In Spring 1997, the US capitalized on the brewing crisis between Armenia and Azerbaijan.
The most significant development in the crisis took place somewhat away from the Nagorno-Karabakh front line. In late April 1997, Armenia moved some of its R-17E SCUD-B SSMs closer to its border with Azerbaijan. The Armenian SSMs were deployed in operational positions from which they threatened strategic objectives in Azerbaijan, mainly the country’s key oil and gas infrastructure. The Armenian redeployment and targeting of the Azerbaijani infrastructure were in violation of the SSM procurement agreement with Russia according to which the SSMs were supplied solely as deterrence against Azerbaijani attack on Armenia itself.
However, at the instigation of the US Armenian-American Lobby, the Clinton Administration elected to side with and shield Armenia in an effort to sway Armenia away from Russian influence. Consequently, the US aggravated the regional tension, creating false expectations in Stepanakert and Yerevan, and hardening the positions of all sides involved.
Armenian officials in both Yerevan and Stepanakert still cling to the promises made by US officials in mid-1997 even though subsequent official and formal clarifications of the US policy which negate the 1997 off-the-cuff promises.
By 1999, the US had given up on reconciling Azerbaijan and Armenia in order to construct pipelines to Turkey, and instead Washington started focusing on building pipelines via Georgia.
For such a project to be economically viable, the Russian pipelines would have to be shut down. Hence, in early October 1999, senior officials of US oil companies and US officials offered representatives of Russian “oligarchs” in Europe huge dividends from the proposed Baku-Ceyhan pipeline if the “oligarchs” convinced Moscow to withdraw from the Caucasus, permit the establishment of an Islamic state, and close down the Baku-Novorossiysk oil pipeline. Consequently, there would be no competition to the Baku-Ceyhan pipeline. The “oligarchs” were convinced that the highest levels of the Clinton White House endorsed this initiative. The meeting failed because the Russians would hear nothing of the US proposal.
Consequently, the US determined to deprive Russia of an alternate pipeline route by supporting a spiraling violence and terrorism in Chechnya, as well as the political fallout of media accusations of Russian war crimes. The Clinton White House sought to actively involve the US in yet another anti-Russian jihad as if reliving the “good ol’ days” of Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, seeking to support and empower the most virulent anti-Western Islamist forces in yet another strategic region.
In mid-December 1999, US officials participated in a formal meeting in Azerbaijan in which specific programs for the training and equipping of mujahedin from the Caucasus, Central and South Asia, and the Arab world were discussed and agreed upon. This meeting led to Washington’s tacit encouragement of both Muslim allies (mainly the intelligence services of Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia) and US “private security companies” (of the type that did Washington’s dirty job in the Balkans while skirting and violating the international embargo the US formally supported) to assist the Chechens and their Islamist allies to surge in spring 2000. Citing security concerns vis-à-vis Armenia and Russia, Azerbaijan adamantly refused to permit training camps on its soil.
Meanwhile, back in 1995 the Clinton White House started threatening Serbian leader Slobodan Milošovic that the US would adopt the “cause” of the Kosovo Albanians in order to coerce Belgrade to support the US-mediated Dayton Accords.
To add pressure on Belgrade, US and NATO intelligence services began sponsoring Kosovo Albanian terrorist and insurgency networks even though they were intimately connected to jihadist terrorist forces from the Middle East, Afghanistan-Pakistan and Bosnia-Herzegovina under the command of Muhammad al-Zawahiri (Ayman’s brother), as well as drug dealing and human smuggling networks. By early 1999, the situation was getting out of hand, and in March NATO found itself going to war in support of organized crime gangs and Osama bin Laden’s declared allies. The predominantly US aerial bombing lasted between March 24 and June 10, 1999. The war was justified on the basis of claims of crimes against humanity that in the aftermath of the war would prove to have been false and intentionally manufactured. For example, On April 19, the State Department officially warned that “up to 500,000 Kosovo Albanians were missing and feared dead.” However, in July 1999, KFOR discovered some 2,150 bodies in Kosovo and only about 850 were considered “victims of war crimes.” In August 2000, the ICTY confirmed that a total of 2,788 bodies were exhumed in Kosovo.
Washington knew this all along but the Clinton Administration had no better reasons or excuses for going to war. In reality, the Clinton White House was afraid of the marginalization of the US by an EU which was questioning the wisdom of setting the Balkans aflame. And so the US dragged a weak, indecisive EU into a needless war once again on the basis of data and arguments the US already knew to be false. The war ended in a series of US-imposed agreements and UN resolutions which certified that Kosovo was an integral part of the then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia but also granted the population of Kosovo NATO-guaranteed autonomy. The autonomous status of Kosovo and the territorial integrity of Serbia were reiterated by UN Security Council Resolution 1244. (Europe’s revenge – the result of both the humiliation of being fed intentionally false intelligence and of being dragged into unilateral war – would be painful for the US. The European skepticism would return with vengeance in 2002-03, manifested in the European hostility toward the US’ Iraq adventure.)
