- The Washington Times - Monday, August 18, 2008

Russia’s invasion of Georgia is a damaging blow to the prestige and reputation of the U.S.-led NATO alliance - a major cornerstone of U.S. military security strategy in Europe since the end of World War II. The decision by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the government he dominates to attack Georgia serves a number of critical Russian strategic goals.

First, it is a warning to other nations in Europe and the Caucasus that they put themselves in mortal danger if they seek to join NATO and align themselves with United States. Target number one is Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko - who like Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili is the democratically elected leader of a formerly Soviet-occupied nation and has applied to join NATO. Second, it is a step toward seizing monopoly control of major energy pipelines supplying the West which run through Georgia: The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline, opened two years ago, which transports oil from Baku, Azerbaijan, through Georgia to Ceyhan, Turkey, and the South Caucasus gas pipeline, which runs parallel to the BTC pipeline. Third, it is part of a longer-range effort to create a sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union and beyond. Fourth, it is part of a policy that emboldens Iran by intimidating neighboring states away from military cooperation with Washington.

Over the past 15 years, Washington has provided close to $2 billion in military assistance to Georgia, and Tbilisi has sent troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside U.S. forces. Just last month, U.S. and Georgian military forces conducted two weeks of training in Georgian territory, while the Russian military conducted exercises of its own to the north - which virtually mirrored the operation Russia launched against Georgia in recent days. Yet the U.S. intelligence community was apparently caught by surprise when Russia launched its blitzkrieg - an invasion that has gone well beyond the stated aim of protecting residents of South Ossetia from the Georgian government. Russian troops have driven to within 20 miles of Tbilisi and have bombed the BTC pipeline - located more than 50 miles from South Ossetia.

In April, Washington, joined by Eastern European countries, pushed to invite Georgia and Ukraine into joining NATO. But thanks largely to opposition from France and Germany, the effort failed, and it is unclear whether things will be any different in the near future. In recent days, there has been an undertone of complaints from European officials suggesting that “rash” behavior from Georgia provoked Russia - thereby vindicating French and German opposition to admitting Georgia and Ukraine into the alliance. It would be difficult to imagine a more intellectually dishonest reading of the situation. While Georgia’s recent behavior in South Ossetia has been far from perfect, Heritage Foundation scholar Ariel Cohen notes that Moscow has been planning a land invasion of Georgia for at least two-and-a-half years. Its goal has been to topple Mr. Saakashvili - or better yet, to create so much hardship for the Georgian people that they oust Mr. Saakashvili in favor of someone who would do Russia’s bidding.

One of the most disturbing aspects of Russia’s attack is the threat it poses to the flow of energy to American allies in Western Europe and Israel. The BTC pipeline was advocated by President Clinton and the current President Bush as a way to make the Caucasus states of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia less dependent on Russia and Iran by linking them economically with the West. As The Washington Times reported last week, at least three other major energy pipelines now under consideration in the region face greater difficulties in the wake of the Russian invasion, which could well scare off oil companies and investors. “If what is happening now had happened in 1996, the BTC pipeline would not have been built,” Mr. Cohen told The Times.



Russia’s invasion of Georgia serves yet another purpose: protecting its ally Iran. Moscow has long sought to deny the United States airfields, bases and other forms of cooperation from Georgia and Azerbaijan which could be used in a military operation against Iran. At the same time, Moscow is expected to deploy S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles in Iran next year - greatly complicating any military strike against Iranian nuclear-weapons facilities.

One bit of good news is the fact that, following Russia’s move into Georgia, Poland moved to defy Russia by signing a missile defense agreement with the United States. That is a step in the right direction. But NATO will not remain a viable alliance if small democracies like Georgia are left twisting in the wind while France and Germany are congratulating themselves for their cravenness. For starters, Georgia and Ukraine should be admitted to NATO sooner rather than later.

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