Amid great power fretting over North Korea's nuclear test and continuing Iranian truculence against the West, Russia escalated its confrontation with the neighboring Georgia. The arrest of five Russian alleged intelligence officers two weeks ago was a pretext for Moscow to further escalate an already difficult relationship with Tbilisi, now affecting the 1 million Georgian Diaspora in Russia.
Ethnic Georgians, including children, were loaded on cargo planes and expelled from Russia, citing their illegal immigration status. Prominent Georgian intellectuals, who are Russian citizens, are being harassed by the tax police. Georgian businesses in Moscow are singled out by law enforcement authorities. The handling of the crisis is threatening Russia's international standing as a responsible and constructive great power.
Georgia may have overplayed its hand by arresting the military intelligence officers, whom it accused of sabotage, and not just expelling them quietly -- an acceptable modus operandi in such cases.
In response, Moscow recalled its ambassador from Tbilisi, evacuated diplomats and their families and halted issuing visas to Georgian citizens. The Russian military forces stationed in Georgia have gone on high alert. Russia cut air and railroad links, and blocked money transfers from Georgians working in Russia, denying an important source of income for many Georgian families.
Since Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in the Rose Revolution of 2003, anti-Russian statements by Georgian leaders, a relentless push to evacuate Russian military bases (to which Russia has agreed previously), an attempt to join NATO, and opposition to Russian membership in the World Trade Organization, have caused the Putin administration to embargo the two key imports from Georgia. These are Borjomi mineral water and wine, much beloved in Russia.
It did not end there. In September, South Ossetian separatists, who receive Russian military support, have fired on Georgian helicopter carrying the defense minister. This was a provocation, which, if successful, could have led to conflagration of hostilities in the small secessionist territory that belongs to Georgia. However, Russia made little secret of its desire to start a war in the Caucasus that would lead to a regime change in Tbilisi.
There are regional and global reasons why Moscow is escalating the crisis over Georgia:
- To begin with, this is not the first time Russia is trying to
stop NATO enlargement into the formerly Soviet territory. In 1999,
Russia fulminated against the Baltic States' NATO membership. But
at that time, Russia was extricating itself from the 1998 economic
crisis while a power struggle was afoot in Moscow to succeed
President Boris Yeltsin. As energy prices were much lower in 1999,
Western European countries supported the Baltic States' NATO bid
despite Russian protests. However, today, Western Europe is
increasingly energy-dependent on the Gazprom and so is taking
Russian foreign-policy positions much more seriously.
- Second, the Kremlin is now buoyed by $250 billion in
petrodollar reserves. These funds buy a lot of hardware for the
Trans-Caucasus Military District and for pro-Russian separatists in
Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
- Third, Russia is uneasy over the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan main export pipeline, which takes Azeri oil to the Mediterranean markets, and crosses Georgia but bypasses Russia. The Absheron-Erzurum gas pipeline will be coming online, bringing Azeri gas to Turkey and Europe. Gazprom is concerned that this gas pipeline may eventually allow export of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstani gas to Europe, circumventing Russia's pipeline network.
If Georgia comes under the Russian sway, neighboring Azerbaijan and Armenia will feel the full weight of Russian presence. Leading foreign policy experts in Moscow believe Azerbaijan has not allocated enough oil patches to Russian companies and facilitated oil exports via Turkey instead of Russia, which may explain why Russia is leaning on Georgia so much.
The Armenian opposition openly demands a more pro-Western and less pro-Russian policy, noting close ties with Moscow did not improve Armenia's abysmal living standard and did not allow it to receive international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh's independence.
A pro-Russian Georgia in the Collective Security Treaty Organization of the Commonwealth of Independent States would permit Russia and Iran to dominate Azerbaijan and Armenia, severely limiting the U.S. policy options there. Furthermore, such a development would put to rest U.S. ambitions in Central Asia and may cut off strategically important Kazakhstan from Western energy markets.
Russia has warned repeatedly it will retaliate severely in case Kosovo is granted independence against the will of Serbia, a historic ally. Mr. Putin has called for imposition of the Kosovo criteria on separatist enclaves in the former Soviet Union, including Transnistria, which is a part of Moldova, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia would enforce a referendum in these territories, and would recognize their independence, opening the door to their eventual incorporation in the Russian Federation. Moreover, such an approach would create dangerous precedents vis-a-vis the Crimea, where a majority of the population is pro-Russian; for Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine; and even for predominantly Slavic Northern Kazakhstan.
Violations and alternations of the existing borders of the former Soviet Union may generate severe tensions in Europe and open the Pandora's box of territorial claims and ethnically based border challenges there and elsewhere, for example in Iraq and Kurdistan.
The United States today is preoccupied with major crises, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea. Russia is a key player in all these. Its true and real cooperation would be welcome, although so far it is not sufficient. It is vital for the future of the U.S.-Russian relations and for global security that Moscow behaves responsibly and constructively. Quickly defusing the Georgian crisis via diplomacy is a good place to start. Washington should encourage the European powers, the European Union and Turkey to become more engaged in diffusing the Georgian-Russian confrontation. It should also advise Georgia not to escalate rhetoric and performance vis-a-vis Russia unnecessarily. After all, a peaceful and prosperous Caucasus is in the Russian, Georgian and American interests.
Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and the author of "Kazakhstan: Energy Cooperation with Russia -Oil, Gas and Beyond" (BMG Publishers, London, 2006).
First appeared in the Washington Times