The Caucasus as New Cold War Theater?
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:
- "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.
- "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.
- "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.