Crunch Time in the Caucasus
Late today (Wednesday, August 13), the New York Times reported that Russian troops had taken and occupied Gori. Gori is a key military, not humanitarian, objective. It is outside the separatist zones and serves as a vital transit and transport hub for all of non-separatist Georgia.
It is impossible to overemphasize the gravity of this development. It demonstrates by action that Russia’s objectives exceed “protecting” the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and their Russian and Russia-leaning populations. At this point any one or all of the several objectives recited in my earlier post remain possible Russian goals.
Still more troubling, the occupation of Gori shows that Russian assurances were lies. The international community can no longer trust the word of Putin and his crew, any more than we could trust the Soviets’ word in their heyday.
Other consequences follow from the first two. If we want to preserve what remains of our international credibility we will have to mount a robust response. That response could range from humanitarian aid to a full-scale replay of Charlie Wilson’s war. Already President Bush has provided small-scale humanitarian aid, delivered by military means and military personnel, thereby potentially involving our own troops directly in any full-scale Russian invasion of Georgia’s non-separatist territory. Few Americans or Westerners would say that response was excessive.
Finally, as stated in that earlier post, Russia’s rash action is likely to have a significant, if not decisive, effect on our own presidential election. Reports that McCain’s strong support for Georgia derives in part from an adviser’s lobbying activities will gain no traction. Nor should they, now that the term “Russian restraint” has once again become an oxymoron.
Unless and until the Russians move on Tbilisi, this is still largely a game of bluff. We have no choice but to call that bluff. Every American must now stand unequivocally with Georgia, regardless of its President Saakashvili’s failings. There is no excuse or justification for Russia’s latest action. It is a raw exercise of military power, bent on intimidation at best, conquest at worst. In occupying Gori, Russian troops have crossed a red line.
At this point, Russia’s actions (as distinguished from its words) are consistent with a goal of conquest. Already Russia has disposed of what remained of Georgia’s pitiful Black Sea fleet. With a Black-Sea port (Poti) fully in its hands and the rail hub of Gori occupied, Russia can bring heavy equipment across the Black Sea directly to the Georgian heartland bound for Tbilisi and points south. A military sweep eastward along Georgia’s central valley and southward toward Tbilisi would even solve Russia’s refugee problem. The refugees would pour over the border into poor Armenia, which already has troubles enough with its aggressive neighbor Azerbaijan. Allowing all this to happen would add another to the long list of abysmal failures of our current administration in Washington.
If Senator Obama doesn’t recognize these facts and respond accordingly, his campaign will be toast, and all his brilliance and hard work will be for naught. I had hoped he would get some rest, but neither he nor his foreign-policy team can rest now. They’ve all got to show their stuff. This is crunch time.
P.S.There is another possible practical motive for a full-scale Russian invasion of Georgia, not fully explored in my previous post. Russia may believe that a Western attack on Iran is inevitable as Iran moves closer to possessing nuclear technology. Iran has threatened to respond to such an attack by closing the Straits of Hormuz, through which 40% of Middle Eastern oil flows. Closing the Straits would cause an economic catastrophe in the West, not the least by blocking the export of Iran’s own oil.
But suppose there were another route for Iran’s oil to get to market. Suppose that route also permitted other Middle Eastern oil to get out, but only through Iran. Finally, suppose that Russia controlled the ultimate gateway, holding the key to the “valve.” Then Iran and Russia together would have extraordinary leverage over the world’s economy.
Yet that’s precisely what might happen if Iran blocked the Straits of Hormuz and the only export route was overland, by rail, through Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Russia.
Transporting oil by rail is not the most efficient method, but it works. There are existing rail lines from Northern Iran through Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia to Russia. The parts in Azerbaijan are very close to Iran’s border and probably could be captured easily, if need be with Russia’s help. In extremis, the West would be ill advised to bomb or even disrupt the rail lines, for fear of cutting its own oil-addicted throat.
Like Russia and Georgia, Armenia is a Christian country. It is sandwiched between secular and Islamic Turkey, which committed genocide on its people a century ago, and Islamic Azerbaijan, with which it waged a low-level war over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia would hardly be in a position to resist Russian control of its rail lines, especially if Russia already had occupied Georgia. Russia would then have a clear rail line for oil straight from Iran, free from interference by pesky Western-oriented democracies. Thus might oil and geography become destiny.
Russia may have additional or different motives. But one thing is certain. A man as smart as Vladimir Putin does not make a move this bold and dangerous without good practical reasons. The notion that the invasion reflects a personal feud with Saakashvili is nonsense. The idea that it represents a Russian drive for more power in its “near abroad” is plausible but still a stretch. Putin has not shown an inordinate love for abstractions. His boldest moves, like taking over Russia’s mass media, oil, gas and extractive industries, have all sought concrete and practical goals.