The Irish Anti-War Movement

US versus RUSSIA: The New scramble for the Caucasus

Written by Sinead Kennedy

If you have been following the media coverage of the conflict over South Ossetia you could be forgiven for thinking that the events of the past week are akin to a rerun of the Prague Spring. The media line is that the conflict is all about "Russian imperialism" and the "Cold War" mentality of Vladimir Putin, former Russian president, now turned prime minister.

Written by Sinead Kennedy

If you have been following the media coverage of the conflict over South Ossetia you could be forgiven for thinking that the events of the past week are akin to a rerun of the Prague Spring. The media line is that the conflict is all about "Russian imperialism" and the "Cold War" mentality of Vladimir Putin, former Russian president, now turned prime minister.

It is certainly true that Russia has imperial designs and would like to dominate the US client-state of Georgia but the current war in the Caucasus is as much the product of US imperialism as it is of local conflicts. Indeed, the current conflict is intricately connected to the US-led “war on terror” which is raging in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia – and which now threatens to engulf Iran.
But the hypocrisy of the ruling class appears to know no bounds. US vice-president Dick Cheney, dutifully echoed by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, declared that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered". George Bush condemned Russia for having "invaded a sovereign neighbouring state" and threatening "a democratic government". Such an action, he insisted, "is unacceptable in the 21st century".
The faithful corporate media parrot the same line, readily characterising Russian expansionist military moves as "imperialist", while promoting the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq as exercises in democracy. They then effectively airbrush out the role that US is playing in this conflict, by seeking to incorporate Georgia into NATO as part of an arc of military outposts and alliances stretching from the Middle East to Central Asia.
South Ossetia has been ruled since 1992 as a de facto independent satellite of Russia, following the collapse of the old USSR. However, it is also claimed by Georgia as official Georgian territory. In 2006 South Ossetians voted in an unofficial referendum to press their demands for complete independence, a call that is now supported by the Russians.
Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, has vowed to bring South Ossetia and another breakaway region, Abkhazia, back under full Georgian control. By contrast, Russia stepped up ties with the separatists in Abkhazia and South Ossetia following an announcement by NATO in April of this year 2008 that Georgia would be allowed to join the alliance at some point.

In a similar manner to how the US used the nationalist movement of Kosovar Albanians to carve out a now-independent Kosovo as an outpost of NATO in the Balkans, the Russians are backing the Ossetians’ and Abkhazians’ drive for independence to weaken Georgia and pre-empt its entry into NATO.

Then, last week, Georgia launched an aerial bombardment and ground attack on South Ossetia on Thursday 7 August. Russia responded by pouring thousands of troops into South Ossetia, and launching bombing raids both over the province and on targets in the rest of Georgia. 

A new Cold-War?

 Since Georgia emerged as an independent state, successive US administrations, Republican and Democrat, have worked to fashion Georgia into a US client state in the heart of the volatile Caucuses region. 

The US aided the 2003 “Rose Revolution” that catapulted Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili into power. However, the man portrayed by the media as a gallant democrat standing up to Russian imperialism has become highly contentious. His government has been plagued by serious allegations of political corruption and late last year he endorsed a series of brutal police attacks on peaceful protests. The International Crisis Group recently described the Saakashvili government as "increasingly authoritarian", violently cracking down on opposition dissent and independent media. 

The CIA has also been closely involved in Georgia since the Soviet collapse and its involvement has intensified under the Bush administration. Georgia’s forces are armed and trained by the US and Israel with the US recently involved in training Georgian troops in the Pankisi Gorge bordering Chechnya.

The collaboration works both ways with Georgia having sent 2,500 troops to Iraq, the single biggest contingent in the occupying forces after the US and Britain – hence the US need to airlift 800 of them back to fight the Russians at the weekend.  Saakashvili’s links with the neoconservatives in Washington are particularly close. The main foreign policy advisor to the US Republican candidate John McCain, Randy Scheunemann, has been paid nearly $900,000 by the Georgian government since 2004. He worked as their paid lobbyist in Washington and only recently quit to take up his post with McCain. The US is courting both Georgia and the Ukraine with the possibility of NATO membership. They have also installed missile defence systems in Poland and the Czech Republic, a move supposedly to ward of threats from Iran, but obviously aimed at Russia. Georgia supports these moves and has indicated its wish to be part of this US regional missile defence shield. 

The aim of these US policies in the region has been both to safeguard the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, that runs from the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean, and increase the political and military pressure on Russia in the south. It is not clear whether the US, or the neo-con faction within the Bush administration, gave Georgia the green light to attack South Ossetia. In any case it seems to be a serious miscalculation that has given Russia the excuse it has been looking for to not only to occupy South Ossetia, but also Abkhazia. It also appears that Russia will use the situation to smash the Georgian military that the U.S. has tried to build up and reassert Russia power in the region. The US also appears to have made a serious mistake. Oil-rich Russia has spent the past decade re-asserting its military power and its own imperial agenda.

While it has become more assertive in the face of Nato’s expansion, its geopolitical position has been much weakened since the end of the Cold War. It was powerless to prevent the US from recognising Kosovo’s independence from Serbia last year – a move that many people predicted would destabilise other disputed regions around the world, stoking up more conflicts and wars.  Now Russia has used the “war on terror” as an excuse to brutally crack down on separatist forces within its own borders – notably in Chechnya, which lies near Ossetia and shares a border with Georgia. It seems that Russia sees the current crisis as an opportunity to draw a line in the stand against US forays into the region.

Georgia and Azerbaijan both possess strategic importance in the region. Part of the reason the US has been so determined to have presence in the region is due the $3.2 billion Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline. Throughout the 1990s the US lobbied hard for its favoured route for the pipeline on the grounds that it would lessen dependence on Russian and Middle East oil. The US favoured route passes through a highly seismic landscape and is twice as long as the alternative route of Baku-Tbilisi-Suspa, which would have concluded in the Russian port on the Black Sea.
The US government went on to grant $823m to Turkey for this project, amounting to more than a fifth of the total cost. The advantage of the BTC root pipeline is that it connects Baku, the source of oil, with the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan in Turkey, without the need to go through Russian territory. During the present conflict, the Russian air force has repeatedly tried to hit this pipeline, so far without success. But in attempting to do so, Russia is sending a clear message to NATO and the US member states that the BTC pipeline is vulnerable.

What happens next ?

What will happen next is a little unclear. It is clear that Russia’s war in Georgia does signal a new, dangerous phase in global politics that is already dominated by war and economic crisis.  Bogged down in both Afghanistan and Iraq the US government is not in a position to commit any troops to the region. There is a real fear within the US ruling class at the moment as the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan are spiralling out of control, triggering instability across the region. 

The Western ruling class is split over whether or not to turn up the heat on Russia. The “hawks” in the “war on terror”, such as US vice-president Dick Cheney, want the US to keep up the pressure and escalate the conflict further. “Russian aggression must not go unanswered,” he insisted, arguing that the US should support the “democratically elected government” of Georgia against a threat to its “territorial integrity”. Georgia has undoubtedly been the neo-cons’ pet regime in the Caucasus, which explains why many Western leaders have blamed Russia for the current conflict.

But there are some, particularly in Europe who think that Georgia has overplayed its hand by invading South Ossetia, leading to division among Western rulers about the way forward. They are concerned that Europe would be in the frontline of any Russian military advance and that any conflict involving Russia would threaten the large swathes of European industry that relies heavily upon Russian oil and gas supplies. There is also a real threat that this conflict could further escalate as the Ukraine’s pro-Western President, Viktor Yushchenko, has just announced his intention to restrict the movement of Russian ships in and out of their Crimean base in Sevastopol.

It seems that western capitals can do little now except hope that a popular backlash in Georgia, which is bound to follow Saakashvili’s blunder, does not lead to his overthrow and replacement by a leader who is not as determinedly US/Western friendly as he is. The only thing we can be certain is that a new scramble for oil has begun in the region and will cause terrible suffering. The only thing that can stop that is a movement for the withdrawal of both empires from the region and a respect for the right of people to determine their own future.

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