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You Are Here: Home » Dossiers and more » Russia’s victory in Georgia: a blow to US military and diplomatic efforts in the Caucuses

By Ardain IsmaCSMS Magazine Staff writer When the Georgian troops crossed into South Ossetia last Friday and quickly overran Tskhinvali, the capital of the breakaway province, the president of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili, was applauded like a super star.  It was as if Georgia had won the super bowl. He had made true on his campaign promises to bring the renegade province back into fold. As everyone knows now, the euphoria was a bit premature. Given the long-standing animosity between Tbilisi and Moscow, it was no surprise to anyone when the resurgent Russian military swiftly moved in to quell the celebration, crushing the Georgian advance, trapping the Georgian military as an avalanche of Russian bombs was raining down on it. Victory was swift and decisive for Russia, which clearly now has the last laugh. The Russians now not only have repelled Georgia from South Ossetia, they have also asserted effective control of the Georgian territory, confining Saakashvili authority to just a few miles beyond Tbilisi. Up to this morning, the Russians are firmly in control of the historic city of Gory—the birthplace of Joseph Stalin—just 50 miles south of the Georgian capital. They also have crippled the Georgian navy, imposing a blockade on the Georgian Black Sea port of Poti, and Moscow has ordered some of its navy ships from the Black Sea fleet to swoop down from the port of Sevastopol on the Crimea to stand as guarantors of the blockade, despite the objection of the pro-western government of Ukraine that supports Tbilisi.  Certainly, the Russian response constitutes a huge humiliation for Saakashvili. His hope and prestige have been dashed. His military has been crushed and destroyed, and its remnant has simply melted away, leaving the ill-equipped Georgian police to face a possible Russian onslaught. But the Georgian defeat can also be interpreted as a major geo-strategic embarrassment for the United States, which has been training the Georgian military for years. Since early 2002, the U.S. government has been providing military assistance to Georgia, according to Dimitri Simes, a senior fellow of the Nixon Institute, who pointed out that even soldiers’ uniforms bear US army trademark, including their new body armor.  The first U.S. aid came under the rubric of the Georgia Train and Equip Program, supposedly to erase alleged Al Qaeda influence in the Pankisi Valley. Assistance later grew under the Sustainment and Stability Operations Program.Russia opposed these initiatives from the start, and it made no secret about its disdain for Saakashvili, whom Russia considers as a US lackey bent on using the United States protection to ignite his long-held revanchist vendetta against his giant neighbor. This assertion was also shared by many NATO members. There were great concerns in some major diplomatic venues in Europe that Georgia might be tempted to use its newfound military prowess to resolve domestic conflicts by force.Sergei Shamba, the foreign affairs minister of Abkhazia, another breakaway province of Georgia predicted since 2006 that only a defeated Georgia would put to rest Tblisili’s desire to re-conquer by force his province. “The Georgians are euphoric because they have been equipped and trained [by the United States]. How can South Ossetia be demilitarized, when all of Georgia is bristling with weaponry, and it’s only an hour’s ride by tank from Tbilisi to Tskhinvali?”     Vitaly Chukin, Russian chief diplomat at United Nations, asserted that “it is inconceivable that the United States was not aware of the Georgian move before hand.” But a Russian’s response appeared to have been the least of Washington worries, for any Russian mishap would have been interpreted as a victory for the US in the Caucuses—the gateway to Central Asia. Betting on the fact that Georgians are reputed for being romantic fighters, US military advisors were hoping that an equipped Georgia trained by the United States could very well drag Russia into another humiliating adventure as it was the case in Chechnya in 1996. It was a gamble that did not work. It is obvious what took place last Friday in South Ossetia was nothing but a strategic overreach that is now resulting into a game changer in the hotly contested region of Central Asia. Reshaping the balance in the Caucuses and beyond Notwithstanding the reactionary nature of the nouveaux riches in Russia and their imperial aim at dominating by force if necessary a region they consider their sphere of influence, it was western provocations that triggered such speedy reconstitution of Russia military might for having to pursue a policy of encircling the country, cashing in on the deep resentment utterly expressed by many of the former Wausau Pact East European nations. “A still-stunned West is looking for ways to censure Russia for its ‘disproportionate’ incursion into Georgia that has reshaped the strategic game in the Caucasus and beyond to Russia’s great advantage,” confirms François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “If the Russians stop hostilities now, they will have redrawn the whole strategic situation in the Caucasus, to the detriment of the Americans. No one will invest in Georgia, in oil pipelines, in new ventures [there] now…. The