The Georgia Crisis and the Middle East

Aug 20, 2008 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

August 20, 2008
Number 08/08 #07

The Georgia crisis goes on, with Russia apparently dragging its feet on the promised withdrawals of forces. While Georgia is beyond the scope of Updates from AIJAC, there has been a large amount of interesting comment on how the outcome of the crisis in Georgia, and particularly growing Russian assertiveness and willingness to challenge the West, will affect the Middle East. This is the topic of this Update.

First up are some comments on Russia’s changing Middle East role from the eminence grise of experts on the Cold War Middle East, Dr. Walter Laqueur. He says Russian behaviour is generally highly predictable, and that what can be expected is that Russia is moving into a period of intense competition with the US. He says that while the short-term focus will probably be in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Russia will also be seeking to weaken the US position in the Middle East, will be looking for opportunities to exploit to do this, and may even promote conflict to help create such opportunities. For these important insights from a pre-eminent expert on Russia’s past Middle East policy, CLICK HERE.

Next up is a general issue briefing from the British-Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM) concentrating on the implications of the Georgia campaign for Israel.  The paper discusses both the past links between Georgia and Israel, and the Russian energy policies that seem to partially explain Russia’s behaviour. It also discusses how Russia’s likely growing international assertiveness will affect efforts to contain Iran, and Israel’s best policy toward Russia. For this full discussion, CLICK HERE. Also offering a similar longer analysis is Ariel Cohen, an American Russia specialist writing for the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs.

Finally, Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Schwammenthal looks specifically at the implications of Russia’s behaviour for international efforts to halt Iran’s illegal nuclear weapons program. He says we now have to change our assumptions about Russia’s motives and goals, and accept that Russia may never agree to serious UN Security Council sanctions, because it may not mind a nuclear Iran if it hurts US regional interests more than Russian. He therefore calls on Europeans to now pursue sanctions outside the UN framework, and argues there is reason to believe that these could be effective. For Schwammenthal’s complete argument, CLICK HERE.  More on Israeli worries about the effect of the Georgia conflict on stopping the Iranian nuclear effort is here and here,

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Russia and the Middle East

From Walter Laqueur

Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) Blog, Aug 17th, 2008

Some have said that the Kremlin is unpredictable. I always found the Soviet (Russian) leadership more predictable than the White House.

According to Vladimir Putin, the breakdown of the Soviet Union was the greatest disaster of the 20th century. If so, one ought to undo (or reduce) the damage, and Moscow is now in a position to do so.

In his view, this does not necessarily mean physical occupation. The Central Asian governments need Russian political and economic help in facing many internal problems; they have every interest to keep close relations with the Kremlin. The same is true with regard to Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Baltic republics on the other hand are weak but indigestible; military occupation is ruled out, the game is not worth the candle. Ukraine and Moldova will be more careful not to antagonize Russia following the events in Georgia.

What of the “near abroad,” the former East European satellites? They too will understand, with a little applied pressure such as military threats, that they belong to the Russian sphere of influence and that it was a mistake to join NATO, which won’t be of any help to them. What of Western Europe? It would perhaps be too much to say that it does not exist, but it certainly does not amount to much. In the absence of a common European foreign and defense policy and above all a common energy policy (which could make them less dependent on Russian oil and gas supplies), one need not bother about the E.U. Their dependence on Russian energy supplies will grow as the North Sea resources will be exhausted in the not-too-distant future.

What does Russian domination mean? Not the imposition of the Soviet model as in the Cold War. The present Soviet example (the petrostate) hardly lends itself for export. But the Kremlin will certainly insist on control of the foreign policy of the states in its sphere of influence, as well as (for instance) censorship and some other measures of control.

Ideally, the restoration of the Russian sphere of domination (or at least influence) should proceed gradually, even slowly. It was Stalin’s mistake after World War Two that he proceeded hastily, which generated resistance, including the emergence of NATO.

