June 12, 2006
Putin, Iran and the CaucasusBy Douglas Hanson
The antique media and the punditry continue to dismiss or ignore the overall geo—strategic picture concerning our stand—off with Iran over the development of nuclear weapons technology.� Largely unnoticed is the US and Coalition's successful�maneuvers to establish an outer cordon around Persia and the other radical Islamist states in the region.� A critical ally in establishing this blockade is the Republic of Georgia.
For centuries, Georgia has occupied the strategically vital land bridge between the Black and Caspian Seas.� This has historically placed the country at the mercies of two powerful neighbors: Russia and Persia.*� It is no different today, given Russia's covert and overt support of the mullahs' nuclear program and the requirement for secure trade routes.� For Putin, his fellow Russian nationalists, and Ahmadinejad the task at hand is simple: defend and maintain the Eurasian lines of communication and commerce to permit the flow of banned materials and to control both legitimate and criminal enterprises in the region.
Russian Domination of Georgia
In the heyday of the Silk Road, Georgia controlled the land passages through the Caucasus Mountains and port facilities on the Black Sea.� In the late 1700s, its leaders signed a protectorate treaty with the Russian Empire for help in defending itself from an imminent Persian invasion.� When the Persians attacked in 1795, the Russians ignored repeated pleas to honor its treaty commitments, and in 1864, simply annexed the entire country.
Georgia enjoyed a few years of independence in the wake of the Russian Revolution, but the invasion of the Red Army in 1921 put an end to dreams of a return to a sovereign kingdom.� The Post—WW II Soviet buildup in the small country again highlighted its strategic importance.� NATO member Turkey was just a few hours away, so Georgia had the dubious honor of hosting the second largest Soviet base during the Cold War.
Outside of its military significance, the supposedly classless communist empire had other interests in Georgia which provided further incentive for the new breed of Russian Nationalists and the remaining nomenklatura to doggedly fight any Western expansion into the Caucasus.� Controlling the Silk Road and Black Sea ports also meant controlling suitable areas for gas and oil pipelines and a generations—old illicit drug trade.� The ability to easily transfer nuclear technology and know—how to Persia was an added benefit.� Once again at the center of the storm, the Georgians' fear of Persia is now only matched by the dread of again coming under the thumb of the Russians.
Georgia finally started to shed the last vestiges of the Russian Empire in November of 2003 when they ushered President Edvard Shevardnadze out of the statehouse during the Rose Revolution.� However, Putin was not about to let another state of the Former Soviet Union slip away without a fight, especially one that sits on strategic terrain and if allowed to pursue democracy, would certainly put Russia's money interests at risk.
Russia Counters Western Moves
As part of GWOT operations, the Bush administration decided that radical Islamists would not receive a free ride into Europe from the Central Region.� In 2002, the US responded to Georgia's request for assistance in its counter—terrorism program and deployed Special Forces to train Georgian units and to conduct operations in the Chechen terrorist haven of the Pankisi Gorge.� The military assistance program has evolved resulting in the establishment of several Georgian combined arms brigades and a small air force.
The first evidence of resistance to the pursuit of a full—fledged democracy was the agonizingly slow withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgian territory.� In some cases, Putin stubbornly refused to honor agreements stipulating integrity of Georgia's traditional borders by maintaining a garrison in South Ossetia and by ostensibly 'helping' staff a UN peacekeeping force in the breakaway Georgian province of Abkhazia.� Putin was even so bold as to station troops at a Soviet—era listening post overlooking a NATO training base before reluctantly withdrawing them in 2005!
Then an additional 20,000 Russians were withdrawn to the south into Armenia.� From Putin's point of view, Armenia is the last hope to secure commerce and pipeline routes into south Asia to leverage his own and the mullahs' vast energy resources and to export commercial and military technology.� From the Georgians' perspective, they are sandwiched between two large Russian combat contingents.
