- Created: Tuesday, 14 April 2009 15:10
- Written by Trevor Rayne
The Georgian attack on South Ossetia and Russia’s military response demonstrate that we are in a period of intensifying inter-imperialist rivalry. As in the 19th century’s Great Game, played out primarily between Britain and Russia over central Asia, old and new powers now contest an area stretching from Eastern Europe and the Caucasus to the borders of China. Control over this region and its oil and gas supplies are critical to the US ruling class’s attempt to achieve global supremacy. Domination of this region should ensure that Western Europe, the Middle East and the Far East are made dependent upon it. By occupying Georgia, Russia’s new rulers have shown their intent to resist and reverse the US encroachment into the territories of the former Soviet Union. It is a serious blow to the US ruling class’s project and comes amidst a series of reversals of the US and British oil multinationals’ plans for the region. TREVOR RAYNE reports.
The economic crisis of capitalism will ensure that inter-imperialist rivalry grows and that the national question will be forced up the political agenda. South Ossetia has fewer than 100,000 people, of whom two thirds are Ossetians and nearly a third Georgians. Georgia’s population is below five million with an area a little over half that of England. While they were part of the Soviet Union, South Ossetia and Abkhazia had relative autonomy within Georgia. In 1990 the then leader of Georgia, Gamsakhurdia, sent troops to take over South Ossetia and announced the abolition of autonomous regions within Georgia. Fighting ensued until a ceasefire was agreed in June 1992. Some 1,000 people had been killed and many thousands made refugees. A Russian force then supervised the truce. Georgia had declared independence from the Soviet Union in April 1991 and between 1991 and 1992 Georgia’s gross domestic product shrank by 40% and in 1992-93 by a further 32%; industrial output fell 44% in 1992. The country came under the control of gangsters and warlords. Current President Saakashvili took power in 2004 after the US-promoted 2003 ‘Rose Revolution’. Saakashvili promised to restore Georgia’s territorial integrity and to combat corruption. Saakashvili is US-educated and worked as a lawyer in New York. He asked for Georgia’s membership of NATO and began a programme of militarisation.
Sabres rattle and clash
Georgia’s military budgets were $84 million in 2004, $339 million in 2006 and $1 billion for 2008. Georgia had the third largest foreign contingent of troops in Iraq until the US flew them back to face the Russian forces. US, Israeli and Turkish troops have trained the Georgian military. The US Army magazine Stars and Stripes reported on 12 August that 127 US trainers were still in Georgia, plus 1,000 other US troops and marines. Georgian defence minister Kezerashvili is a former Israeli citizen and Israel has provided 1,000 military advisers to Georgia. Israel has investments in property, tourism and arms production in Georgia. Between 13-17 July the US conducted a joint military exercise with Georgian, Azerbaijani, Armenian and Ukrainian troops intended to improve ‘combined inter-operability’ of the assembled forces. While the US and British governments have favoured Georgia and Ukraine being given NATO membership, France, Germany and Italy have opposed this – as has Russia; Germany receives 40% of its gas and 35% of its oil from Russia and its ruling class has no interest in allowing US ambitions to be the arbiter of its energy supplies.
The Georgian attack had been preceded by skirmishes between South Ossetian and Georgian troops; a Russian plane was shot down by a Georgian drone over Abkhazia and bombs exploded in Abkhazian towns. With much of the world’s attention focused on the start of the Olympic Games, Saakashvili ordered Georgia’s forces to attack Tskhinvali, South Ossetia’s capital, and Russian bases on 7 August. No warning was given to the citizens of Tskhinvali before it was hit with heavy artillery and rockets. Initial Russian estimates of the numbers killed were 2,000 civilians, with over 20,000 South Ossetians forced to flee across the border to Russia. Russian soldiers were also killed in the attack. It was over 24 hours after the attack before Russian forces crossed into South Ossetia to drive back the Georgian aggressors. As the Russian troops advanced they occupied large parts of Georgia, coming within 20 miles of the capital Tblisi, and occupying Gori and other Georgian towns. Russian warships patrolled off Georgia’s Black Sea coast.
The Russian response to the attack on South Ossetia was foreseeable. When Chechnya, neighbouring Georgia, declared independence from Russia, Russian troops commenced a campaign that has killed up to 10% of Chechnya’s population since 1994. Senior Russian officers from the Chechnya campaigns have taken key positions in the Russian state. Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations said: ‘It is hard to imagine that Georgian President Mikheil Saakasvili embarked on this risky venture [the attack] without some sort of approval from the side of the United States.’ We can conjecture that the US wanted to test Russia’s response, that it wanted to provoke guerrilla war as in Chechnya or that Saakashvili and his ministers believed that the US would mount a military response on their behalf. Former Russian President, now Prime Minister, Putin, said that the attack was intended to boost the electoral chances of the US Republican Presidential candidate McCain.
US President Bush told Putin that the Russian response was ‘disproportionate’. Vice President Cheney rang Saakashvili on 10 August to tell him that ‘Russian aggression must not go unanswered.’ When asked for clarification Cheney’s office replied, ‘This must not stand.’ This was the verbal formulation used by the first President Bush when Iraq occupied Kuwait in 1990. For breathtaking hypocrisy the winner must be McCain: ‘In the 21st century nations do not invade other nations.’ In this short century the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine would be flabbergasted to hear this. British Labour Foreign Secretary Miliband opined, ‘We do not accept the division of Europe into spheres of influence...[We want] to forge the widest possible coalition against Russian aggression in Georgia.’ Most of the US and British media parroted the line on Russian aggression as a threat to international relations.