game is over. In the new version of the Great Game, the Russians can cash in,” Heisbourg concluded.These have also infuriated some NATO planners in Brussels, who understand that a response to Russia’s move is essential, but are in no mood to follow Saakashvili’s militarist script. They understand the substantial scope of the Russian victory, for Moscow now controls territory and leverage, has incapacitated the Georgian military, denied Tbilisi its much-hoped-for NATO membership, and put Saakashvili virtually in a box where no one seems capable of coming to his rescue.Moreover, so confident of its new strength, Russia has issued a symbolic warning to Ukraine’s westward leanings and reaffirmed a deep-seated Russian set of geopolitical interests and values regarding the disputed front lines of the old cold war. By slam-dunking the cease-fire details agreed upon on Monday with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, the Kremlin leadership has exposed NATO’s limit on what it can achieve short of engaging Russia in a military confrontation—something that both Brussels and Washington want to avoid as much as possible. “The United States has been trying to avoid a military confrontation with Russia for 45 years. I don’t see any reason for that to change now,” confirms former CIA chief now defense secretary, Roberts Gates.So, what are the remaining options? Despite a flurry of shuttle diplomacy to try to force Russia to change course, it is clear that Moscow’s objective has already been achieved. The crippling of Georgia military despite heavy American and Israeli military supports is just enough to send a stern warning to neighboring states that might want to follow Georgia’s path. So clear is Russia’s newfound confidence is that it is now pushing for international talks on Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which could lead to eventual backing of referendums that would allow those provinces to formally break free from Georgia.The Kosovo’s declaration of independence this year and the immediate Washington recognition in its aftermath—a province considered to be the birthplace of Serbian nationalism—leaves the United States with little moral standing to oppose Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s desire to stay away from Georgia’s control. Serbia has always been a strong ally of Russia.  In the search to find a solution to isolate Russia, some ideas have been circulated in the corridors of the White House. Among them is to cancel or ban the 2014 Winter Olympics in nearby Sochi. Another suggestion, mentioned in the New York Times, is to suspend Russia’s membership in the Group of Eight (G-8) nations. G-8 status is based on ideals of international norms like transparency, consensus, negotiation, the Times say. Other ideas include quickly granting NATO status to Macedonia. Late yesterday, the world was made aware of the signing of the missile shield agreement between the US and Poland, allowing the United States to station U.S. missile defense battery in Poland’s northern Baltic coast.This has triggered a swift response by Russia, which has long suspected the US intention, although the United States has consistently reiterated that the missile defense is aimed at “rogue” nations like Iran that inspire the development of nuclear weapons. Russian Gen. Anatoly Nogovitsyn was quoted by Interfax News Agency on Friday as saying that by accepting a U.S. missile defense battery Poland “is exposing itself to a strike.”Meanwhile, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived in Tbilisi this morning to persuade Saakashvili to sign what is being described in the press as a humiliating cease-fire deal, which requires major Georgian concessions. According to National Public Radio (NPR), the agreement contains 6 points in which one of them clearly acknowledges Russia’s role as the sole guarantor of stability in the Caucuses, allowing the Russian military to station beyond the borders of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Rice made no mention of such embarrassing clause in the agreement, but only saying that “the U.S. would never ask Georgia to agree to something that isn’t in its best interests.”Finally, the fight to control the new Silk Road in Eurasia will continue to be bitterly contested. One thing remains certain: an awakened Russia strongly committed to upholding its military doctrine, which permits the use of military might to achieve geopolitical and economic objectives, will be harder to contain. What makes matters worse for NATO and its allies is that they will have to live with the fact that in this latest showdown, the Kremlin has emerged as the undisputed victor.  Also see Russian military repels Georgian troops from South OssetiaAs the war of words escalates in the Caucasus between Moscow and Tbilisi, Russian-US geopolitical tensions sharpen Russia’s new era?Vladimir Putin solidifies his hold on power in RussiaRussia’s new interest in Southeast AsiaRussia and China in a strategic alliance to counter NATO’s global ambitionsNote: Dr. Ardain Isma is the chief editor for CSMS Magazine and the executive director of the Center For Strategic And Multicultural Studies. He also teaches Cross-Cultural Studies at Nova Southeastern University. He is a novelist and the author of several essays on multiculturalism and Caribbean politics. He may be reached at publisher@csmsmagazine.org. 

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