Monday, August 11, 2008

Scary Times

I wish I could have spent the last few days just watching the Olympics and cheering on Team USA while I met the cutest little girl ever. Instead, I was watching the Olympics, meeting my niece, and trying to find as much as possible about what is going in Georgia.

I am not talking about the state either.

Georgia is a nation in what is variously known as the Near East or Central Asia. Although the territory has existed for centuries, it has been controlled by Imperial and then Soviet Russia for almost two centuries when it regained its independence in 1991.

Almost from the beginning, the newly independent state had two problems. Due, in part to Soviet control, there were significant minorities of non-Georgians in two regions: South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The people living in South Ossetia are Ossetians, essentially descendants of a Sarmatian tribe. Georgians are, well, Georgians. In both cases, most are Orthodox Christians (differing sects from what I can read) and both have Muslim minorities.

The Georgians have always viewed the territory that is known as South Ossetia as part of Georgia. And to date, no member of the United Nations has recognized South Ossetia as an independent nation.

While there is no official recognition, Russia has maintained a "peacekeeping force" in South Ossetia, and Abkhazia, since the troubles there began over a decade ago. Although there is a claim that there is a de facto state of South Ossetia, this undercut by the fact that Georgia has, in fact, maintained government control over a large portion of the territory which South Ossetia claims.

Now, as often happens when "peacekeeping forces" are dispatched to a region, there has been a constant low intensity conflict going on in the region (translation: both sides shoot at each other on occasion). Although generally it was peaceful, things began to intensify in 2004 as the central government in Georgia began to solidify its control over the region. Even though the Russians were supposed to be neutral, the Georgians claimed to have captured Russian spies, in 2006, who were engaged in espionage against Georgia in support of the South Ossetians.

It is important to remember something else Blogger: Wandering Bell - Create Poste. Prior to 2003, Russia liked the way things were in that part of Central Asia. The Georgian President was Eduard Shevardnadze. It was corrupt. It was stagnant. It was not going to pose a threat to a Russian state which was still trying to pull itself back together following the end of the Soviet Union.

Then in November 2003, there was an election. And Shevardnadze tried to rig it. And failed. Demonstrations occurred throughout the month of November, culminating in the non-violent take over of the capital building by protesters with roses in their hands (hence the name the "Rose Revolution").

In the place of Shevardnadze, following the election was Mikheil Saakashvili. While democratically elected, he is no saint, not that anyone should expect to find one in power in virtually any government. However, he does appear to be committed to democracy and ties with the West. To that end, his government has been working towards membership in NATO.

And that is what Russia fears.

First, NATO is still viewed as the enemy (even if they don't use that word). NATO was the organization by which the U.S. brought down the Soviet Union, and in the process humbled Russia. Second, the Caucus region, of which Georgia is a part, has been viewed as a Russian preserve (much like we in the U.S. view the Carribean, Central and South America). The concept of NATO bases (meaning U.S. bases) there on a permanent basis must be terrifying.

And did I forget to mention oil is involved as well? Although Georgia does not have oil reserves, there is the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline running through the country which carry natural gas and crude oil from Azerbaijan. For years, the West has been trying to keep the pipeline free of Russian control. Russian control would give them even more control over the world's oil reserves than it already has. As it stands right now, Russia produces almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia.

Control of the pipeline would add to Russia's petrochemical wealth. It would also give it another hook into Azerbaijan. At this time, the pipeline remains in Georgian hands, but that could change at any time if the fighting continues.

Georgia has firmly placed itself in the camp of the West in general and the U.S. in particular. Georgia's government has welcomed the idea of possibly becoming part of the missile defense shield program. The Deputy Chairman of the Defense and Security Committee, Nikoloz Rurua, stated, "In my view, the closer and more integrated Georgia is to Western defense systems, the better off our country will be." Predictably, the Russian response was not nearly so enthusiastic.

Which brings us back to what started on Friday. In the days leading up to August 8, there was an upswing in the violence. Both sides were accusing the other of initiating it. However, as the violence started to escalate, the Russian army began moving troops into position to enter the conflict. What happened is confused, with both sides claiming that villages were attacked indiscriminately.

What is certain is that on August 8, 2008, the Georgian military launched an assault on the separatist capital of Tskhinvali, almost surrounding and controlling it for a time. Russia then responded. According to the Russian version, Georgian troops were engaged in ethnic cleansing. According to the Georgians, the Russians are engaged in agresssion against Georgia, seeking to topple the nation's government.

So far, I have not been able to find any evidence of ethnic cleansing. Furthermore, Russian troops today have captured the city of Gori. Gori, aside from being the birthplace of Joseph Stalin, is well outside the dispute territory and is located in Georgia proper.

Russia is clearly using Georgia as an object lesson. First, it showing that the Russian Bear is back and ready to fight beyond its borders (i.e. Chechnya). Second, it is trying to show those countries in the Near East/Central Asia the consequences for siding with the U.S.

Failure to confront the Russians effectively on this will damage the United States' credibility. Bush has made it clear that he is working to help Georgian aspirations in NATO. Georgia has been a contributor to operations in Iraq, committing approximately 2,000 troops to combat operations there. American forces have been working to help the Georgian military modernized and adopt NATO style doctrine.

Unfortunately, because of our commitments around the world, it seems that Georgia will get nothing from the U.S. The U.S. military is currently deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia, and South Korea among other places. It is not easily accessible by the sea (only accessible to the U.S if it were able to transit the Dardanelles into the Black Sea).

Although it seems like we should do something, our leadership, in the form of the Bush Administration, seems content to offer up the language of support without actually doing anything to show tangible support.

Anyone else out there feel like they are watching a repeat of the Sudetenland in 1938? Or for the nightmare scenario, Serbia 1914? Am I overreacting? Possibly. But then again, the Russian Bear, historically, rarely moves when it doesn't intend to stay.

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