But Russia is under time pressure for at least three reasons. First, there is the emotional factor. The temptation to show that Russia has returned to a position of strength is very great. Which Russian leader does not want to enter history as another Peter the Great—not to mention some more recent leaders? Second, Russia’s strength rests almost entirely on its position as the world’s leading oil and gas supplier. But this will not last forever. Nor will it be possible to prevent technological progress forever—alternative sources of energy will be found.

Above all, there is Russia’s demographic weakness. Its population is constantly shrinking (and becoming de-Russified). The duration of military service had to be halved because there are not enough recruits. Every fourth recruit is at present of Muslim background; in a few years it will be every third. The density of population in Asian Russia is 2.5 per square kilometer—and declining. There is no possible way to stop or reverse this process, and depopulation means inevitably the loss of wide territories—not to the Americans.

In these circumstances there is a strong urge not to wait but to act now.

What will be the impact of these trends on the Middle East? Ideally, it would be wise to wait with any major action in the area until Russian domination in its closer neighborhood is established. But if opportunities for a Russian return to the Middle East arise, they should be used.

There are no illusions about finding allies in the region. As one of the last Tsars (Alexander III) said (and as Putin repeated after him), Russia has only two reliable allies: its army and artillery. Among the police and army ideologues there has been of late the idea to give up Panslav dreams, since the Slav brothers can be trusted even less than the rest, and to consider instead a strategic alliance with Turkic peoples. But these are largely fantasies.

The main aim will be to weaken America’s position in the Middle East. In this respect, there are differences of opinion in the Kremlin. Some ex-generals have come on record to the effect that a war with America is inevitable in a perspective of 10-15 years. The influence of these radical military men should not be overrated. But it is certainly true that the belief that America is Russia’s worst and most dangerous enemy is quite common (see for instance the recent Russkaia Doktrina). The downfall of the Soviet empire is thought to be mainly if not entirely America’s fault; Washington, it is believed, is trying to hurt Russia all the time in every possible way. This paranoiac attitude is deeply rooted (in contrast to China) and it will be an uphill struggle in the years to come to persuade the Russian leadership that this is not the case.

Moscow has threatened to supply greater help to Iran and Syria, which would certainly annoy America and perhaps hurt it. But Russia does not want to do this at the price of creating political and military problems for itself in the years to come. Russian distrust does not stop at its southern borders.

The attack on South Ossetia provided Russia with an unique opportunity; it was motivated by a militant Georgian nationalism which failed to understand that small and weak countries, unlike big and powerful ones, are not in a position to keep separatist regions indefinitely under their control. Such opportunities will not frequently return, and other opportunities will have to be created by the Kremlin—probably by exploiting existing conflicts such as those in the Middle East. This could open the door to serious miscalculations.

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The crisis in Georgia and its implications for Israel

BICOM Analysis, August 19, 2008


Over the weekend, Russian President Medvedev signed a ceasefire agreement, intended to bring to a close Moscow’s ten-day military campaign in Georgia.[i] Ignoring US demands however, Russia has made clear that its forces will not be carrying out an early withdrawal. Despite a Russian announcement that a gradual withdrawal was underway, Russian troops and tanks remain in Georgia. Indeed, no timetable for the withdrawal of Russian forces has been given, and officials have mentioned the need for ‘extra security measures’ before this becomes feasible.[ii]

The short war between Russia and Georgia is being viewed by many analysts as a watershed moment in international affairs. While the factor precipitating the crisis was the long-smoldering issue of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the actions pursued by Russia have a significance extending far beyond the Caucasus. The crisis in Georgia is of huge importance for both EU security and for NATO.[iii] Less widely noted in the last days are the very important implications the latest events have for Israel. The events in Georgia are of vital importance both in themselves, and in terms of what they imply for small states, and how best they can act to defend their interests.

