War in the Caucasus

2008-08-15 00:00

The collapse of the Soviet empire in the early nineties can be likened to an earthquake and this week’s war between Russia and Georgia to a strong aftershock. The Russians, ostensible peacekeepers in the breakaway territory of South Ossetia since 1994, have now effectively annexed both it and the larger autonomous region of Abkhazia.

During the Rose Revolution of 2003, the Georgians signalled their intention to pursue more Western-oriented policies and throw off past ties. This increased the historic Russian fear of encirclement, especially as the Caucasus region has particular significance in the Kremlin’s thinking as a geopolitical backyard. Here it has exploited ethnic differences: many South Ossetians, for example, have been granted Russian passports. So when Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili miscalculated by attempting to reoccupy South Ossetia, Moscow had a tailor-made excuse to retaliate.

Its reaction has been totally disproportionate, invading Georgia itself and bombing Gori, the birthplace of Josef Stalin. Russia wants it both ways. In the Balkans it bitterly opposes ethnic aspirations and the independence of Kosovo. In the Caucasus it exploits ethnicity to its own ends, proclaiming the Russian identity of minorities and exercising a right to cross borders to protect them.

Russia’s economic prospects are poor apart from its abundant energy reserves, a resource it has shown a willingness to use to achieve foreign policy objectives. An independent-minded Georgia thus provides another frustration: it is the corridor for a pipeline from Azerbaijan via Turkey to Europe that diminishes Russian control of regional fuel supplies.

Globalisation threatens to marginalise Russia. And its shaky economy, powerful army and strong sense of resentful nationalism make it a potentially troublesome neighbour. Indeed, it has just invaded a sovereign state with a democratically elected government and committed a blatant land grab. Russia’s expansionist, imperial ambitions remain a real threat.

Georgia’s desire to join Nato is well supported by conservative elements in the West. This week’s events illustrate the possible consequences of an alliance with a small nation in a highly volatile region headed by a reckless leader. Memories of the Cold War suggest that cautious pragmatism should be the watchword. W

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