Wednesday, Aug. 13, 2008

The Russian Empire Strikes Back

Russia's invasion of Georgia has less to do with South Ossetia than with a Russia that never reconciled itself to losing an empire — or to being treated like a second-rate power all these years. Russia's resentment has only grown as oil prices have risen, turning Russia, with the 5 million bbl. of oil it exports a day, into a first-world economic power. It was only a matter of time, then, before Russia taught the world a lesson.

Since the Soviet Union collapsed 17 years ago, Washington in particular has deluded itself into believing that it was somehow a real competitor to Russia in the southern tier of the former Soviet Union — that is, the eight states that make up the Caucasus and the former Soviet Central Asia. Washington acted as if these states were truly independent and sovereign, immune from the influence of the old metropolitan center, Moscow. Washington deliberately ignored how Russia had held on to its military bases in the southern tier, how the successor to the KGB stayed more plugged into intelligence from the area than the CIA ever hoped to, and how local leaders flew to Moscow to clear all important decisions. This was the context for Washington's push to get Georgia to join NATO.

Moscow's intentions were never secret. I can attest to that firsthand. During Tajikistan's civil war in the early 1990s, I was assigned to the embassy in Dushanbe and was evacuated out of the country by Russia's 201st Motorized Rifle Division. The Russian officers who commanded the unit were proud that the Red Army had held together through the breakup of the Soviet Union and was called to come to the aid of a superpower like the United States. They had no inkling that Washington would ignore the facts on the ground and deny Russia's true influence in the region.

The picking apart of Yugoslavia, particularly the splitting off of Kosovo from Serbia, further fueled Russian resentment and humiliation. It reminded Russia how the U.S. had undermined it in the Middle East, peeling off Egypt, South Yemen, Iraq and Syria from its sphere of influence over the decades. But more than anything else, Russia would never forget that it was Washington that created the Sunni jihadist Frankenstein in Afghanistan. That was an arrow pointed straight at the heart of Russia. With Muslims making up 10% to 15% of Russia's population, the Afghan-born jihad became an existential threat to Russia proper. Indeed, it would slosh across the continent into Chechnya.

Through it all, Russia bided its time — until Georgia offered up a golden opportunity last Friday. By invading its neighbor, Russia has crossed the Rubicon, demonstrating that the Caucasus sit squarely and solely in Russia's sphere of influence. Moscow's long-term objectives in Georgia no doubt are to install a friendly government in Tbilisi (it has tried more than once to do that since Georgian independence), keep Georgia out of NATO, stop the flow of arms into Chechnya and take control of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, the only important export route from the Caspian that does not pass through Russia. For it is oil that will give Russia all the more leverage over the southern tier.

The question now is what else Russia is prepared to do to make up for those 17 years of humiliation. One thing we should pretty much count on is that Moscow right now is casting an eye toward Iran, the most direct route to restoring its influence in the Middle East. An Iranian-Russian alliance, Moscow knows, would be an Israeli-American nightmare, not to mention a major headache for the global economy. Russia sitting on Eurasian oil exports and Iran on the Strait of Hormuz would put 22 million bbl. a day under the control of a very unfriendly alliance. Will Moscow try to team up with Tehran?

The thing about nightmare scenarios is that they rarely come true. Still, it bears watching. There are half a dozen pending arms deals between Russia and Iran on the table, including the Russian S-300, an air-defense system that would make an aerial attack on Iran very costly. If Russia, emboldened by a victory in Georgia, were to go ahead with the deal now, it would be a sign that imperial Russia is truly back on the move.