September 11, 2008

The New Great Game

Print More

Since the fall of the Soviet Union the United States has been incrementally increasing its influence in the former Eastern Bloc, as well as countries that have historically been considered part of Russia (whether or not that’s good is a separate issue from whether or not it’s true.) The recent crisis over Georgia is the first of what will most likely be a long and sustained reaction and attempt to reassert Russian control in its former backyard.
It’s still not entirely clear what happened in Georgia this past August. Regardless of who was the true aggressor and what his/her intentions were, it’s clear that the opportunity was taken by Russia to take Georgia down a notch. Georgia, a country that experienced a pro-Western revolution in 2003 has been one of the U.S.’s closet allies in Iraq and one which has been active in seeking NATO and EU membership. Since taking power, Georgia’s president Mikheil Saakashvilli has been looking to assert control over several restive regions of the country with active separatist movements. Successful in one of these, Adjara, Saakashvilli apparently believed that he could militarily assert control over the other two, Abkhazia and South Ossestia. Those regions, unlike Adjara, are patrons of Russia, which led to the Russian invasion and now de-facto independence for those regions under Russian protection.
The unfortunate place that Georgia has found itself in serves as an example for the other countries of the former Eastern Bloc–upset Russia and get close to the United States at your own risk. With a wave of “color revolutions” overtaking the area, from Ukraine to Georgia to Kyrgyzstan, Russia is seeing pro-Western governments coming to take power. In addition to NATO and EU accession for most of the former Warsaw Pact as well as the former Baltic states, Russia is experiencing foreign encroachment. Despite the example and “punishment” of Georgia, as Russia called it, it seems that the message has not entirely gotten through. In Poland, Russian intervention produced the opposite outcome, leading Poland to agree to host U.S. missile defense systems on its territory (despite assertions that time had nothing to do with it.) In Ukraine, however the conflict has led to a split within the pro-Western camp over the speed of integration with the possibility for a pro-Russian opening to appear.
In the 19th century, Britain and Russia engaged in an intense rivalry for Afghanistan and the Middle East, seen by Britain as key to the protection of colonized India and seen by Russia as important to the defense of its frontiers. Now, with the United States in Afghanistan, and with bases in Central Asia and NATO creeping up on its door, Russia seems to have broken out the chess board and is ready to start playing in order to keep the West from its doorstep.