|Paul Goble's Window on Eurasia - August 14, 2008|
|August 15, 2008|
IN THIS ISSUE:
Decay of Russia’s Black Sea Heightens Importance of Sevastopol for Moscow
The conflict in Georgia has spilled over the shores of the Black Sea, calling attention to how that body of water has become once again “an arena of geopolitical competition” and equally to the decay of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and thus of Moscow’s ability to project power there, according to senior Russian naval commanders.
An article in today’s “Argumenty nedeli” reporting on their views acknowledges that the Russian fleet was able to sink two Georgian ships but suggests that the fleet, which they say is now little more than “a flotilla” may soon not be in a position to do more than that and would certainly lose in any conflict with Turkey.
And the article continues by noting that Ukraine’s support for Georgia and Kyiv’s insistence that Russia leave the Sevastopol base highlights new dangers for Russia, dangers that it will take a long time to correct because building ships and especially new ports are things that cannot be done overnight.
On the one hand, the facts presented in this article form the basis of an argument that Moscow should proceed cautiously given the current balance of forces there. But on the other, at least some in Moscow may read Russia’s decaying power position there as yet another reason to move quickly before its fleet is at an even greater disadvantage.
According to the weekly, the Black Sea Fleet in 1991 had 100,000 men, 835 ships of all classes, including 60 submarines, eight cruisers, and more than 400 airplanes. But the division of that fleet between Russia and Ukraine – Moscow received 81.7 percent of the ships – and the drawdown in forces has left the fleet in a much weakened position.
At present, the weekly continues, Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has no more than 25,000 men, 338 ships, and only 22 aircraft. And as to the number of fliers capable of landing on an aircraft carrier, the article says, Russia now has “many fewer [carrier-qualified] pilots than it has cosmonauts. And today no one is preparing more.”
In 1996, Vice Admiral Petr Svyatashov told the Duma that the Black Sea Fleet has been “weakened in the course of its division to the limit. All strike groups has been destroyed. There [were] practically no submarines and naval aviation. [Moreover, thanks to Ukraine’s control of the shoreline], the systems of basing, observation and intelligence [have been] destroyed.”
Since that time, 12 years have passed, Russian naval officers say, “the situation has gotten still worse. The fleet no longer exists; there is [only] a flotilla.”
All that makes Russian control of the existing base at Sevastopol all that more important and makes current Ukrainian demands that Russia yield that base to Kyiv either completely all the more infuriating to the Russian navy and political elite, according to three senior Russian admirals.
Admirals Eduard Baltin, Igor Kasatonov, and Vladimir Chernavin all say that moving the main base of the Black Sea fleet away from Sevastopol would prove disastrous. Baltin notes that there is no place on the Russian section of the Black Sea coast where all the units of the fleet could be stationed.
Moreover, even in places like Novorossiisk, sometimes suggested as an alternative, fleet would face “a serious danger” – the “bora”, an “icy wind of hurricane force that could slam ships into the docks or even sink them. And building a base there, even if Moscow were to start immediately, would take a minimum of ten years.
Chernavin added that he “does not know” whether Moscow could find the resources “in these poor times” to build an adequate replacement for Sevastopol. Indeed, he added, if one considers how much the Russian government has been willing to spend so far, such a task could take “50 years or so.”
Three years ago, Baltin asked Putin to consider the construction of a new base for the fleet near Anapa. “It is necessary to begin the construction of the base now,” he said, because “Sevastopol in fact has lost the status of the main base of the Black Sea Fleet. All actions have to be agreed in advance with the Ukrainian military.”
The fleet no longer really controls Sevastopol, he said. It does not control the airspace or the surface or subsurface sectors – in short, it does not control “everything that is part of the operational regime. The fleet finds its hand tied. [And] to a great extent, [its] presence is political rather than military.”
But precisely because of that, the Russian government may now be prepared to make control of Sevastopol and Crimea more general an issue, recognizing that it has not invested the money necessary to keep the Black Sea Fleet an effective military force on a body of water that Soviet officers used to refer to as “a bottle with a NATO cork.”
Russians Attack Ethnic Georgians inside the Russian Federation
Spurred by overheated and often vicious official commentaries on the events in Georgia and egged on by extremist groups like the openly xenophobic Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI), Russians are beginning to attack ethnic Georgians across Russia, a development likely to generate even more extremist Russian nationalism in the future.
Statements by President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and even more Russian media commentaries on Georgia have convinced most Russians that Georgians and the Americans are to blame for almost everything that has happened, according to the results of the most recent polls.
