The geostrategic context of the South Caucasus and the Black Sea from the point of view of the 2008 war

The geostrategic context of the South Caucasus and the Black Sea from the point of view of the 2008 war
Source: Zbigniew Brzezinsky
Source: Zbigniew Brzezinsky

From the point of view of international relations the Caucasus is a “subregional security complex” for Europe, being at the same time coagulated around a zero sum relationship (Armenia and Azerbaijan) to which are added relations of circumstantial cooperation/competition between Armenia and Georgia or Azerbaijan and Georgia. All of these states being consumers of security, they often stake on the great powers capable of offering them security guarantees.

The South Caucasus region is included in what Zbigniew Brzezinski called the “Balkans of Eurasia,” forming a wide rectangle (see Map 1) characterized by a vacuum of power of political entities determined to oppose another entity dominating the region, calling on the interference of stronger neighbors – a situation similar to that of the Balkans of South-East Europe. Another characteristic of these states consists of serious internal difficulties, featuring borders that are the object of their neighbors’ claims or areas of ethnic revolts. Given the fact that these states’ borders were arbitrarily drawn by Soviet mapmakers in the 1920s and 1930s, at the time the aforementioned Soviet republics were formally established, in this region few states are homogenous from a national standpoint, and some were involved in territorial, ethnic or religious conflicts.

Nevertheless, the nature of interactions between states in the South Caucasus forms a veritable puzzle of interdependence: Georgia is a vital piece for Armenia’s functioning (70-75 per cent of Armenia’s trade transits the Georgian territory, and the port of Poti is an essential link for ensuring food security; moreover, Armenia’s internet access also depends on its contiguity with the Georgian territory); at the same time Georgia depends to the utmost extent on natural gas deliveries from Azerbaijan, while Azerbaijan’s access to the European market is being done through the infrastructure that transits the territory of Georgia. At the same time, since the second half of the 1990s Tbilisi developed its profile as a Black Sea riparian state, doubling its efforts to “escape” from the South Caucasus which was perceived as a region with a deficit of PR, joining the Western project under construction – “the wider Black Sea region” during the two waves of EU and NATO expansion. However, the Russian-Georgian war of 2008 and the fact that the “wider Black Sea region” project fell off the American agenda led to a change of perspective in Tbilisi. Georgia is trying to take advantage of the Eastern Partnership in order to position itself as an Eastern European state. Moreover, the state of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan transforms Georgia into a pivotal state in the South Caucasus imposing a subtle balance and thus “returning” to the region.

It’s an established reality that the European Union shows a peripheral, even superficial, haphazard and spontaneous interest towards the Caucasus region, in parallel with the regional intentions of Ankara, the latter having a poignant influence over Baku, where the Sunni Turkish influence interacts with the Shiite Iranian one. Obviously, cooperation with this region falls under the aegis of the “energy hub” – a role that Turkey took on as part of the East-West Energy Corridor (“the 20th Century Silk Road”).

This plan rests on two main pillars:

  1. The BTC (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) oil pipeline, that has a length of approximately 1,800 kilometers and a capacity of one million barrels per day, is operational since 2006 after considerable American-Turkish political and financial effort.
  2. The BTE (Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan) natural gas pipeline has a length of approximately 700 kilometers, carrying natural gas from Azerbaijan to Turkey through Georgia, and a current capacity of approximately 8 billion cubic meters per year, scheduled to grow to 20 billion cubic meters after supplementary investments.

Turkey’s distancing from the European Union makes Tbilisi perceive her as a regional power that no longer projects the West’s interests in the region. Yet Georgia is a small state located in a region of many conflicts (North Caucasus, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh), and the range of her options in this case becomes limited to two: Russia or the West.

The current political regime in Tbilisi is in great part the result of the Rose Revolution of 2003, following lengthy peaceful protests which the opponents of Shevardnadze’s regime (Nino Burjanadze, Mikheil Saakashvili and Zviad Zhvania), who were in favor of adopting democratic norms internally and moving closer to the West externally, organized. Basically the Rose Revolution permitted the launch of a series of reforms meant to strengthen the country’s military and economic capabilities. The new government’s efforts to instate Georgia’s authority over the autonomous republic of Adjara, located in the country’s south-west, led to a major crisis at the start of 2004. The success registered with Adjara encouraged President Saakashvili to intensify the efforts to take control of South Ossetia too, however these efforts were left with no result. These events, corroborated with the accusations that Georgia got involved in the Second Chechen War that Putin started in 2001, led to a severe deterioration in relations with Russia, also fueled by Russia’s open assistance for the two secessionist republics.

Despite the difficult relations, in May 2005 Georgia and Russia signed a bilateral agreement through which Russia’s military bases in Batumi and Akhalkalaki (dating back from Soviet times), were closed down. Russia fulfilled her obligations, withdrawing all troops and equipment from those bases by December 2007 (ahead of schedule).

Hostilities between the Ossetian separatists supported by Russian army units and Georgian armed forces started in July 2008. The situation rapidly escalated into a war between Georgia on one hand, and Russia and the Ossetian and Abkhazian separatists on the other. On the evening of August 7, 2008, Georgian armed forces started their operations in South Ossetia, backed by artillery and rocket launchers. Russia immediately accused the Georgian government of “genocide,” claiming that 1,600 Ossetian civilians were killed by the Georgian army. These accusations have not been proven yet, and Human Rights Watch accused Russia of exaggerating the number of casualties. On August 8, 2008, units of Russia’s 58th Army entered South Ossetia through the Roki tunnel controlled by Russia. At the same time, the Russian air forces conducted a series of air raids against targets located on Georgian territory. After several days of hard fighting, the Georgian troops were repelled from South Ossetia. Meanwhile, Russian army units stationed in the other separatist region (Abkhazia) entered western Georgia on August 11. Nevertheless, under the pressure of the international community (the US and the European Union in particular), the Russian President (Medvedev) put a stop to military operations in Georgia. On August 12, 2008, President Medvedev met French President Nicolas Sarkozy, the two approving a six-point peace plan.

On August 14, 2008, Medvedev met separatist leaders Eduard Kokoity (South Ossetia) and Sergei Bagapsh (Abkhazia), who signed the peace plan. On August 22, 2008, the Russian Defense Minister reported that the military units used in the peace-enforcement mission completed their mission and withdrew from Georgian territory. Until now Russia has not signaled the intention of putting an end to her military presence in the two regions disputed by Georgia. In fact, in August 2008 Russia recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, maintaining the troops stationed in these countries.

The conflict of August 2008 has radically changed the geostrategic outlook on 3 levels: the Black Sea region, the CIS region, the global level. This conflict represented the expression of Russia’s new Security and Foreign Policy and in this context Georgia recalibrated its military strategy adopted by the Saakashvili regime in 2010.

This article was translated by Robert Chirita from Geopolitics.ro.

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