Following the Russian occupation of Georgia, Poland quickly completed the agreement to host the US anti-missile defence system and the US dropped its supposed objection to supplying Poland with Patriot missiles. Ukrainian President Yuschenko ordered commanders of Russia’s Black Sea fleet to seek permission before moving ships and aircraft out of Russia’s base in Sevastopol. Russia said it would disregard the order. Miliband went to Kiev to express support for Yuschenko. The US flew aid to Georgia and said that it would establish a permanent base there. At the end of August, Russia said it would recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states and post 7,600 Russian troops to prevent any ‘repeat of Georgian aggression’. Russia declared that Poland would be a missile target the moment it received the anti-missile defence system and objected to NATO manoeuvres in the Black Sea and US warships delivering aid to Georgia. Venezuela and Russia announced joint manoeuvres in the Caribbean; these will counter the newly resurrected US Fourth Fleet set to patrol the Caribbean and the coast of South America.
For two years the Russian government has been warning against the US attempting to impose its unipolar rule over the world and stationing the anti-missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Putin warned that the consequences of the US and Britain recognising Kosovo in February would be dire and now the Russian ruling class has demonstrated that it has had enough of being pushed out of what it considers its sphere of influence, only for them to be turned into military bases with which US imperialism is surrounding Russia. Russia is the only state with a nuclear arsenal to match that of the US and the anti-missile defence system the US plans for Poland and the Czech Republic is designed to neutralise it, leaving the US capable of launching a first strike nuclear attack on Russia. Putin resorted to blunt language in an interview on 11 September when asked about Georgia, ‘What did you expect us to do? Respond with a catapult? We punched the aggressor in the face, as all the military textbooks prescribe.’ He accused the US of behaving like a ‘Roman emperor’ and warned about the anti-missile defence system, ‘Please do not start an arms race in Europe. It is not needed. What should we do? Sit pretty while they deploy missiles?’
French and German imperialism have no interest in helping the US ruling class to achieve global domination; they have their own regional interests to pursue and mounting a military challenge to Russia is not among them – for now. France currently has Presidency of the European Union and swiftly intervened in Georgia. On 10 August the French foreign minister went to Tblisi to begin a diplomatic shuffle between Georgia and Russia. French President Sarkozy met with Russia’s President Medvedev on 12 August to announce a ceasefire between Russia and Georgia. The agreement included ‘international discussions on the futures of South Ossetia and Abkhazia’; this was later modified to the ‘security and stability arrangements in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.’ The agreement was further modified to include a Russian withdrawal from Georgian territory, excluding South Ossetia and Abkhazia, if a European Union peacekeeping force is in place by the beginning of October. In effect, the EU will be policing arrangements agreed between itself and Russia, and not the US.
Competing for oil and gas
‘We have access through Georgia...to the oil and soon also the gas that lies not only in Azerbaijan but beyond it in the Caspian Sea and beyond in Central Asia. So, in that sense, it’s a very major and strategic asset to us.’ Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser to US President Carter, 12 August 2008.
The Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline began operating in 2005; foremost among the consortium that built it is BP. The pipeline is intended to supply oil from Baku, in Azerbaijan, via Georgia to Ceyhan on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, then on to Western Europe. Crucially, BTC avoids Russia. A further gas pipeline, Nabucco (presumably after Verdi’s opera), is planned from Baku through Georgia to Erzurum on Turkey’s Black Sea coast, then forward to Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary to Austria. Gas would be transported from Central Asia and the Caucasus to Europe, thereby reducing European dependence on Russian supplies. China, Russia, Europe and the US have competing interests in these reserves at a time when global oil and gas consumption is rising and existing reserves are being exhausted. China will account for nearly a third of the increase in global consumption in the next five years; it is already the world’s second biggest importer of oil. As the US project for global hegemony founders in Iraq and Afghanistan, rival powers have moved to take advantage.
Russian President Medvedev is the former head of Gazprom. Gazprom agreed to buy all of Azerbaijan’s gas at European prices after Medvedev visited Baku on 3-4 July. Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have agreed to build a new gas export pipeline to Russia as opposed to supplying Nabucco. The viability of the Nabucco project is threatened unless Iranian gas supplies can be accessed through Turkey. However, Iran has said it will block a pipeline across the Caspian Sea linking up with Nabucco. On 22 July Gazprom and Turkmenistan reached an agreement giving Russia control over Turkmenistan’s gas exports. Another agreement was achieved with China whereby Turkmenistan will supply China with gas for 30 years starting from 2009. Also on 22 July, Venezuelan President Chavez agreed in Moscow that Russian energy companies Gazprom, LUKoil and TNK-BP will replace the US companies ExxonMobil and Conoco Phillips in Venezuela. Russia and Venezuela are discussing forming a gas cartel to control production and pricing.
In early September, US Vice President Cheney visited Azerbaijan. He was not met at the airport by either Azerbaijan’s President or Prime Minister. When he did meet the President, the moment they had finished the President called Medvedev in Moscow. Cheney then failed to appear at an official banquet. Perhaps, at that moment, and with the US economy stumbling from its throne, the US Vice President could feel the gaud of Empire slipping from his hands.
FRFI 205 October / November 2008