Caucasus: An Early Symptom of Wider Conflict?

Posted in Asia | 26-Aug-08 | Author: Muhammad Aslam Khan

BrigGen (ret) Dr. Muhammad Aslam Khan Niazi

The ‘cease-fire’ agreement, after Russian forces unleashed their military might against Georgian troops in South Ossetia for five days, has been signed. The hope sustains that peace would follow, though a fragile one. Caucasus, widely termed as a region of ‘frozen conflicts’ has witnessed a ‘defreeze’ phenomenon of Ossetian dispute in an ugly way. It was not only a short and crisp war between two sovereign states but also the one to cause massive concern among Eurasian as well Euro-Atlantic powers, with clear worry lurking on the horizon that conflict could aggravate as well.

After enjoying a short span of seventeen years of independence, Georgia has been served a curt reminder that her borders contiguity factor with Russian Federation would remain under its sharp focus if Georgia did not respect Russia’s strategic interests in the region. The international elite media lavishly projected Russia as an aggressor when Russian military was seen in hot pursuit of the remnants of Georgian forces. However some horrific tales of South Ossetians arriving now depict that Georgia pulled the trigger first and pounded civil population with massive ground and aerial bombing. Russia was quick to grab an opportunity as a sovereign right to protect its peace keepers as well as South Ossetians who claim to be more Russian than Georgian, being neighbour to the Russian territory of North Ossetia. What incentives Georgia had for using strong arms tactics against its own people when peaceful means of diplomacy had not been exhausted yet? A possible answer would lead us to a point that there exists pretty long and complicated tally of political and ethnic turbulence that haunts peace in the post-Soviets space. Woes of Crimean Tartars, Gagauz question in Moldova, Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Ajaria, Borchali Azeri and Ahiska Turks relocation in Georgia, Nagorno-Karabakh and Dagestani masses have remained unresolved over decades.

Russo-Georgian war has only proved that until the basic issues are approached with sincerity by all the stake holders, stability would be a scarce commodity. In fact Georgia is believed to have got tempted to pull trigger on South Ossetians by employing its nascent NATO trained military forces as it felt emboldened to crush South Ossetians’ resistance after successful liquidation of Ajarian Turks struggle. In other words it was naked display of military muscles and diplomacy was side tracked. To further make the assumption relevant, one needs to peep briefly into history. After ‘Kars Treaty of 1921’ between Soviets Georgia and Turkish Grand National Assembly, Ajaria, as per Article 6 of the Treaty was guaranteed an autonomous status and it thus became Ajaria Autonomous Soviets Socialist Republic. During Georgian civil war of 1992-93, it emerged as an autonomous Muslim’s region under Aslan Abashidze. Georgia crushed the autonomous status of Ajaria by use of force in 2004 when Aslan Abashidze fled to Moscow. Within the internal dynamics of Georgian politics, the crush-Ajaria recipe did work that could now have a parallel with South Ossetia. However Georgia failed to appreciate the international dynamics of politics because in case of Ajaria, the parent power of 1921 vintage was Turkey that has far heavier stakes in Georgia now than to rescue Ajarian Turks but on South Ossetian front it did not work. Instead it proved to be a red rag for Russian military might against Georgia.

The reason that augments any other consideration has been that Georgia remained arrogantly ignorant of the wounds it inflicted on Russian economy as well as her ‘Imperial’ hubris as some quarters attribute it towards Russia. For instance Russo-Georgian hostile posturing is not only triggered by Abkhazian or South Ossetian dispute but also the economic and geopolitical dents made on Russian ego to which Georgia is a party on the forefront. Russia’s animosity is likely to gain in intensity and substance when Russia perceives Georgian role as an ‘energy’ conduit through Baku (Azerbaijan)-Tbilisi (Georgia)-Ceyhan (Turkey) oil pipeline and Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum (Turkey) gas pipe line with capacity to place almost entire Caspian oil and gas in the Western market while mostly it used to traverse the Russian territory that had afforded the Soviets, according to Western analysts, a leverage to monopolize the energy routes from the region.

Russia also perceives Georgia as potential candidate for NATO, a treaty Russia has loathed all along, branding it as a legacy of Cold War era and has dubbed its presence in Eastern Europe as well as Caucasus not only unwarranted but a potent threat to Russian security that gains added magnitude if seen in conjunction with US Missiles Defense Shield Plan being planted in Eastern Europe. On the contrary the West, read USA, is wary of Russian hegemony in Central Eurasia, arguing that it wants to reclaim her ‘empire’ instead of strengthening the democratic values. Andrei Shoumikhin puts across that with diminished economic, political and military potential; Russia is still trying to play the role of a hegemon in Caspian-Caucasus region….in the best tradition of Russian ‘velikoderzhavie’ (the big power omnipotence).

While one would never condone Russia about its inability to exercise restraint, one can not overlook Georgian binge to test a model military venture of Ajaria on South Ossetia. Its ambition to secure a geopolitical mileage over Russia, by whimpering aloud that a bully power was knocking at its doors and also to teach lesson to the dissenting South Ossetians, would have needed an elaborate deception that could not be carved out by Georgia any way.

In the entire dimension of the power game, however, Russia afforded a chance unwittingly to USA to sit by a conflict and roar like an exhausted lion to tell its NATO allies, did I not tell you that Russia has nefarious designs? Condoleezza Rice’s blazing tour-trail was a mere snare to which otherwise cautious Angela Merkel fell trap by promising Georgia the NATO membership and sidelining Germany’s long term strategic equation with Russia. French President managed to dodge off the booby trap by accepting Russian right to protect its nationals and brokering cease fire. Uncle Sam’s magic worked on Poland as well because it agreed to sign the Missiles Defense Shield Plan cooperation within 24-hours of the initiation of the hostilities though it had been ambivalent about it for last one year. Russia minced no retaliatory words to tag Poland as one of its targets during future military engagements when it has the designs and advantage to deploy its formidable military capability in Kaliningrad Enclave and Belurussia.

Thus it appears that ‘Eurasian Balkan’ is a powder keg about which Europe, including Russia, should adopt a pragmatic approach to tackle it on the merit of propounded values from EU platform. While ‘restraint’ would remain a key, media-bashing of Russia alone without listening to her part of woes would make the ‘peace’ more elusive and the conflict could widen. Russia needs Europe as much as Europe needs Russia.

(Dr. Makni, a member of WSN advisory board, has PhD degree in International Relations and is author of a book, ‘The New Great Game: Oil and Gas Politics in Central Eurasia’, recently published by a U.S. publisher. (