The Bear Wakes Up: Russia Invades Georgia

By Morgan Norval l August 21, 2008

The message delivered loud and clear by Russia’s recent military invasion of Georgia is: the Russian Bear is back, its period of hibernation is over – deal with it!

Russia’s action has served notice it will be the hegemon on its near western and southern borders or what it calls its “near abroad.”  And, it will not hesitate to use brutal force to offset threats, real or perceived, to its security.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has stated that the fall of the Soviet Union was a geopolitical disaster for Russia.  The disintegration of the Soviet empire created the current situation, whereby Moscow feels threatened by the West’s encroachment.  During the heyday of the Soviet Union, St. Petersburg was located 1,200 miles away from the nearest NATO country.  With the fall of the Soviet Union and NATO’s eastward expansion, today St. Petersburg is just 69 miles away from Estonia, a NATO member.  The present day Russian Federation feels surrounded by countries hostile to its interests, though a march on St. Petersburg by the tiny Estonian military seems ludicrous at best and paranoid at worst.

Russia’s underlying strategy is to halt the eastward expansion of NATO in its tracks and to keep it as far away as possible from its borders.  There are two major, and interrelated, aspects involved: 1) Reincorporate, or control through vassals, former regions of the Soviet Union.  This means Georgia, Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are all on the Kremlin’s target list; and, 2) Control all oil and gas routes westward to Europe from Central Asia.

There are two further points to this energy equation: profits from sales and transmission fees and the use of energy availability as a club over Europe and NATO’s leaders to ensure they behave as Russia wants.  Since high oil prices have given Russia a huge windfall and enormous cash flow, it is a key factor in determining Moscow’s foreign policy.  Without the oil profits, Russia’s resurgence would not be an issue in current affairs as it would find it difficult to upgrade its military and lift the low morale it once experienced following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Oil and gas profits along with the invasion of Georgia have breathed new life into the sleeping bear.

The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline that runs through Georgia was built specifically to avoid passage through Russian territory, depriving it of an additional means to generate cash flow from oil and gas exports.  A regime change in Georgia transforming it into a vassal state of the Russians, one of Putin’s aims, would extend de facto control over this energy route and fatten the coffers of Moscow’s treasury.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, relations between Russia and Georgia have been frigid at best.  Georgia declared its independence from Russia in April 1991 and Russia responded by stirring up trouble, encouraging and materially supporting secessionist movements in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Abkhazia was more successful, winning autonomy via clash of arms in 1993.

In 1994, Georgia and Russia signed a treaty that allowed Russia to maintain military bases in Georgia.  This positioned the proverbial fox in the hen house.  From these bases the Russians could, and did provide weapons and support to secessionist groups in breakaway South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  Two years later Georgia and South Ossetia agreed to a cessation of hostilities but the treaty was meaningless and the violence continued.

On August 8, 2008, the same day as the opening of the Beijing Olympics, the Russians sent their military into South Ossetia, overrunning the area before resuming their attack south into Georgia itself, capturing the city of Gori.  The city’s capture adds a macabre twist to the Russian action as it marked the birthplace of former Soviet leader and mass murderer Joseph Stalin.

Another important fact to consider is the Russian attack wasn’t a spur of the moment decision.  As former military intelligence officer Ralph Peters noted in the New York Post on August 14th, it was premeditated.  “On the military side, the months of meticulous planning and extensive preparation for this invasion were covered by military exercises, disingenuous explanations – and maskiroka, the art of deception the Red Army has mastered.  The Russians convinced us to see what we wanted to see…Want a straightforward indication of what the Russians intend?  Putin’s code name for this operation is Christoye Polye.  Literally translated, that means “clean field.”  In military parlance, it means ‘scorched earth’.”

The Russian attack on Georgia sends a clear message to its young pro-Western president, Mikhail Saakashvili and the rest of the world that Moscow will use brutal force if necessary to advance its interests in the region.

Morgan Norval is the founder and Executive Director of the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.