Page 1 of 2 The end of the post-Cold War era
By M K Bhadrakumar
On a day that China showed its firepower and set new frontiers for global
razzmatazz, with about 80 world leaders watching and cheering, the opening
ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games should have been Friday's lead
news story. But events in the Caucasus dictated otherwise.
The killing of thousands of people in the breakaway Georgian region of South
Ossetia will turn out to be a landmark moment in post-Soviet Russia's relations
with the West. Friday's Georgian attack on South Ossetia was intended as a
provocation. The attack killed 13 Russian soldiers and injured 150 and took
over 2,000 civilian lives, mostly Russian citizens. The South Ossetian
capital of Tskhinvali has been all but razed. Over 30,000 refugees have crossed
the Russian border.
The crisis in the Southern Caucasus has been slowly building since Kosovo, the
breakaway province of Serbia, declared independence in February. By August, 45
countries have been persuaded by the United States to accord recognition to
Kosovo, including major European powers France, Germany and Britain. Russia was
expected to retaliate by fostering secessionism in Georgia and Moldova, but,
contrary to expectations, Russia adopted a shrewd policy of garnering worldwide
opinion against political separatism.
Tactically, it suited Moscow that the Georgia harbored the hope that with
Russian "goodwill", a settlement could be eventually worked out with its
breakaway provinces. In other words, Moscow hoped to work on the diplomatic
plane by getting Georgia to reciprocate the Russian "goodwill" and spirit of
accommodation. Simply put, Moscow expected that as quid pro quo, Tbilisi
would be sensitive to Russia's interests in the Caucasus.
A significant body of opinion always existed within the Kremlin that Georgia
was never quite irrevocably lost to the US following the "color revolution" of
November 2003, and with patience and tact and a judicious play of the factors
of history, culture and economic ties, Tbilisi could be made to appreciate that
friendly relations with Moscow were in its long-term advantage. Indeed, a
similar train of opinion also existed in Tbilisi - in a muter form, though -
that Georgia's future cannot be on an a antagonistic path with regard to Russia
and a course correction by the President Mikheil Saakashvili regime was in
As an economic crisis and lawlessness grew in Georgia in the recent past,
Russian diplomacy began shifting gear in Tbilisi, encouraging the elements that
stood for better relations with Moscow. Up to a point, Moscow was right in
doing so. But it failed to see that from Saakashvili's perspective, as his
authoritarian regime became more and more unpopular and the debris of
misgovernance, corruption and venality began to accumulate, it paid to whip up
xenophobia. Russia was the best target, as nothing inflames Georgian passions
better than the issue of the country's integrity.
That is why Moscow protested when it began to be known that with encouragement
from the United States, Tbilisi was embarking on a plan to dramatically
increase its military budget 30 times. This Georgian move went side-by-side
with growing US assistance in training the Georgian army. Moscow began asking a
pertinent question as to who it was that Tbilisi visualized getting into a war
Moscow proposed that an agreement could be signed committing all protagonists
to commit to non-use of force in settling differences. But Tbilisi wouldn't
have such an agreement. Nor would Washington prevail on Tbilisi to accept one.
Not only that, Washington closed its eyes when clandestine supplies of weapons
began pouring into Tbilisi. In July, the US Department of Defense funded a
military exercise with Georgia. In retrospect, the turning point came when US
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tbilisi last month.
Saakashvili drew inspiration from Rice's statements endorsing Georgia's claim
for membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and open
backing of the Georgian stance in its standoff with Russia. It is a moot point
whether Saakashvili unilaterally drew conclusions from Rice's diplomatic
gesture or a tacit Washington-Tbilisi understanding came about.
At any rate, Saakashvili let loose the dogs of war within a month of Rice's
visit to Tbilisi. And he acted with immaculate timing - when Russian President
Dmitry Medvedev was on summer vacation and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had
left Moscow to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics. On balance, it is
inconceivable Washington was in the dark about how Saakashvili's mind was
One gets a sense of being in a time machine back in the Cold War. The master
plotters in Washington will now keenly watch how Medvedev's leadership in the
Kremlin handles the crisis. They will look for clues whether he has Putin's
iron fist and steely nerves. When Putin took over in 2000, a similar test
awaited him in Chechnya. He set about doing what Russia had to do. But times
have changed. Chilly winds have begun blowing in East-West relations.
Indeed, the question remains: what are Russia's options? An enormous
humanitarian catastrophe needs to be averted as many thousands of Ossetian
civilians lie buried in the debris left by Georgia's large-scale offensive
supported by tanks, combat aircraft, heavy artillery and infantry. Meanwhile,
Russia must act with one hand tied behind its back. Western propaganda is
raring to go.
The think-tank Stratfor, which often echoes the US intelligence community, has
already portrayed that a "defining moment" has come in the post-Cold War era
and the world is witnessing "the first major Russian intervention since the
fall of the Soviet Union [in 1991]". It visualized that former Soviet republics
bordering Russia would now be "terrified of what they face in the long run".
Tbilisi also switched tack to rhetoric. The US-educated Georgian president
Saakashvili said, "This is not about Georgia any more. It is about America, its
values." Faraway in Beijing, US President George W Bush promptly agreed.
Bush said he is "deeply concerned" and that Russian intervention is a
"dangerous escalation ... endangering regional peace". He added, "We call for
an end to the Russian bombings, and a return by the parties to the status quo
of August 6."
But at the outbreak of violence, Russia had tried to have the United Nations
Security Council issue a statement calling on Georgia and South Ossetia to
immediately lay down weapons. However, Washington was disinterested. As the
Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, put it, there was an "absence of
political will" within the Security Council. It seems Washington expected that
a quid pro quo could be worked out as well on a new UN Security Council
resolution imposing tougher sanctions on Iran, which the US has been pressing
for, and Russia hitherto resisting.
What is the US game plan? To begin with, Saakashvili is a progeny of the "color
revolution" in Georgia, which was financed and stage-managed by the US in 2003.
Georgia and the southern Caucasus constitute a critically important region for
the US since it straddles a busy transportation route for energy - like the
Indian Ocean or the Persian Gulf. It can be used as a choke point. Simply put,
keeping it under control as a sphere of influence is highly advantageous for
the pursuit of US geopolitical interests in the Eurasian region. A rollback of
Russian influence therefore becomes a desirable objective.
The geopolitics of energy lies at the core of the conflict in the Caucasus. The
US has suffered a series of major reverses in the past two years in the great
game over Caspian energy. Moscow's success in getting Turkmenistan to virtually
commit its entire gas production to Russian energy giant Gazprom for export has
been a stunning blow to US energy diplomacy. Similarly, the US has failed to
get Kazakhstan to jettison its close ties with Russia, especially the
arrangement to route its oil exports primarily through Russian pipelines.
There are consequently uncertainties over the viability of the much-touted
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline project, which was commissioned in 2005 with US
funding and open political support. Similarly, Russia's South Stream project
aimed at transporting Russian and Caspian gas to Balkan and southern European