The Trans-Caucasus Conflict: Bush Poked the Bear Once Too Often
We are witnessing a major power play by Russia just like the world watched a major power play by the US when Bush invaded Iraq. In both cases lies surround the invasion. In both cases, a bully nation threatens a smaller nation and the bully may go unpunished, but in the long run may suffer.
But I don’t want to draw too much parallel between Bush’s war of aggression against Iraq and Putin’s war of aggression against Georgia. There is actually another parallel that may have more relevance: Russia did to Georgia what Iraq did to Kuwait. Iraq and Russia used a minor, long-smoldering border dispute as an excuse for an invasion. It is another example of a bully picking on a weak neighbor when it thinks there is no authority to stop it. Iraq miscalculated when it invaded Kuwait. So far it does not look like Russia miscalculated, but the long term effects may make them regret their actions. But for now, China doesn’t care and the US has no military resources to spare thanks to the Bush/McCain Iraq Quagmire, and Bush’s stupid and arrogant foreign policy has alienated most of our allies, leaving us more isolated than Russia these days. Russia, in essence, chose its timing perfectly for this invasion.
But there is another way in which the Russian invasion of Georgia is more like Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait rather than the Bush invasion of Iraq. It comes down to a particular concept of “defense,” one that follows closely that of the early Roman Empire where each perceived threat was dealt with through aggression and invasion.
Having no natural borders, Russia is doing what it always did in “defense.” From Tsarist times through the Communist creation of the Warsaw Pact, to Russia’s disastrous invasion of Afghanistan, Russia has always seen aggression as the best defense. The current situation is nothing different except the Caucasus are arguably the only natural boundary Russia has. However, historically the Caucasus served almost as much as a corridor of invasion as it did a boundary. In ancient times invaders from the Steppes came through the Caucasus regularly. In Medieval times the Khazars and Arabs fought back and forth across the Caucasus. And the trans-Caucasus region, including the Northern regions of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and North Ossetia, as well as the Southern regions of South Ossetia, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been a collection of flash points among incipient nationalist interests as well as between nationalist interests and Empire. The analogy with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Balkans prior to WW I is also apt.
The current conflict is also a continuation of the Cold War, even if the ideological underpinnings are gone. Post-WW II two superpowers emerged: the Russian Empire (then called the Soviet Union) and America. The economic conflict over capitalism vs. communism in many ways was not the primary reason for this conflict. The real conflict was which would emerge the dominant force in post-War Europe. This conflict dominated first European, then World politics for nearly 50 years. Then the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed decisive, but really it seems it did not end the Russia/US conflict over dominance. The expansion of NATO into formerly Warsaw Pact nations was a deliberate, and largely smart, expression of US victory in the Cold War. And Russia was powerless to prevent it. Bush’s stupid missile “defense” shield, which has little practical value in modern conflicts, was a further expression of dominance over Russia, and perhaps the point where a slowly weakening US may have started going too far in poking the Bear. At the same time Georgia itself was looking more and more to the West rather than to Russia. The current Georgian government is a pro-West government. Mikhail Saakashvili came to power after Georgian elections were declared rigged after final results failed to match exit polls. The fact that Bush backed this analysis was deeply cynical and ironic since Bush’s own elections included similar discrepancies between final tallies and exit polls. The same Bush administration denigrated exit polls when they showed he might have lost but embraced exit polls when it brought a pro-West regime to Russia’s neighbor, Georgia. To my mind the exit polls may have contained the truth in both cases, but Bush’s stand was hypocritical. One of Mikhail Saakashvili’s promises was Georgia joining NATO.
The combination of this expansion of NATO, a pro-West government next door to Russia’s most volatile region, and Bush’s posturing over a missile “defense” shield all are likely to be seen as direct threats to Russian security, particularly given the problems surrounding the Caucasus. Putin has been trying to reassert Russian control in the area for years now. Georgia’s escalation of the conflict with Ossetia, which was not very different than Russia’s own actions in Chechnya, was an easy excuse for Putin to use to finally show whose the boss of the Caucasus.
Russia intends to be just as much a boss of the region as it was during the Cold War. It wants to reassert its dominance, whether by direct control or dominant influence, on all the former Soviet Republics it can, particularly if natural resources are at stake. The invasion of Georgia is part of that reassertion of Soviet era dominance. Russia intends to take Ossetia into its direct control and to force a regime change on Georgia to produce a more compliant neighbor and to head off Western influence in the region.
The US doctrine that emerged from the Cold War, formulated by the elected Bush and Clinton, was that bully nations could no longer invade weak nations without consequences. That was the basis of our first Gulf War with Iraq and our involvement in the Balkans. This new policy also marked a high point in US respect and dominance worldwide. The current, unelected Bush deviated from that course, turning us into a bully nation when he lied to invade Iraq in the second Gulf War. At that point we lost both the practical ability and the moral authority to stand up to Russia when it chose to bully Georgia into line. There are no immediate consequences for Russia. They can keep saying they have declared a ceasefire while they send in more and more planes and tanks. They can blame Georgia even as they violate their own promises even as they make them. Russia, in the short term, will get away with this and Bush is left feebly scolding them while Putin just laughs.
Will this backfire on Russia? Probably in the long run it will. I believe Russia has interfered with its own interests by backing a separatist regime, thus encouraging the Balkanization of the Caucasus. This is precisely what Russia does NOT want to encourage. Georgia’s conflict with South Ossetia almost precisely matches Russia’s conflicts with Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. The Ossetians have a record of some loyalty with Russia, but not in all cases. North Ossetia has been something of a potential flashpoint for Russia and it seems to me encouraging nationalism in South Ossetia is unlikely to be good for Russian stability in North Ossetia, Chechnya, Dagestan and Ingushetia. It is quite likely that Russia is unleashing more trouble than they are solving. It is perhaps ironic that Bush has rendered the US powerless against Russian aggression, leaving tiny break away republics to be the probable source of payback against Russia’s aggression against Georgia. And let’s not forget that those same breakaway republics have been targets of al-Qaeda interest. This is another case where stupidity on the part of the superpowers is likely to benefit al-Qaeda. This is where the US and Russia have both failed. The US and Soviet proxy war in Afghanistan produced al-Qaeda. Russian aggression in Chechnya and Dagestan in particular as well as a US presence in the Persian Gulf (mainly bases in Saudi Arabia) fed al-Qaeda recruitment and expansion. Now American aggression against Iraq and, I predict, Russian aggression in the Caucasus, further feeds the growth of al-Qaeda. Way to go, Bush and Putin. Way to enable your enemies.