martes, 26 de marzo de 2013

The geostrategic significance of South Ossetia

During a recent visit to the headquarters of the Russian 58th army in Vladikavkaz, the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said the 2008 South Ossetia War stopped NATO expansion. Discussing developments concerning the partially-recognized republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Medvedev said “had we hesitated in 2008, the geopolitical scenario would have been different,” stating that NATO would currently rank Ukraine and Georgia among its members.

The 2008 conflict between Georgia and Russia actually diminished the likelihood of Georgian accession to the Atlantic Alliance. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during the meeting with Russian president after the signing of a ceasefire agreement that the promise made to Georgia in Bucharest is still standing. However, she did not retract the earlier insistence of Germany and France that Georgia must resolve its internal problems prior to any NATO membership. As a result, as of November 2008, there is not a consensus within the Alliance on a Georgian Membership Action Plan.

The Georgian-Russian clash falls within the broader context of energy wars that have characterized the history of the Caucasus over the last two decades. The region is undoubtedly one of the most important geostrategic areas of the planet. Its centrality in world affairs started to increase after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Chechen insurgency, and the consequent possibility of further disintegration of the Eurasian space, seemed to open new oil and gas routes from the Caspian Sea to Europe that, bypassing Russia, would have given US companies complete control over most of the hydrocarbons resources of the basin, and made Washington’s victory over Moscow definitive.

In itself, the Caucasian share of global oil and gas reserves is not considerable. However, in light of the uncertainty over the reliability of Persian Gulf supplies, as well as the possibility that Russia may use energy delivery as a power tool, the transport of Caspian and Central Asian energy supplies to the West via the Caucasus is of utmost importance. In fact, Central Asia’s oil and gas reserves have a significant geostrategic value not only as a supplementary source of crude oil and gas in addition to other traditional areas, but also because of their location close to large centres of consumption such as Europe, China and India.

In this regard, the Georgian territory is particularly important, as it hosts part of the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline transit route that supplies western and central Europe. The pipeline, supplied by oil from Azerbaijan’s Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli oil field, transports 1 million barrels of oil per day, and has been a key factor for US support for Georgia, allowing the West to reduce its reliance on Middle Eastern oil while bypassing both Russia and Iran. Hence, Russian interest for Georgia and Moscow’s determination to defend the de facto independence of South Ossetia after the 2008 Georgian attack on the breakaway republic.

In some way, South Ossetia is for Russia what the Golan Heights is for Israel: a thorn in the enemy’s side. The Syrian territory occupied by Israel as a result of the 1967 Six Day War gives actually the Jewish state an excellent vantage point for monitoring military movements of its Arab neighbour, as Damascus itself is clearly visible from the top of the Heights. In case of war between the two countries, the Israeli army could easily reach the Syrian capital, which is just some 60 km (40 miles) north-east of the disputed territory. Similarly, Russian geostrategic control of South Ossetia allows Moscow to pose a direct military threat to Georgian independence, as the small republic is situated about 100 km north of Tbilisi.

Nevertheless, in case a new conflict between the two former Soviet republics would break out, it would not be likely dictated by regional ambitions, but rather by an escalation of the global confrontation between Russia and the West for control of oil and gas routes in Eurasia. The possibility itself of stopping the flow of 1 million barrels of oil per day to Europe by cutting the Baku–Tbilisi–Ceyhan pipeline transit route gives actually the Kremlin a powerful means of compellence. In this regard, Russian control of South Ossetia is more than just a thorn in Georgia’s side: it is a bridgehead for a peaceful Russian invasion of Europe, whose ultimate outcome could be the dissolution of NATO. Where Soviet missiles failed, Russian pipelines may succeed.

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