The Caucasian challenge

IT'S not yet a return to the Cold War, but the current US-Russian crisis over Georgia, a tiny nation of only 4.6 million, is deeply worrying and increasingly dangerous.

By Eric S. Margolis (America Angle)

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Published: Mon 18 Aug 2008, 10:34 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:12 PM

On 7 August, Georgia's president, Mikheil Saakashvili, ordered his US and Israeli-advised and equipped army to invade the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Most of its people were Russian citizens who wanted to quit Georgia and rejoin Russia.

Saakashvili's decision was a disaster. Russia's 58th Army responded by routing Georgian forces and delivering a humiliating strategic and psychological blow to the Bush administration's efforts to expand American and Israeli influence in the Caucasus.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin swiftly and deftly checkmated the United States on the Georgian strategic chessboard.

Saakashvili, fell right into Moscow's trap. Georgia and Russia have been feuding since 1992 over two Georgian ethnic enclaves, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

The young, US-educated Saakashvili became Georgia's president in 2003 after an uprising, believed organised by CIA and financed by US money, overthrew the able former leader, Eduard Shevardnadze. I came to know and respect Shevardnadze in Moscow when he was Mikhail Gorbachev's principal ally and architect of Soviet reform.

Saakashvili quickly became the golden boy of US rightwing neoconservatives and their Israeli allies, who held him a model of how to turn former Russian-dominated states into 'democratic' US allies. Critics claim Saakashvili kept power by bribery and vote-rigging.

US money, military trainers, advisers, and intelligence agents poured into the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Israeli arms dealers, businessmen and intelligence agents quickly followed, reportedly selling $500 million of military equipment to the Georgian government — paid for, of course, by the US.

By expanding its influence into Georgia, the Bush administration brazenly flouted agreements with Moscow made by presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton not to expand NATO into the former USSR.

Russia's tough deputy prime minister, Sergei Ivanov, sneeringly observed that Georgia had become, a 'US satellite.' Indeed it had.

Georgia provided the US oil and gas pipeline routes from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan that bypassed Russian territory. Russia was furious its Caspian Basin energy export monopoly had been broken, vowing revenge.

Now that the Russians have checkmated the US and client, Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia will likely move into Russia's orbit. The West backed independence of Kosovo from Serbia. The peoples of South Ossetia and Abkhazia should have as much right to secede from Georgia.

In one swift blow, Putin thwarted Bush's clumsy attempt to further advance US influence into the Caucasus. He delivered a stark warning to Ukraine and the Central Asian states: don't get too close to Washington. Putin put the US on the strategic defensive and showed that Nato's new eastern reaches — the Baltic, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Caucasus — are largely indefensible.

It's a good thing Georgia was not admitted to Nato. Is the West really ready to be dragged into a potential nuclear war for the sake of South Ossetia? Georgia is a bridge too far for Nato.

President George Bush, VP Dick Cheney and Sen. John McCain all resorted to table pounding and Cold War rhetoric against Russia. McCain, whose senior foreign policy adviser is a neoconservative and registered lobbyist for Georgia, thundered, 'the US has important interests in Georgia.' Interests that are barely a few years old, senator. Russia's go back two centuries. The Caucasus is Russia's backyard. Imagine Washington's response if Russian troops were deployed to Quebec.

Hypocrisy flew thicker than shellfire. Bush, who ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, accused Russia of 'bullying' and 'aggression.' Putin, who crushed the life out of Chechnya, piously claimed his army was saving Ossetians from ethnic cleansing.

Bush and McCain demand Russia be punished and isolated. The humiliated Bush is sending some US troops to Georgia to deliver 'humanitarian' aid. Equally worrisome, the US rushed to sign a pact with Warsaw to station anti-missile missiles and anti-aircraft batteries, manned by US troops, in Poland. This response is dangerous, highly provocative, and immature.

The West must accept Russia has vital national interests in the Caucasus and the former USSR. Russia is a great power and must be accorded respect. The days of treating Russia like a banana republic are over.

The US's most important foreign policy concern is keeping correct relations with Russia, which has thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at North America. Georgia is a sideshow.

Eric S Margolis is a veteran US journalist who has reported from the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan for several years

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