reflections

Geopolitical Diary: Shades of a Second War

4 MINS READAug 6, 2009 | 02:09 GMT
One year on from the outbreak of war between Georgia and Russia, events precipitating that conflict bear a striking resemblance to the situation today. First, it must be said that things are never quiet in the Caucasus. Russo-Georgian relations are cold in the best of times, and they certainly are not going to warm while the pro-Western government that took power Georgia in the 2003 Rose Revolution remains in place. Under this "Rose" government, Tbilisi has courted the West politically, economically and militarily in order to solidify its independence of Russia, with the goal of joining the NATO alliance — something that Russia has resisted at every turn. In 2008, the Russians shifted from resistance to invasion. The reasons are many, but one stands out: 2008 marked the final dissolution of Serbia, with Western institutions recognizing the independence of Kosovo. Serbia was Russia's last ally in Europe, and the idea that Russia's protests could not sway the West's actions in the least was daunting for Moscow. Russia had to prove that not only was it still relevant, but that it could and would move militarily against an American and European ally. The target was Georgia, and the five-day war that followed was as decisive as it was swift. Events appear to be moving along a similar track in the early days of August 2009. Last month, following a trip to Georgia, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden gave an interview in which he called Russia out not only for being weak but, to put it bluntly, doomed to collapse. Needless to say, the Russians might be feeling the urge to prove Biden wrong in the court of global opinion. Russian officials are loudly and regularly warning that they stand ready for war, while Vladislav Surkov — a Kremlinite arguably second in power only to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin himself — has spent some personal time of late in South Ossetia, the tiny (Russian-allied) breakaway province of Georgia that was the proximate cause for the 2008 war. Biden’s comments are only one possible reason why the war drums are being beaten; there are others. The United States appears to be sliding toward conflict with Iran, and Russia has invested no small amount of political capital in bolstering the Iranians against the Americans. In Moscow’s mind, a United States fixated on the Persian Gulf is one that cannot fixate on Russia, and a United States that is at war with Iran is one that cannot stop Russia from adjusting borders in places like Georgia. And of course, there is Georgia itself. President Mikhail Saakashvili is no stranger to dramatic performances, and as the leader of a fractured country with next to no military capability (even before Georgia’s defeat in August 2008), he has few means of countering Russia at all. One option is to provoke a crisis with his northern neighbor in the hopes that the West will ride to the rescue. Considering what happened a year ago, this is perhaps not the wisest strategy, but it is not as though Saakashvili — personally or as Georgia's president — has a wide array of options to peruse. War is not a process that Russia would choose carelessly, even if it would be a very, very easy war to win. What simply doesn't fit in current circumstances is the boldness with which the Russians are acting. They have all but stated that war is imminent, they are backing the Iranians to the hilt, sending top Kremlin strategists to the region to coordinate with allies, and have even resumed nuclear submarine patrols off the east coast of the United States. The Russians have a well-earned reputation for being far more circumspect than this in the shell game that is international relations. It is almost as if all of this is simply noise designed to keep the Americans off balance while something else, something no one is watching, is quietly put into play. STRATFOR doesn't have a good answer for this. All we can say is that the Russians are up to something — and if it is not a war, it is something big enough that a war would seem to make a good distraction. Now that bears some watching.

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