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The Caucasus as New Cold War Theater?

FrenchDoc's picture

Cross-posted from The Global Sociology Blog.


It is pretty clear that Russia and Georgia are at war (see excellent background article here). It is not like there were no warning signs that Russia did not enjoy having its power challenged, as happened with the independence of Kosovo where the UN ignored Russia's opposition and went ahead with support for the new republic over its objections. Then, a few weeks ago, I posted on the fact that it seemed that Russia was engaging in a new Cold War in an attempt to reclaim some global military leadership. The invasion of parts of Georgia in support of independent movements in Southern Ossetia and Abkhazia should be read in that context.

As usual, I find Michael Mann's conceptualization of different forms of power useful to understand what is going on here. As Jonathan Steele puts it in the Guardian, this is not just an economic war, a "pipeline war", but a war of political influence. Political power, more than economic, might be at work here:

"The flare-up of major hostilities between Russia and Georgia has been dubbed by some "the pipeline war". The landlocked Caspian sea's huge oil reserves are a factor, especially since Georgia became a key transit country for oil to travel from Baku in Azerbaijan to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean.

The pipeline, which was completed in May 2006, is the second longest in the world. Although its route was chosen in order to bypass Russia, denying Moscow leverage over a key resource and a potential source of pressure, the current crisis in the Caucasus is about issues far bigger than oil.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline is only a minor element in a much larger strategic equation: an attempt, sponsored largely by the United States but eagerly subscribed to by several of its new ex-Soviet allies, to reduce every aspect of Russian influence throughout the region, whether it be economic, political, diplomatic or military.

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili is the region's most enthusiastic proponent of this strategy. His "pipeline neighbours", Azerbaijan and Turkey, are less virulent. They have been trying to reap the economic benefits of Caspian oil while keeping good relations with Russia and avoiding provocations."

Well, obviously, you can't keep poking Russia and not expect it to react in a context where its political leaders already feel threatened in their world standing between the US (even with declining influence), the European Union, and China.

Months ago, the Bush administration was pushing for including Georgia into NATO, whereas European countries were more cautious. Now, their case is stronger although Saakashvili's supporters argue that had Georgia been admitted into NATO, Russia would have thought twice before invading.

What will happen now?

"The fighting backfired, and the Russian counteroffensive now seems aimed at capturing the 40% of South Ossetia which was under Georgian control until last week. "They [the Russians] control pretty much all of South Ossetia now," Kandelaki said, adding: "They're trying to take over all of Abkhazia."

If the Russians succeed, they will have to decide whether to keep the newly acquired territory as a bargaining chip for negotiations with Saakashvili, or go to the extreme of encouraging South Ossetia, now unified, to do what most of its inhabitants want - proclaim independence from Georgia and a referendum on joining North Ossetia, its ethnic twin on the northern side of the Caucasus mountains. Russia's prime minister, Vladimir Putin, hinted at the tougher option, when he told Ossetian refugees this weekend that Georgia had lost the right to rule the territory."

Should that be the case, Russia will be able to use the example of Kosovo to argue that both territories deserve their independence.

Also in the Guardian, Helen Womack lays out three possible scenarios:

  1. "If Russia is serious about its peacekeeping role in the region, it will do no more than push Georgian forces out of South Ossetia and attempt to return to the status quo before fighting broke out last week." I think we can already consider that one a non-starter.
  2. "The conflict could widen. Already Georgia's other separatist region, the Black Sea enclave of Abkhazia, is mobilising and soon Tbilisi could find itself fighting on two fronts. Other small nations could become involved in a broader Caucasian war." With the extension of the conflict deeper into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, this one seems increasingly likely.
  3. "The conflict spreads further still, bringing in former Soviet republics such as Ukraine which, like Georgia, aspires to Nato membership, and Kazakhstan, which is loyal to Moscow. The war in Yugoslavia would seem like small fry compared with any war among former Soviet republics." The real test is then, I think whether to avoid scenario 2 from evolving into scenario 3.

This is a job for NATO and the European Union. Of course, all the major Western powers will call for a ceasefire and negotiations. The question is whether anyone of them has any clout to pressure Russia: the US's influence is on the decline and Europe is much to dependent upon Russian oil to be able to strong arm it into compliance.

Power in the global age (who gets what type, who loses it, who does what with it) is a complex issue with multiple ramifications. The fact that Russia is no longer the evil empire does not mean that it cannot exercise some forms of power. If not as powerful politically, it still carries significant military and economic power and is obviously willing to use it.

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snow-moon's picture
Submitted by snow-moon on

Have you read this 2004 Ian Traynor article?

and this one by Mark Ames?

Now could you take a look at this comment I spent too much time on at Pandagon (which no one there will read, so why do I bother?)

