Over the weekend, Russian President Medvedev signed a ceasefire agreement, intended to bring to a close Moscow’s ten-day military campaign in Georgia.[i] Ignoring US demands however, Russia has made clear that its forces will not be carrying out an early withdrawal. Despite a Russian announcement that a gradual withdrawal was underway, Russian troops and tanks remain in Georgia. Indeed, no timetable for the withdrawal of Russian forces has been given, and officials have mentioned the need for ‘extra security measures’ before this becomes feasible.[ii]
The short war between Russia and Georgia is being viewed by many analysts as a watershed moment in international affairs. While the factor precipitating the crisis was the long-smoldering issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the actions pursued by Russia have a significance extending far beyond the Caucasus. The crisis in Georgia is of huge importance for both EU security and for NATO.[iii] Less widely noted in the last days are the very important implications the latest events have for Israel. The events in Georgia are of vital importance both in themselves, and in terms of what they imply for small states, and how best they can act to defend their interests.
Russia’s war in Georgia showcases the re-emergence of an economically powerful Moscow onto the world stage, determined and able to pursue an international policy in open defiance of the wishes of the US and the EU.[iv] Since the demise of the USSR in 1991, we have grown accustomed to the sole superpower status of the United States as the defining factor in international relations. The recent events in Georgia, however, indicate the beginnings of a credible Russian challenge to this status. It is worth noting that it is becoming clearer that Russia’s actions in Georgia were planned in advance, and President Saakashvili appears to have walked into a trap set him by Moscow. Evidence is emerging, for example, that Russia’s crippling of the Georgian government’s presence in cyber-space started two days before hostilities, and resembled similar action taken against Estonia in April 2007. It is not yet clear if Russian actions are a trial run for further, similar actions in other neighboring states, or whether they derived from the specific situation in the Caucasus. In this regard, much will doubtless depend on the international response. This analysis will attempt to outline the key areas in the Middle East affected by Russia’s campaign in Georgia, and by the newly assertive stance of Moscow.
One of the intentions of Russia in its incursion into Georgia is understood to be the eventual replacement of the government of Mikhail Saakashvili with a pro-Moscow regime. While the events of the last days indicate that Moscow does not currently intend to bring Saakashvili down by force, the demise of the pro-western and pro-Israeli Saakashvili would offer important benefits to Moscow. Russia’s resurgence is based on economic buoyancy deriving from the oil and gas sectors. A pro-Russian regime in Georgia would end the current situation in which oil-producing Azerbaijan is able to transport oil via Turkey and Georgia, without crossing Russian or pro-Russian territory.[v] The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline allows Central Asian states to potentially compete with Russia. Europe depends on Russia for around 25% of its oil and gas energy supplies.[vi] Hence, the possession of a potential alternative supplier is of major diplomatic importance in giving the EU the ability to resist Russian demands and strategies. The pipeline makes Turkey a major player in the energy issue. Israel also has a stake in this process. Israel already receives some of its oil via the pipeline. Also, there are proposals to use Israel’s Ashkelon-Eilat pipeline as a means in the process of bringing oil from Azerbaijan to East Asian and South East Asian countries. To view a map of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, click here.
Hence, Russian control of Georgia would significantly increase Moscow’s leverage in all disputes with the west, contributing to the rise in Moscow’s stock as an alternative centre of power.
Israel enjoyed friendly relations with Mikhail Saakashvili’s government and as has been extensively reported, Israeli defence contractors were involved in training the Georgian military.[vii] Indeed, Israel has been involved in rushing emergency medical supplies to Georgia in the wake of the recent fighting. It should be noted that despite the wide publicity given to Israel’s sale of arms to Georgia, Israel had in fact been cutting back on arms sales to Tbilisi over the last months, precisely because of the likelihood of an impending clash with Russia.
As pro-western states in volatile regions of great geo-strategic importance, there is a certain similarity between the situations of Israel and Georgia. However, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the dispute over South Ossetia, Israel has a clear interest in maintaining its relations with Russia, and avoiding un-necessary provocations of the resurgent Moscow.
