Russia reasserts its power in Georgia

After a period of weakness, Russia pushes back against the growth of U.S. influence in the region. Lee Sustar explains

DETAILS OF a cease-fire in the Russia-Georgia war were still being haggled over as the ISR went to press—but the international political impact of Russia’s invasion of the former USSR republic was already clear. Russia is a full-fledged great power once more, and is prepared to use military force as well as its growing economic power to contest U.S. attempts to encircle it. Georgia’s military, recently upgraded to NATO standards with U.S. money, weapons and advisers, is shattered. Also in ruins are plans for Georgia—the key link in the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline—to serve as an alternative to Russia-based pipelines from the Caspian Sea to Europe.

For U.S. politicians and the media, it was occasion to denounce the “invasion of a sovereign state” as “imperialism”—as opposed to military action by “coalition forces” to restore “democracy” in Afghanistan and Iraq. And for Washington’s military-political strategists, it was a stunning defeat. After absorbing into NATO Moscow’s old Eastern European satellites and the three Baltic states formerly part of the USSR, the U.S. calculated that it could use the pro-Western 2003 “Rose Revolution” in Georgia and the the following year’s “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine to catapult those two former republics of the USSR into the alliance as well. “Russia plus Ukraine is the Russian Empire, which can never be a democracy,” David Frum, the former Bush administration speechwriter and author of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech, wrote in an article hailing the Orange Revolution.

Since then, however, the U.S. drive to assimilate Russia’s “near abroad” has run out of steam. The Orange Revolution has failed to produce the desired results, as the coalition supporting the pro-U.S. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has fragmented over several issues, not least of which is whether to antagonize Moscow by joining NATO. Moscow raised the stakes by using energy supplies to pressure Ukraine and, to underscore the point, did the same to its ally, the neo-Stalinist regime in neighboring Belarus, when that country balked at paying higher prices for natural gas.

Meanwhile, in Central Asia, Russia has also successfully pushed back against the United States. In Kyrgyzstan, the pro-Western “Tulip Revolution” of 2005 was supposed to create a pro-Washington administration in the country. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. quickly obtained an air base in the city of Manas, a key facility for the war in Afghanistan. Now, however, the Kyrgyzstan government has threatened to close the base and tilted back towards Moscow. While dramatically raising the rent the U.S. must pay for the Manas base—it initially demanded an increase from $2 million to $200 million per year—the Kyrgyzstan government in 2006 allowed Russia to expand its own rent-free military airbase nearby. Kyrgyzstan President Kurmanbek Bakiyev is wary of U.S. influence over non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that participated in a popular uprising that was—as in the Ukraine, Georgia, and, earlier, Serbia—backed by U.S. groups working through the congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy.

The U.S. suffered an even bigger setback in the adjacent Uzbekistan, where the dictator Islam Karimov, fearful of a name-brand “revolution” on his turf, launched a murderous crackdown on opposition parties. Next, he ordered the closure of an important U.S. airbase that was just two hours flying time from anywhere in Afghanistan. Karimov, who was happy to accept U.S. money and political support against a shared enemy in Islamist political groups, now once again looks to Moscow for help in maintaining his police state. The U.S. has also been largely frozen out in Turkmenistan, where it hoped to use the 2006 death of the eccentric dictator Saparmurat Niyazov as an opening for investment and pipeline politics. Instead, Russia’s Gazprom has aggressively moved in to lock in contracts to develop gas exploration and pipelines.

George Friedman of the Stratfor consulting group summed up the situation:

The Russian invasion of Georgia has not changed the balance of power in Eurasia. It simply announced that the balance of power had already shifted. The United States has been absorbed in its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as potential conflict with Iran and a destabilizing situation in Pakistan. It has no strategic ground forces in reserve and is in no position to intervene on the Russian periphery.

To be sure, the U.S. hasn’t lost everything in this twenty-first century rerun of the imperial “great game” in Central Asia. The U.S. has close ties with oil- and gas-rich Kazakhstan, where the corrupt dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev remains president for life via sham elections and connections with U.S. politicians, including former President Bill Clinton. But Nazerbayev takes care to maintain proper relations with Russia, including a 2006 expansion of oil pipelines via Russia to the West. Even worse—from the U.S. point of view—Nazarbayev has so far refused to commit to plans for a new oil and gas pipeline that would bypass Russia, a stance that brought a personal visit to Nazarbayev from a worried Dick Cheney. And in oil-rich Azerbaijan in the Caucusus region, the U.S. orchestrated the 2003 Stalinist-monarchical succession from President Heidar Aliyev to his son, Prime Minister Ilham Aliyev, in an election that international observers declared to be fraudulent.

The lesson was clear enough: Governments in the ex-USSR states that are pro-Moscow are ripe for a U.S.-funded, theme-based “revolution,” while pro-U.S. stooges get away with corruption and repression as long as its covered with an electoral fig leaf. Even Georgia, held up by the U.S. as a model of democracy among the post-Soviet nations, has seen plenty of old-school Stalinist tactics under the U.S. darling, President Mikheil Saakashvili, the U.S.-educated lawyer who was elected in the aftermath of the Rose Revolution. In November 2007, Saakashvili broke with his longtime collaborator, as the two traded mutual accusations of Mafia connections and political murder. The New York Times described what happened next:

The president of Georgia declared a state of emergency [November 7] after riot police officers used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon to clear thousands of demonstrators from the streets of Tbilisi, the capital. The order immediately closed two television stations and banned public assembly in the capital, a senior government official said by telephone.

