COMMENTARY SPECIAL

RUSSIA'S GEORGIAN BLITZKRIEG WILL THE
WEST WAKE UP?

'Peace for out time'

Words uttered by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain when he returned from Munich with a shameful agreement which gave the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia - homeland to ethnic Germans - to Hitler’s Germany, in September 1938. The occupation of Sudetenland was one small step on a road also marked by the occupation of the demilitarised zone of the Rhineland in 1936 and the infamous Anschluss with Austria earlier in 1938, all of which led to WW2. The next step was Hitler’s annexation of the rest of Czechoslovakia, and the invasion of Poland. There are uncanny similarities with what is happening in the Caucasus today. On the pretext of protecting Russian ‘citizens’ in the enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the Kremlin’s troops last month (August) invaded Georgia, which was part of the Soviet Union until 1991. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, acting in his capacity as the rotational EU President brought back his piece of paper, which seemed to promise peace for our time. But the six-point deal on Sarkozy’s piece of paper is one-sided, calling for Georgian armed forces to return to barracks and replacing Russian troops with Russian ‘peacekeepers’. With deep cynicism Russian forces ignored even Sarkozy’s piece of paper and Georgia’s territorial integrity, in order to destroy military capability, including stockpiles of arms and ammunition which have in recent years been gifted by the USA. The Russians also destroyed much of the small country’s naval and coastguard forces. The Russians seem intent on regime change, and on not just getting rid of the American-educated Georgian president Misha Saakashvili but also halting Georgia’s progress to membership of NATO and of the EU. Countries with large numbers of ethnic Russians, even those which are already members of these organisations, (like the Baltic states of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia), must wonder what this means for them and what NATO could do in their defence in a similar crisis. No doubt Russia means to send a powerful message to the world, reinforced with all the cynical pretexts and lies which accompanied the growth of Nazi Germany. Unfortunately the West, led by an American president in his final days, is in no position to argue. The West can fume and posture, but it lacks moral ascendancy as much as it lacks the military capability to intervene in remote and inaccessible Georgia. The decision by President Bush to send naval forces with humanitarian aid to the Black Sea was within days mired in farce, as the Turks said they were reluctant to let such vessels through the Turkish Straits. Fortunately that situation was soon resolved. The invasion of Iraq and the West’s support of breakaway Kosovo later showed Putin the way to go. With the Kremlin’s arrogant fascism unleashed for all to see, moral ascendancy can be regained by the West but the military facts MUST be recognised: There is little NATO, the USA or the West in general can do to stop the Russians in their own backyard. Nor in this case will economic sanctions work - except in the mind of the most soft-hearted pinko-liberal living on a wind farm in the outer islands of the Hebrides. Russia is independent of Western trade and produce. Rather, Western Europe has become dependent upon gas from Russia, and attempts to import gas from elsewhere, in Central Asia, are bound to fail if, as in the case of Georgia, the Russians can so clearly and easily interdict the pipeline from the Caspian to a Turkish terminal on the Black Sea. Maybe that is one other of the lessons that Russia wishes to teach the West: We control the levers of power as we control the lights and heating in your homes and the fuel that fires your economies. Together with the ugly, brutal display of military tactics developed first in the war to destroy Hitler’s Germany and more recently revived in Chechnya, the fact that Russia controls huge amounts of the world’s energy and seeks to grab even more has ushered in a new era reminiscent of the Great Game pursued more than a century ago, and which resulted in the conflagration of WW1. The seizure of the Sudetenland in 1938 was a wake-up call. Chamberlain’s piece of paper - won after the talks with Hitler at Munich - at least bought time for rearmament before the inevitable outbreak of war in 1939. Now Russia’s actions in the Caucasus should be the West’s wake-up call. The West needs energy policies that free it of imports, as much as possible, and a military structure and the means to thwart Russian expansion beyond its immediate sphere of influence. Yes, old-fashioned geopolitics are back in vogue and - opting for realpolitik rather than disastrous ‘ethical foreign policy’ - Russia should be left with its sphere of influence and free of the fear (however unjustified) of envelopment along its borders by NATO. This means an end to hopes of membership of NATO for both Georgia and the Ukraine, the latter another country with a large Russian minority. That does not mean the West should not provide diplomatic and military support wherever possible outside the NATO framework. In defence terms, while most attention has been on the conflict on the ground, the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF) has been active, too. As reported elsewhere in this magazine, thousands of Russian naval infantry were landed from the sea and of course Georgian vessels sunk by Russian forces, acting in a co-ordinated and premeditated fashion. Western navies and armies will need to be built up, maybe not to Cold War levels, but certainly beyond the disastrously poor levels they have fallen to in 2008. Events in Georgia during August 2008 are not the augury of WW3, but certainly they must provoke the end of peace dividends being sucked from the Defence budgets of the West’s democracies. It is worth pointing out that the pre-WW2 revival of the Royal Navy after years of neglect started in 1936, not 1938, in other words at the first sign of trouble.  The Russians this summer boasted of beginning construction of aircraft carriers in 2012 and their submarine forces are being regenerated to come out and lay down the gauntlet on the high seas. The clock is ticking. Time to wake up.

  • We also publish a wide variety of other commentaries and news reports on the situation in Black Sea and Caucasus elsewhere in the October 2008 edition. For details, see elsewhere on this site.

A British landing craft from the assault ship HMS Bulwark works with a Russian tank landing craft in the Baltic prior to the Kremlin’s war on Georgia. It is not the sort of exercise to be repeated anytime soon.

A British landing craft from the assault ship HMS Bulwark works with a Russian tank landing craft in the Baltic prior to the Kremlin’s war on Georgia. It is not the sort of exercise to be repeated anytime soon. Photo: Royal Navy.

A British landing craft from the assault ship HMS Bulwark works with a Russian tank landing craft in the Baltic prior to the Kremlin’s war on Georgia. It is not the sort of exercise to be repeated anytime soon.

A British landing craft from the assault ship HMS Bulwark works with a Russian tank landing craft in the Baltic prior to the Kremlin’s war on Georgia. It is not the sort of exercise to be repeated anytime soon. Photo: Public Affairs Dept/Georgia.

A car in the port of Poti, crushed by a Russian missile.

A car in the port of Poti, crushed by a Russian missile. Photo: Public Affairs Dept/Georgia.