It didn’t take long for the defenders of Saakashvili to swing into action. Edward Lucas in the Times offers the “at least he’s not absolutely horrible” defense:
A crackdown on the Opposition in November, bullying of the media and instances of abuse of power among senior officials have allowed detractors to draw uncomfortable parallels between Georgia and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
These are misplaced: Georgia is not perfect, but it is not a dictatorship. Its leadership does not peddle a phoney ideology, such as the Kremlin’s mishmash of Soviet nostalgia and tsarist-era chauvinism. It has a thriving civil society, vocal opposition and ardently wants to be in the EU and Nato. Moral grounds alone would be enough reason for supporting it against Russian aggression.
That’s true–Saakashvili has only been elected with 90+% of the vote and runs an effectively one-party state, but this is just democratic despotism. Calling it a dictatorship might be pushing things a bit. As for ideology, Saakashvili offers a much more pleasing mishmash of Georgian nationalism and nostalgia for Stalin. If Russia were engaged in aggression, Lucas might have a point. But at least Lucas skips the usual song and dance about defending “our values” and gets down to the real reason why most people west of the Black Sea thinks the West care about what happens in Georgia:
The biggest threat Russia poses to Europe is the Kremlin’s monopoly on energy export routes to the West from the former Soviet Union. The one breach in that is the oil and gas pipeline that leads from energy-rich Azerbaijan to Turkey, across Georgia. If Georgia falls, Europe’s hopes of energy independence from Russia fall too.
But Europe’s hopes of energy independence from Russia are chimerical. Even if the Georgian pipeline stayed out of Russian hands, Europe’s dependence on Russian and Central Asian energy would still remain great (which is one of the reasons why the Europeans are not inclined to make the Russians angry). European energy independence from their main energy supplier in the region is a fantasy.
Where do most of the supplies from the east come from? In addition to coming from Russia itself, they come from Central Asian states that are increasingly under Russia’s thumb. Turkmenistan and Russia cut a deal not long ago, which M.K. Bhadrakumar, writing for Asia Times, described this way:
From the details coming out of Ashgabat in Turkmenistan and Moscow over the weekend, it is apparent that the great game over Caspian energy has taken a dramatic turn. In the geopolitics of energy security, nothing like this has happened before. The United States has suffered a huge defeat in the race for Caspian gas.
That was a little over a week ago. In the wake of this deal, which effectively secured Russian control over Turkmen gas exports, having one pipeline not under Russian control, whether direct or indirect, is not going to make that much difference.
The New York Post has the subtle headline, “Raping Georgia,” for Ralph Peters’ latest column. Peters refers to Russia’s “elaborate act of aggression,” which must be very elaborate indeed, since the Russians were not responsible for escalating the conflict. The Ossetians did goad the Georgians into escalation, and the Russians were prepared for the escalation, but this pins the responsibility on Saakashvili even more since he could have refused to be drawn in to the trap.
Peters offers this typically overwrought line:
Russia, you see, still believes it’s entitled to all of its former empire.
This is a lie. All of its former empire would include states, such as Poland, that it has shown no designs on whatever in the post-Cold War world. To the extent that Russia does believe it is entitled to significant influence in its near-abroad, this belief is actually no more pretentious than the Roosevelt Corollary concerning U.S. policy in Latin America. Peters concludes:
The only thing that’s 100 percent clear is which side we should be on.
That’s also right. It’s perfectly clear that we shouldn’t take sides in a shooting war in the Caucasus. Oh, that’s not what Peters meant? How strange.