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Common Cents

The bear that roared

Ralph Murphy

(10/2013) Georgia on our mind

As the Sochi, Winter Olympic Games approach in February 2014, it seems ironic that this "subtropical" site on the Black Sea is within a "stone's throw" of The Republic of Georgia. The country that Russia invaded in 2008. President Carter banned the U.S. team from the 1980 Moscow games following the Soviet Union’s incursion into Afghanistan. Today's Russia is successfully supporting Abkhazia (an independent republic in Georgia) and South Ossetia (a former Soviet Republic that declared its independence from Georgia in 1990). Georgia fought for control of South Ossetia in 2004 and 2008. The 2008 conflict led to the Russia-Georgia war in which Ossetia and Russia gained control of the former, South Ossetian, Soviet territory.

After the 2008 war, Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Nauru and Tuvalu recognized South Ossetia’s independence. Georgia did not. They felt that South Ossetia was being occupied by Russian forces. The Russians, on the other hand followed up their 2008 conquests by mopping up the Islamist insurgency in the Caucasus republic of Chechnya. They, along with their economic allies, also appear to have propped up the minority, Ba’ath regime in Syria. All this, while harboring – Edward Snowden, an international fugitive - and railing against western, missile defenses in Poland. It's not the Cold War, but President Vladimir Putin has shown an aggressive side.

Chechnya- Land of Jihad

The Chechnya campaign has led to two wars by two Russian Presidents - Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin. The first in the mid 1990's that resulted in a cease fire after 14,000 Russians were killed- along with 15,000 insurgents, 100,000 civilians, and another 200.000 injured. As many as 500,000 were displaced. The truce did not hold, the Islamists declared "Jihad" or Holy War which attracted foreign fighters, led to kidnappings and civilian killings as far afield as Moscow. Putin started the second Chechnya war in 1999 and it appears to have slowed the Muslims down a bit, but- once again at a heavy cost.

The Syrian factor

Today Moscow supports its long time ally Syria. Given its record when dealing with insurgencies at home, Russia appears insensitive to the negative impact of supporting Syria’s Shiite regime. A regime that also has garnered support from Iran and the Hezbollah, Islamic militant group, and political party based in Lebanon. The Syrian government has battled an Islamist insurgency that has left over 100,000 dead. This conflict has displaced over 4 million in Syria, and another 1.8 million have fled to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Aside from trying to create a pro western opposition in the disjointed insurgency, the U.S. has shown restraint. Meanwhile, on 28 May, the European Union approved a resolution that would allow member nation's to support the Islamists.

Russia has a great deal at stake in Syria. They have a naval base at Tartus and written off $10 billion in Soviet-era debt. Also, Russia is selling anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems, submarines, MIG fighters, and transport aircraft to the Syrians. They claim all sales are legal under international law. Their close relationship with Syria has committed them to a position at the UN where they have promised to exercise their veto of any Security Council resolutions against the Assad regime. Damascus is Moscow's seventh largest client.

The Alliance Factor (BRIC & CIS)

China is a close economic partner of Moscow within the group of BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India & China). The two appear willing to help each other "save face" when dealing with issues such as Syria, toxic waste, and the Edward Snowden affair. Beijing recently closed a $270 billion deal with Russia to import the latter's oil. Moscow is the world's second only to Saudi Arabia in oil production

The BRIC economic and political alliance is important to the member nations. Collectively they account for one fourth of the world's land area, and over 40% of its population. Moscow also enjoys a leadership role in the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States), that is made up of the former Soviet Republics of Russia, the Ukraine and Belarus’. This CIS also included Georgia until the 2008 war. The CIS was founded in 1991 with the goal of "shared economic trade, finance, lawmaking, and security". The CIS grouping is more like a British or French Commonwealth than a single economic entity like the European Union. This perhaps helps explain its longevity to date.

Russia is still powerful

Russia has the world’s eighth largest economy and a powerful military. It uses its considerable, oil reserves as an economic weapon. Europeans need Russian oil and are hesitant to challenge them - even when this might be appropriate. The Europeans barely reacted when Russia invaded Georgia and appear to have accepted an observer role in Syria. This, despite the fact that there is now evidence that Damascus has used chemical weapons and the level of human misery and suffering has reached intolerable levels. On 21 August the world received graphic evidence of chemical weapon use by the Syrians against innocent civilians- including children. YouTube video clips show the agony and death of over 1400 innocent civilians in the Ghouta area near Damascus. These shocking videos have gone viral and are becoming a major game changer. Akin to Sadam Hussein’s gassing of Iraqi Kurds in 1988.

Just when the world expected U.S. surgical strikes against Syria … the Russian Bear appeared on the scene once more. This time with a proposal that international monitors take control of the Syrian, chemical weapons. This has led to intense diplomatic negotiations that many hope will lead to a non violent solution to the Syrian dilemma. The challenges that lie ahead are daunting. The key to success for the U.S. may be to follow an old, Russian proverb that Ronald Reagan learned in the 1980’s during the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty negotiations, with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev: "Trust, but verify".

This seems like good advice when dealing with the crafty Russian Bear today.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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