Russia and Iran
The resurgence of Russia internationally is, in a sense, mirrored in miniature in the Middle East by the challenge of Iran to the system of pro-western governments which underpins security in the region. Moscow has emerged as the principal armourer of the Iran-led alliance in the region, which includes Syria and Hezbollah. This role has included the provision of highly sophisticated weapons systems.[viii] It is worth noting, however, that with regard to its strategic relationship with Iran, Russia seeks to maintain a sort of constructive ambiguity.
The renewal of a sort of ‘Cold War’ between the west and Russia is likely to exacerbate this process. In the first place, Russia has dragged its feet throughout in the attempts by international diplomacy to peacefully solve the Iranian nuclear issue. The renewed tension as a result of events in Georgia is likely to severely complicate the passing of a 4th United Nations Security Council resolution of sanctions against Iran, as Moscow could veto such a resolution. Alternatively, Moscow could condition its support on major western concessions elsewhere – for example, regarding Russian freedom of operations in the Caucasus, or over western plans to install missile defence systems in the Czech Republic and Poland. Thus, renewed Russian-western tensions severely complicate hopes of ending the Iranian nuclear crisis through joint international diplomatic action.
In the longer term, if rivalries between Russia and the west become entrenched, then Russia’s support of a bloc of countries in the region led by Iran may become a permanent and central factor in the power politics of the region. Such a development would resemble the situation in the Middle East in the early 1980s, when the USSR was no longer strong enough to mount a credible challenge to the west, but sponsored allies in order to act as a ‘spoiler’ and reap gains through its potential for destabilisation.
There is also a danger that the renewal of crisis in Georgia may lead to a loss of international focus on Iran.
The events of the last days herald the arrival of Russia to a new position of influence in world affairs. The evidence suggests that Russia was not responding to Georgian actions, but rather carried out a prior prepared plan. The Russian action is potentially a watershed moment in international affairs, which will herald new patterns of international behaviour.
This has important implications for the Middle East. While Russia’s interests in the Middle East are for the most part inimical to Israeli interests, the dictates of realpolitik mean that Israel will seek to maintain its current cordial relations with Moscow. The west still needs Moscow on board in order to mount a credible diplomatic campaign vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear ambitions – though it is clear that Moscow will exact a high price for cooperation in this regard, if it decides to offer substantive cooperation. Also, Israel will hope to leverage its good relations with Moscow to exert at least some limitations on Russia’s arming of anti-Israeli forces in the region.
[i] Luke Harding and Mitch Prothero, “Russia signs ceasefire deal but troops stay in Georgia, the Observer, 17 August 2008. www.guardian.co.uk
[ii] “Russia digs in 20 miles from Georgian capital,” Sunday Times, 17 August 2008. www.timesonline.co.uk
[vi] “A Pipeline runs through it,” Investors Business Daily, 13 August 2008. www.ibdeditorials.com
[vii] “Russia accuses Israel of supplying Georgian military,” Globes, 11 August 2008. www.globes.co.il
[viii] In the 2006 Lebanon War, Russian Kornet armour-piercing missiles supplied to Hezbollah by Syria took a heavy toll on Israeli lives and equipment. Russia supplied the sophisticated Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft defence system to Syria in 2007 (this system appears to have been effectively neutralised by Israel in the raid of September 2007). See “Submarines for Syria?” New York Sun, 21 May 2008. www.nysun.com; Russia is expected to deploy state-of-the-art S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles in Iran in March 2009. These are expected to become fully functional in June of that year. This system is considered to be one of the best of its type in the world. Iran would use it, of course, to secure its nuclear programme from any aerial attack. Thus, the deployment of the system would significantly complicate US and Israeli plans for preventing the emergence of a nuclear Iran. Syria is also reported to be interested in acquiring the S-300 system.
[ix] Herb Keinon, “Assad to discuss ME peace process in Russia,” Jerusalem Post, 12 August 2008. www.jpost.com