Invading Georgia: The Opening Shot in a Grand Russian Strategy to Challenge the West Through the Domination of the Energy Market

By September 16, 2008

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 49

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Moscow’s military intervention in Georgia must be understood through the prism of global strategy and energy politics. Moscow seeks to intimidate energy producing countries once part of the Soviet Union, such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, and to develop a grand anti-American energy coalition that spans from Iran to Venezuela. This poses a significant challenge to the West, and may yet require muscular Western counter-action.

Russian Oil Ambitions and Implications

The small state of Georgia is a fledgling pro-Western democracy that seeks to join NATO and other Western political structures. Georgia, located next to powerful Russia, committed a grave mistake in its foreign policy this August 2008. Tbilisi ignored the main virtue advocated by the great practitioners of international relations from Niccolo Machiavelli to Henry Kissinger – prudence – by attempting to regain military control of a seceding region which was supported by Moscow. Russia exploited the Georgian miscalculation to strike back and to remind everybody that Russia will flex its military muscles in areas considered to be its backyard. Moscow views with trepidation the expansion of NATO, of which it is not a member, toward its borders. Georgian accession to NATO is simply unbearable from a Russian perspective. Russia is threatened by the Western security architecture and will oppose encroachment on areas once Russian-controlled.

Yet, this understandable aspect of Russian behavior hides a more ambitious foreign policy goal of controlling the global energy sector, and using such leverage to challenge America in world affairs. The immediate goal of Moscow’s military intervention in Georgia was to intimidate the energy-producing countries once part of the Soviet Union, such as Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan, to return to the Russian sphere of influence. The Finlandization of the Caucasus and Central Asia will allow Russia, a great oil producer itself, greater influence over the world’s energy.

Oil and gas constitute a strategic commodity that is different from coffee or refrigerators. Control of this commodity bestows considerable political influence. The Russians understand that such leverage can be effective against the energy-hungry European states who are already dependent to various degrees on Russian energy. By its actions in August, Russia decided to challenge America. Putin seeks to create a wedge between the US and Europe by further increasing the European dependency upon Russian-controlled oil.

Georgia in itself does not produce oil, but hosts several pipelines transferring oil from Azerbaijan in the Caspian Basin. The Georgian territory helps bypass Russian land and prevents Russia from having a greater handle on moving oil from the Caspian to the West. Therefore, following the invasion, Russian troops took control of the Baku-Supsa pipeline (ending on the Black Sea), which runs close to present Russian military lines. The Russians also threatened control of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (ending on the Turkish Mediterranean shore) by attacking its vicinity from the air. If the Russians remain in Georgia, they maintain control over great amounts of oil slated for the West that hitherto were unaffected by Russian preferences.

The Moscow-Teheran-Caracas Axis

Russia aims to strengthen key alliances with countries such as Iran and Venezuela in its quest for energy supremacy. Russia’s refusal to cooperate with the West in isolating Iran in order to curb its nuclear ambitions has remained an enigma to realpolitik observers, who expect Russia to prefer non-proliferation. Yet, if Russia’s grand strategy is to challenge the US, then one of its main tools is the political economy of energy. With a much greater nuclear arsenal, Russia is ready to tolerate a nuclear Iran. Russia believes it is strong enough to deter the Ayatollahs if they can be harnessed under Russian grand strategy.

Moscow nourishes hopes to coordinate anti-Western policies with oil-rich Iran. A nuclear Iran may serve the Russian interest in detaching Gulf oil from American influence. This has been a long-standing goal of the Soviet Union. Facing an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, most oil producing countries in the Gulf will slither into the Iranian orbit. The Shiite areas are most vulnerable to Iranian influence. Noteworthy, the southern portion of Iraq as well as the northern province of Saudi Arabia, where significant amounts of oil are located, are heavily populated by Shiites (as is Iran). A nuclear Iran will also dominate the Persian Gulf and its energy output. A nuclear Iran may also destabilize Turkey, which serves nowadays as an energy corridor for the West. An emboldened Iran will be less reluctant to meddle in Turkish affairs and help the Islamic radical elements in order to create political turmoil and even an Islamic takeover of Turkey. Secular Turkey has been an anathema to the Ayatollahs.

Further evidence for an anti-American grand strategy is the Russian behavior toward Venezuela, another major exporter of oil. Russia capitalized on the extreme anti-Americanism displayed by Venezuela’s leader, Hugo Chavez. We already see a minor Russian military presence in Venezuela and the Caribbean. The Moscow-Teheran-Caracas axis is currently in formation. Moscow is harnessing the oil riches of these two countries to challenge US hegemony in an increasingly energy dependent world. Iran and Venezuela cooperate willingly to see American influence reduced.

The West’s Options

The West must recognize the challenge ahead. Pavlovian responses urging engagement, which often is a euphemism for plain appeasement, are to be expected. Yet, it is an illusion to believe that the Russians will change their mind. Expansion of the EU and of NATO already has progressed too far from the Russian point of view. Russia’s security concerns, coupled with Russian historic imperialism, drive the Russian strategy.

Therefore, if the West does not want to succumb to dependence upon a Russian-led energy coalition it has to act as soon as possible. Alternatives sources of energy should be explored. Conserving energy is similarly important. At the same time, Western leaders should be aware that what Kissinger called in the mid-1970s “economic strangulation” might also require military responses. Soft power may not be sufficient to prevent the rise of an effective anti-Western energy coalition.

The West must be prepared to defend countries such as Georgia or Azerbaijan in order to prevent their falling into the Russian orbit. The West cannot afford procrastinating regarding Iran to ensure Teheran does not acquire the bomb. Finally, Washington ought to update its contingency plans for conquering the oilfields if necessary.

BESA Center Perspectives Papers are published through the generosity of the Littauer Foundation

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Prof. Efraim Inbar
Prof. Efraim Inbar

Prof. Efraim Inbar is professor emeritus of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.