BY MATT HUTCHINS
On the eve of China’s entry into the club of Olympic host states, a major landmark in the history of peaceful globalization, the tensions which had been building in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia erupted in a conflict which echoes the bygone era of Russian imperialism and the strategic manipulation of satellite states by superpowers. Western states quickly denounced Russia’s military actions, which were labeled as an invasion of Georgian sovereign territory. Russian press, on the other hand, portrayed the conflict as having been instigated by genocidal Georgian aggression within an autonomous province which was subject to Russian protection under treaties recognized in international law. Beneath the propaganda and rhetoric of both sides lies a disturbing truth: Russian foreign policy has become infected with a deep and abiding cynicism, lacking any compunction about being both self-serving and self-contradictory in its aggressive assertions of regional authority.
Georgia’s actions on August 7th, while not commendable, were the natural culmination of a series of events which were driven by Russian decisions. The separatist leaders of South Ossetia were supported by Russia, and their rejection of Georgian sovereignty was tacitly supported by the Russian involvement in the region as peacekeepers. Furthermore, the people of the region were clothed in the protection of Russian citizenship not by virtue of ethnic Russian heritage, but rather by a Russian program of issuing passports to them. The gradual subversion of an already autonomous province was a political powder keg, which could have easily been defused by Russian leaders. Instead, the potential for conflict was allowed to fester as a neatly packaged pretext for retribution against Georgia for its open alliance with NATO member states on issues of energy policy and security. The explosion of violence in South Ossetia quickly spread to Georgia proper under the justification of normal conduct in the course of war, but to the Georgians who suffered under the swift and brutal Russian attack, it was clear that the real objective was not to cripple Georgia’s military but rather its entire economy.
Russia’s use of military might for strategic purposes under pretense of justification is a clear extension by President Medvedev of the policies of Vladimir Putin. It has allowed him to secure his image in the eyes of Russia’s people as a strong leader who will not hesitate to protect Russian citizens, wherever they live. It has sent the message to former Soviet-bloc countries that the Kremlin will not tolerate challenges to its regional supremacy. Most important of all, it has spelled out the limits of Russia’s tolerance for NATO’s involvement in traditional spheres of Russian influence and has demonstrated its willingness to test the resolve of European states. With the former head of Gazprom sitting as its new President, Russia’s formidable economic might as the energy baron of Europe has become a bigger threat to NATO’s integrity than military confrontation.
Russia’s aggressive geo-political maneuvering has been made all the more exasperating by the hopelessly contradictory nature of Russia’s subsequent recognition of both South Ossetia and its fellow breakaway Georgian province, Abkhazia, as independent nations. Russia’s historical opposition to the independence of its own breakaway region, Chechnya, and of Kosovo, make this action a deliberate affront to Western diplomacy. It is impossible that Western nations would follow Russia in recognition of these regions’ independence, and it is for this reason that the conflict in Georgia threatens to become the festering splinter in European foreign policy. NATO support of Georgia would result in an escalation of tension which might induce a tactical manipulation of European energy supplies.
Whereas the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia was protected by tanks and missiles, Russia’s ultimate authority to determine the fate of Georgia emerges not from the barrel of a gun, but from its steadily flowing pipelines and barrels of oil.
The Russian use of military force as a means of demonstrating economic power is ultimately a cynical rejection of the need for consistency with international law, a callous expression of contempt toward international institutions, and the perversion of the global economy as a tool of strategic power. If the members of the European Union and NATO falter in their universal condemnation of Russia’s tactics, the institutions which provide their mutual strength could be splintered by the dependence of powerful member states upon Russian energy. These complex challenges will require a complete reassessment of Russia’s role in the international community, a renewed commitment by all Western nations to the development of strong international institutions, and the vigorous development of alternative sources of energy which will weaken the dependence of all Western states on imported hydrocarbons.