I had been looking for an opportunity to write something about the escalating conflict between Georgia and Russia. I've commented about it on several other blogs, but simply haven't put the time into attempting to create a complete picture of what is happening between the two countries.
Yuri Mamchur of Russia Blog has put together a really rather complete picture of all the issues involved. However, I will add some points that he hasn't touched upon.
Putin has been quick to suggest that outside powers (other nations) are at work in this conflict, escalating the crisis. This plays very well within Russia, which has been as quick to sieze upon this idea - as Americans were to sieze upon the idea that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the US.
However, there is scant evidence for it in either case.
If anything, the US and western powers want the situation in Georgia to calm down, and Russian troops in Abkhazia and South Ossetia act as an impedement to resolving the crisis (at least from the Georgian side).
The question you should be asking is - why would the west even care about Georgia at all - and why would they like to see this conflict resolved? As with most things these days, it all goes back to oil. This is an issue that Russia Blog did fail to touch upon.
The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline (BTC) connects the oil-rich (but land-locked) Caspian Sea region with the Mediterranean, bringing oil to western markets. This is the second longest pipeline in the world and its location was specifically selected through Georgia to avoid possible conflicts with Russia and Iran (which would have been easier construction routes).
So with this pipeline in mind and recently falling oil prices - who stands to benefit from a conflict between Russia and Georgia? There are only two possible answers: either Mikhail Saakashvili benefits within the borders of Georgia by appearing strong against Russia (an option discussed by Yuri Mamchur); or Russia benefits by the uncertainity of a regional conflict driving up oil prices. There is no outcome that creates a benefit for anyone in the West.
From a November 2004 Energy Security article by Gal Luft of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security:
Much of the stability along the BTC corridor would depend on Russia. Russia is not supportive of BTC. It sees it as a U.S. plot to gain control over the Caucasus and cut all links between Moscow of the former Soviet states, building an economic infrastructure that would prevent the former Soviet states to ever reunite with Russia. Moscow also views BTC as a way to weaken its position as major supplier of oil to the European markets. In a recent article at Asia Times Online, John Helmer refers to the BTC project as an effort “to redraw the geography of the Caucasus on an anti-Russian map.”For those who might point to the US providing some military benefits to Georgia as evidence of their tampering in the region - the latest figures I could find suggest the US has provided Georgia with $120 million in troop training and armaments. It is a rather paltry amount compared to the billions of dollars of weapon sales that Russia has recently poured into nearby Iran (and Venezuela).
Another problem BTC poses Russia has to do with its tense relations with Georgia. As it is, the Georgia suffers from many domestic problems: it is emerging from a civil war and is rife with corruption, but perhaps its most serious problem is the growing likelihood of war with Russia over the two breakaway territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The August 8 Moscow News quotes Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili: “If war begins it will be a war between Georgia and Russia, not between the Georgians and Ossetians. … We are very close to a war [with Russia], the population must be prepared.”
As a result of the above Russia will not shed tears if BTC is sabotaged. It might even clandestinely lend its hand to groups that might do just that. Russia might also team up with Iran in an effort to promote the alternative route southward out of the Caspian to the Persian Gulf.
If Russia decides to undermine the project, this will surely have implications on its relations with the U.S. BTC is the linchpin of the shift in U.S. energy policy away from the Middle East and it is in America’s best interest that the project succeeds. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham called the project “one of the most important energy undertakings from America’s point of view.” U.S. Special Forces are already training 1,500-2,000 Georgian soldiers in “anti-terrorism” techniques under a $64 million program initiated in May 2002. In addition, the U.S. provided the Georgian army with new combat helicopters and other weapons. The 17,000 strong Georgian military has many tasks related to the defense of the country from external enemies such as Russia and Armenia but if attacks against the Georgian section of the BTC pipeline are mounted the Georgian military will have to take on the role of protecting the pipeline against saboteurs.
As a point of comparison, I am trying to imagine what the United States might do if Mexico were to seize some Americans and accuse them of spying. I very much doubt it would involve such a war or words (with veiled accusations towards Russia) or an escalation involving a blockade of Mexico.
(Note: I actually suppose if you consider George Bush to be a complete vassal of Big Oil - that a regional conflict creating uncertaining in the region and driving up oil prices - could be a benefit to those companies. This seems less likely with Bush's party facing the loss of control in Congress with looming mid-term elections, however).
Some additional notes on the BTC pipeline and the players involved, from a May 2005 article by Vladimir Socor on Eurasia Daily Monitor:
The first stage of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil export pipeline was officially inaugurated on May 25 at the Sangachal shore terminal, south of Baku. The presidents of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan, as well as BP President Lord John Browne, U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, State Department South Caucasus Envoy Steven Mann, European Union Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs (of Latvia), Naftohaz Ukrayiny President Oleksiy Ivchenko, and other high-level officials attended. U.S. President George W. Bush, the prime ministers of Britain, Italy, Norway, and Japan (countries whose oil companies are involved in the project), and Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko sent messages underscoring the project's importance to oil consumer countries. Russia boycotted the inaugural events.
The BTC pipeline consortium is made up of BP with a 30.1% stake as project operator, Azerbaijan's State Oil Company with 25%, the American companies Unocal (8.9%), Conoco-Phillips (2.5%), and Amerada Hess (2.35%), Norway's Statoil (8.7%), Turkish Petroleum (6.5%), Italy's ENI (5%), Total of France (5%), and the Japanese-based Itochu and Inpex with 3.4% and 2.5% stakes, respectively.
The pipeline will carry oil from Azerbaijan's Azeri-Chirag-Guneshli offshore fields, which hold proven recoverable reserves of 900 million tons of oil. The Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC) is developing those fields under the 1994 production-sharing agreement with Azerbaijan, at a cost of $13 billion in investment for the duration the life of the project. AIOC includes BP with a 34.1% stake as project operator, Azerbaijan's State Oil Company with 10%, Russia's Lukoil (10%), Statoil (8.6%), the American companies Unocal (10.2%), ExxonMobil (8%), Devon Energy (5.6%), and Amerada Hess (2.7%), Turkish Petroleum (6.8%), and Itochu (3.9%).