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Photograph: Bells watching over Tbilisi (William Arthurs)
President Medvedev has officially recognised Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states. This move, taken in clear violation of international law and one with very clear advantages for Russia, marks the end of the first chapter of a story that began with an engagement between rebel separatists in South Ossetia and the Georgian army on 7 August, and ended with an invasion by Russia, supposedly acting as peacekeepers in the region.
The activities of the Russian army, however nuanced, amount to nothing more than the cynical usage of power, under the guise of protection, to achieve their long desired geo-political aims:
Russia has masterfully proven that she is the only guarantor of security in the region, because she has the ability to destabilize the region at will. This, of course, was one of the most useful aspects of Russia's failure to use her own power in genuine efforts to settle these disputes.
And for all the West's best efforts to work with Russia, in the belief that her help was essential for solving intractable geo-political problems in the region, specifically Iran, Russia has made no secret of the fact that she is not interested in cooperation. If we are happy to do business with Russia on her terms, well, that's great, but if we expect a level playing field, then forget it. Russia has one aim, the re-establishment of her empire; sadly, her main motivation appears to be bitterness.
The tit-for-tat approach to EU recognition of Kosovo is but one example of this, very unbecoming of a great nation. It is impossible to believe that the big boys in the Kremlin are not fully aware of the difference between Kosovo's situation and that of Georgia's breakaway regions, as are all the most liberal and pro-Russia minded analysts in the West. But this is what Russia has become, a nation with power that behaves like a playground bully and relies on school debating-society points to justify getting what she wants.
Like children, the Russians have also failed to reflect what getting their way might really achieve.
Let's face it, they have taken an autocratic approach to the whole region, and they are not prepared to allow any other influences. Will they be able to continue to develop their economy if Western money flies out of Russia, wary of the way that the BP-TNK joint venture has been treated, with goalposts changed mid-game? Do they really think that central Asia is theirs to take back? A look at the difficulty China is having with East Turkistan should at the least make them question this. And have they never considered that the progression and development of independent and strong societies on their periphery need not be considered a threat, any more than NATO need be considered a threat?
It is perfectly clear that the West have given Putin the benefit of the doubt in the face of all manner of provocation; looking back at the last five years will reveal this to be the case. The thank-you given in response has been the events witnessed in Georgia over the last two weeks.
Russia has flouted international law in respect of both Abkhazia and South Ossetia, making pacts with known criminal elements in these regions where drug trafficking and arms dealing have kept these separatists armed, and looked on whilst innocent Georgian civilians were killed and injured by the irregulars being protected by the Russians.
Nothing has been said of what will become of the Georgians who lived in these regions or how they will be protected. But, still, Putin is a popular autocrat, of the sort the Russians have always lauded.
So what are we to do now? The Russians have effective control of the the energy routes westward, of which the Iranians are the beneficiaries as Azeri supplies are being passed to them for refining (the Azeris had little choice -- the closure of the BTC pipeline has been costing them an unsustainable 100 million USD in revenues per day). And now everyone is looking to Russia with a combination of fear and admiration.
Most worrying of all, there has seemed to be a split developing within the existing NATO nations, a lack of resolve on the part of Germany specifically, given her energy dependence and NordStream pipeline plans.
But Putin may have overplayed his hand. He fully intended to see Saakashvili out of office and preside over the election of a Kremlin yes-man (or -woman), but the clear attempt to destroy all of Georgia's infrastructure and divide Georgia into parts will win the country many friends. And Georgians too may be less willing to rush back into Mother Russia's arms than she expected.
The US navy destroyer USS McFaul has entered the Black Sea region, and is being followed by other NATO ships -- this is a humanitarian effort in the first instance, but is also a reminder to Russia that the West values peace, but will not allow an economic blockade of Georgia to strangle and reduce a nation under the auspices of a ceasefire agreement (albeit one full of ambiguity).
Thus far Russia has relied on our reasonableness and balanced approach to prevent confrontation, but their presence in Georgia amounts to an occupation and could well lead to a direct confrontation with the US and NATO in the Black Sea. The fleet was slow to enter, but its job there is clear, to keep Georgia's ports open. If this is challenged (and having destroyers staring one other down is not an ideal situation), then a direct confrontation between Russia and the USA/ NATO is highly likely.
Quite a legacy for a so-called peacekeeping operation.
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