Russian Invasion of Georgia Is an East-West Tipping Point

Russia’s invasion of the Republic of Georgia has become a tipping point for East-West relations because it indicates that Moscow will now use military force to protect its sphere of influence and test the West’s commitment to its new allies.

On Friday, Russian armored forces invaded South Ossetia after Georgia, a staunch American ally, launched an attack to crush separatists. Elsewhere, Russian fighters bombed strategic facilities such as Georgian military bases; the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which connects an oil field in the Caspian Sea to a Turkish port on the Mediterranean Sea; and the Black Sea port city of Poti, an oil shipment facility to Western countries.

Georgian authorities said its troops entered South Ossetia in response to attacks which have been taking place for years but had been intensifying for a week. Russia, however, alleged Georgian forces were involved in ethnic cleansing, thus justifying Russia’s assault.

In 1920, South Ossetia attempted to declare its independence from Georgia. At the time, the Red Army invaded Georgia to declare the region autonomous. Then Moscow granted citizenship to the Ossetians and provided economic support and autonomy over matters of language and education.

In the late 1980s, the South Ossetian Popular Front was created in response to growing nationalist sentiments in Georgia. The popular front demanded autonomy from Georgia. This precipitated six months of armed conflict that ended with the signing of the Sochi Agreement. That document established a cease-fire and a security corridor policed by “peacekeeping” forces under Russian command.

The conflict reheated after Georgia’s so-called Rose Revolution in 2003 replaced the pro-Moscow government with one favoring western democracy. Although Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgia’s new president and a US-educated lawyer, offered South Ossetia significant autonomy and economic development, the offer was rejected. Saakashvili then pledged to restore Tbilisi’s rule over South Ossetia and another breakaway province, Abkhazia.

The timing of Russia’s invasion is curious. The Georgia-South Ossetia conflict has been “frozen” since 1992 and, as Saakashvili said at the time of the attack, “[m]ost decision makers have gone for the holidays.” He told CNN that it was a “…brilliant moment to attack a small country” and a “well-planned invasion.”

A source just back from Tbilisi told this writer that foreigners in South Ossetia started to evacuate a month ago on word that something big was going to happen. That information, juxtaposed with Russia’s lightning advance into South Ossetia, leads to the conclusion that the invasion was orchestrated to provoke the desired reaction. Additionally, it coincided with the opening of the Olympics in Beijing, which limited world media attention.

Whether the invasion was planned in advance or spontaneous, the operation has implications far beyond Georgia and the Caucasus. Three elements associated with this crisis indicate Moscow is using this event to create a foreign policy tipping point for East-West relations.

First, Russia’s deployment of such a large and carefully prepared force into South Ossetia (as well as the rest of Georgia) is significant. This is the Kremlin’s first use of military force outside of its homeland since the end of the Cold War and demonstrates that Moscow has the confidence and resolve to back up its increasingly confrontational rhetoric.

A Russian expert told me that Moscow’s bullish ways are driven by two factors. It now has abundant oil money to fund its adventures, and the Kremlin cares not what others think. That dangerous combination signals trouble for the East-West relationship.

Second, the invasion defines Russia’s sphere of influence: the former 15 Soviet-era satellite states. President Saakashvili surmises that the “people in the Kremlin” don’t like a democratic neighbor. So, he suggests the rumble of Russian tanks across the Georgian countryside is Moscow’s wake-up call to other former satellites that might be entertaining thoughts of a western orientation. Moscow hopes those states will understand its message, but ultimately their reaction will depend on the West’s response to Moscow’s aggression.

Since Georgia’s Rose Revolution, Tbilisi has formed a close relationship with America, and Saakashvili has positioned himself as a spokesman for democracy and alignment with the West. Georgia has shown its support for America by sending thousands of troops to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and NATO has had almost a constant presence in Georgia either for training Tbilisi’s armed forces or for joint exercises. Russian fighters bombed a Georgia air base where a major NATO exercise was completed just last week.

In February, Georgia’s breakaway regions took on new significance for Russia because of the political embarassment Moscow suffered over Kosovo’s declaration of independence from its Balkan client state Serbia. Moscow had objected to the Kosovars’ move, but the international community — including the US — snubbed Russia’s protests and celebrated the province’s new autonomy. Russia was humiliated and vowed to respond.

The invasion into Georgia is likely a response to the Kosovo humiliation as well as to Georgia’s cozy relationship with the West. Moscow’s message to the former Soviet satellites is unmistakable: fall in line or risk the same fate Georgia is now suffering.

The third element in the tipping point equation depends on the West. What can Washington and/or NATO do about Russia’s aggression? Georgia is a NATO member candidate in good standing and a reliable ally in the war on terrorism. Can it be abandoned?

Moscow’s invasion and its cozy ties to Georgia’s secessionist regions may scuttle any NATO membership chances for Tbilisi. Keeping Georgia in a constant state of conflict is intended to show Washington and Brussels that the small republic is too unstable for membership and to force Tbilisi back under the Kremlin’s heel. Unless NATO acts to defend Georgia, no more former satellites will ask to join.

On Friday, President Saakashvili called on the US to live up to its principles and defend Georgia’s democracy. So far, the US has only sent a diplomat to Tiblisi, and savvy observers ought to ask why the US didn’t share with the Georgians the intelligence it must have had about the Russian buildup and Moscow’s intentions.

President Bush has spoken with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. But Medvedev insists Moscow’s actions in Georgia are justified. "We won’t allow the death of our compatriots to go unpunished," Medvedev said. That includes Russian citizens Moscow claims are being killed by Georgian troops in South Ossetia.

On Saturday evening, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin arrived in Vladikavkaz, a city in southern Russia, where he met with the generals running the Georgian operation. Putin dismissed calls for Moscow to withdraw its forces. “There is almost no way we can imagine a return to the status quo,” Putin told Russian state television.

At this point, it appears that the U.S. is between a rock and a hard spot. NATO has committed what few fighters it has to the war in Afghanistan, and the US is stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In addition, Russia holds a trump card — Iran.

Russia can easily make Tehran more dangerous for Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan by giving the radical Islamic government more and better weapons. The US is already in a dispute with Russia over Tehran’s nuclear and ballistic missile threat, and Moscow is positioned to make that situation into a real nightmare by giving Tehran more technical data.
The timing of Russia’s invasion of Georgia signals an ominous new dawn for East-West relations. If Moscow defeats the democratic forces in Georgia and the West remains stymied on the sidelines, the rest of the former Soviet satellites could again become the Kremlin’s puppets, and Moscow could become more provocative with its words and its armed forces.