Behind the Crisis in the Caucasus: Russian Isolation or Inclusion in the International Arena?

Written by Aharon-David Copperman

INSS Insight No. 72, September 19, 2008 
Aharon-David Copperman
The outbreak of the crisis in the Caucasus goes much deeper than Russia's concern for the welfare of residents of South Ossetia, a non-Russian ethnic minority. The actual reason for Russia's invasion of Georgia stems from a clash of interests between Russia and the West on four fronts, each reflected in this crisis.
Indeed, while it was Georgia that Russia invaded, Russia's expectation was that reverberations of its invasion into Gori and Poti would resound not only in Tbilisi and Kiev, but also in Brussels and Washington. Understanding the geopolitical context and the time dimension will paint a clearer picture of the crisis and perhaps suggest directions for its possible resolution.

In most of the power struggles in recent years between Russia and the US, the US and the West have taken the initiative and occasionally scored successes, at least in the short term. In August 2008, following the incursion of Georgian soldiers into South Ossetia, Russia seized an opportunity to take the initiative and from its standpoint achieve success on those same fronts. The Russian invasion into Georgia is merely one battle in the overall broader campaign of the clash of interests waged between the sides.

The First Front: Insufficient Attention to Russian Interests in the International Arena

Kosovo can serve as an example of this front's clash of interests between the West and Russia. For several years the inhabitants of Kosovo, the separatist Albanian region in Serbia, have demanded independence. Russia, an ethnic federation and significant ally of Serbia, vehemently opposed granting independence to Kosovo. Russia feared that international recognition for an independent separatist ethnic district would serve as a precedent for separatist regions at home, for example, Chechnya. However prominent Western countries, including the US, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy decided for various reasons to ignore the Russian interest and recognize the state immediately following its declaration of independence in February 2008. The current Russian president, Medvedev, said then that Kosovo's independence would "lead to the undermining of stability and security in Europe and would set all Europe on fire."

In August 2008, Russia apparently found an opportunity to prove its claim and exact a price from the West and the US for their disregard of the Russian interest. Russia indeed has always supported autonomy for South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but the timing of its invasion into Georgia was far from coincidental. The exercise of Russian force followed by recognition of the independence of these regions, while demonstrably ignoring the stances of the European Union and the US, was an initiated response by the Russians to the West turning its back on Russian interests in the matter of Kosovo. On August 27, one day after Russia recognized the independence of the regions, the Russian president assessed, "we acted like other countries did in regard to Kosovo."

The Second Front: The Renewed Struggle between East and West

The US and some European countries are concerned about Iran's armament campaign and the progress of its nuclear program. Consequently, the US has for some time been deliberating with Poland and Czechoslovakia, its strategic partners in Central Europe, over the possibility of placing defense systems on their territories to guard against a potential Iranian threat. In order to dispel Russian concerns, the US proposed that Poland allow Russian observers permanent access to these systems, but the Poles rejected the proposal. For its part Russia has argued that the projected sites of the systems challenge the true intentions of the US and its partners. Poland borders Belarus, Russia's prominent ally and its western neighbor; in Russian eyes, locating the systems there is tantamount to placing missile systems on its actual border.

As far as the Russians are concerned, the US insistence on keeping Russia out of the picture regarding its decision over the location of the defense systems on the one hand, and its decision to install those systems precisely in Russia's "backyard" on the other, are possible indications of a return by the US to an era of a quasi East-West arms race. Already in April 2008, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that placing the systems in Poland and Czechoslovakia without supplying satisfactory assurances to Russia would lead Russia to a military-technological response. The Russian military attack on its southern neighbor, Georgia, may be an initial Russian signal to the US and Europe of the ability of the former superpower to return and activate its military might against the West in the 21st century.

The Third Front: A Western Foothold in Traditional Regions of Russian Influence

The US views partnership with the new democracies in Eastern Europe and Central Asia as an important strategic objective; it thus seeks to strengthen the democratic regimes there with assistance to their militaries and economies. Such US activity is not looked on favorably by the Russian leadership. Russia is not interested in the restoration of democratic regimes with Western style anti-Russian leanings in its immediate vicinity and in regions that historically were under its influence. Moreover, Russia views NATO's eastern expansion with suspicion and as an infringement along its borders.

