Saturday, August 09, 2008
The "new Cold War" escalates. posted by Richard SeymourThere must have been widespread bemusement last night as newspapers dramatically announced that Russia had invaded Georgia. In fact, it's a little bit more complicated than that, since Russian troops were already in South Ossetia as part of a fragile 'peacekeeping' coalition. The Russian government is (dishonestly) arguing that its actions are merely the extension of its peacekeeping remit, even as it strikes beyond South Ossetia's borders. The headlines subtly changed, at any rate, to omit talk of an invasion. Even with that change, there seems to be an odd reluctance to acknowledge the weirdest fact about this: Georgia seems to have 'invaded' South Ossetia in a deliberate act of provocation, and - according to Reuters - are now attacking Ossetian separatists with jets and troops. One can only imagine that the pro-US Georgian leadership, which has ambitions to join NATO, had some sort of assent from Washington before acting in this way. After all, if it truly intends to withdraw 1,000 of its troops from Iraq to attack the South Ossetian independence movement, I would expect they had to ask Bush nicely first. (Incidentally, if successful, Georgia's accession to NATO would commit other NATO countries to defend Georgia's borders, even as independence movements in South Ossetia, Abkhazia - both of which have declared themselves separate from Georgia - and Ajaria take off). This doesn't mean that Russia aren't behaving aggressively themselves - they have been bolstering their power in South Ossetia for years, supporting the secessionists and so on - it just means that Georgia is the client of a bigger power than South Ossetia.
The big picture here is a battle between Washington and Moscow over political control of the oil and gas rich Central Asian territories. The Clinton-IMF reform process led to the creation of a bloc of pro-Western states across Central Asia, while the status of South Ossetia as an autonomous territory was defended by a joint Georgian-Russian peacekeeping force. Bush used the opportunity supplied by 9/11 to plot military bases across the region, thus encircling Russia's southern flank with a new iron curtain and giving the US crucial military leverage against potentially hostile (probably Islamist) popular movements. One of the embarrassments this strategy produced was Craig Murray's revelations about Washington-ally Islam Karimov's practises of torture and the fact that 'intelligence' gained from such methods were circulated and swallowed by Western intelligence agencies. This was compounded by the bigger embarrassment of Karimov kicking the Americans out of the country and cutting a deal with Putin. In respect of Georgia, the Bush administration has supported the "rose revolution" of the pro-US Mikhail Saakashvili against a decrepit and nepotistic Soviet era leader, Eduard Shevardnadze. The National Endowment for Democracy was heavily involved in the opposition campaign, and the State Department halved aid to the country before the elections in order to apply financial pressure to the leadership.
But like the other colour-coded 'revolutions', this one represented a superficial change in personnel with a new global orientation toward Washington, not a substantial change in the society. In fact, the spontaneous popular spread of the revolt deeply worried the Saakashvili team, which ordered its supporters to go home (see Neal Ascherson's account). Saakashvili's government was soon notorious for busting up peaceful demonstrations with the use of heavily armed security forces as the economic crisis deepened, the national debt soared, and the authoritarianism and corruption that characterised the old regime persisted. His popularity dropped from an astonishing 94% in the autumn of 2003 to 23% two years later. Washington has repeatedly bailed out the floundering "rose" leadership with aid grants, purportedly rewarding it for 'democratic' reforms. In 2006 alone, the former Soviet states received $565 million in aid programmes courtesy of the US Senate, to protect them from "authoritarian Russia". The US is eager to stymy the pro-independence trends in Georgia, as these will redound to the benefit of the Putin-Medvedev government. It is, as Stephen Cohen has argued, part of a US-driven "new Cold War" against Russia.
The current president of Russia, Dmitry Medvedev, is the billionaire former chair of Gazprom's board of directors. An oligarch made powerful in part by IMF policy, he is now, alongside Putin, leading a nationalist government determined to re-assert Russia's hegemony in the region. Gazprom is the Russian state gas monopoly which became a key protagonist in a battle with Ukraine which stimulated the "new Cold War" rhetoric in Western newspapers in 2005. Essentially, to punish Ukraine for it's 'Orange revolution' and for seeking integration with the EU, the Russian government threatened to jack up the prices unless the Ukrainian government sold part of their pipeline network to Gazprom. In 2006, Gazprom was once again at the centre of a geopolitical crisis as it threatened to double prices to Georgia, just as it was finishing a pipeline to carry gas directly to the break-away South Ossetia. Every time Gazprom has acted in this way, hypocritical reports in Europe and America have howled about Russian arrogance. But Russia is not doing anything astonishing here: its control of gas and oil is one of its few strengths, and it is using it just as the Pentagon relies on US military strength to make up for its shortcomings in other areas. Russia's other strength has been its nuclear arsenal. As Chomsky has pointed out, the Bush administration's sabotage of efforts to reduce and dispose of Russia's arsenal as part of multilateral efforts has been extremely dangerous:
In February 2004, Russia carried out its largest military exercises in two decades, prominently exhibiting advanced WMD. Russian generals and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov announced that they were responding to Washington's plans "to make nuclear weapons an instrument of solving military tasks," including its development of new low-yield nuclear weapons, "an extremely dangerous tendency that is undermining global and regional stability,... lowering the threshold for actual use." Strategic analyst Bruce Blair writes that Russia is well aware that the new "bunker busters" are designed to target the "high-level nuclear command bunkers" that control its nuclear arsenal. Ivanov and Russian generals report that in response to US escalation they are deploying "the most advanced state-of-the-art missile in the world," perhaps next to impossible to destroy, something that "would be very alarming to the Pentagon," says former Assistant Defense Secretary Phil Coyle. US analysts suspect that Russia may also be duplicating US development of a hypersonic cruise vehicle that can re-enter the atmosphere from space and launch devastating attacks without warning, part of US plans to reduce reliance on overseas bases or negotiated access to air routes.
US analysts estimate that Russian military expenditures have tripled during the Bush-Putin years, in large measure a predicted reaction to the Bush administration's militancy and aggressiveness. Putin and Ivanov cited the Bush doctrine of "preemptive strike"-- the "revolutionary" new doctrine of the National Security Strategy -- but also "added a key detail, saying that military force can be used if there is an attempt to limit Russia's access to regions that are essential to its survival," thus adapting for Russia the Clinton doctrine that the US is entitled to resort to "unilateral use of military power" to ensure "uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources." The world "is a much more insecure place" now that Russia has decided to follow the US lead, said Fiona Hill of the Brookings Institution, adding that other countries presumably "will follow suit."
Since the US government has preferred to 'neutralise' Russia's nuclear advantage in the region by building up a 'missile defense' system around the latter's perimeter, Russia is working aggressively to escalate its weapons systems (which are dwarved by the American equivalents), intimidate rivals, and build up local support - forging new relations with Turkmenistan, for example, with a new pipeline to import gas from the country, thus increasing its hold on supplies of the substance to Europe.
This particular conflagration may not last long - Russian investors are unhappy about it, and the state-owned oil and gas companies are losing value rapidly. However, that depends on how much the Russian ruling class feels is at stake in this battle. Washington could easily escalate the situation, and a new Brzezinski-advised Obama administration would certainly focus far more intently on shoring up US power in Central Asia than continuing to fight the lost battle in Iraq. And the US ruling class, in pursuing its "new Cold War", has introduced an infernal logic of mutual escalation, so that even if this crisis simmers down, a new one is bound to emerge soon. The much-vaunted new world order is increasingly resembling the old one, but with more nuclear weapons and less stability.