Is Russia’s Power on the Decline?
The drive-by media never ceases to amaze with their inability to notice world events, much less understand the global maneuvers in the War on Terror. Ever since Secretary of Defense Gates told Vladimir Putin to butt out concerning his bid to muck up the US – European Missile Defense Shield, several developments have shown how he has been forced to scramble to maintain at least a minimum level of influence over world events. Putin is an excellent practitioner of the bluff and bluster school of foreign policy, even as he struggles by “putting fingers in the dykes” of his dissolving empire. The trend is not favorable for the ex-KGB agent and current President of the Russian Federation.
Russia vacates the Caucasus
In late 2003 during the a peaceful revolution in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, known as the “Rose Revolution,” the last vestiges of the old Soviet guard were ostensibly ushered out. Despite this, Russia’s military forces did not “pack up and leave” the country the next day. On the contrary, Putin embarked on a campaign to obstruct and delay the withdrawal of his troops from Georgia. He was not about to voluntarily give up a strategic chunk of land that allowed lines of commerce to Russia’s aspiring nuclear partner, Iran, and smuggling routes for lucrative criminal enterprises.
Only because of Western political pressure and a constant influx of NATO forces and advisors did Russian units gradually depart from the area. Even then, Russian “peacekeepers” have stubbornly held on to the so-called “breakaway” republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and several key Soviet-era military installations. Essentially, Putin was thumbing his nose at the international community and was placing the national security of the new democracy in jeopardy.
Thanks to a superbly executed strategic campaign by the US and NATO, the land bridge between Russia and Iran has been sealed, and with the backing of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Putin has been coerced to withdraw more Russian troop contingents from major Soviet Cold War bases. On June 27th it was announced that the Russian 62nd Military Base in Akhalkalaki is now officially Georgian property. This Soviet-era base was actually established before the Russian Revolution in 1910. Not only was it one of the oldest Soviet-era bases, it was also large. To give you an idea as to the magnitude of this military base, in it’s heyday it comprised:
…196 facilities on 12,824 hectares of land, among them seven headquarters, seven barracks, three mess-halls, one officers’ house, a hospital, two schools – one of them a music school – one kindergarten, two music clubs and other technical facilities.
The loss of thie 62nd Military base is not only symbolic of Russia’s demise in power, it is real.
The Breakaway Provinces
This still leaves the situation of Russian troops occupying the contested provinces, particularly Abkhazia. Since Abkhazia’s “declaration of independence,” it has been under the watchful eye of Russian ‘peacekeepers.’ Even though Georgian President Saakashvili conducted a decisive campaign last year in the Kodori Gorge area of Abkhazia, Putin will hang on to this area at all costs. Simply put, Putin desperately wants to preserve control over the port of Sokhumi since it is a vital transit point for drug smuggling, a major source of cash for Putin, his fellow nationalists, and their criminal allies.
He is also eager to hold on to the town because its military bases were repositories of nuclear and radiological materials including plutonium, uranium and cesium-137. Other unverified reports say the Sokhumi’s munitions depots also had chemical weapons. Besides being a prolific source of cash for Mother Russia, this second motive for Putin’s refusal to withdraw from Sokhumi is “personal.” Public disclosures as to the lack of security pertaining to nuclear materials, or of major damage to the environment due to lack of internationally accepted storage regimens would further damage Putin’s standing in the world, even among his Western apologists.
But time is running out for Putin and his Russian “peacekeepers.” We now learn from Georgia’s Defense Today (the national security offshoot of the English language weekly, Georgia Today), that Georgia’s acceptance into NATO is dependent on its maintaining the traditional territory of the sovereign kingdom including South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgian Deputy Defense Minister, Batu Kutelia, emphasized that the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP) permits no compromise on Georgia’s borders. He noted that NATO sees acceptance into the alliance only where,
Georgia’s territorial integrity is an issue which will be never questioned and if Georgia is adopted into NATO it will be adopted in its full territorial integrity.
That is, the conflict over the two provinces currently under Russian control will not be resolved in Putin’s favor.
The Black Sea Fleet needs a new home
Often overlooked in the grand scheme of the world’s power plays is Ukraine. The go-soft-on-Putin crowd and other critics of the Administration’s Eurasian policies have slammed the Orange Revolution with a fervor normally reserved for GW’s successful operations. During the period from late 2004 through January of 2005, Ukraine reformers and nationalists overturned a fraudulent election and swept the Russian-backed President Victor Yanukovich and his pro-Russian party out of an office they had tried to steal. Putin had openly backed the Yanukovich and his pro-Russian party. Now Ukraine is on its way to being accepted into NATO. In keeping with this, US and European personnel have ramped up their Ukrainian military training and assistance projects over the last year; these will likely evolve into long-term advisory operations.
Ukraine has one other critical capability that is virtually unknown in the other newly formed democracies in the region – it has a robust defense industry. Its industrial infrastructure has enabled it to equip other small nations with newly manufactured combat systems of Soviet design. Now veterans of the Red Army in the new democracies can quickly organize and train to achieve NATO operational standards.
Putin’s forces have not totally withdrawn from Ukraine either, but the signs are that this will happen sooner rather than later. It was reported this week in Voice of America News that the chief of the Russian Navy, Admiral Vladimir Masorin, is looking to move the Black Sea Fleet from its Ukrainian base in Sevastopol to a “permanent naval base on the Mediterranean Sea;” another acknowledgment of the decline of Russia’s power. Recognizing that the Mediterranean is strategically important to Russia, Admiral Masorin will look for an alternative to maintain a military presence in the region. Translation: “we can’t have the Russian Navy based in a NATO port; we need to go somewhere in order to salvage our reputation and influence in the Eastern Med.”
Clearly, the Black Sea port of Sokhumi is out of the mix. In another example of the curtailment of Russian world power and prestige, Putin must now work to stave off the inevitable return of Abkhazia to the Georgian central government or face continuing pressure from NATO and the US, while simultaneously looking for a new smuggling route for drugs and the transference of WMD materials and technology. He may also need to buy time to clean up hazardous waste sites or risk a public relations and environmental disaster.
The VOA report suggests an alternative for the Russian Navy. It said that Russia was looking to expand an existing naval base in the Syrian port of Tartus in order to homeport the ships of the Black Sea Fleet. Not surprisingly, this was denied by Russian officials. It may be that Putin and his Black Sea Fleet will get a “return trip” to one of the former USSR’s Middle East client states, home to Assad’s Baathist regime and the starting point of the Sunni “rat line” into Iraq. And if this comes about, it will cement Putin’s ties to a terror supporting country.
Let’s hope our friends in the MSM, and the rest of the world take notice. All things considered, it’s no wonder Vladimir has been in a foul mood lately.
Douglas Hanson is National Security Correspondent of American Thinker.