Sunday, 10 August 2008

Georgia v Russia

With Putin at the helm, there was never really any question what the Russians would do - at least not once Russian peacekeepers died. The ferocity of the Russian response, though, has caught the West by surprise. An attack on Georgian positions in South Ossetia could have been expected. The aerial bombardment of Georgian towns hundreds of miles from the conflict was quite another matter.

What, though, of the Western response? What message will it send to burgeoning democracies anywhere in the world if it cringes meekly before Moscow's attempt to reassert a Russian sphere of influence in the Caucasus?

As Saakashvili warned, this is no longer about the future of a tiny far-away country but about the nature of the world order in the 21st century. By its actions, Russia has stripped away its mask and revealed a bully still aching for the wars of the 20th century. If Moscow gets away with this, it will be encouraged to use its growing muscle and energy clout elsewhere. Eastern Europeans should be watching closely.

If principle is not enough, the West's self-interest is also at stake. When the Russians bombed Marneuli military airport on Friday, they were within just a few miles of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil and gas pipelines that the US and Europe are increasingly counting on to escape a Russian energy monopoly. If Russia is allowed to crush Georgia's independence, BTC may soon become just another offshoot of Gazprom.

But, in truth, it is not just the West but Russia, too, that should be worried by its actions these past few days. However much Putin detests the government of Saakashvili, he should be wary of provoking its collapse. Georgia's political stability is still a fragile thing. If central authority disintegrates, the consequences could be felt all over the region and beyond. Georgia is the key to the stability of the Caucasus. If there is a vacuum of power, it could quickly become a haven for terrorism and the smuggling of drugs, weapons and nuclear materials. No one wants that, not even Vladimir Putin.

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