At the beginning of the 21st Century, official Brussels knew that the EU was incapable of putting down the fires at Europe’s own periphery on its own. The closing down of the Danube as a vital transportation link because of US bombing of bridges and dropping of unexploded munitions from the attacks on Serbia hit home hard, just as the importance of the energy supplies from the East was beginning to grow. Consequently, Russia, with tacit EU support, attempted to reverse the trend by reaching out to select allies in both the Balkans and the Caucasus in order to bring them to recognize the existence of a Russian umbrella in addition to NATO’s. Russia also developed special relations with Greece, including the first direct weapons sale to a NATO member, especially a veteran one. Most important has been the beginning of Russia’s dramatic historic rapprochement with Turkey.
The fledgling Russian-West European cooperation alarmed the United States, mainly for economic reasons. The big oil and engineering/construction companies, always the most politically influential in Washington, feared that the new era of cooperation would soon expand into developing and exploiting the vast energy resources of Central Asia – from hydrocarbons to hydroelectricity – and the huge energy transportation infrastructure which was to be constructed through the GBSB.
In the closing days of the Clinton Administration, a group of politically influential, liberal-leaning financial giants sought to capitalize on the new carnage in order to gain foothold in the tormented Balkans ostensibly in the name of spreading human rights and democracy. Subsequently, the Bush White House – mesmerized by their own “democratization” propaganda, as well as eager to placate the energy and construction giants that suffered by the destruction of Iraq and the residual Cold Warriors among the Washington élite (who resented the Administration’s focusing on the War on Terrorism instead of reviving the Cold War) – agreed to support and even expand the Clinton Administration’s interventionist policies.
The policy was implemented in the form of the “Color Revolutions”: December 2000 in Serbia, November 2003 in Georgia, December 2004 in Ukraine, and March 2005 in Kyrgyzstan (Central Asia’s main source of hydroelectricity). These “Color Revolutions” not only made mockery of the US commitment to genuine democracy, but exploited the most primordial divisions in these still immature and unstable states by pitting minorities against majorities and by using street chaos to empower politicians considered pliant to US diktats. Ultimately, in so doing, Washington was further undermining both respect for the Western values of governance and statehood, as well as deepening the ethno-centric and nationalist sub-state disputes and mistrust.
Washington’s strongest commitment was to Georgia, the spigot of the transportation of hydrocarbons to Europe. The US has long considered the control over the pipelines in Georgia the panacea instrument to both neutralizing Russia’s ascent as an energy power-house and forcing a hostile Europe into subservience through energy dependence.
Politically, this was a safe bet for the besieged and maligned Bush Administration because it brought support from the Democrats who invented the concept. However, there were practical problems to overcome. The main challenge was the absence of port facilities for the pipelines for the seaports controlled by Tbilisi were already overloaded (the construction of the BTC pipeline started in 2003 and would not be completed until 2006). The most suitable port was in Batumi, which Washington also sought as a outlet for the railway from land-locked Armenia in order to wean Armenia away from the Iranian embrace.
But there was a tiny problem. Batumi is in Adjaria, one of the three autonomous regions sponsored by Russia since the end of the Georgian civil wars in the early 1990s. (The other two autonomous regions were South Ossetia and Abkhazia.)
After the Rose Revolution, and encouraged by Washington, Georgian Pres. Mikhail Saakashvili pledged to crack down separatism in Georgia. In Spring 2004, Tbilisi instigated a major political crisis and threatened to use force in order to impose its authority on Adjaria. The Bush White House interceded with the Kremlin, supporting Saakashvili’s ultimatums but also guaranteeing that the new Georgian laws would redefine and expand the terms of Adjaria’s autonomy. On the basis of explicit US guarantees, in March 2005 Moscow compelled the Adjarian leaders to reach agreement with Tbilisi and promised to vacate the Russian military base in Batumi. Russia evacuated the base in November 2007, more than a year ahead of schedule. However, Tbilisi quickly reneged on all promises for autonomy and forcefully “integrated” Adjaria into Georgia in all but name.
Throughout, Washington repeatedly interceded with Moscow, blunted the Russian criticism of the violation of the signed agreements, and provided cover for Saakashvili.
Little wonder that Saakashvili became overconfident and started to make additional demands on the Russians regarding South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Tbilisi demanded that Moscow make unilateral concessions in violation of the 1994 agreement which had ended the Georgian civil war. When Moscow dared to raise the violations of the 2005 agreement on Adjaria as reasons for Moscow’s apprehension, Tbilisi rallied Washington’s forceful intervention in Moscow. The US also shielded Georgia’s increasing brazen provocations, including flying drones into Russian territory and sending patrols deep into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. In Spring 2008, when the Russian military ran a major military exercise – KAVKAZ-2008 – in the North Caucasus, the US exerted tremendous pressure on Russia to return all the participating units back to their bases in the heart of Russia so that they could not serve as threat to Georgia. Russia complied in May 2008.
In the political negotiations, however, Moscow held ground and refused to consider any additional unilateral concessions until the outstanding Adjarian issues were resolved. Hence, by the time politics got deadlocked, Saakashvili had already painted himself into a corner and created expectations of “liberation” as the counterbalance for economic crisis and erosion of democratic rights. Saakashvili had every reason to assume that no matter how outrageous his provocations might be, the Bush White House would cover for him at the Kremlin. This perception led to the Georgian attack on South Ossetia in early August 2008, triggering the Georgian-Russian war.