And many Russians are hitting back at some of the one million ethnic Georgians in their midst, encouraged by reports about “Georgian spies” and by DPNI calls for “interning” Georgians now living or attacking Georgian neighborhoods.
The exact number of these attacks is unknown but likely large and growing. Russian media have not talked a great deal about them, a sad reality that undoubtedly has encouraged some Russians to assume that the authorities are not at all concerned about such attacks and will do little or nothing to protect the Georgian victims or punish any Russian attackers.
These reports, as important as they are in human terms, are only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger problem, the growth of ethnic Russian nationalism interested in “putting non-Russians in their place” and showing the world that Russians won’t be stopped from doing what they think is necessary by anyone, including the international community.
In interviews conducted by Radio Liberty and carried on a variety of Russian sites, two Russian experts on this subject suggested that Russian nationalism, including the most xenophobic and authoritarian forms, will “only grow” in response to what many Russians see as a hostile environment.
Mikhail Reshetnikov, the president of the Russian National Federation of Psychoanalysis, said that “radical nationalism” emerges “when there are no common ideas” and when people are trying to invest their lives with meaning. And in that situation, many will try to define themselves by taking action against minorities of one kind or another.
In the slums of many Russian cities, he continued, people feel that “it is necessary to destroy someone” in order to affirm themselves. “Either aliens or ‘blacks’ or ‘yellows’ and so on.” But so far, such actions have not become “massive, Reshetnikov said, although under certain conditions, it is entirely possible that they will.
And Emil Pain, the head of the independent Center for Ethno-political and Regional Research and Russia’s leading specialist on xenophobia, added that “the level of the dissemination of national extremism is directly dependent on the level of the politicization of the population.”
Right now, because of the Georgian war, the degree of politicization is very high, he said, but in the longer term it is difficult to say whether Russia is about to pass into a period of extreme nationalism as the dominant form of public consciousness or whether it can move in a more positive direction toward civic nationalism.
“There is a high probability,” Pain suggested, “that the level of ethnic preoccupation and ethnic consolidation will still continue to grow” both in terms of itself and in response to the growth of ethno-nationalism among other groups, creating the kind of vicious circle Russia avoided in the early 1990s but one that appears to be solidifying now.
And in looking at the current ideological situation in the Russian Federation, he added, it is difficult to see how Russia will be able any time soon to shift public discourse away from xenophobic ideas even if the government seeks to promote a less extravagant and extremist form of national and political identity – something it is not now doing.
Consequently, although Pain does not address this point, Russians are likely to want to strike out against foreign countries as well. In a comment posted online today, one Russian nationalist argued that Russia has no choice but to stand up for itself regardless of what the rules of the international system are or what anyone thinks.
In swaggering language that promises little good, Yuri Prokof’yev writes that “Russia had to show itself and the world that in the case of necessity it would not stop before the application of force for the defense of its citizens and its vital interests.”
“The world must understand,” he continued, that “Russia will never again subordinate itself to anyone else’s diktat: it will firmly defend its positions. And the most important thing [in all this]: the country has [after the Georgian event] risen to a new level of national unity, the unity of power and society.”
“That must be preserved,” Prokof’yev concluded. “And for this only a small thing is needed: consistency in the actions of government leaders including in the immediate protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Abkhazia and South Ossetia,” the kind of bravura Vladimir Putin and his team may like but that promises far more problems ahead.
Moscow Made Plans Months Ago to Invade Georgia, Felgenhauer Says
Despite Moscow’s claims that it was only responding to Georgian actions and therefore cannot be called the aggressor, Vladimir Putin in fact already in April set in motion plans to invade Georgia sometime this year and was only waiting for a propitious moment to do so, according to Moscow’s leading commentator on military affairs.
In an extensive article in today’s “Novaya gazeta,” Pavel Felgengauer says that “today it is perfectly obvious that the Russian intervention in Georgia was planned in advance” and that the available evidence shows that the Kremlin had decided “already in April to begin the war in August”.
The plan, the Moscow analyst continues, was for “the Ossetians to intentionally provoke the Georgians” and then “any response, harsh or soft, [by Tbilisi] would be used as an occasion for the attack.” And if the response of the Georgians was one of restraint, then “the Abkhaz would begin as now the long prepared operation to ‘cleanse’ the upper part of the Kodori gorge.”
