What's behind the dispute between Russia and Georgia over the breakaway region of South Ossetia?
Look behind all the inflamed propaganda about atrocities on both sides. See through all of the clever rhetoric from the Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev or his master, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
"Geography is destiny," Napoleon reportedly declared, and in this case, he may be right.
Extending east from the curve of the Black Sea, Georgia is dominated by the rugged Caucasus Mountains stretching across the northern third of the country. Europe's highest point, Mt. Elbrus (18,841 feet), straddles the northern border with Russia.
More than half of the Georgian economy is agricultural, reports the CIA Fact Book, because "the coastal climate and soils allow for important tea and citrus growth."
Russia did not invade Georgia for its crops, however.
Russia's immediate aim is to capture the oil pipeline that runs across Georgia, and that's just the first step toward wider regional and global ambitions.
Another War for Oil
The 1,094-mile trans-Caucasus pipeline connects the oil fields in the Caspian Sea to the European and African oil markets around the Mediterranean Sea.
Capable of carrying 10 million barrels of crude oil at once from the Azeri-Chirag-Gunashli fields, the pipeline starts in coastal Baku in Azerbaijan, runs northwest through Tbilisi in Georgia, then turns southwest to run across the mountains to coastal Ceyhan in Turkey, where oil tankers await to carry the output of a million barrels per day to oil refineries around the Mediterranean.
The trans-Caucasus pipeline was built to bypass Russian territory after Moscow shut off the flow of oil and natural gas to the Ukraine and other former Soviet republics in eastern European. Europe wished to avoid allowing the Kremlin any leverage for extortion to force compliance with Russian trade and political demands.
If Moscow gains control of the pipeline though Georgia, Europe will be less able to resist Putin's objections to NATO building a missile defense shield along Russia's western and southern borders. Russia chiefly wants to stop Georgia from becoming a member of NATO.
And with this we get to the true heart of the matter.
Capturing Georgia is a primary step toward Putin's declared ambition of eventually restoring the Russian empire to its former glory and power. This has been the single-minded goal of the former KGB chief since before he was elected in 1996 to replace disgraced leader Alexander Yeltsin. Whether Putin's model is the czarist empire or the Soviet empire, it amounts to the same thing.
What Putin and his cronies in the Kremlin envision is to dominate the entire southern flank of Russia and secure access to coastal trading ports. This is same geopolitical goal that drove the czars.
The Balkan lands bordering the Mediterranean have turned toward Europe for their security, placing them beyond Russian control if not Russian influence. This loss now makes extending Russia's reach to the south more imperative than ever.
By regaining control of Georgia and then its eastern neighbor Azerbaijan, Russia can once again control the strategic lands between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, thereby putting pressure on Turkey.
The next step will be regaining control over all the lands east of the Caspian Sea -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kygyzstan. Russia then will be able to influence or coerce not only Turkey but also Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and China.
Is this scenario far fetched? Putin has declared in numerous public speeches that he intends to restore Russia as a world power. I believe him.
Lessons of History
Put this conflict into historical context.
Georgia first became part of the Russian empire under the czars by annexation in 1801. After the 1917 Communist Revolution, Georgia enjoyed independence again from 1918 to 1921, when Georgia was forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union. The homeland of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin remained a vassal communist state until the collapse of the Soviet Empire in 1991.
As a newly independent democratic republic, Georgia undertook a series of free-market reforms that began to uplift the economy. Nationwide election fraud in 2003, however, sparked mass protests. New elections in 2004 ousted pro-Russian Eduard Shevardnadze and brought to power pro-Western Mikheil Saakashvili.
Saakashvili increasingly became distracted from economic development by ethnic conflicts that led the north-central region South Ossetia to break away from the Georgian government. Russia supported and perhaps incited the break, effectively controlling the Ossetian leadership.
Despite cautions by both U.S. and European leaders to ignore Russian provocations in the region, Saakashvili sent Georgian troops into South Ossetia on August 7.
The next day, August 8, Russia counter-attacked and moved outside the region, taking over Georgian seaports while attacking the Georgian capitol of Tbilisi and other cities. World leaders now called for the fighting to stop.
Claiming Moscow aims to overthrow Georgia's elected government, Saakashvili offered a cease-fire on August 11. France brokered a cease-fire, and Russia said it would be content with South Ossetia, but Russia continues to press the attack by positioning armed forces within Georgia.
Putin saying that Russia will stop its territorial expansion with South Ossetia, in my view, is like Hitler saying that Nazi Germany would stop its territorial expansion with annexation of the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia.
I am not alone in this view. Watch the Sunday morning news analysis programs. Read the opinion columns in the New York Times, The Washington Post and the Financial Times. These are the concerns being weighed all around.
Fearing open war with Russia, the United States and Europe may allow Putin's invasion of Georgia to succeed. No matter how subtly the conquest happens, this would be an historic shift in the balance of power -- especially as long as the world economy is fueled by oil.
Even if Russian troops pull back today, however, the attack of Georgia already foreshadows a new "cold war" between Russia and the free world.
What's happening in Georgia today could affect the course of world history for generations to come. I hope this short primer helps open your eyes to our danger.
This is not a little border war we can safely ignore. This is realpolitik, Machiavellian power plays with the fate of the world at stake.
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