The inclusion of central European countries like Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia, and East European countries bordering Russia like Estonia and Latvia to NATO is perceived in Russia as an emerging potential threat to its security. Consequently, US support for the consolidation of anti-Russian Western regimes in Georgia and Ukraine, two former Soviet Union countries that border Russia, and their addition to NATO constitutes, in Russian eyes, the further crossing of a red line. But despite Russia's resolute and severe opposition, the secretary of the organization made a pledge at the NATO summit in April regarding Georgia and Ukraine joining the Alliance: Ultimately they would be accepted as full members of the organization. In response, the Russian deputy minister of foreign affairs, Alexander Grushko, said the acceptance of those countries to the organization would constitute "a terrible mistake with severe repercussions for pan-European security." Lavrov added that membership in NATO would prompt a worsening of Russia's relations with Georgia and the Ukraine.

The attack on Georgia, under the pretext of defending local inhabitants of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, demonstrates just how critical it is to Russia that Georgia and Ukraine remain under its patronage and not become military allies of the world's largest military power, the US, or its European partners. Moscow hopes this campaign will underscore to the West just how inadvisable it is to fan the flames of this regional fire and how important it is for Russia to retain influence and strategic supremacy in its immediate vicinity.

The Fourth Front: Russia's Primacy as an Energy Supplier (Oil and Gas)

Russia is one of the world's largest exporters of oil and natural gas. Moreover, because resource-rich Central Asian countries lack direct access to the Black Sea and to Europe, they sell Russia natural gas at half price while Russia in turn sells it at full price to Europe. In other words, Russian profits from energy sales to Europe depend not only upon those resources, but also on their transfer from Central Asia to Europe. Europe is naturally interested in reducing its growing dependency on Russia and therefore is working to find alternative ways of importing gas and oil from Central Asia. The most efficient alternative is to import directly from Georgia, the only country aside from Russia with a continental connection to both Central Asia (via Azerbaijan and the Caspian Sea) and the European Union (via the Black Sea).

In recent years, two pipelines were opened through which Georgia exports Azeri oil to Europe, via its port on the Black Sea and the Turkish port on the Mediterranean. The pipeline running through Georgia to the Black Sea port runs near Gori and the port city of Poti, two cities the Russians took pains to conquer when they invaded the country. But what really worries the Russians are the plans by the West and Georgia to break the Russian monopoly on natural gas exports to Europe by building a pipeline in the Caspian Sea connecting gas reserves of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan) to Azerbaijan and from there moving onward through Georgia to Europe (the Nabucco project). Russia's first and foremost interest is that Europe's dependency on it for supplying natural energy remains unaltered and that no viable alternative be found. By invading Georgia, Russia has attempted to signal that it will allow no such alternative to materialize. Undermining the stability of the regime in Georgia plus decisive Russian influence in South Ossetia (in close proximity to the routes of the proposed pipelines) and Abkhazia (with its strategic port on the Black Sea) will allow Russia to strengthen its footing as the sole export baron for energy resources from the eastern side of the world to the west.


The current crisis in the Caucasus is the outcome of a clash of interests between Russia and the US and the West in a number of arenas: insufficient consideration of the Russian interest in the international arena, the renewed struggle between East and West, a Western foothold in regions of Russian interest, and challenge to the Russian energy monopoly. Thus an attempt to solve the crisis in the Caucasus by focusing on the status of the separatist districts in Georgia would miss the mark and overlook the true roots of the problem. South Ossetia and Abkhazia are merely indications of a broader picture signifying a crisis of trust in relations between Russia and the West, and the lack of understanding, internalizing, and honoring each side's respective interests.

There are numerous diverse issues on the international agenda far more important than the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Cooperation and productive dialogue between the sides can happen only by seeing the range of mutual interests, prioritizing them, and understanding how the more important interests can be realized.

The contents are based on presentations by Dr. Brenda Shaffer and Yaakov Kedmi at a closed discussion at the Institute for National Security Studies.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.

You are now being logged in using your Facebook credentials