Last summer I wrote how about how the electioneering Spring of 2008 was a golden opportunity for Vladimir Putin to attempt to resolve many of the issues (including border issues) that currently trouble Holy Mother Russia.
I got a lot wrong, but I wasn't completely wrong.
Today, the sub-prime crisis, America's two-front war, and a lame duck period that began last January have given the Russians a free hand in Southern Ossetia.
Bombers, tanks and warships are now projecting Russian power throughout Georgia, a state whose faults are
(1) that it is strategically located;
(2) that it allowed Russians to emigrate in such numbers that a small enclave was able to separate in 1992; and
(3) that it recently tried to join NATO to protect itself from the neighborhood bear.
While the world hangs off the latest news from the Beijing Olympiad, Cold War 2.0 is beginning just north of T'blisi.
Is it simply a Russian land grab? Not exactly ... Let's face it, despite the warm Mediterranean climate, Georgia isn't anyone's idea of prime real estate. They're economically challenged, and the roads are bad.
But then again, they're situated at a crossroads between Asia and Europe. Gas and oil from the large fields of the Caspian sea began passing through Georgia in 2005. Both resources originate in Baku, Azerbaijan where -- coincidentally -- the original oil pipeline still pumps its stuff to European markets through, you guessed it, the Soviet Union (oops, Russia) along the original Baku-Novorossiysk route.
In the early 90s, Georgia's bid for independence from the former USSR opened the possibility of wresting control of the flow of Caspian fuel from Russia. Western concerns spent ridiculous sums to divert oil and gas to Europe via a more politically secure and reliable route through Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey along the Baku-T'blisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline They created the longest conduit in the world with the single exception of the Friendship (or Druzhba) pipeline that travels 2,500 miles from Ukraine to Germany.
(With Droogs like these, you don't need enemies).
When Russian oil goes West, it becomes the lovely, hard European currency that has magically accelerated Russia's recovery and given it a powerful lever in international policy. No one in Europe wants to experience the winter cold of a renewed Cold War. So earlier this year, NATO voted against George Bush's initiative to welcome Georgia into NATO's fold. Our European allies didn't want to piss Russia off. Instead they pissed off George Bush Jr. After all, he's not very bright, he's used to failure, and he's on the way out.
The danger that Russia could lose its strategic influence in Europe became obvious in 1991 when Georgia separated from the USSR. Coincidentally, in 1992, the Russians in South Ossetia separated from Georgia, and since then Russia has sent 'peace keepers' into this new state to 'protect' these loyal Russians. (If you think of this policy as a repetition of Hitler's 'Lebensraum' doctrine, subsequent events make much more sense ... )
Last week, for example, Georgia lost its mind completely and attacked South Ossetia in a move whose military brilliance resembles Poland's Aug 31, 1939 attack on Germany. The Georgian president claims that the current conflict began after "the Kremlin ... ordered its proxies in South Ossetia to escalate attacks on Georgian positions."
Well, anything is possible. But the important point is not that Russia is kicking the you-know-what out of Georgia while Georgia begs it to stop. No.
The important point is that Russia now controls both fuel routes to Europe! Of course, that means that Russia will have an enormous influence on the member states of western Europe and hence, on NATO, policies.
The beauty of all this is that it happened when Vladimir Putin was no longer president, so when he comes back, of course, he'll have clean hands.
But what does all this mean for the West?
Well, my crystal ball is cloudy these days. Still, America should elect Barack Obama very soon since we're going to need a substantially smarter person in the White House in the coming decade.
My gut says that when Russia asserted its rights to the newly discovered Arctic oil fields earlier this year by planting a flag on the ocean floor under the North Pole, they weren't just joking or being cute.
They're going to keep selling oil -- any oil they can get their hands on -- to those who play ball for years to come. Meanwhile, NATO's effectiveness and America's influence will decline while Russia uses western money to rebuild and then to buy steroids.
If the world heats up as expected and human habitability declines everywhere except for the northern latitudes, then cool, water-rich Russia may become the 21st century's leading power. Anyway, that's they way they're playing it.
God help us all. They're back!