M.K. Bhadrakumar

The master plotters in Washington and London will keenly watch how Dmitry Medvedev’s leadership handles the crisis.

Anyone who thought Beijing Olympics had to be Friday’s lead news story on CNN and BBC was in for surprise. It gave way to the Caucasus developments.

There is no reason to doubt CNN and BBC’s judgment that the killing of tens of hundreds of people in the Caucasian region of South Ossetia on Friday may turn out to be a landmark event in post-Soviet Russia’s relations with the West. The Caucasus lies deeply embedded in Russian collective consciousness. Their history and culture and indeed the security of Mother Russia are inextricably linked with the Caucasus. Anyone who lived among Russians would know there is not a living room in the whole of Russia with a book shelf that wouldn’t have Leo Tolstoy’s Kavkazsky Plennik [A Prisoner in the Caucasus]. Zhilin is a household name in Russia, the officer in the Czarist army posted in the Caucasus who took leave of absence and ran into high adventure as he left for home upon receiving a letter from his mother who wrote, “I am getting old, and should like to see my beloved son before I die. Come and say good-bye to me, bury me, and then return to service, God willing. I have found a girl for you, who is sensible and good and landed too. If you like her, you might marry her and stay for good.”

Moscow finds itself in an unenviable situation. Russia cannot avoid an intervention and is obliged to intervene, as the majority of South Ossetians are Russian citizens. The Georgian attack was intended as a provocation. The attack killed 13 Russian soldiers and injured 150 and took over 2,000 civilian lives, mostly Russian citizens. The South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali has been razed to the ground. Over 30,000 refugees have crossed the Russian border.

We feel as if on a time machine back in cold war. The master plotters in Washington and London will now keenly watch how Medvedev’s leadership in the Kremlin handles the crisis. They will look for clues whether Mr. Medvedev has Mr. Putin’s iron fist and steely nerves. When Mr. Putin took over in 2000, a similar test awaited him in Chechnya. He set about doing what Russia had to do. But times have changed. Chilly winds have begun blowing in East-West relations.

Mr. Medvedev acted swiftly. He ordered humanitarian aid for the affected civilians, and dispatched military reinforcements. He asserted Moscow’s intent to fulfil its “paramount task” historically as the “guarantor for the security of the peoples of the Caucasus.” He condemned Georgian action as an “act of aggression” against the Russian peacekeeping force, a gross violation of international law and U.N. mandates. Stating his “duty to protect the lives and dignity of Russian citizens,” he promised that “perpetrators will receive the punishment they deserve.” In a statement from Beijing, Mr, Putin added, “of course, it will lead to a response.”

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned Georgia shouldn’t feel safe from Russian retaliation. Indeed, by Saturday, Russian paratroops have driven Georgian troops out of Tskhinvali. But the question remains: what next? Of course, an enormous humanitarian catastrophe needs to be averted as a large number of Ossetian civilians lie buried in the debris left behind by Georgia’s large-scale offensive supported by tanks, combat aircraft, heavy artillery and infantry.

Meanwhile, Russia must act with one hand tied behind its back. Western propaganda is raring to go. The think tank Stratfor, which echoes U.S. intelligence community, has already portrayed that a “defining moment” has come in post-Cold War era and the world is witnessing “the first major Russian intervention since the fall of the Soviet Union.” It visualised that former Soviet republics bordering Russia would now be “terrified of what they face in the long run.” Tbilisi also switched tack to rhetoric. The U.S.-educated Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili said, “This is not about Georgia anymore. It is about America, its values.” Faraway in Beijing, U.S. President George W. Bush promptly agreed.

Mr. Bush said he’s “deeply concerned” and that Russian intervention is a “dangerous escalation… endangering regional peace.” He added, “We call for an end to the Russian bombings, and a return by the parties to the status quo of August 6.” It may sound well-meaning, but Mr. Medvedev brushed aside Mr. Bush’ sophistry. On Thursday, Russia tried to have the United Nations Security Council call on Georgia and South Ossetia to immediately lay down weapons. But Washington was disinterested. As the Russian ambassador to the U.N., Vitaly Churkin put it, there was an “absence of political will” within the Security Council. It seems Washington expected that a quid pro quo could be worked out as well on a new U.N. Security Council resolution imposing tougher sanctions on Iran, which the U.S. has been pressing for, and Russia hitherto resisting.

