The Russian-Georgian War: Implications for the Middle East

, August 15, 2008

Vol. 8, No. 6    August 15, 2008

  • Moscow formulated far-reaching goals when it carefully prepared – over a period of at least two and a half years – for a land invasion of Georgia. These goals included: expelling Georgian troops and effectively terminating Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia and Abkhazia; bringing down President Mikheil Saakashvili and installing a more pro-Russian leadership in Tbilisi; and preventing Georgia from joining NATO.
  • Russia’s long-term strategic goals include increasing its control of the Caucasus, especially over strategic energy pipelines. If a pro-Russian regime is established in Georgia, it will bring the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Erzurum (Turkey) gas pipeline under Moscow’s control.
  • In recent years, Moscow granted the majority of Abkhazs and South Ossetians Russian citizenship. Use of Russian citizenship to create a “protected” population residing in a neighboring state to undermine its sovereignty is a slippery slope which is now leading to a redrawing of the former Soviet borders.
  • Russian continental power is on the rise. Israel should understand it and not provoke Moscow unnecessarily, while defending its own national security interests staunchly. Small states need to treat nuclear armed great powers with respect.
  • U.S. intelligence-gathering and analysis on the Russian threat to Georgia failed. So did U.S. military assistance to Georgia, worth around $2 billion over the last 15 years. This is something to remember when looking at recent American intelligence assessments of the Iranian nuclear threat or the unsuccessful training of Palestinian Authority security forces against Hamas.

The long-term outcomes of the current Russian-Georgian war will be felt far and wide, from Afghanistan to Iran, and from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. The war is a mid-sized earthquake which indicates that the geopolitical tectonic plates are shifting, and nations in the Middle East, including Israel, need to take notice.

 

Russia‘s Goals

Moscow formulated far-reaching goals when it carefully prepared – over a period of at least two and a half years – for a land invasion of Georgia, as this author warned.1 These goals included:

  • Expelling Georgian troops and effectively terminating Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia is preparing the ground for independence and eventual annexation of these separatist territories. Thus, these goals seem to be on track to be successfully achieved.
  • “Regime change” – bringing down President Mikheil Saakashvili and installing a more pro-Russian leadership in Tbilisi. Russia seems to have given up on the immediate toppling of Saakashvili, and is likely counting on the Georgian people to do the job once the dust settles. Russia, for its part, will pursue a criminal case against him for genocide and war crimes in South Ossetia, trying to turn him into another Slobodan Milosevic/Radovan Karadzic. This is part of psychological operations against the Georgian leader, of which more later.
  • Preventing Georgia from joining NATO and sending a strong message to Ukraine that its insistence on NATO membership may lead to war and/or its dismemberment. Russia succeeded in attacking a state that has been regarded as a potential candidate for NATO membership since April 2008. The Russian assault undoubtedly erodes the NATO umbrella in the international community, even though Georgia is not yet formally a member, especially if it emerges that Moscow can use force against its neighbors with impunity. While it remains to be seen whether Georgia ultimately is fully accepted into NATO, some voices in Europe, especially in Germany, will see in the war a vindication of their opposition to such membership. Georgia’s chances will decrease further if the next U.S. president is noncommittal on the conflict. Ukraine is standing tall in solidarity with Georgia for the time being, and has taken a strong step to limit the movements of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, but has little domestic support for NATO membership.

Russia’s long-term strategic goals include:

  • Increasing its control of the Caucasus, especially over strategic energy pipelines.2If a pro-Russian regime is established in Georgia, it will bring the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Erzurum (Turkey) gas pipeline under Moscow’s control. Israel receives some of its oil from Ceyhan, and has a stake in the smooth flow of oil from the Caspian.Russian control over Georgia would outflank Azerbaijan, denying the U.S. any basing and intelligence options there in case of a confrontation with Iran. This kind of control would also undermine any options for pro-Western orientations in Azerbaijan and Armenia, along with any chance of resolving their conflict based on diplomacy and Western-style cooperation.
  • Recreating a nineteenth-century-style sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union and beyond, if necessary by use of force. Here, the intended addressees included all former Soviet republics, including the Baltic States. The message may have backfired as the presidents of Poland, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania came to Tbilisi and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Saakashvili. However, without Western European and U.S. support, “New Europe” alone cannot stand up to Moscow.

 

Russian Proxies Inside Georgia

Russian relations with Georgia were the worst among the post-Soviet states. In addition to fanning the flames of separatism in South Ossetia since 1990, Russia militarily supported separatists in Abkhazia (1992-1993), which is also a part of Georgian territory, to undermine Georgia’s independence and assert its control over the strategically important South Caucasus.3

Despite claims about oppressed minority status, the separatist South Ossetian leadership is mostly ethnic Russians, many of whom served in the KGB, the Soviet secret police; the Russian military; or in the Soviet communist party. Abkhazia and South Ossetia have become Russia’s wholly-owned subsidiaries, their population largely militarized and subsisting on smuggling operations.

This use of small, ethnically-based proxies is similar to Iran’s use of Hizbullah and Hamas to continuously attack Israel. Tbilisi tried for years to deal with these militias by offering a negotiated solution, including full autonomy within Georgia.

In recent years, Moscow granted the majority of Abkhazs and South Ossetians Russian citizenship and moved to establish close economic and bureaucratic ties with the two separatist republics, effectively enacting a creeping annexation of both territories. Use of Russian citizenship to create a “protected” population residing in a neighboring state to undermine its sovereignty is a slippery slope which is now leading to a redrawing of the former Soviet borders.

On August 7, after yet another Russian-backed South Ossetian military provocation, Saakashvili attacked South Ossetian targets with artillery and armor.

About Ariel Cohen

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at The Heritage Foundation.