Russia also flexed its muscles by continuing to play with the flow of natural gas supplies just as it did with Ukraine.� Earlier this year, a mysterious group of 'terrorists' blew up a gas pipeline in Russian—controlled South Ossetia, which is within Georgia's traditional boundaries.� Not coincidentally, the detonation was located in the very southern part of Ossetia, meaning the province and its Russian troop garrison received all of the gas it needed, while Georgia had to deal with another electrical power crisis.
To help the sometimes shaky electrical power situation, a new pipeline is planned from the oil—rich Caspian Sea basin through Georgia to the Turkish port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea.� But Georgia needs significant infrastructure modernization before this can become a viable conduit for energy stockpiles and trade revenue.� Make no mistake; we should expect the 'Pipeline Wars' to continue as Putin attempts to outmaneuver the West to hang on to energy and trade routes in the region.� In this regard, the balance of geo—political maneuvers seems to be tipping to the US and the West, in that recent overtures to Azerbaijan have nominally moved this country into our camp.
Putin's US Apologists
In a rather surprising commentary in the Washington Times last month, Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor at large of the Times and UPI, takes up for Putin and assails a US policy that is supposedly causing the Russian 'democracy' to shrink.� It's amazing that de Borchgrave misses the entire point of our maneuvers in the Global War on Terror, while soft—pedaling Russian and Persian cooperation on both the mullahs' nuclear program and on conventional weapons deals.� Apparently, he views GW as the aggressor because he has dared to take action to block lines of commerce between a fanatical terrorist state and a former enemy of now—dubious intentions.
De Borchgrave's fellow member of the Council on Foreign Relations, Charles A. Kupchan, opines� that the 'bloom is off the Rose revolution,' and tries to make the case that Georgia's struggle for freedom and democracy is somehow going down the tubes because the current Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, dares to fight for his country's territorial integrity.� He notes in the port town of Sukhumi in the breakaway province of Abkhazia that,
It's ironic that he writes from the port of Sukhumi and claims that these poor people are being taken advantage of by Georgia.� How does he think the Russians were able to build all of these now—abandoned resorts on the Black Sea coast?� Sukhumi is the major port for opium originating in Afghanistan to be shipped to Europe.� Abkazhia is therefore a criminal economic cash cow and had been for generations of Russian/Soviet elites who have taken their cut of this profitable dope smuggling operation.� Now that we back Saakashvilli in his attempt to regain what rightfully belongs to Georgia, the UN dreams up a plan to station peacekeepers on the border between the Abkhazia and Georgia — Russian peacekeepers of course.
The economic aspect of the War on Terror is more than just drying up financial resources of terror groups. Operation Iraqi Freedom stuck a dagger in the heart of the Russia — France — Iraq financial nexus and their allies in the UN.� Russian and French economic, military and technical support to Saddam showed how so—called allies will pursue their slimy business deals with oil—rich tyrants even if it means opposing the establishment of a new democracy.� The common actor in both the Iraq and Iran money for dictatorship programs is of course, Putin.
Vice—President Cheney recently admonished Putin for his aggression against Russia's neighbors while simultaneously letting his own country slide into a nationalistic autocracy.� Putin's call for a new arms race openly communicates what has been going on under the radar for several years.� Rising energy prices have enabled oil—rich Russia and its ally to the south to mount a steady conventional and nuclear weapons buildup.� Money from contracts for refurbishing Persian nuclear facilities and ancillary services would further fuel the development of a more capable Russian military.� And all of this depends on ages—old trade routes through countries that are no longer easy pickings for Putin or the Persian mullahs.
So the next time Ahmadinejad spouts off with one of his rants, keep in mind that he has a more rational partner to the north who needs the mullahs as a source of revenue.� We must realize that by design, Putin is of little or no help in negotiations over Persia's nascent nuclear program.� And perhaps he is more of a hindrance than an ally in the larger War on Terror.
* Georgians generally refer to their large southern neighbor as 'Persia,' and do not use the term 'Iran,' since they view it as a modern artificial construct.
Douglas Hanson is the national security correspondent for The American Thinker.� He recently returned from the Caucasus.