The Daily Star
In Georgia, Russia sends clear message US, Israeli influence will not be
By Theodore Karasik
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
Analysis BY Theodore Karasik
DUBAI: South Ossetian separatists, supported by Moscow, escalated their
machine-gun and mortar-fire attacks against neighboring Georgian villages
last week. In response, Georgia attacked the separatist capital South
Ossetian Tskhinvali with artillery to suppress fire. Tskhinvali suffered
severe damage, thus providing the pretext for Moscow’s invasion of Georgia.
Russians in Abkhazia are also fighting the Georgians.
As Russia responded with overwhelming force, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
flew from the Beijing Olympics to Vladikavkaz, taking control of the
military operations. Putin sidelined his successor, Russian President Dmitry
Medvedev, thereby leaving no doubt as to who is in charge. Medvedev’s role
is to handle the international diplomatic front which seems to be not on the
table. Under Putin’s orders, the 58th Russian Army of the North Caucasus
Military District rolled into South Ossetia, reinforced by the 76th Airborne
"Pskov" Division. Cossacks from the neighboring Russian territories moved in
to combat the Georgians as well.
The Black Sea Fleet is blockading Georgia from the sea, while Russian
ballistic missiles and its air force are attacking Georgian military bases
and cities including Tbilisi. What Russia is trying to do – and looking like
she may succeed – is to establish a pro-Russian regime in Georgia that will
also bring the strategic Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and the
Baku-Erzurum (Turkey) gas pipeline under Moscow’s control.
More importantly and with immense strategic implications, Russia is also
trying to send Israel a clear message that Tel Aviv’s military support for
Tbilisi in organizing, training and equipping Georgia’s army will no longer
be tolerated. Private Israeli security firms and retired military officials
are actively involved in Georgian security. Further, Israel’s interest in
Caspian oil and gas pipelines is growing and Russia seeks to stop this
activity at this time. Intense negotiations about current and future
pipelines between Israel, Turkey, Georgia, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan are
tied to receiving oil at the terminal at Ashkelon and on to the Red Sea port
of Eilat. Finally, Russia is sending a clear message that it will not
tolerate US influence in Georgia nor Tbilisi’s interests – supported by the
pro-US Georgian President Mikhal Saakashvili – in joining NATO. Overall, the
military crisis will push Moscow to punish Israel for its assistance to
Georgia, and challenge the US to do more than voice rhetoric.
In the Gulf, there are several broad implications. First is the impact of
the war on Gulf investment in the Caucasus and in Russia. The Russian damage
to Ras al-Khaimah’s investment plan in Georgia is troublesome. The Ras
al-Khaimah government has recently invested in the Georgian port of Poti
where its real-estate development arm Rakeen is developing a free zone.
Rakeen is also developing some mixed-use projects near the capital Tbilisi.
The firm has three projects in Georgia – Tbilisi Heights and Uptown
Tbilisi – with a total value of $1.98 billion, while a third is being
planned. But Ras al-Khaimah’s other major investment did not remain unhurt.
The Georgian harbor Poti, which is majority owned by the Ras al-Khaimah
Investment Authority (Rakia), was badly damaged in Russian air raids. In
April 2008, Georgia sold a 51 percent stake in the Poti port area to Rakia
to develop a free economic zone (FEZ) in a 49-year management concession,
and to manage a new port terminal. The creation of FEZ, to be developed by
Rakeen, was officially inaugurated by Saakashvili on April 15, 2008.
Previously the trend in Russo-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) relations
focused on strengthening the "north-south" economic corridor between the two
regions; this linkage may now be in jeopardy if more Gulf investment goes up
The second implication is the growing military presence in both Gulf waters
and the Mediterranean Sea by the West and Russia that cannot be separated
from the Russo-Georgian conflict. There is an unprecedented build-up of
American, French, British and Canadian naval and air assets – the most since
the 2003 invasion of Iraq – that are to be in place shortly for a partial
naval blockade of Iran. Three US strike forces are en route to the Gulf
namely the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the USS Ronald Reagan and the USS Iwo
Jima. Already in place are the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea
opposite Iranian shores and the USS Peleliu which is cruising in the Red Sea
and Gulf of Aden.
There is also a growing Russian Navy deployment begun earlier this year to
the eastern Mediterranean comprising the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov
with approximately 50 Su-33 warplanes that have the capacity for mid-air
refueling along with the guided-missile heavy cruiser Moskva. This means the
Russian aircraft could reach the Gulf from the Mediterranean, a distance of
some 1360 kilometers, and would be forced to fly not only over Syria but
Iraq as well, where the skies are controlled by the US military. The Russian
task force is believed to be composed of a dozen warships and several
submarines. While the West is seeking to defend Gulf oil sources destined to
the West and the Far East, Russia is increasing its desire to control
Caspian oil resources and setting herself in a strategic position near the
A final implication is what may be a complete collapse of any back channel
communications via Russia to Iran regarding Tehran’s preparation for
confrontation with the West and slowing down Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear
weapon. In the past year, Russia acted as an intermediary between the US,
Israel, the GCC – specifically Saudi Arabia – and Tehran. With the
Russian-Georgian war, the door may now slam shut between these players.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, is attempting to halt the Russian sale of the
S-300 anti-air defense system to Tehran and also is seeking to purchase
large amounts of Russian weapons to "buy-off" Moscow’s pursuit of selling
conventional weapons to Iran. As a consequence of the Russo-Georgian war,
Russia may start to play hardball with going through with arms sales to Iran
and dropping support for sanctions against Iran that may invite a unilateral
Israeli strike on Iran.
As further evidence of the heightening of tensions, Kuwait is activating its
"Emergency War Plan" as the massive US and European flotilla is heading for
the region. Part of Kuwait’s plan is to put strategic oil assets in reserve
in the Far East and outside the forthcoming battle space. And Israel is
building up its strike capabilities for an attack on Iran, purchasing 90
F-16I planes that can carry enough fuel to reach Iran. Israel has also
bought two new Dolphin submarines from Germany capable of firing
nuclear-armed warheads, in addition to the three already in service with its
navy. Many strategic and tactical pieces for a confrontation are falling
Overall, analysts have argued that there might be a series of triggers that
could force a confrontation between the West and Iran. Some maintained that
this trigger may occur in the Gulf or in the Levant – whether accidental or
on purpose. There were potential triggers before-the April 2007 seizure of
British sailors in the Gulf, the September 2007 Israeli attack on a
suspected Syrian nuclear facility, and Hizbullah’s seizure of west Beirut in
May 2008. Now it appears that a more serious trigger may be the
Russo-Georgian war – despite geographical distance – that may carry dire
consequences for all-especially in the Gulf littoral.
Theodore Karasik is the director for research and development at the
Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.