I would love it if someone (with better research and writing skill) would take a look at the U.S. election strategists who were involved in the Balkans, Ukraine, and Georgia-- then look at the connections between those players and our current domestic election strategists.

Obama was not a grassroots movement-- this was manufactured by professionals. We've done the "youth movement" thing a few times now-- in other countries.

But what do I know?

As for Georgia-- seems that Putin doesn't like "our guy" there and is probably pissed about how we've been tampering with elections in his part of the world since 9/11.

So, Georgia and Russia are at now officially at war. But let's not pretend that we are not a player in this conflict. We now have more military bases in the former Soviet states than Russia. We've effectively surrounded Russia- not unlike the way we've surrounded Iran- with military bases.

It's only a matter of time before someone says "enough!" It might be happening now.

And I wouldn't discount the pipeline issues- seems to me that Russian control of Georgia might effectively cut off supply, no?

I suspect that Obama is being briefed pretty heavily during his "vacation" and will be on message when he returns. I also expect that as the situation escalates, McCain's and Obama's words will sound more and more the same.

(I need to sleep more.)

Submitted by lambert on

I like that idea of the youth movement; it's a totally original take.

Got a list of the personnnel? I've got big RL demands right now, so I can't even go to Pandagon, but if you turned that comment into a post here, I can guaran-damn-tee people here will not only read it, but comment on it.

[ ] Very tepidly voting for Obama [ ] ?????. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

snow-moon's picture
Submitted by snow-moon on

great post- I always enjoy your thinking.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

and i tend to be a cynical as you. but i've learned (although i often fail to demonstrate) that in amurkin blogging, brevity tends to be the way to get the point across to most readers, who most of the time can't be bothered to read a comment longer than a para, let alone a book or policy paper.

so, your point, if i understand it, is that the US has been meddling for some time, playing a behind the scenes game with various factions in a new Cold War against the russians. i tend to agree; i have some Ukrainiand and Lithuanian friends and i'm always interested to hear their perspective about what's happening in the region- it's very different than what we're given to know from our SCLM. it's nothing new, however, to assume that money and effort is being expended by our diplomatic, intelligence, and military communities, on friendly groups in other nations with the intent on shaping foreign govts into regimes that are more friendly to "our" interests.

but what are "our" interests? the bush regime has a long and rather clumsy track record of proving that enriching a handful of corporate CEO Pioneers and oil company execs is the only way they want to help "americans." the rest of us just get to hand out money to those people. and it's blindingly obvious that the bush regime is also very interested in spending our money to enrich their foreign friends as well, oil tyrants and theocrat crazies who need a constant stream of US money and military support to remain in power in their own nations.

i am foily enough to put a lot of stock in what you and your links are suggesting. like you, i know who obama is surrounded by, and the way in which much of what people believe about him has been carefully manufactured over a fairly long time. there are other ways to analyze the creature that is obama, as well as ways to understand how much of our gov't is merely a set of kabuki players on a stage designed to distract the rubes from the recognition that much of 'democracy' and 'legislation' is a sham, and that those ideas are utterly not in play once you get to a certain sphere.

a friend of mine works, at times, for the uberrich. he tells interesting stories. his main point for a few years now, is of how they live in a completely different world than we, in which they never even "touch down" as it were, and interact with the Little People. he says for the most part they are completely unaware, and unconcerned, with how we live. now, it's nothing new to say that the elite segregate themselves from hoi polloi; that's a truth true all the way back to ancient times. but his other point has to do with how this is a bad thing, for all of us, because there are consequences to believing you 'create your own reality,' as we've all seen.

getting back to the topic, i'll suggest that like during the cold war, there is a dangerous arrogance and even more dangerous ignorance on the part of the people you suggest are truly calling the shots here and playing out this new cold war. having a consciousness that is unconcerned with the majority of the Little People who are being bombed and shot leads to disaster, for those Little People eventually will realize how they are being played. the French learned this the hard way in the 18thc, and i think it's worth noting that today's Russians are much closer to their own experience with arrogant rulers and wars of choice. further, the bush regime is famous for removing people with skill and knowledge and installing their own cronies who are excited about opportunity to meddle in other nations. and those cronies have proven (iraq, iran, cuba) just how clueless and ineffectual that sort of arrogant ignorance really is.

my point is that the Russians are going to win this one, decidedly. it may take time, and a lot of dead people in many satellite nations, but there is too much at stake and they are experienced and knowledgable of the people whom they are manipulating. and they are unfettered, in the sense that the Chechen war showed, by any need to pretend they are engaged in 'civilized' war. as mentioned, the europeans need russian gas, russian oil, and have an ancient fear of the russian 'hoardes,' such that they will negotiate with the russians to avoid a conflict that spreads 'too far' to the west. the amount of money, and influence, and power that is to be gained from taking control of the region in open truth guarantees that the russians will not cease until they have such; putin is an old, smart KGB hand and he knows how to play the Long Game.

