BACKGROUND: Since September 11th, Russian President Vladimir Putin has proclaimed Russia's desire to forge an equal partnership with NATO and the United States. For that partnership to endure, violence in the CIS will have to be curtailed. Yet both Georgia and Russia are provoking each other in ways that lead to violence. While Putin's has used the war in Afghanistan as an occasion for his proclamation, he has also used his own campaign against Chechnya as an excuse for attacking Georgia, in retaliation for the stirrings of a joint irregular Chechen-Georgian force in Abkhazia, which reached almost 30 miles from Sukhumi before being forced back by Russian air force. Meanwhile, Russia has been bombing Georgia's Pankisi gorge bordering Chechnya. In a sense, both Georgia and Russia are provoking each other and showing a dangerous propensity for using force to settle key questions. Russia has bombed Georgia three times since September 11, ostensibly on the grounds that Georgia refuses to cooperate against the Chechens inhabiting Georgian territories, the Pankisi and Kodori Gorges. While Chechens are undoubtedly located there and while fighters may traverse the area to fight the Russians, this is only a minor motive behind these attacks. From the start of hostilities in 1999, Russia has brought pressure to bear on Georgia to allow Russian troops to enter Georgia, thus stimulating a constant and well-founded Georgian fear that the war against Chechnya can also serve as a pretext for Russian military intervention in Georgia. As is known, Moscow has already sponsored assassination plots against Georgian President Shevardnadze, has waged economic warfare against Georgia, and played a critical role in keeping the Abkhazian secessionist movement against Georgia going. Those forms of pressure exist apart from constant political threats to intervene, accusations of harboring guerrillas, and the more recent bombings of Georgian territory. Although one motive for this pressure is almost certainly the Russian military's hatred of Shevardnadze whom they blame for causing the loss of the Soviet empire, it is clear that no Russian officer has been brought to justice or reprimanded for the bombings of Georgian territory or for the secret plots to assassinate Shevardnadze that have since been exposed. This can only mean that the Russian officers are following Putin's policies and Putin hardly bothers to deny this fact. Russian pressure on Georgia is caused mainly by Russia's desire to have a stranglehold on energy shipments through the South Caucasus - in which Georgia is the lynchpin. Control over Caucasian energy shipments would allow Russia to dominate all existing pipelines for Central Asian and Azerbaijani oil and gas. Any power that dominates Caspian energy supplies - and only Russian has any feasible chance to do so - will hold unbreakable leverage over the producing states as well as a key position in global markets. If Moscow seeks to reintegrate the CIS under Russian control, and to restore a new form of the Russian empire, control over Georgia is an essential part of those tasks. These are the main reasons that Georgia is the central country in the continuing "new great game" in the former Soviet Union.
IMPLICATIONS: Although Putin claims not to fear American military presence in Central Asia and the South Caucasus, and that U.S. forces will soon leave there anyway, the truth is exactly the opposite. Russia has never relented in its efforts to resume its imperial vocation insofar as the South Caucasian and Central Asian states are concerned. Its pressures on Georgia indicate its enduring fears that Georgia will gain enough support in the West to permanently slip the Russian leash. At the same time, Russia's Georgia policy demonstrates its lack of readiness to conduct foreign and defense policy as do its European interlocutors - or to be held to their standards of acceptable conduct. Moscow's methods, including bombings, assassination plots, and economic warfare are fundamentally at odds with the standards of European governments that Russia professes that it wants to emulate. Moscow desires to enjoy an equal status with NATO that would give it the power to restrain both the U.S.' and Europe's capability to project power abroad while preserving an exclusive sphere of influence for itself in the former Soviet republics. Such double standards cannot be accepted as a basis for partnership with the West. Nevertheless, Russia's policies in Georgia in the last few years, and especially the last few months, make sense only if seen in this light. neither Washington nor NATO would be well served by allowing this double standard to take root. As the Bush Administration has frequently and publicly reiterated, Georgia's integrity and independence is a key interest of the United States. European leaders have also made similar signals and statements.
CONCLUSIONS: Georgia's independence and integrity must be considered a litmus test of Russia's true intent to act as a partner to the West and not as a traditional imperialist power. A resolute defense of Georgia's independence and integrity and strong support for peaceful solutions to its internal conflicts must become a more visible part of U.S. and NATO policy in the region. A lasting partnership with Russia is probably only possible if all options for a Russian neo-imperial policy on its peripheries are foreclosed. Just as the Baltic was and perhaps remains a litmus test of Russian policy and intentions, so too is Georgia and its surrounding regions. For if Russia can safely swallow up what Churchill called the "small birds" on its frontier, its appetite and autocratic proclivities will grow in the eating. If the large states of Eurasia are to enjoy security, so too must Eurasia's smaller states enjoy security and their full independence.
AUTHOR BIO: Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, PA 17013. The views expressed here do not represent the views of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government
Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved