Page 1 of 2 Russia remains a Black Sea power
By M K Bhadrakumar
If the struggle in the Caucasus was ever over oil and the North Atlantic Treaty
Organization's (NATO's) agenda towards Central Asia, the United States suffered
a colossal setback this week. Kazakhstan, the Caspian energy powerhouse and a
key Central Asian player, has decided to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Russia
over the conflict with Georgia, and Russia's de facto control over two major
Black Sea ports has been consolidated.
At a meeting in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on Thursday on the sidelines of the
summit meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Kazakh President
Nurusultan Nazarbayev told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that Moscow could
count on Astana's support in the present crisis.
In his press conference in Dushanbe, Medvedev underlined that
his SCO counterparts, including China, showed understanding of the Russian
position. Moscow appears satisfied that the SCO summit also issued a statement
on the Caucasus developments, which, inter alia, said, "The leaders of the SCO
member states welcome the signing in Moscow of the six principles for
regulating the South Ossetia conflict, and support Russia's active role in
assisting peace and cooperation in the region." The SCO comprises China,
Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
There were tell-tale signs that something was afoot when the Kazakh Foreign
Ministry issued a statement on August 19 hinting at broad understanding for the
Russian position. The statement called for an "unbiased and balanced
assessment" of events and pointed out that an "attempt [was made] to resolve a
complicated ethno-territorial issue by the use of force", which led to "grave
consequences". The statement said Astana supported the "way the Russian
leadership proposed to resolve the issue" within the framework of the United
Nations charter, the Helsinki Final Act of 1975 and international law.
The lengthy statement leaned toward the Russian position but offered a labored
explanation for doing so.
Kazakhstan has since stepped out into the thick of the diplomatic sweepstakes
and whole-heartedly endorsed the Russian position.
This has become a turning point for Russian diplomacy in the post-Soviet space.
I am amazed that the West simply ignored the fact that
Georgian armed forces attacked the peaceful city of Tskhinvali [in South
Ossetia]. Therefore, my assessment is as follows: I think that it originally
started with this. And Russia's response could either have been to keep silent
or to protect their people and so on. I believe that all subsequent steps taken
by Russia have been designed to stop bloodshed of ordinary residents of this
long-suffering city. Of course, there are many refugees, many homeless.
Guided by out bilateral agreement on friendship and cooperation between
Kazakhstan and Russia, we have provided humanitarian aid: 100 tons have already
been sent. We will continue to provide assistance together with you.
Of course, there was loss of life on the Georgian side - war is war. The
resolution of the conflict with Georgia has now been shifted to some
indeterminate time in the future. We have always had good relations with
Georgia. Kazakhstan's companies have made substantial investments there. Of
course, those that have done this want stability there. The conditions of the
plan that you and [President of France Nicolas] Sarkozy drew up must be
implemented, but some have begun to disavow certain points in the plan.
However, I think that negotiations will continue and that there will be peace -
there is no other alternative. Therefore, Kazakhstan understands all the
measures that have been taken, and Kazakhstan supports them. For our part, we
will be ready to do everything to ensure that everyone returns to the
From Moscow's point of view, Nazarbayev's
words are worth their weight in gold. Kazakhstan is the richest energy producer
in Central Asia and is a regional heavyweight. It borders China. The entire US
regional strategy in Central Asia ultimately aims at replacing Russia and China
as Kazakhstan's number one partner. American oil majors began making a beeline
to Kazakhstan immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 -
including Chevron, with which US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was
Unsurprisingly, Kazakhstan figured as a favorite destination for US Vice
President Dick Cheney and President George W Bush has lavishly hosted
Nazarbayev in the White House.
The US had gone the extra league in cultivating Nazarbayev, with the fervent
hope that somehow Kazakhstan could be persuaded to commit its oil to the
Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, whose viability is otherwise in doubt. The
pipeline is a crucial component of the US's Caspian great game.
The US had gone to great lengths to realize the pipeline project against
seemingly hopeless odds. In fact, Washington stage-managed the "color"
revolution in Georgia in November 2003 (which catapulted Mikheil Saakashvili to
power in Tbilisi) on the eve of the commissioning of the pipeline. The general
idea behind the commotion in the South Caucasus was that the US should take
control of Georgia through which the pipeline passes.
Besides, Kazakhstan shares a 7,500 kilometer border with Russia, which is the
longest land border between any two countries in the world. It would be a
nightmare for Russian security if NATO were to gain a foothold in Kazakhstan.
Again, the US strategy had targeted Kazakhstan as the prize catch for NATO in
Central Asia. The US aimed to make a pitch for Kazakhstan after getting Georgia
inducted into NATO.
These American dreams have suffered a setback with the Kazakh leadership now
closing ranks with Moscow. It seems Moscow outwitted Washington.
Belarus voices support
The other neighboring country sharing a common border with Russia, Belarus, has
also expressed support for Moscow. Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko
visited Medvedev in Sochi on August 19 to express his solidarity.
"Russia acted calmly, wisely and beautifully. This was a calm response. Peace
has been established in the region - and it will last," he commented.
What is even more potent is that Russia and Belarus have decided to sign an
agreement this autumn on creating a unified air defense system. This is hugely
advantageous for Russia in the context of the recent US attempts to deploy
missile defense elements in Poland and the Czech Republic.
According to Russian media reports, Belarus has several S-300 air defense
batteries - Russia's advanced system - on combat duty and is currently
negotiating the latest S-400 systems from Russia, which will be made available
Attention now shifts to the meeting of the Collective Security Treaty
Organization (CSTO), which is scheduled to take place in Moscow on September 5.
The CSTO's stance on the crisis in the Caucasus will be closely watched.
It appears that Moscow and Kazakhstan are closely cooperating in setting the
agenda of CSTO, whose members are Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,
Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The big question is how the CSTO gears up to
meet NATO's expansion plans. The emergent geopolitical reality is that with
Russia's recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Moscow has virtually
checkmated the US strategy in the Black Sea region, defeating its plan to make
the Black Sea an exclusive "NATO lake". In turn, NATO's expansion plans in the
Caucasus have suffered a setback.
Not many analysts have understood the full military import of the Russian moves
in recognizing the breakaway Georgian republics.