David J. Smith*
TBILISI - Another round of international talks on the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia is underway this week in Geneva. Meanwhile, Russia is tightening its vice-grip, transforming the two occupied territories into military garrisons. Moreover, Russian forces cling to the Akhalgori District and the village of Perevi, neither of which is part of nearby South Ossetia. This Russian military buildup has important strategic consequences not only for Georgia, but for the East-West Corridor.
Six months after the hot phase of Russia’s war on Georgia, Russia continues to violate the Six Point Agreement that it signed with Georgia and the European Union Presidency. According to that agreement, Russian forces must withdraw from Akhalgori and Perevi and none but the peacekeeping forces in Abkhazia and South Ossetia before the war should remain. Instead, they are digging in.
Georgian Government sources estimate that over 10.000 Russian troops now occupy the Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. They include light infantry, armor and special forces, equipped with tanks, armored personnel carriers, helicopters, rockets and air defense batteries.
In South Ossetia, construction has been completed at four Russian military bases. Among these is the base at Ugardanta, near Java, stealthily begun by Russia in 2006, figuring prominently in Russia’s August 2008 attack on Georgia.
In Abkhazia, there have long been doubts about Russia’s claim to have withdrawn from the former Soviet airbase at Gudauta, as it agreed to do in the 1999 Istanbul Accords. Now, Russian fighter and cargo aircraft frequent the place, which, interestingly, appears to have been well maintained over the years. Russia is also rehabilitating the former Soviet naval base at Ochamchire and building other facilities in Abkhazia.
The massive Russian buildup in Abkhazia and South Ossetia consolidates its occupation of these Georgian territories.
It also threatens the East-West Corridor through the South Caucasus, a vital Western interest. Russia’s air and missile strikes that bracketed the Baku-Supsa oil Pipeline last August were the first shots in a Kremlin gambit to choke the East-West Corridor.
That this went largely unnoticed in all the commentary about Russia’s August attack on Georgia attests to the acute strategic autism that has seized the west.
The seeds of this conflict were sown with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of Georgian independence. Those seeds germinated, however, in 1994 when Azeri President Heidar Aliyev concluded “the deal of the century” for western exploitation of Caspian Sea hydrocarbon resources.
“Russia cannot dictate this question,” said Aliyev. In 1999, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey signed the agreement that led to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline. The BTC deal was sealed on the margins of the same conference at which Russia signed the Istanbul Accords, agreeing to withdraw its military from Georgia. Putin and his cronies never forgot that connection.
BTC affords western access to Caspian Sea and Central Asian energy, offering a choice of customers to the landlocked producing states. Parallel to BTC, natural gas flows from the Caspian Sea’s Shah Deniz field through the South Caucasus Pipeline to the Turkish city of Erzurum, bound for consumers throughout Europe. The Baku-Supsa Pipeline and the Baku-Batumi railroad carry oil to tankers moored at Georgia’s Black Sea ports.
Together, these energy conduits form the critical mass required to promote and sustain a broad East-West commercial corridor. In this regard, the Kars-Tbilisi-Baku Railroad will be a multi-purpose carrier, bringing commercial development along its route and beyond.
Whether by pipeline, rail, road or water—through the Turkish Straits or via the Danube and Rhine Rivers—we have the prospect of linking the Caspian Sea and the Eurasian heartland to a North Atlantic trading system that extends from Batumi and Ceyhan in the east to Houston in the west.
And with commerce come people, so the East-West Corridor will also become a pathway for ideas, perhaps the most important prospect.
It was the prospect of opening up the Eurasian heartland that provoked Russia’s attack on Georgia. Call it a geopolitical clash, a clash between history and post-history, a clash between 19th Century imperialism and 21st Century globalization—the Kremlin aims to throttle any significant western reach into the Eurasian heartland.
Now, from occupied Georgian territory, Russian air and ground forces threaten the energy pipelines, the East-West road and railroad, and the port of Poti. Russian air and naval forces threaten Poti and Batumi, Georgia’s other major port.
Meanwhile, the Russian Navy is creeping back into the Mediterranean, refurbishing the former Soviet base at Tarsus, Syria, just opposite the Turkish port of Ceyhan, terminus of the BTC oil pipeline.
One need not overstate the power of Russia’s anemic Black Sea Fleet to put all the pieces together and see that the Russians are playing geopolitics while westerners play tiddlywinks.
(Published in Tbilisi 24 Saati February 17, 2009)
*David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.
Russian occupation threatens more than Georgia: threat to the East-West corridor