The Russian wheels of war began to role after the NATO summit in Bucharest, one in which Putin participated and in which it became obvious that the Western alliance would sooner or later include Georgia and Ukraine in its ranks, something that the Russian leadership in general and Putin in particular were not prepared to tolerate without a fight.
At that time, Moscow officials said that Russia would use “any means” to block the entrance of Georgia into the alliance. But neither the Western powers nor Georgian President Mihkiel Saakashvili believed that the Kremlin was prepared to violate international law and go as far as it has in recent days.
But after Bucharest, Felgengauer notes, “events began to develop with increasing speed.” Putin directed the government “to develop measures for providing significant help” to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two republics that reject the idea that they are part of the Republic of Georgia.
Then Russian forces knocked out of the sky a Georgian drone over Abkhazia, introduced more heavily armed Russian units in Abkhazia, sent Russian planes into Georgian airspace, and under various “invented” pretexts effectively ended any “diplomatic regulation of the conflict[s]” on Georgian territory.
It is clear, the Moscow analyst says, that Moscow hoped to intimidate Georgia into retreating from its effort to integrate itself into the West and that “in principle Moscow was even prepared to formally preserve the territorial integrity of Georgia in the form of some kind of confederation” if it did so and if it replaced Saakashvili with a leader the Kremlin liked.
But if Georgia did not back down, then Moscow was ready to go to war, he says, and in early August, all the pieces of such an invasion came together: The Caucasus 2008 maneuvers had just been completed, Russian forces in the region were in place, the railway forces in Abkhazia had prepared the way, and Moscow’s propaganda mill had gone into overdrive.
And once these pieces were in place, it was necessary for Moscow to act more or less quickly because as Felgengauer points out “one must not forever hold the forces and fleet at a high level of readiness 24 hours a day.” Moreover, the weather in this region is likely to deteriorate quickly, and thus “the second half of August” was set as the last date to act.
Felgengauer notes that Putin’s behavior in Georgia recalls what the Russian government did in 1999 prior to the invasion of Chechnya. Then too, Moscow decided in the early spring to begin operations in August and September. And Putin used the invasion of Chechen militants into Daghestan as the occasion for shunting Sergei Stepashin aside and invading Chechnya.
But there are two big differences between 1999 and 2008. On the one hand, most of the international community accepted Moscow’s argument that Chechnya was part of Russia, that its leaders were Islamic radicals, and that the Russian authorities had every reason for trying to crush its government.
And on the other, Moscow faces a far tougher military situation and opponent in Georgia than it did in Chechnya. Because the six-kilometer-long tunnel into South Ossetia is so narrow, Russia could introduce forces only “in comparatively small units,” and Russian commanders have acknowledged that Georgian forces are better trained and equipped than they expected.
“The deputy chief of the General Staff Anatoly Nogovitsyn,” Felgengauer writes, “has admitted that the armed forces of Georgia [today] are not those which lost the war to the separatists 15 years ago.” They are “contemporary,” “mobile” and “supplied with contemporary weapons.”
By withdrawing in the face of the Russian military invasion, the Moscow analyst points out, “the Georgian leadership preserved its regular army” and by doing so, Saakashvili has “preserved a united Georgia and at the same time the basis of his own regime” and thus is in a position to maneuver diplomatically even as Russian military actions continue.
“The military based and other infrastructure [the Russians have destroyed],” Felgengauer says, “will be rebuild with Western money and that will provide new jobs” for Georgians. Moreover, “the radars and weapons [the Georgians lost in this round of fighting] will be replaced by new and better ones.”
The West will do so, he argues, because “the Russian invasion woke Europe up.” It will not allow the Russians to continue to engage in a kind of peacekeeping which violates international rules. And “for Russia this can mean a military-political defeat as a result of what had appeared to be a successful invasion.”
And the West’s reaction to Russia’s military move will entail serious consequences for Russia and its economic elite. That elite needs integration with the West in order to continue to “grow” its wealth, and it is entirely possible that the objections of that elite to the impact the Kremlin’s actions were having on their wealth led Dmitry Medvedev to accept a ceasefire.
But Moscow’s hopes to overthrow Saakashvili and bring Georgia to heal are not over. The Russian military has introduced a large number of new weapons into Georgia – Felgengauer provides a detailed list – and rumors abound that Moscow will use other means against the Georgian leadership as well.
Consequently, the Moscow expert concludes, “the cease fire will be shaky until international peacekeeping contingents enter Georgia,” something that will change the balance of power in the Caucasus against Russia and a step that Putin and Medvedev will again try to do everything to prevent.
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