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Test in Caucasian power play
By Xing Guangcheng (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-08-07 07:44

Tensions have been mounting between Russia and Georgia with the approach of the first anniversary of the outbreak of last year's military conflict.

A five-day war broke out between Russian and Georgian troops in the Georgian region of South Ossetia on Aug 7 last year. Russia achieved an overwhelming victory, as indicated by the de facto separation of pro-Moscow South Ossetia and Abakhazia from Georgia's rule, and the inclusion of the two regions in Russia's sphere of influence. Russia's victory was also symbolized by the fact that its war against a smaller neighbor did not provoke dramatic reactions from the international community, such as punitive measures, and that the public extended great support to the Russian government.

However, the military triumph has not brought Moscow's political intentions to complete fruition. For example, Russia failed to prompt more countries to recognize the independence of South Ossetia and Abakhazia. Also, its plan to include the two Georgian regions into the Russia-Belarus Union has so far failed to come true. Anyway, Moscow has taken a strategic initiative in the pivotal Caucasian chessboard against the pro-West Georgian regime.

Given the disparity in their strength, Georgia is not in a position to confront a far more muscular Russia. But, that did not change Georgia's consistently tough posture in its rivalry with Russia. The substantive supports the United States, the European Union (EU) and the NATO have extended to the Caucasian nation have made the Russia-Georgia conflict bear the typical character of the bigger Russia-US confrontation.

In a sense, Russia's confrontation with Georgia is an indication of the extended Russia-US confrontation in the Caucasian region. This was fully reflected in Washington's one-sided support to the Georgian government in the latter's conflict with Moscow. Moscow did not budge an inch and counterattacked in the direct face of Western accusations. Also, it almost completely applies the Kosovo model to the South Ossetia issue, thus putting Western countries in a passive position.

As a result, the US and the European countries are not likely to recognize South Ossetia and Abakhazia's independence. They will possibly see it as a top priority to further check the strategic offensives launched by Russia across the Caucasian region. Against this backdrop, the US and the NATO have held successive military exercises with Georgia, aimed at displaying to Moscow the determination to safeguard their small ally's security. In a tit-to-tat move, Russia has also organized similar military drills on the border of Georgia.

Display of military power and exchange of military threats between Russia and the West have plunged the Caucasian region into a state of war. Latest developments indicate that the Russia-Georgia confrontation will not ease in the short term.

Russia has been looking forward to a change of government in Georgia. It will not ease tensions with the neighbor if Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili remains in office. A change in the strength equations of Georgian political factions is the biggest factor that can lead to a new leader. In fact, Georgia is now in an unstable condition, given that the Saakashvili administration has been under severe challenge from his political opponents. Whether the pro-West Georgian president can hold the reins will determine the Caucasian trend.

It remains Russia's long-term strategic goal to gain recognition for the independence of South Ossetia and Abakhazia. It is expected that Moscow will not rush to absorb the two Georgian regions into its own territory, given that the time now is not ripe. The political elite in Moscow believes that South Ossetia and Abakhazia will help Russia control the Caucasian region.

President Saakashvili can be expected to do his utmost to retrieve the two lost regions. To this end, he will more actively seek support from the US, the EU and NATO. Due to the Western position and their own interests, the US and other Western countries are likely to take measures to come to Georgia's aid and check the offensive by Russia. As the situation stands now, the tension and the conflicts between Russia and Georgia, and between Georgia and South Ossetia and Abakhazia appear certain to continue. Russia's conflict with the US and the West on this issue is also expected to persist.

The geopolitical situation in the Caucasian region suggests that the US and NATO elements will inevitably play their part in the asymmetrical Russia-Georgia political games. Russia cannot tolerate the existence of a pro-West country alongside its border, while the US aspiration is to develop Georgia as an outpost to contain the expansion of Moscow's influence.

The author is deputy director of the Center of China's Borderland History and Geography Research under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

(China Daily 08/07/2009 page8)