarm to any hostile presence on their western borders. This as true for post-Soviet Russia as it was during the Soviet and Tsarist eras. The primary interest has been to maintain buffers to Russia’s immediate west, southwest and south. This includes the Balkans and the Caucuses as well as Central Asia (the so-called “stans”). Somehow, these perennial concerns were overlooked or ignored by Western strategic planners in the aftermath of the Cold War, which only served to increase Russian paranoia about their motives.
When the Soviet bloc dissolved Russia was not in a position to effectively challenge US moves to assert its military dominance and enlarge its network of allies. However well intentioned they may have been (and there is debate about that), the 1990s press to expand NATO in the former Eastern Europe, specifically to countries such as Poland and the Czech Republic, were met with distrust and opposition by the Kremlin. Rather than a move towards more cooperative forms of security alliance involving former adversaries, the Russians see NATO expansion as an attempt to encircle their most vulnerable borders. This, among all other things, is what pushed the desire to rearm amongst the Russian political elite.
Their fears were heightened by the W. Bush administration’s move to place anti-ballistic missiles in the Czech Republic and Poland, by the NATO defeat of Russia’s close ally Serbia in the 1990s, and by US sponsorship of NATO membership for Georgia and the Ukraine. Joint military exercises in Eastern Europe involving US troops, Georgian, Polish and Ukrainian participation in Operation Enduring Freedom (in both Afghanistan and Iraq) and the permanent placement of US and Israeli military advisors and trainers in Georgia confirmed these concerns. In addition, Poland, the Ukraine and Georgia are reported to be the sites of clandestine detention centres operated by the US in its war against Islamic militants, so Russia had good reason to believe that US proxies on its western and southwestern borders were steadily surrounding it. When taken together with US military overtures to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan (all former Soviet Republics), the encirclement scenario appeared to be unfolding. To rephrase an old saw, just because the Russians are paranoid does not mean that they are crazy to see things this way.
The so-called War on Terror gave Russia the opportunity to begin to revamp its military in the fight against the secessionist movement in Chechnya because it would not face external objections in doing so. Overly centralized command structures, poor intelligence gathering and clumsy control and communications networks were replaced by more flexible, decentralized combat formations (akin to Western forms of military organisation) in order to counter the asymmetric threats posed by Chechnyan irregulars. The school siege at Baslan, in particular, marked a turning point in Russian counter-insurgency strategy in its former republics, from which point on their suppression of the Chechnyan independence movement has been markedly effective (albeit brutal). Given its success in the unconventional battle space, it was only a matter of time—and in fact was a military imperative—before the Russians tested their strength on a conventional battlefield. The August 8 Georgian offensive against South Ossetia (in which there were less than 2000 Russian “peacekeepers” stationed in accordance with a 1994 ceasefire signed between Georgia and the South Ossetian government) provided Russia with the excuse to do so.
Western support for Kosovo’s independence played into this scenario. At the time Russia warned against the precedent established by awarding national recognition to ethnic enclaves in multiethnic states. Preoccupied with teaching the Serbians a lesson after failed attempts at ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and elsewhere, the US and its European allies paid no heed to Russian concerns. Instead, the US began to diplomatically and military court Georgia in spite of the fact that South Ossetia and Abkhazia had fought and achieved de facto autonomy and self-rule from Georgia in the early 1990s (after signing the 1992 Dagomys ceasefire agreement), were ethnically and culturally distinct from Georgians (North Ossetians living in Russia being biological kin of their southern neighbours), and in fact preferred to align themselves with Russia rather than their former masters (evident in the presence of Russian “peacekeepers” in both regions, use of the Russian ruble as the local currency, the 2001 South Ossetian request for reunification with North Ossetia and the issuance of Russian passports to 70 percent of the South Ossetian population).
Given the Kosovo precedent, the table was consequently set for a decisive breakaway move from either or both of these regions backed by Russian military might. All that was needed was a precipitating event, and Mikhael Saakashvili obliged by ordering the assault on South Ossetia after a bout of shelling between Ossetian separatists and Georgian forces. In response, the Russians appear to have staked claim to both regions by placing a military wall around them.
If not hypocritical, claims by the US that the Russian counter-offensive was disproportionate are disingenuous. The purpose of war is to win, the quicker the better. The best way to do that is to overwhelm the opponent so that he surrenders early. The Powell Doctrine that was used in Gulf War One and the “shock and awe” tactics used in Gulf War Two were the US applications of this belief. The Russians applied their own version on Georgia.
Also suspect are the claims that Georgia is a model democracy confronted by a totalitarian aggressor. Not only is the Saakashvili regime far less transparent and accountable than it promised to be. It has slowly clamped down on domestic dissent while simultaneously encouraging ultra-nationalist claims on the disputed territories. For its part, Russia under Vladimir Putnin is increasingly a quasi-dictatorship with undoubtedly repressive features, but it is no longer communist or as politically or socially monolithic as during the Stalinist era. In fact, it has adopted a near feral form of capitalist development that makes it more akin to China and various Latin American dictatorships of the recent past—countries that the US either supported or has good relations with. Moreover, with the exception of the 1990s when it almost collapsed into chaos, authoritarians have always governed Russia and it took a modern one—Putnin—to pull it out of the rubble of the Yeltsin years. For all intents and purposes, then, this was a clash of electoral authoritarians that was resolved in favor of the one with superior firepower. There is no profound ideological divide between them, but instead, just a clash of geopolitical interests.
Contrary to what the Georgian government may have been led to believe by the US (or at least by some in the Bush administration, since it is now reported that State Department officials warned about the Russian reaction to the US-Georgian rapprochement), no one came to its rescue. The US may or may not have known about the impending Russian response to a Georgian attack on South Ossetia (as it is hard to conceal large mechanized troop movements from modern technical intelligence gathering platforms). It also may or may not have been aware of Georgian intentions (since embedded US military personnel as well as technical intelligence would have become aware of Georgian military movements in preparation for the attack). But whatever the case, if the US did not see the conflict coming it points to some serious dysfunction in its foreign policy and security apparatus. If the US did warn the Georgians against the attack and were ignored, it raises questions about Saaskashvili’s temperament as well as his relations with neoconservative W. Bush administration insiders (as well as with presidential candidate John McCain).
Not surprisingly, the EU and NATO fractured over how to respond, with most of “old” (read Western) Europe disposed to a diplomatic solution that tacitly accepted the new status quo, while “new” (read Eastern) Europe calling for a more direct confrontation with Russia in order to safeguard themselves as well the hapless Georgians. The UN once again proved toothless, as the Russian veto on the Security Council precluded any strong move against it. As for the US, there is relatively little immediately at stake except for loss of reputation, although the long-term consequences of Russia’s move are as unavoidable as they are profound.
Gas pipelines notwithstanding, there is no compelling US strategic interest in Georgia other than its serving as a forward military base for US troops near the Russian border. Most US energy supplies derive from elsewhere, and Georgia does not sit in any US “shatter” zone worth defending (although it does sit in a Russian buffer zone). Georgia, for all its pretensions, is not a US ally. Beyond that, the US cannot risk a war with Russia when its troops are already over-extended in Afghanistan and Iraq, because the inability to offer a serious conventional response implies the possibility of rapid escalation to nuclear conflict. The US will therefore do nothing militarily other than provide humanitarian assistance. Such a symbolic military presence provides a tripwire or firewall against potential Russian assaults on the Georgian capital Tbilisi, but little else. The Russians can live with that.
Europe is dependent on Russian energy supply and do not have the capacity to challenge Russia on the military front, so the range of options with which to respond is limited. Russia has already used its control of European-bound fuel to score political points when its interests are challenged, and the pipelines running through Georgia are full of gas headed mostly to Europe from Azerbaijan. Thus a confrontation strategy with Russia would most lbe disastrous for Europe even if no force was employed.
The bottom line is that there is little the West can do to alter the new geopolitical landscape. The countries with the most to be concerned about are the Ukraine and Poland, which have been the most stridently anti-Russian in their embrace of the West. The Russians have now put them on notice, and even if Poland goes ahead with the US missile basing system on its soil, it has only made itself a larger target for Russian military planners. For its part, the Ukraine has to now consider the fact that in the event of a military confrontation with Russia it too will have no one come to its rescue. The same can be said of all of the littoral states bordering Russian soil. As far as NATO status goes, Georgia and Ukraine have probably seen their chances disappear along with the battlefield smoke. That, in a phrase, is the new geopolitical reality, and all actors involved are now forced to develop contingency plans based upon it.
The third hard fact product of the Russian move is that it announces the end of US global military dominance. Called by some “Pax Americana” this was the belief (rife in the 1990s) that the US could simultaneously fight 2.5 major regional conflicts and prevail on its own against all adversaries and combination of adversaries. 9/11, Gulf War Two and Afghanistan demonstrated the fundamental flaws in this perspective because, as it turns out, the technologically-driven “effects based” strategy employed by the US failed to account for the continued viability of unconventional tactics used “asymmetrically” by irregular combatants against a militarily superior actor. In protracting low intensity conflicts, ideologically driven guerrilla forces can effectively mitigate most of the technological advantages of the US and its close allies, especially when the irregulars are fighting on home soil. This forces the US to expend much military energy fighting in ways for which had not properly prepared, and to which the commitment of the US public is unsteady. Since its allies cannot fully supplement US forces in these military campaigns for a variety of logistical and political reasons, that leaves the US drained and impotent to respond militarily in a variety of theaters. One of them is called Georgia.
The result is that the world has entered a new strategic age. Although the US will remain the dominant military power for some time, both adversaries and allies alike have seen the future, and that future involves emerging great powers flexing their military muscle in pursuit of their respective strategic interests. The Russians have presaged the new strategic dawn, but the Chinese have also been improving and expanding their military forces to include previously unseen expeditionary components, with the Indians following suit. When taken in concert with the economic shifts of the last decade and the consequent long-term alterations they entail for future global production, this makes for a multipolar world by mid-century.
International systems are never static. Like living organisms, empires and capitalist economies, they ebb and flow, rise and decline, grow and decay. It was folly to believe that the end of the Cold War marked an “end of history” in which democratic capitalism would reign supreme as the preferred political-economic combination. Equally so was the belief in a unipolar world dominated by an unchallenged military superpower, with all other countries content to live under its benevolent umbrella. The evidence to the contrary has been building for over a decade, be it in the rise of alternative (authoritarian) forms of capitalist governance in Asia (and Russia), the persistence of pre-modern conflicts in Africa, Central Asia and Central Europe, the upsurge in “grey area” phenomena such as drugs and arms trafficking where criminal enterprise and ideological extremism meet—the warning signs were many and their agents plentiful. The conflict in Georgia has just openly put paid to such beliefs, bringing a not too welcome reality check to those who mistakenly thought that the end of the Cold War meant the end to major power confrontations. Sooner or later the post Cold War geostrategic environment was going to realign, and the only real question was who would be the agent and what would be the precipitating factor for that to occur. Now we know.