August 22, 2008

Russian Invasion of Georgia a Gut Check

By Donald G. Mashburn

Why would Russia invade democratic Georgia at this time? Well, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s KGB-graduate strongman, might well ask: Why not? The world’s short-span attention was on the Olympics, the American presidential election, and the high prices of oil and gasoline.

What better time for Russia, backed by a military of some 2,000,000, to roll into little Georgia – which has about 37,000 troops – and wreck the latter’s military capability, infrastructure and dreams of living peacefully in a democracy?

But don’t assume Russia was just trying to regain some old Soviet Union territory and “teach a lesson” to a bordering neighbor for getting too friendly with the West, the U.S. in particular. We should keep in mind that the Caspian Sea region has about 4 percent of the world’s proved oil reserves, and about the same percentage of its gas, and that important pipelines running across Georgia connect that production to ports on the Mediterranean and Black seas.

The Caspian Sea is not connected to outside sea-lanes. And oil from major producers like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan must be transported to seaports to be sold into international markets. If Russia controlled Georgia’s key pipelines, it could dictate draconian terms to both the oil-source nations and possibly oil-recipient countries.

Russia, which now tops Saudi Arabia in oil production, and has the largest gas reserves of any country, is already using that wealth to put the squeeze on nations like Ukraine, and to intimidate all of Eastern Europe.

If Russia could control Caspian region production also, it would have a chokehold on Europe’s economic windpipe – or pipeline, if you prefer. Russia is flexing both its economic and military muscles – built up by the “steroids” of high gas and oil prices for its exports.

The invasion of Georgia accomplished a number of things: It showed that Russian military units could easily run roughshod over a tiny country that was once part of the old Soviet Union.

It also stroked the egos of old KGB hands like Putin, who miss the old days of the raw power that comes with a police state.

And it reminded the former members of the Soviet Union like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine that the Russian military can easily roll over them,

But the major reason – perhaps the primary one – Russia would risk exposing its dark side to the world by moving with such a cruel and heavy hand into Georgia’s interior was to conduct a “gut check” of the West.

That became obvious when Russian military officials made such remarks as, “We have taught the aggressors a lesson” (my emphasis), “We’ll leave [Georgia] when we’re ready.”

Following the invasion, it became apparent there was little the West could do, except talk. President Bush was in China – the Russians knew this – and was caught out of position, and short on intelligence of any Russian threat to Georgia. The president could issue a rather generic statement that probably confirmed the Russians’ assessment that the U.S. could and would do nothing outside diplomatic channels.

Both candidates for president issued statements. John McCain issued a very strong statement that sounded more presidential than the president’s. Barack Obama’s initial statement showed both a lack of comprehension and experience, when he urged “both sides to show restraint.”

Obama’s statement was like urging both the perpetrator of an assault and robbery and his victim to “both show restraint.” After his handlers had gauged the negative reaction to such a weak statement, Obama made additional statements that were stronger.

Comments aside, there was little the U.S. could have done. With wars being waged in Afghanistan and Iraq, no one was talking about doing much beyond condemning Russia’s action.

France’s Nicolas Sarkozy went to Russia and brokered an agreement of sorts that gave hope that Russia would withdraw. They didn’t. The former members or the USSR bordering Russia on the West joined in condemning Russia’ aggression. But Europe as a whole does not want to antagonize the Russian Bear.

Thus it was left to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to get an agreement that called for Russia to leave Georgia. Georgia and Russia have signed it, but Russian troops still man checkpoints leading to Georgia’s main cities.

This “experiment” by Russia is a serious threat to the stability of Eastern Europe. Western Europe has failed the gut check before – in Bosnia, and in their failure to admit Georgia and Ukraine to NATO.

The U.S. must not fail the gut check. If Russia sees that it can move to control major oil and gas supplies, and becomes convinced the U.S. lacks the will to interfere, the Cold War will seem like an inconvenience compared to the problems we’ll face.

Editor’s Note: The views and opinions of contributors are their own, and are not necessarily those of Sage Commentary.