Cold War Again?

Posted by Admin on Thursday, 11 September 2008 | Opini

By Sayidiman Suryohadiprojo

Jakarta, September 11th, 2008

The problem in Georgia which erupted in August can become a serious start of confrontations between Russia and the United States. Since the oil and gas factor is playing an important part of the Georgian problem, we must consider the possibility of an increasing confrontation between the US and Russia, not impossible to become another Cold War.

The US strong interest to secure its energy needs is still a very strong factor in its international security policies. Although always denied by US leaders, the attack on Afghanistan and Iraq had also a very significant oil and gas element.

It has been very often stated by US leaders themselves that the US will not develop its own energy sources in a big way; so long it can guarantee its needs from foreign sources. Consequently the US will always pursue a strategic policy to secure this interest abroad.

Georgia has for the US a significant strategic importance. Although not producing oil and gas in large quantities Georgia has a strategic location as a transit area for moving oil and gas from inland Central Asian countries to the international market, thereby bypassing Russia.

First there is The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline which transports oil from Baku in Azerbaijan, through Tbilisi in Georgia to Ceyhan in Turkey. It is operated by British Petroleum since the 1990s and can transport 1 million barrels oil a day. Not long ago another pipeline has been built immediately parallel to the BTC pipeline for transporting natural gas from Turkmenistan via Tbilisi to the Turkish harbor Erzumur with a capability of 16 billion cubic meters per year. This fact makes very clear the strategic importance of Georgia for nations who want to achieve independence from the Russian supply. This situation creates a bargaining position for European nation’s vis-à-vis Russia and can very much reduce European oil dependency on Russia. Although the US is not dependent on Russian oil supply, it definitely welcomes the availability of Central Asian supply.

The Rose Revolution which took place in Georgia in 2003 brought Mikhail Saakashvili as the new president of Georgia. A graduate of a US university, Saakashvili is close to the West, in particular to the US. Since his ascendancy as president of Georgia, the US made good use of the possibility to establish close relations with Georgia. It was also a positive factor for the American ambition to have a foothold for increasing influence in Central Asia, which is an important strategic part of the world and located not far from Georgia.

The close relationship with the US might have emboldened Mikhail Saakashvili in his policies toward his country’s internal problems, namely the separatist movements of South Essatia and Abkhazia. These two regions were part of Georgia but dissatisfied with the Georgian government they had declared their independence from Georgia. The people in South Essatia and Abkhazia were ethnically closer to Russia than to Georgia and Russia with strong interests to safeguard its borders in the south and ambitious for the reclamation of the areas under the former Soviet Union, supported the two regions. Russia was also very disturbed that Georgia is going to join NATO very soon. Russia then became the first country which recognized the independence of South Essatia and Abkhazia.

In early August 2008 Saakashvili took military actions against South Essatia and Abkhazia. He and his assistants definitely have started this move based on the calculation that they would receive US and European support if Russia is counter-acting his move. Russia indeed reacted militarily with the argument that his military troops were also attacked by Georgia and some of its members became victims. Since some time ago Russian military units were stationed in both regions on a peace-keeping mission.

Russian troops invaded Georgia to support their troops and to defend the two regions independence. The Russian president stated that his country’s basic intention was to prevent homicide in Georgia. Of course, Russia’s military power although not of the former Soviet caliber, was no match for Georgia. Saakashvili expected definitely a US military support , which did not come.

The reaction of the US and Europe was understandably strong, but vocally. They immediately called on a termination of the Russian military actions and the withdrawal of the Russian troops from Georgia. But Europe which is very dependent on Russian gas supply was quite limited in its actions since it could not afford to alienate Russia much. The US with its security problems in Afghanistan and Iraq could not do much either militarily. Finally two US naval ships were sent to a Georgian harbour on the Black Sea coast, to deliver support for the population of Georgia who were facing several humanity problems after the Russian attack. Then came the visit of the US Vice President Richard Cheney in early September. He condemned the Russian attack and stated that the US will support Georgia like it had done after the Rose Revolution.

The question is how the US is in reality going to support Georgia. That the US is very much interested in maintaining Georgia as its foothold in the South Caucasus area, is clear. And that Georgia will continue its role as a transit area for Azerbaijan oil and Turkmenistan gas is also clear. But if it is doing that by strengthening Georgia militarily, one can easily understand that Russia will consider that as a threat. The US has already stated that it terminates its nuclear deal with Russia.

Russia already feels threatened by the US act to station anti ballistic missiles in the Check Republic and Poland. The US always stated that these ABMs were not directed to Russia but were there to protect Europe from missiles coming from Iran. However Russia never accepted that clarification. Moreover, Russia is very disturbed that many former Warsaw Pact members, like Ukraine, are becoming NATO members. The question is whether these developments triggered by the Georgian attack on South Essatia and Abkhazia will lead to a new Cold War?

The US stance for its next moves in Georgia will certainly be influenced by the European position. Of course, the US will take the Georgian problem to the UN to punish Russia. However, such a move will not have much effect because Russia as a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council can veto every UN decision.

The EU has indeed started its own moves in Georgia. Nicholas Sarkozy, the French president and president of the EU at this moment negotiated with the Russian leaders about the termination of hostilities. They agreed that Russian troops should leave Georgia and peacekeeping forces from Europe will replace them. However, Russia maintained its forces in the two separated regions based on its position that the two regions are no part of Georgia. Georgia is not satisfied with this situation, because it strengthened the independence of the two regions. The US will predictably support the Georgian position, but how the EU will stand is a big question mark, considering its dependence on Russian gas supply.

However, can the US afford to let the Georgian problem develop into a Cold War ? The US is still very much engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also still the Iranian problem to solve. Moreover, the US is facing grave economic problems at home. A Cold War will require much attention and use of resources which the US cannot easily afford in its present circumstances. A Cold War against Russia requires the mobilization of US diplomacy to exert strong pressures to Russia, supported by economic and military policies as leverage. The US will need allies to strengthen its position and actions. Will the EU be willing to stand on the US side in a Cold War against Russia, which would mean that the EU must sacrifice its present relationship with Russia to secure its energy needs. How will Japan as a staunch US ally take its position ? Although in the past Japan had many problems with Russia and the Soviet Union, starting with the Japan-Russian War in 1904 and still having a territorial dispute about the so called Northern Islands, however during the last decade Japan had made many efforts to improve relations with Russia to satisfy its huge energy needs. If China sides with Russia, Japan’s choice would be much easier, namely definitely on the US side. However, it is not clear that China is willing to side with anybody because it wants to pursue its own interests. For that purpose it is for China much more profitable to have normal relations with both the US as with Russia. If Indonesia is asked to join, the answer could only be that for Indonesia there is no alternative to its traditional nonaligned stance, because only that position is in agreement with its basic principles Pancasila as well as a rational and realistic foreign policy to secure Indonesia’s interests.

The US Presidential Elections in November 2008 will also have a significant influence to the US moves around the Georgian problem. On the one side the present administration will feel obliged not to start highly important foreign policy actions, pending the new Presidency. However, it is also not impossible that the hardliners of the present administration with the neo-conservatives as its backbone will use the opportunity to create a fait accompli for the next President of the US.

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