Monday, October 6, 2008


Now that the Republic of Georgia has been moved off the front pages, it is time to assess what was really behind Russia‘s heavy-handed invasion of that pro-Western fledgling democratic country.

Clearly Russia precipitated the war by using its proxy thugs in South Ossetia to force a confrontation through repeated provocations with Tbilisi. Aside from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin‘s hatred of President Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia, was this payback for Kosovo or a signal to those border states from the Baltic to the Black Sea to reverse their pro-Western trend? Perhaps, but if it was, it didn’t work. Poland, two days after the invasion, signed the ABM interceptor agreement with the United States after they had stalled for almost two years. They also just withdrew $35 billion from the Moscow stock market. The border states openly want a closer relationship with the West.

It certainly was not Mr. Putin’s intent to unify the trans-Atlantic Union, but he did. Mr. Putin could care less about Serbs in Kosovo or the 70,000 Ossetians he inherited. His main objective was expanded control of energy transit pipelines going through the region. Russia has had a stated policy of preventing the West from building the Nabucco gas pipeline through Georgia since it would carry non-Russian gas to Europe not under Moscow’s control.

As an aside, counter to what many have assumed, the Russian military operation into Georgia was not all that professional. Thirty percent of their tanks reportedly broke down before reaching the border. Seven or eight aircrafts were lost. One element that did work well was the simultaneous cyber Internet attack on dissidents’ Web sites.

The illusion that Mr. Putin had ceded power to the newly “elected” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was laid bare. One vote counts in Russia today and that is Mr. Putin’s. Control of the energy and associated pipelines give Mr. Putin not only political leverage but fill the coffers of his former KGB cronies as well.

Mr. Putin’s kleptocracy is a mafia-type organization where the mentality is that everyone has his price. Services, politicians and loyalty are bought. In Georgia’s case, what they could not buy they took.

The European Union’s hope that broader energy relations would moderate Russia’s policies, causing it to accept European democratic values and open market competitive business practices also proved misguided. Italy and Germany have to stop being Mr. Putin’s proxies in the EU.

As Ambassador Keith C. Smith from the Center for Strategic and International Studies has pointed out, that when Gasprom, Russia’s monopoly natural gas trading company cut off supplies to Ukraine and Georgia in January 2006, it made clear to all of Mr. Putin’s willingness to use Russia’s energy resources to exert political influence. Another example is the more than three-year Russian piped oil blockade of the Latvian port of Ventspils because Moscow wanted to install one of its companies as owner of the port facilities. Then, there was the Russians “Transneft” monopoly who informed Lithuania there will be a “lengthy” halt to oil flowing to its refinery at Mazeikiai as a result of “repairs” to the pipelines. How convenient!

It is clear Mr. Putin sees energy as his major political and financial lever. With the weak responses from the West over his invasion in Georgia, he certainly will be tempted to expand his control. While oil and gas is key to expanding Mr. Putin’s control, it can also be his vulnerability. Even though Russia is currently flush with petro-dollars, Russia needs cash from the EU to keep its economy running. Further, its oil and gas infrastructure is deteriorating and requires major repairs.

Since the invasion, financial investors are re-evaluating the “risks” involved in doing business with Mr. Putin and his KGB cronies. The key to changing Russia’s business and political practices is to lower the price of oil.

A serious response to the Russian invasion of Georgia and to bolster the other fledgling democratic border states from the Baltic to the Black Sea should include the following:

— Accelerate NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) procedures for Georgia and Ukraine and, when requested, incorporation into NATO. Finland and hopefully Sweden should also be included in this accelerated process. New member states must adhere to the principals of this Defensive Alliance. The responsibilities that each member state must embrace are clear. A member state cannot initiate offensive operations and expect NATO to come to its rescue. It is recognized Ukraine has several domestic problems, but the fast-track MAP procedures plus other incentives should be aggressively pursued.

— The EU needs to implement a common energy policy and to enforce its anti-competition rules against the increasingly monopolies of Gasprom and Transneft.

— Complimenting the EU energy policy, the United States needs to expedite its own comprehensive energy policy.

— Military, economic and political assistance need to be continued to Georgia. The military must improve its professional capabilities so that it can become a viable member of NATO.

— German Chancellor Angela Merkel should withdraw from the highly expensive Northern Europe Gas Pipeline (NEGP) beneath the Baltic Sea which was negotiated by her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder (who is now on the Gasprom board) with Mr. Putin. The cost of the NEGP Yamal I is between $18.5 billion to $30 billion compared to $2.8 billion for Yamal II that would go through Poland. Why should the European taxpayer be forced to line the pockets of Mr. Putin and his KGB cronies? This is a tough call for Mrs. Merkel but the right move to make.

— Ukraine should revisit building the long-planned pipeline between the Ukraine cities of Odessa on the Black Sea and Brody near the Polish border. This would permit oil from Kazakhstan to go direct to Western Europe bypassing Russian pipeline control. This could be part of the package for accelerating NATO membership.

While we have many issues that require Russian co-operation, implementing the above measures would go a long way toward firing a shot across Mr. Putin’s bow and level the playing field.

James Lyons, U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations, and deputy chief of naval operations, where he was principal adviser on all Joint Chiefs of Staff matters.

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