Obama’s Failure in Abkhazia and Ossetia

Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation, writing in the Washington Times:

Last week, Col. Gen. Alexander Zelin, commander of the Russian air force, announced that Moscow had deployed a state-of-the-art S-300 (SA-20 Favorit variant) long-range air-defense system in Abkhazia, a region of the Republic of Georgia that Russia has occupied since the August 2008 war.

Since then, Russia has recognized breakaway Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent republics. According to Gen. Zelin, the task of the air-defense system is “to prevent violation of Abkhaz and South Ossetian airspace and to destroy any aircraft intruding into their airspace no matter what their purpose might be.” On Saturday, Gen. Zelin announced that the Russian air force had resumed flights from the Abkhazian capital of Sukhumi.

However, there is much more than defense of Abkhazia to the Russian deployment.

In Eurasia, Moscow is using its entire geopolitical toolbox to shift the balance of power in the region. Its tools include diplomacy (including recognition of the self-proclaimed republics), strategic-information operations, arms sales, status-of-forces agreements, base construction – even regime change – to secure its “sphere of exclusive interests.”

Taken together with the air force deployment and S-300 base in Armenia, it brings the strategic airspace over South Caucasus and parts of the Black Sea under further Russian control.

The response from the Obama administration was limp. P.J. Crowley, U.S. assistant secretary of state and a State Department spokesman, said: “I believe it’s our understanding that Russia has had S-300 missiles in Abkhazia for the past two years.” He later claimed that this is “not necessarily” a new development. This is another example of the Obama administration’s “Don’t let your missiles interfere with my reset policy” approach.

However, with this move, Russia is again flagrantly violating the August 2008 cease-fire agreement negotiated by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The agreement calls upon both countries to withdraw troops to pre-war positions and restorethestatus quo antebellum. Yet Russia also has built up to five military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia in the past two years alone.

The deployment of the system, which has a range of about 120 miles, has to be seen in the context of recent Russian policies in the Caucasus. Moscow recently has negotiated an extension of a contract for basing troops in the Armenian Gyumri military base till 2042. It will assume joint control over Armenian borders. As the leading member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, Russia controls airspace over Armenia. Now Moscow reportedly is selling an S-300 air-defense system to Azerbaijan.

There is a clear strategy behind these actions. While Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton hails “soft power” in the Caucasus, Moscow engages in a hard, classic political-military power projection in this strategic region, which connects the Atlantic (via the Black Sea and Mediterranean) with the energy riches of Eurasia. As Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stated in his postwar 2008 speech, this is “a zone of Russian exclusive interests” where it is willing to use force.

Most important from a U.S. perspective, Russian actions are aimed at denying the United States airspace and overflight options. The surveillance aspect is no less important; depending on the actual deployment of the air defenses, associated radars will be able to picture or “paint” much of western Georgia and the adjoining Black Sea coastline. Of course, this has implications if the United States decides that Iran leaves it no choice but to use force to neutralize Iran’s military-nuclear program. Yet the ultimate objective for Moscow remains to become an uncontested hegemon in the South Caucasus.

The administration‘s make-believe Realpolitik approach of “see no evil” encourages Moscow to expand its hegemony in the former Soviet space. Such policy inevitably will produce a massive loss of American influence in Eurasia that will take years, if not decades, to recover.

The Russians are committed to deployments in the Caucasus that lead to the strategic denial of U.S. power projection in that region. This bears on the United States‘ future ability to resupply Afghanistan, to use power to disarm a nuclear Iran, to ensure a reliable energy supply from the Caspian and to help pro-Western friends and allies.

These are hardly great accomplishment for the Obama “reset” policy.

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7 responses to “Obama’s Failure in Abkhazia and Ossetia

  1. They were just defending the lives of the Russian citiziens in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. You know, from bloodthirsty Georgians. Bent on genocide.

    Meanwhile, Russian government death squads continue their activities in the nearby republics:

    http://www.memo.ru/eng/news/2010/08/20/2008103e.html

    The car had been being chased by a black Lada Priora and a white Gazel with no number plates. The Gazel blocked the car’s way and stopped. Masked people, allegedly security authorities officers, in black uniform got out of the car. Without warnings and not trying to detain anyone they shot down the UAZ from guns with silencers. When the badly wounded driver got out of the car the siloviks went for them and started beat him with their feet. Then they dragged him in the Gazel and drove off.

    A man and a woman who accidentally came to be there were also wounded. The cars that were standing nearby were affected as well, a window in a cafe was broken. The dead bodies were taken from the car by the militiamen who arrived later.

    The episode of August 17 represents a typical extrajudicial execution by its scheme and details. Even the white Gazel that appears in many similar events in Makhachkala appears here as well.

  2. In honor of Ukraine’s Independence day, Armenians sing the Ukrainian anthem in the Armenian language. :)

    Captions in Ukrainian. :)

    Вірмени співають гімн України

  3. The United States and Russia played a grand chess game in Eurasia for nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. U.S. policy toward countries in the region essentially became а derivative of Russia policy as a result. We failed to forge long-term partnerships and instead sought leverage, neglecting engagement that provided no benefit in the push and pull with Moscow. Local elites came to see their countries more as pawns in this game than as fully fledged sovereign states with independent policies.

    But the Obama administration’s successful “reset” of relations with Russia provides an opportunity to rethink our policies toward Eurasia, a term we use here to refer to the countries of the greater Black Sea region and Central Asia. We explain in our Foreign Affairs article “Reimagining Eurasia,” that a U.S. strategy to reimagine Eurasia should be based on three principles:

    http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/08/reimagining_ukraine.html

  4. What I kind of fail to understand about this article is why the US, which is thousand of miles away last I checked, is supposed to exert ‘influence’ in the Caucasus.

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