- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

As the Olympic Games opened, the tragic and ominous conflict between the Republic of Georgia and Russia erupted as well. Moscow responded with overwhelming force to the Georgian fire on Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetian separatists. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin flew from the Beijing Olympics to Vladikavkaz, taking control of the military operations. Thus, Mr. Putin sidelined his successor Dmitry Medvedev, and left no doubt as to who is in charge.

The 58th Russian Army of the North Caucasus Military District rolled into South Ossetia, reinforced by the 76th Airborne “Pskov” Division. It now seized the military base in Senaki, just 50 miles from the strategic port of Poti, which came under severe bombardment.

Russia is engaged in a classic combined arms operation, with the Black Sea Fleet blockading Georgia, preparing a landing, and Russian missiles and air force attacking Georgian military bases, cities and pipelines. Russian troops are likely not to stop at the South Ossetian-Georgian border, but may press further.

Russia’s goals for the war with Georgia are far-reaching and include expulsion of Georgian troops and termination of Georgian sovereignty in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. They possibly include “regime change,” bringing down President Mikhail Saakashvili and installing a more pro-Russian leadership in Tbilisi.

Finally, Moscow is trying to reassert control of the Caucasus, and especially over strategic energy pipelines, by controlling Georgia, threatening oil-rich Azerbaijan, and recreating a 19th-century-style sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union, if necessary by use of force.

Russian relations with Georgia were the worst among the post-Soviet states. In addition to fanning the flames of separatism in South Ossetia since 1990, Russia militarily supported separatists in Abkhazia (1992-1993), which is also a part of Georgian territory.

According to several Western intelligence services, Russia has long prepared its aggression against Georgia’s pro-Western President Saakashvili in an attempt to undermine his rule and prevent Georgia from joining NATO. Despite claims about oppressed minority status, the separatist South Ossetian leadership is mostly ethnic Russians, many of whom served in the KGB, the Soviet secret police, the Russian military or in the Soviet Communist Party.

In recent years, Moscow granted the majority of Abkhazs and South Ossetians Russian citizenship and moved to establish close economic and bureaucratic ties with the two separatist republics, effectively enacting a creeping annexation of both territories.

Use of Russian citizenship to create a “protected” population residing in a neighboring state to undermine its sovereignty reminds many of the Nazi German Reich “solving” the Sudentenland problem and triggering World War II. It is a slippery slope now leading to a redrawing of the former Soviet borders.

Aggression against Georgia also sends a strong signal to Ukraine and to Europe. Russia is playing a chess game of offense and intimidation. Former President and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin spoke last spring about Russia “dismembering” Ukraine, another NATO candidate, and detaching the Crimea, a peninsula transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, when both were integral parts of the Soviet Union.

Russia is engaged in what the Chinese call “kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” Ukraine is the monkey: its pro-Western leaders, such as President Victor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, have expressed a desire to join NATO, while the pro-Moscow Ukrainian Party of Regions effectively opposes membership. NATO opponents in Ukraine are greatly encouraged by Russia’s action against Georgia.

Beyond this, Russia is demonstrating it can sabotage American and EU declarations about integrating Commonwealth of Independent States members into Western structures such as NATO - something Warsaw has supported. By attempting to accomplish regime change in Georgia, Moscow also is also trying to hold Azerbaijan in a vise and gain control of the energy and transportation corridor that connects Central Asia and Azerbaijan with the Black Sea and ocean routes overseas. This corridor includes the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the Baku-Erzurum (Turkey) gas pipeline.

The United States and its European allies need to take all available diplomatic measures to stop Russian aggression. The U.S. and its allies need to demand that Russia withdraw all its troops from the territory of Georgia and recognize its territorial integrity. Further, the U.S. and Europe need to internationalize the conflict. Russian claims and desire to be viewed as upholder of international law need to be turned against Moscow. The European Union and the United Nations should send other international observers to Georgia.

Talks need to start in a neutral forum to finally settle the problems of South Ossetia and eventually, Abkhazia.

Beyond this, the United States and its allies and other countries need to send a strong signal to Moscow that creating 19th-century-style spheres of influence and redrawing the borders of the former Soviet Union endanger world peace. It cannot be done without violation of international law; and is likely to result in death and destruction - a price neither the Russian people nor others should pay.

The U.S. and its European allies should communicate to Moscow that it has much to lose - including hosting the 2014 winter Olympics in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, membership in the G-8 and access to Western capital and export markets - if the aggression against Georgia is not stopped.

Ariel Cohen is senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and author of three books on Russian imperialism and Eurasia, including “Kazakhstan: The Road to Independence” (2008, forthcoming).

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