Russia’s war in Georgia showcases the re-emergence of an economically powerful Moscow onto the world stage, determined and able to pursue an international policy in open defiance of the wishes of the US and the EU.[iv] Since the demise of the USSR in 1991, we have grown accustomed to the sole superpower status of the United States as the defining factor in international relations. The recent events in Georgia, however, indicate the beginnings of a credible Russian challenge to this status. It is worth noting that it is becoming clearer that Russia’s actions in Georgia were planned in advance, and President Saakashvili appears to have walked into a trap set him by Moscow. Evidence is emerging, for example, that Russia’s crippling of the Georgian government’s presence in cyber-space started two days before hostilities, and resembled similar action taken against Estonia in April 2007. It is not yet clear if Russian actions are a trial run for further, similar actions in other neighboring states, or whether they derived from the specific situation in the Caucasus. In this regard, much will doubtless depend on the international response.  This analysis will attempt to outline the key areas in the Middle East affected by Russia’s campaign in Georgia, and by the newly assertive stance of Moscow.

Energy issues

One of the intentions of Russia in its incursion into Georgia is understood to be the eventual replacement of the government of Mikhail Saakashvili with a pro-Moscow regime. While the events of the last days indicate that Moscow does not currently intend to bring Saakashvili down by force, the demise of the pro-western and pro-Israeli Saakashvili would offer important benefits to Moscow. Russia’s resurgence is based on economic buoyancy deriving from the oil and gas sectors. A pro-Russian regime in Georgia would end the current situation in which oil-producing Azerbaijan is able to transport oil via Turkey and Georgia, without crossing Russian or pro-Russian territory.[v] The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline allows Central Asian states to potentially compete with Russia.  Europe depends on Russia for around 25% of its oil and gas energy supplies.[vi] Hence, the possession of a potential alternative supplier is of major diplomatic importance in giving the EU the ability to resist Russian demands and strategies. The pipeline makes Turkey a major player in the energy issue. Israel also has a stake in this process.  Israel already receives some of its oil via the pipeline. Also, there are proposals to use Israel’s Ashkelon-Eilat pipeline as a means in the process of bringing oil from Azerbaijan to East Asian and South East Asian countries. To view a map of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, click here.

Hence, Russian control of Georgia would significantly increase Moscow’s leverage in all disputes with the west, contributing to the rise in Moscow’s stock as an alternative centre of power.  

Israel-Georgia relations

Israel enjoyed friendly relations with Mikhail Saakashvili’s government and as has been extensively reported, Israeli defence contractors were involved in training the Georgian military.[vii] Indeed, Israel has been involved in rushing emergency medical supplies to Georgia in the wake of the recent fighting. It should be noted that despite the wide publicity given to Israel’s sale of arms to Georgia, Israel had in fact been cutting back on arms sales to Tbilisi over the last months, precisely because of the likelihood of an impending clash with Russia.

As pro-western states in volatile regions of great geo-strategic importance, there is a certain similarity between the situations of Israel and Georgia. However, regardless of the rights and wrongs of the dispute over South Ossetia, Israel has a clear interest in maintaining its relations with Russia, and avoiding un-necessary provocations of the resurgent Moscow.

Russia and Iran

The resurgence of Russia internationally is, in a sense, mirrored in miniature in the Middle East by the challenge of Iran to the system of pro-western governments which underpins security in the region. Moscow has emerged as the principal armourer of the Iran-led alliance in the region, which includes Syria and Hezbollah. This role has included the provision of highly sophisticated weapons systems.[viii] It is worth noting, however, that with regard to its strategic relationship with Iran, Russia seeks to maintain a sort of constructive ambiguity.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is scheduled to visit Moscow On August 20th, with one of his intentions reportedly being the purchase of advanced anti-aircraft systems.[ix]

The renewal of a sort of ‘Cold War’ between the west and Russia is likely to exacerbate this process. In the first place, Russia has dragged its feet throughout in the attempts by international diplomacy to peacefully solve the Iranian nuclear issue. The renewed tension as a result of events in Georgia is likely to severely complicate the passing of a 4th United Nations Security Council resolution of sanctions against Iran, as Moscow could veto such a resolution. Alternatively, Moscow could condition its support on major western concessions elsewhere – for example, regarding Russian freedom of operations in the Caucasus, or over western plans to install missile defence systems in the Czech Republic and Poland. Thus, renewed Russian-western tensions severely complicate hopes of ending the Iranian nuclear crisis through joint international diplomatic action.