The country’s principal opposition news outlet, Imedi television, went off the air as a special forces unit, its members armed and in dark masks, entered the station’s offices. By then at least 365 people had gone to hospitals with injuries, the country’s Health Ministry said.

Saakashvili’s attack on peaceful demonstrators was ignored in Western capitals. He survived the ensuing political crisis by calling for early elections on January 8. He won by making his most explicitly nationalist appeal yet—reasserting Georgian government control over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, regions populated by ethnic minorities who had violently rebelled from the hard-line nationalist agenda of post-Soviet Georgia’s first president, Zviad Gamsakhurdia. After regional civil wars and large-scale ethnic cleansing—particularly in Abkhazia, where at least 100,000 ethnic Georgians were expelled—the two regions had functioned as quasi-independent states under the protection of Russian “peacekeeping” troops. Russian leaders point to NATO’s recognition of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia—a move they strenuously opposed—as justification for their moves to prevent Georgia from asserting control over Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Ironically, Georgians themselves had long endured national oppression by Russia, which has dominated the region since the late eighteenth century and formally annexed Georgia in 1801. The Russian Revolution of 1917 briefly opened the possibility of Georgian self-determination, but the Menshevik social democratic government aligned itself with Britain and France during their intervention in the Russian Civil War. In 1921, a Bolshevik-led uprising, backed up by invading Russian Red Army troops, installed a pro-Soviet government.

The Russian revolutionary leader Lenin saw the invasion as a necessary evil, and, while gravely ill, championed Georgian national rights against Josef Stalin, himself a Georgian. “The Georgian [Stalin] who is neglectful of this aspect of the question, or who carelessly flings about accusations of ‘nationalist-socialism’ (whereas he himself is a real and true ‘nationalist-socialist,’ and even a vulgar Great Russian bully), violates, in substance, the interests of proletarian class solidarity,” Lenin wrote.

Georgian nationalism reemerged in the twilight years of the USSR. In 1989, interior ministry troops used poison gas on unarmed demonstrators in some of the worst repression under the reformist USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev. Yet at the same time, Abkhazians, though only about 18 percent of the population of their historic homeland along the Black Sea coast, reacted against Gamsakhurdia’s efforts to abolish the autonomous status that the region, like South Ossetia, had held under the USSR. Full-scale war ensued, with the Ossetians and Abkhazians getting Russian military support. The wars ended only with the ouster of Gamsakhurdia in a coup in 1993.

Filling the power vacuum was Eduard Schevardnadze, the former foreign minister of the USSR, who had been the Stalinist ruler of Georgia in the 1970s. Schevardnadze had to tolerate the South Ossetian and Abkhazia breakaways under Russian auspices, and for a decade ran Georgia as kind of a buffer state between Moscow and Washington. But by 2003, the U.S. was prepared to put its money down on Saakashvili, who by then was a lawyer in a New York law firm. He quickly became the leading figure in the Rose Revolution, which saw mass protests against election fraud that eventually forced Schevardnadze’s resignation.

At first, Saakashvili tried to reintegrate the breakaway regions without a direct military confrontation. The model was Muslim-majority region of Ajaria, where Saakashvili played on local political rivalries to remove a leader who had ruled the territory as his personal fiefdom. To that end, Saakashvili sponsored a “provisional government” for South Ossetia that could provide a political cover to assert control by the Georgian state. But electoral considerations prompted Saakashvili to take a more aggressive line, as he rehabilitated Gamsakhurdia’s “Georgia for the Georgians” nationalism that had alarmed ethnic minorities.

This tough new message dovetailed with Washington’s aim to bring Georgia into NATO. Georgia provided more than 2,000 troops for the occupation of Iraq and, in return, was showered with money and guns to create a military that was “interoperable” with those of the Western alliance. At the same time, the U.S. moved to install anti-ballistic missile systems in the Czech Republic and Poland, adding to the military and political pressure on Russia.

Thus the stage was set for the Russia-Georgia war. While the U.S. claims that it tried to discourage Georgia from precipitous military action in South Ossetia, surely Georgia would not have launched its August 7 attack on Ossetian separatists without at least passive acquiescence from the U.S. The likeliest explanation is that both the Bush administration and Saakashvili underestimated Russia’s willingness to use overwhelming military force. But Russia has long since recovered from its economic and military disarray of the early 1990s. Under Vladimir Putin, the former president turned prime minister, it crushed the insurgency in Chechnya several years ago. It has some of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world, and is flush with cash. The U.S., by contrast, is beset with economic and military crises. Whatever support Saakashvili thought Washington could deliver, the U.S. could offer little more than words.

As a consequence, Russian troops were able to seize control of Georgia fairly quickly and destroy its NATO-class military. And the expanded NATO, which had appeared as a formidable force, now looks rather hollow, particularly in light of the U.S.’s difficulty in getting NATO countries to commit troops to the war in Afghanistan.

Anyone who is opposed to imperialism can only be outraged by Russia’s brute force in conquering and humiliating Georgia. But everyone should understand that it is the driving force of U.S. imperialism that has made war inevitable on the periphery of the USSR. Washington’s relentless drive to dominate a “new world order” run by a sole superpower has instead ushered in endless wars and great-power rivalries. Both John McCain or Barack Obama are committed to maintaining the pre-eminence of U.S. power—which means the antiwar movement must be prepared to oppose U.S. policy far beyond  Iraq. 

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

Issue contents

Top story



Critical Thinking