Actually, a splendid case study offers itself for Indian strategic thinkers (and politicians) who cogitate over our capability to hold the long arm of American diplomacy and our own tryst with destiny as a “self-confident” great power. The irony is, Russia is also the U.S.’s “strategic partner.” It was only in April that Mr. Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush met in the Black Sea resort of Sochi and signed a “strategic framework” pact, reiterating the hopes of a dynamic forward movement in the relationship. Again, it is not even that there is an equivalent of the Hyde Act operating on the geopolitics of the Caucasus. It is also not as if post-Soviet Russians lack “self-confidence.” The issue boils down to the vagaries and uncertainties bordering on the futility that Russia or any country — including even a close ally — ultimately faces in pursuing an equitable and balanced relationship with the U.S.

Apart from pressuring Moscow to fall in line on the Iran nuclear issue, what is the U.S. game plan? To begin with, Saakashvili, of course, is a progeny of the “colour revolution” in Georgia, which was financed and stage-managed by the U.S. in 2003. Georgia and the Caucasus constitute a critically important piece of real estate for the U.S. since it straddles a busy transportation route for energy — like, say, the Indian Ocean or the Persian Gulf. It can be used as a choke point. Simply put, keeping it under control as a sphere of influence is highly advantageous for the pursuit of U.S. geopolitical interests in the Eurasian region. A rollback of Russian influence therefore becomes a desirable objective.

Two, a flashpoint in the Caucasus at this juncture suits Washington. Any perception in the Western capitals of Moscow “bullying” Tbilisi at once lends itself as an emotive factor that strengthens Washington’s case for inducting Georgia into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation [NATO]. Washington needs to overcome the resistance within the NATO on Georgia’s membership, ahead of the meeting of the alliance’s foreign ministers in December, which will also be the last major NATO event of the Bush era. Georgia has been a pet project of the Bush administration, and its induction into NATO makes a fine legacy. Indeed, the strategic implications are far-reaching.

With the induction of Georgia, NATO crosses over to the approaches to Asia. The arc of encirclement of Russia gets strengthened. The NATO ties facilitate the deployment of the U.S. missile defence system in Georgia. The U.S. aims to have a chain of countries tied to “partnerships” with NATO brought into its missile defence system — stretching from its allies in the Baltic and Central Europe, Turkey, Georgia, Israel, India, and leading to the Asia Pacific. The ultimate U.S. objective is to neutralise the strategic capability of Russia and China and to establish its nuclear superiority. The National Defence Strategy document issued by the Pentagon on July 31 portrays Washington’s perceptions of a resurgent Russia and a rising China as potential adversaries. (Curiously, the 29-page document singles out India as a unique “stakeholder” in the U.S. strategy!)

Three, from Washington’s perspective, there is nothing like getting Russia bogged down in the Caucasus if it saps Russia’s capacity to play an effective role on the world stage. Moscow dreads a full-blown war erupting in the Caucasus and is averse to a confrontation with the West. That leaves scope for “bear-baiting.” Conceivably, at some point Moscow would lose patience. If Moscow accedes to the long-standing demand by South Ossetia to become part of Russian federation, it becomes fodder for Western criticism that a “revanchist” Kremlin annexes territories. But if Moscow remains passive, the Caucasus could become Russia’s “bleeding wound” and Russia’s prestige in the post-Soviet space diminishes.

To be sure, Moscow must act warily, but even then pitfalls remain, as Zhilin found out. Tolstoy wrote, “It was a time of war in the Caucasus. The roads were not safe by night or day. If any of the Russians left the fortress and ventured to ride or walk any distance away from his fort, the Tartars killed him or carried him off to the hills.”

(The writer is a former ambassador belonging to the Indian Foreign Service.)