In the longer term, if rivalries between Russia and the west become entrenched, then Russia’s support of a bloc of countries in the region led by Iran may become a permanent and central factor in the power politics of the region. Such a development would resemble the situation in the Middle East in the early 1980s, when the USSR was no longer strong enough to mount a credible challenge to the west, but sponsored allies in order to act as a ‘spoiler’ and reap gains through its potential for destabilisation.

There is also a danger that the renewal of crisis in Georgia may lead to a loss of international focus on Iran.


The events of the last days herald the arrival of Russia to a new position of influence in world affairs. The evidence suggests that Russia was not responding to Georgian actions, but rather carried out a prior prepared plan. The Russian action is potentially a watershed moment in international affairs, which will herald new patterns of international behaviour.

This has important implications for the Middle East. While Russia’s interests in the Middle East are for the most part inimical to Israeli interests, the dictates of realpolitik mean that Israel will seek to maintain its current cordial relations with Moscow. The west still needs Moscow on board in order to mount a credible diplomatic campaign vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear ambitions – though it is clear that Moscow will exact a high price for cooperation in this regard, if it decides to offer substantive cooperation. Also, Israel will hope to leverage its good relations with Moscow to exert at least some limitations on Russia’s arming of anti-Israeli forces in the region.

[i] Luke Harding and Mitch Prothero, “Russia signs ceasefire deal but troops stay in Georgia, the Observer, 17 August 2008. www.guardian.co.uk

[ii]  “Russia digs in 20 miles from Georgian capital,” Sunday Times, 17 August 2008. www.timesonline.co.uk

[iii] See Ronald Asmus, ‘NATO’s Hour,” Wall Street Journal, 18 August 2008, for a discussion of the implications of the latest crisis for NATO.  

[iv] Ariel Cohen, “The Russian-Georgian War: Implications for the Middle East,” Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 8, no. 16, 15 August 2008.  

[v] Cohen

[vi] “A Pipeline runs through it,” Investors Business Daily, 13 August 2008. www.ibdeditorials.com

[vii] “Russia accuses Israel of supplying Georgian military,” Globes, 11 August 2008. www.globes.co.il

[viii]  In the 2006 Lebanon War, Russian Kornet armour-piercing missiles supplied to Hezbollah by Syria took a heavy toll on Israeli lives and equipment.  Russia supplied the sophisticated Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft defence system to Syria in 2007 (this system appears to have been effectively neutralised by Israel in the raid of September 2007). See “Submarines for Syria?” New York Sun, 21 May 2008. www.nysun.com; Russia is expected to deploy state-of-the-art S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missiles in Iran in March 2009. These are expected to become fully functional in June of that year. This system is considered to be one of the best of its type in the world. Iran would use it, of course, to secure its nuclear programme from any aerial attack. Thus, the deployment of the system would significantly complicate US and Israeli plans for preventing the emergence of a nuclear Iran. Syria is also reported to be interested in acquiring the S-300 system.

[ix] Herb Keinon, “Assad to discuss ME peace process in Russia,” Jerusalem Post, 12 August 2008. www.jpost.com

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The Russo-Iranian Axis



Russia’s rape of Georgia requires more than just a rethinking of how the West can protect other former Soviet states from a resurgent Kremlin. Every international crisis with a Russian component now takes on a new dimension. In the case of Iran’s nuclear program, this means the European Union’s insistence on U.N.-approved sanctions against Tehran may no longer be just naive but willfully negligent.

The EU’s faith in U.N.-brokered conflict resolutions rests in large part on the assumption that following the fall of communism, Russia, a veto-wielding Security Council member, shares the West’s basic values and interests. As looting Russian soldiers are demonstrating in Georgia, this was a misconception.