on our side, we've got bumbling puppets and a nation that doesn't realize just how far its fortunes have fallen. we've become, in effect, unimportant to the rest of the world outside the banking/finance system, and that too is rapidly declining.

someone over at the crack den, watching the Olympics, noted that all the sparkle and organization and media savvy and tech demonstrates that nations like China are moving forward, leaving the US in the dust. the thing is, most people here just don't know that yet. i tend to agree. i recall when some intellectuals mocked a French theory of "post-superpowerdom," and the role that nations like france can play in a post imperial, post-colonial reality. i don't think, in a couple of decades, the US will even be doing that.

my only question of interest, as i theorize these sorts of things and dream of our future here, is "how much will the american people accept in reduction of standard of living and freedom?" the answer so far seems to be "turtles all the way down."

snow-moon's picture
Submitted by snow-moon on

I assume that since you wrote "comments" that you read the really long one at the end of the Pandagon thread-- the one addressed to poor "lisa."

I wrote it yesterday when Jesse's post was still on the front page, but for some reason it didn't show up until today-- when everyone there (including "lisa") had long moved on.

The Traynor article actually lists some of the groups involved in our foreign electioneering adventures.

National Democratic Institute

International Republican Institute

The US State Department


Freedom House NGO

Open Society Institute

US pollsters Penn, Schoen and Berland Associates

Global Strategy Group

Richard Miles

and, of course, the cryptkeepers.

Of the four countries where we've used a "youth movement" Internet/cell-based campaign template- in at least two of them the groups were mobilized to take to the streets in protest when the election results were challenged.

If some right-wing wildcard types don't choose to play along with the master plan and attempt to steal votes (as usual) will millions of young voters be texted to take to the streets after a close McCain victory?

I don't know why this all creeps me out so much. After voting machine tampering-- and at least two stolen elections-- and domestic spying on US citizens... I should be immune to this feeling by now.

Two small items in the news yesterday-- that don't help to dispel my paranoia:

1) The plan to text message Obama's VP choice (I'm sure they'll be measuring and assessing the effectiveness of this method of communication for the future) "Citizens: cell phones up- NOW! Please await further instructions."

2) This morning I saw Michelle Obama speaking on CSPAN about a plan for young people to pay for their education by serving their country-- for a few years...

Maybe we can get a discount on our Universal Health Care premiums through community service. "See the world- get vaccinated!"

(I've never been a team player).

Apologies to FrenchDoc for going somewhat off-topic; but in my defense, nearly all of the links have Eurasia sections.

Submitted by lambert on

I skimmed the Guardian article, and this para leaped out at me:

Stickers, spray paint and websites are the young activists' weapons. Irony and street comedy mocking the regime have been hugely successful in puncturing public fear and enraging the powerful.

Irony, in my experience, was notably lacking in the OFB. Then again, we're talking consultants with certain skillsets, not a cookbook.

I also like the cellphone thing (and Obama selling out to the telcos is just too delicious in this context).

I connect that to the baseless charges of election theft that the OFB propagated before NH and NV (and their curious silence over the TX caucuses, had their notion of "theft" been anything other than instrumental). If this play is in the playbook, it's never been activated.

[ ] Very tepidly voting for Obama [ ] ?????. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

i guess my point is that sometimes the things they do in other countries acheive the results desired, and sometimes they don't. and sometimes they lead to wholly unexpected results, that were perceived as tangential initially.

i've got to run, but i second lambert's request that you put up a detailed post expounding your theory. with specific links that even the lazy may click. i'm sorry i don't have more time to pursue the rest, suffice it to say that you are not the first person i've read on US-backed "fake" revolutions in eastern yurp and other places.

do you have an opinion about the 'youth movement' in s. korea?

snow-moon's picture
Submitted by snow-moon on


In this context (in the U.S.) WE are the regime to be mocked and enraged.

It's the Democratic Base (its traditions and history) that has been on the receiving end of this behavior-- from Air America, Daily Kos and MSNBC, down to the "street" level in the caucuses where voters were intimidated face-to-face.

In the culturally-specific, uniquely American version of this template- it's the Democratic Establishment that is being challenged and transformed by the movement into something more suitable (for those who determine suitability in leaders).

What's more ironic than a bunch of Democrats espousing Republican talking points and calling it "progressive?"

True street theatre could still happen-- if the Clinton wing (that's us) tries to reassert itself at the convention.

But Americans don't usually take to the streets. So maybe we should assume that many of these strategies are taking place in the town squares and streets of our virtual cyber world.

It's no longer about Liberal and Conservative- to those pulling the strings. It's about placing in power the person most friendly to American Interests. *

(shhh! that's Obama!)

* needs one of those little definition thingies.