Monday, August 11, 2008

Russia's ultimate weapon

President Bush has castigated the Russians for their invasion of Georgia. It is now obvious that Russia, despite assurances to the West, wants total control over the entire country, not just the disputed territory of South Ossetia. This fits with predictions Putin would continue his efforts to rebuild the Russian empire to include the republics lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Already the southern tier, the “stans,” (Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have been brought into the fold through Russia’s gas pipeline monopoly and political intrigue.

The two remaining thorns in Putin’s side are the former Soviet republics Georgia and Ukraine. The Russians rigged elections in both countries but failed when popular uprisings invalidated them and resulted in pro-Western democracies. The Ukrainian election was particularly nasty with the unsuccessful poisoning of now President Viktor Yushchenko with dioxin. As we have seen, the current Russian regime will stop at nothing to eliminate its political enemies and critics.

Despite Bush’s protestations, there isn’t a lot we can do to change the outcome. Geographically Georgia is remote, on the eastern end of the Black Sea. Aircraft carriers are banned entry by the Montreaux Convention, not that we would want to conduct naval operations there. There just isn’t enough sea room. The only contiguous friendly country is Turkey and the distance from Istanbul to Tbilisi is over 800 miles.

But the most serious problem is our European allies. Never known for their backbone when it comes to facing down enemies, their overwhelming reliance on Russian natural gas has added to their timidity. Fifty years of American protection has allowed continental military forces to atrophy and grow soft. Even the British have lost their zeal for combat. In Iraq, they cut deals with al Sadr’s militias, abandoned their base in Basra and retreated to the exurban safety of the airport. The highly criticized Iraqi Army cleaned house in a few days, a job the Brits wouldn’t and couldn’t handle.

How bad is Europe’s reliance on Russian gas? Enough that people will freeze if they play tough. Here’s how dependant they are (2005 figures): Germany 30-39% France 20-25% Poland 62% Italy 25-28% Bulgaria 97% Czech Republic 79%

The thought of chilly winters no doubt colored Germany’s Angela Merkel’s decision last week to veto NATO membership for Georgia. And it sent a signal of weakness to the Russians. Unless Europe can diversify their gas suppliers, they will forever be beholden to the Russians. Who would ever have thought Russia’s economic might would be more potent then their 50,000 tanks during the cold war in their quest to subdue Europe?

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