If Russia cannot be trusted in its “near abroad,” there is little reason to believe it can be trusted any more in the Middle East. To the contrary. Moscow’s dealings with the ruling mullahs should have long convinced Europe that Russia doesn’t share its goal of stopping the Iranian bomb. How else could one explain Moscow’s construction of a nuclear reactor in Iran, its delivery of advanced antiaircraft missiles to Tehran and its refusal to pass anything but the weakest economic sanctions?

And yet, the EU’s core assumption has been that we can trust Moscow on Iran. The Russians, so the argument goes, cannot possibly have any interest in a nuclear Iran either. Another misconception.

True, Moscow must be wary of Islamic terrorists getting their hands on nuclear material, given Moscow’s scorched-earth war against its breakaway republic of Chechnya, which is majority Muslim. But the Kremlin’s support for Iran has probably bought Russia adequate insurance against the possibility of Tehran passing on some dirty bomb to a Chechen rebel.

Instead, Moscow can quite rightly assume that a nuclear Iran will hurt Western interests more than Russia’s. And in Moscow’s atavistic balance-of-power calculations, as long as the West loses more than Russia, Russia wins.

It is primarily Israel and American troops in Iraq that would be threatened by a nuclear Iran. Tehran’s launch of a space rocket on Sunday, though, is yet another reminder that the U.S. homeland and all of Europe may at some point be within its reach as well.

Iran may not even have to use a nuclear device to spread destruction. The Islamic Republic may believe the atomic bomb makes it untouchable, and step up its support for terrorists — or even launch direct (conventional) attacks on Western and Israeli targets. The Gulf region could also be threatened. Under the security umbrella of a nuclear bomb — and borrowing a page from Moscow’s book in Georgia — Tehran could claim to come to the rescue of its Shiite brethren in its predominantly Sunni neighbor states.

The worst-case scenario of course remains that the Islamists may use the doomsday device to fulfill an apocalyptic vision of Shiite Islam. Any conflagration in the Gulf would send energy prices through the roof. And this is where Russia’s stalling at the U.N. Security Council comes in. It increases Iran’s chances of getting the bomb while at the same time it makes a pre-emptive Western attack on Iran’s nuclear installations more likely. In either case, as a major oil and gas producer, Russia would stand to profit from the inevitable panic on the energy markets.

Many Europeans still believe that only a U.N. stamp of approval lends collective action moral and legal legitimacy. But clearly, a regime that acts with such brutality and disregard for international norms, as Security-Council-member Russia has in Georgia, has no legitimacy to confer. The U.N. as an institution has also little legitimacy left, as it, partly again due to Russian (and Chinese) vetoes, has stood idly by in the face of genocide in Sudan and Mugabe’s crimes in Zimbabwe.

Europeans also argue that Western “unilateral” sanctions are futile because they would allow Russia and other countries to come in and replace Western suppliers. But not every supplier is replaceable. Iran wants Western technology because Western technology is still generally superior to that coming from Russia, China or other emerging economies.

Europe here has both a qualitative an a quantitative edge. The EU is Iran’s main trading partner, and Germany and Italy have been particularly busy. Earlier this month it emerged that Berlin has given the green light for a €100 million deal for a German company to provide Iran with three liquefied gas plants.

It would be impossible for Tehran to quickly find adequate alternatives for their European imports. “Around two-thirds of the Iranian industry is to a significant degree equipped with machines and plants of German origin,” Michael Tockuss, at that time the director of the German-Iranian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, told German weekly Focus in 2006. “The Iranians are certainly dependent on German spare parts and suppliers.”

Moscow’s invasion of Georgia rightly shook up the EU. It realized that it borders a ruthless regime that literally gets away with murder — thanks mainly to its arsenal of nuclear missiles.

Unless Europe wants an even deadlier nuclear power at its southern flank, it will have to stop hiding behind Moscow’s veto and tighten the screws on Iran.

Mr. Schwammenthal edits the State of the Union column.

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