Keep Georgia (and Armenia) on Your Mind

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By David B. Boyajian

If Georgia isn’t on your mind, it should be.

Armenia’s northern neighbor has for years enraged Moscow by cozying up to the US and NATO. So, using Georgia’s recent arrest of four Russian officers for spying as a convenient pretext, the Kremlin has severed its land, rail, air, and sea traffic with that country and imposed various other sanctions. Russia may even – as it has done before - double the price, or shut off, the natural gas upon which Georgia is heavily dependent.

In reality, though, this crisis isn’t between Russia and Georgia. It’s between Russia and the US/NATO. They’ve been engaged in a high-stakes tug-of-war to prevent the other from dominating the oil and gas rich Caspian Sea region.

What makes little, impoverished Georgia so important? Geography. Georgia is currently the West’s (and Turkey’s) only land and pipeline route to and from Azerbaijan and the Caspian basin.

Every other route from the west crosses Iran or Russia and is, therefore, unacceptable to Washington.

Recall, of course, that Turkey and Azerbaijan have shut their borders with Armenia. Thus, only Georgia, not Armenia, can serve as an east-west corridor at this time.

The NATO Threat

Moscow aims to strong-arm Georgia back into Russia’s orbit, thereby slamming the door to the Caspian in NATO’s face.

If, however, Georgia joins NATO - Washington already trains and equips Georgia’s soldiers - the Russian bear could never again lay a paw on Georgia. Azerbaijan would probably follow Georgia into NATO. Russia’s position in the Caucasus would then all but collapse.

NATO could then jump across the Caspian Sea and march straight into Muslim Central Asia, posing a possibly mortal threat to Russia.

Can Russia subdue Georgia and forestall such a disaster?

Russian Leverage

Russia supplies nearly all of Georgia’s natural gas and owns or controls a considerable portion of its energy infrastructure. And though Tbilisi is frantically seeking alternative energy supplies from Azerbaijan, Iran, and Turkey, Russia is probably capable of freezing Georgia and severely damaging its economy in the near-term.

Even a Russian military attack on Georgia cannot be ruled out.

Short of that, Russia is clearly hoping to intimidate Georgians into dumping their pro-NATO, American educated president, Mikheil Saakashvili, whom one Russian official calls “an American puppet.” Presumably, a pro-Russian leader would then replace him and bring Georgia back into the Russian fold.

Something roughly similar occurred earlier this year in Ukraine, where its pro-NATO President Yuschenko had been giving Moscow nightmares. Due in part to Moscow’s use of its natural gas weapon, Ukraine recently reinstalled the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich as Prime Minister.

In the meantime, the Georgian crisis is giving Armenia pause for thought.

Armenia Blockaded

“By blockading Georgia,” says one Armenian analyst, “Russia is also blockading Armenia.”

That’s because most of Armenia’s trade transits Georgian ports or the Georgian - Russian border. More importantly, Armenia gets its natural gas from Russia through the same pipeline that supplies Georgia.

As in Georgia, Russia owns or controls much of Armenia’s energy infrastructure, including the Metzamor nuclear power facility.

Russia has been long nonchalant about the pain it inflicts on its “strategic ally” Armenia whenever it has shut its border with, or gas pipeline to, Georgia.

That’s the Kremlin’s way of telling Yerevan that it could suffer the same fate as Tbilisi if it becomes too friendly with America and NATO. Should Armenia be concerned?

Armenia Next?

Since independence in 1991, Yerevan has walked a tightrope between Russia and the United States.

Unlike Georgia, which is hostile to Russia and friendly to Turkey, Armenia is Russia’s ally and looks to it for military support against Turkey. Indeed, Russia’s only friends in the Caucasus are Armenia and Artsakh/Karabagh.

At the same time, Armenia has excellent relations with the US and Europe, with which it has major historical, cultural, and Diasporan links.

That makes the Kremlin nervous. It worries that Armenia could, like Georgia, give NATO a path to the Caspian.

Armenia itself worries that, historically, Russia has often taken Armenians for granted and betrayed them to Turks and Azerbaijanis. Even today, Russia’s burgeoning economic and political relations with Turkey raise the specter of Russia’s selling out Armenia.

On the other hand, Yerevan is aware that the West would itself be an unreliable ally, having always sided, in the final analysis, with Turks against Armenians.

Yet despite its vulnerability, Christian Armenia is by far the most stable and ethnically homogenous nation in the Caucasus. That makes it a very attractive partner for those who wish to shut out NATO or, alternatively, bring NATO to the shores of the Caspian. That is Armenia’s power - its potential trump card.

Will Armenia leverage that power in the long term and weather the present crisis? Only if its leaders are totally dedicated to the people and intolerant of corruption, which saps the nation’s and the Diaspora’s resources and morale.