Monday, 24 July 2017

Geopolitical Turbulence in the Caucasus

If at the mention of Azerbaijan its delicious lamb and rice national dish plov comes to mind, or the equally tasty vinegret salad in the case of Georgia, that certainly would not be the wrong association. Lamentably, however, both countries – as well as the entire Caucasus region where they are key strategic players – are increasingly becoming notable for reasons far less innocuous than outstanding gastronomy.
To put it very simply, after Syria the Caucasus – barely 800 miles to the northeast – is literally Russia’s second line of defense, its “soft underbelly,” to use a worn but apposite phrase. Quite understandably, Russia is in Syria, among other reasons, precisely to make sure that it would not have to fall back to the aforementioned defense line. Its geopolitical opponents, however, are doing their utmost to see to it that it does. Hence the intense turbulence and maneouvering between Baku and Tbilisi, and beyond.
NATO Flags in Tbilisi. On a recent day, the main street of Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi was awash with American flags. Like neighboring Azerbaijan, Georgia is another strategically positioned former Soviet republic in the Caucasus. The occasion for the flag display was the visit of US lieutenant-general Frederick Hodges, commander of US forces in Europe, who arrived on a special mission, ostensibly to commend the performance of Georgian troops who were undergoing combat training at the US military base in Oberpfalz, in Germany. But as it turns out, the US is also constructing a new military facility in Georgia.[1] According to Georgia’s defense minister Levan Izoriya, the base is expected to open before the end of this year.
It takes little imagination to appreciate that the training Georgian soldiers are currently undergoing could, at some point in the future, come in handy for hypothetical operations such as, for instance, raising tensions on the border with Abkhazia or again, as in 2008, South Ossetia. True enough, with Saakashvilli’s unregretted departure Georgia now seems to have a leadership that is disinclined to become involved in such reckless adventures. It is also true, however, that the US military presence in Georgia is not confined to maintaining just a special forces training facility. A slew of foreign operated antennae, radar installations, and other surveillance facilities in Georgia attests to that. The US and NATO, Georgia’s prospective membership in the latter is again becoming an active conversation topic, apparently are committed to some long-range goals in this particular part of the world.

The scope of observable foreign activities would be incomprehensible on the theory that they are designed to serve no more than purely regional ambitions. Their true goal is more likely to be significantly broader: to extend US and NATO presence beyond the Caucasus. In that context, Georgia is no more than Washington’s stepping stone, a forward post.

A reminder about the wider context with regards to the war in Syria.

[Posted at the SpookyWeather blog, July 24th, 2017.]

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