Russia emerged as the clear winner.
The Kremlin demonstrated that Russia was the undisputed regional power, and that Russia had the resolve and military means to intervene in order to secure its vital interests. The Kremlin resolved to further consolidate Russia’s strategic posture as the dominant and indisputable power in the entire GBSB.
The Kremlin kept the regional power-projection posture running from the new strategic headquarters in Vladikavkaz. This HQ was tasked with the consolidation of the long-term undisputed Russian strategic dominance over the greater region, not with the mere crushing defeat of future Georgian provocations. The crushing defeat of the US-sponsored Georgian armed forces by relatively small Russian forces spoke much of both the capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces in the Caucasus, as well as the quality and value of US-sponsored military assistance. The Kremlin proved that the US was incapable of challenging this grand strategic ascent, and that the EU was willing to go along with this maneuver.
The entire Georgia conflict and particularly the strikes on energy facilities were quickly seized on by EU leaders and very senior security officials in order to reinforce their long-held position that Russian regional hegemony was the sole key to Europe’s energy security.
For official Brussels, the war provided the ultimate proof of the US disregard for the vital economic interests of the EU. At the same time, the US has been putting immense pressure on Europe to adopt “alternate” – that is non-Russian – sources of energy (even at the cost of tolerating Turkey’s joining the EU) and give-up on supplies from Iran. The US facilitated the flaring-up of the volatile Caucasus just in order to avenge Moscow’s staunch and not-unwarranted opposition to the unilateral independence of Kosovo.
Washington’s willingness to endanger European vital interests in pursuit of the minor issue of Kosovo pushed the EU over the top in adopting an overall hostile attitude toward the US.
In the long-run, the most disastrous outcome of the Russian-Georgian War of August 2008 was the unilateral declaration of independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which Russia had to accept against the Kremlin’s better judgment and the self-interests of Russia. Because of its own separatist-secessionist crises in the North Caucasus and the diversity of its overall population, Russia has long been opposed in principle to separatism-secessionism and especially their unilateral realization. Indeed, as a co-chair (along with the US and France) of the OSCE Minsk Group empowered to mediate a resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict, Russia was the most insistent and forceful in opposition to granting independence to the Armenian enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh, and in favor of preserving the territorial integrity of Azerbaijan. This position pitted Yerevan – a close protégé of Moscow – against Moscow.
Thus, for Russia, the unilateral declaration of independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, even if under the duress of Georgian aggression, created a quandary the Kremlin was eager to avoid.
However, it was the US policy in the Balkans – namely, facilitating the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo in February 2008 – which compelled Russia to recognize the unilaterally-declared independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Formally, the Kosovo declaration of independence was an act of the Provisional Institutions of Self-Government Assembly of Kosovo which declared Kosovo to be independent from Serbia. That the Kosovo declaration of independence was in violation of specific US-imposed international agreements and UNSC resolutions did not matter to Kosovo’s key supporters. This was an inevitable end to nearly two decades of US pro-Muslim and anti-Serb interventionist policies in the Balkans. Given the extent of the US commitment over the years, it was only a question of time and political expediency before the US rammed through Kosovo’s independence. Thus, Kosovo’s independence could not and would not have taken place without the all-out endorsement and support of the Bush White House, particularly the advance guarantees to Priština that the US and its key European allies would immediately recognize the new “state” and deter Serbian intervention.
The US “excuse” that the 2008 vote was under duress and given the failure of various UN-sponsored mediation attempts made no sense since Serbia did not threaten to reverse the EU- and NATO-guaranteed status quo. Moreover, any unilateral move did not warrant the flagrant disregard for international agreements and UNSC resolutions. Similarly, the US insistence that Kosovo was an extenuating circumstance and thus did not constitute precedence was not believed by anybody, least of all official Washington itself.
Hence, in the aftermath of the US-led diplomatic blitz sanctifying the unilateral declaration of independence of Kosovo there was nothing the Kremlin could say to South Ossetia and Abkhazia, particularly given the still fresh record of the violation of the US-sponsored deal on Adjaria.
The incoming (2009) US Barack Obama Administration barged into the volatile GBSB with vengeance in early 2009.
Significantly, the Obama White House is even less committed to foreign policy and strategy than previous Administrations. However, the vast majority of key positions in the US foreign policy establishment, starting with the Secretary of State, are held by veterans of the Clinton Administration who are first and foremost determined to ensure that their legacy and reputation remain intact.
These circumstances have concrete implications for the GBSB. For example, how can Washington coerce countries to enter into a new Dayton-style agreement in order to expedite the US withdrawal from Afghanistan when the original Dayton Agreement is falling apart? On top, there grows the political commitment to the influential liberal-leaning financial giants who originally instigated the “color revolutions” and other “human rights” and “democratization” programs, as well as their numerous protégés in high positions: all of them extreme leftist liberal activists. Taken together, these personnel policies make for an explosive combination for America’s friends and foes alike.
Read the other articles in this series:
Analysis By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs.