US Vice President Dick Cheney kicked off his tour of Georgia and its US-allied neighbors Sept, 2 with a visit to a friend in Baku, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.
But in the aftermath of the armed conflict in Georgia, he found friendship was not enough to cement America’s alliances with the three former Soviet states he visited, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Ukraine.
He set out with three challenging missions: Georgia’s rearmament, a pitch for Azerbaijan’s cooperation in the Nabucco pipeline project – planned to reduce the West’s dependence on Russian energy, and preparations for Ukraine’s accession to NATO.
What Cheney found was a far cry from Washington’s minimal expectations, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s various regional sources report.
America’s $1 billion check for Georgia’s reconstruction had no relation to Mikhail Saakashvili’s grandiose plans.
Far from learning from his military downfall, the pugnacious Georgian president wants another go. He has put together an amateurish, unreal mega-plan to build eight fighting brigades: four to be reconstituted after they fell apart in the Russian onslaught after he attacked South Ossetia, and four new ones.
This time he means to give the Russians a run for their money at their back door – provided that the US rushes over fresh, massive supplies of hardware.
Now he wants the big stuff: fighter planes and helicopters, anti-air missiles and radar stations to shield all of Georgian territory from Russian air attack, advanced anti-tank missiles against Russian tanks and electronic warfare systems to jam the electronic control the Russian army exercised in the war.
Some of Saakashvili’s advisers think Washington ought to give Georgia up-to-the-minute warships as well to defend its Black Sea coast against the Russian navy.
Saakashvili’s mega-plan is riddled with weaknesses
The Georgian president is on the run from the outcry raised by his fellow-citizens over his foolhardy attack to retake South Ossetia and their army’s humiliating defeat. Saakashvili wants to save his neck by arming his country to the teeth as a pro-American fortress and take a stand against Russia’s control of the Caucasian region.
This plan has three obvious weaknesses:
1. Georgia is short of the numbers – 50-60,000 recruits – for manning his fighting brigades. Even if they were available, it would take four to five years to bring them up to scratch and form them into trained combat units.
2. Cheney’s check was a drop in the ocean. Saakashvili’s program calls for $12-20 billion, a huge sum which neither the United States nor Europe is inclined to sink into his erratic government.
In any case, with two months to run before the end of its term, it is too late for the Bush administration to enter into sizeable long-term financial commitments. Such decisions must await its successor in Washington.
The Democratic Senators Barack Obama and Joseph Biden are hardly likely to arm Georgia for spearheading Cold War 2 against Russia.
And for an administration headed by John McCain and Sarah Palin – although McCain said at one point “We are all Georgians” – their first foreign policy priority will not exactly be a military program for making Georgia, large areas of which are under Russian occupation, an arena for a showdown with president Dimitry Medvedev.
3. The master player in the current scenario, Russia – which Saakashvili refuses to acknowledge – says the Georgian leader must go. Washington, Europe and the Caucasian governments are perfectly clear that as long as he is in power, Moscow will strike a confrontational stance, including a military, naval and partial air siege on Georgia and an embargo on arms supplies.
US-backed Nabucco pipeline eyed with mistrust
Russia hits back without delay for every move Georgia and its champions, including the United States, venture.
Wednesday, Sept. 3, the day Cheney held talks in Baku, the Kremlin shut down the Russian embassy in Tbilisi and stopped issuing entry visas for Georgians, seriously hampering their freedom of movement in and out of their country.
Citing Georgia’s severance of diplomatic relations with Moscow last week, a Russian official commented: “Everything has a price tag.”
Therefore persuading regional rulers to rely on Georgia to shield alternative energy routes to Russian-controlled lines was a non-starter.
In Baku, Cheney’s task was to coax the Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev to approve the Nabucco gas pipeline. This pipeline’s 2,000 mile length is projected to connect Azerbaijan with Central Europe, crossing Georgia, snaking around Armenia and Russia to Erzurum in Turkey and on to Austria’s Baumgarten terminal via Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. Construction on the Nabucco pipeline should begin in 2010; it will come on stream in 2013.
A trans-Caspian extension is planned to pump gas from Turkmenistan to Europe.
Since the Georgian crisis flared earlier this month, these rulers and Europe too are beginning to view the Nabucco pipeline plan with mistrust.
The rulers of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are not just watching the American performance in their region but also the positions adopted by their southern neighbor Turkey, the biggest Muslim military power in their region and a NATO member bound to the United States by military treaty.
Russia wields blunderbuss against Turkey
What Cheney had to offer did little to allay the alarm in Baku, Astana and Ashgabat over the blunderbuss wielded by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov‘s during his visit to Ankara on Sept 2, ahead of the US vice president’s arrival.
They were even more nervous over a secret conference between the Turkish and Russian Navy commanders, Admiral Metin Atac and Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky aboard a Turkish frigate on the Black Sea.
They talked about the high tension between the Russian and NATO fleets since the bloody clashes in South Ossetia, while Lavrov demanded from the Turkish government a precise tally of the NATO warships to be granted passage through the Dardanelles to the Black Sea. He made it clear that if it was not satisfied, Moscow, Ankara’s biggest trading partner, might well cut down on its imports from Turkey.
Prime minister Tayyep Erdogan did not even pretend to stand up to this threat, especially after hundreds of trucks transporting exported goods from Turkey had been held up for four weeks at Russian checkpoints, costing exporters billions of dollars in losses.
A flustered Erdogan quickly played the crisis down: “This is not a very serious customs row, the situation has been slightly exaggerated,” he said. He was optimistic about a solution within a few days. “If not, I will meet with Putin.”
Turkey’s neighboring rulers have no desire to be gripped in a Russian vice of this nature.
The embattled Nagorno-Karabach looms large again
The Azerbaijani president has additional disincentives for going along with the Nabucco pipeline.
Firstly, its viability is in question. The need to bypass Russia has inflated the cost from $3 billion to $4.5 and latterly $7.9 billion. To turn a profit, Nabucco must transport 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year. Azerbaijan can only produce 8 billion and then not before the second phase of the Shah Deniz deposit in the Caspian Sea begins production.
Secondly, producers and potential consumers alike are scared to let the Georgian president control a segment of the energy outlet. Since he went to war on Aug. 7, he has been viewed as reckless and unreliable.
Azerbaijan’s state oil company (SOCAR) has meanwhile jumped the gun on Washington. It will bypass Georgia by pumping between 300,000 and 400,000 tons of crude through the Baku-Novorossiisk pipe, instead of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.
This switch, after Georgia’s South Ossetia attack on Aug. 7, was motivated by Baku’s third disincentive for getting involved in the Nabucco project: president Aliyev’s awareness of his vulnerability to Russian pressure over the volatile Nagorno-Karabakh enclave inside Azerbaijan.
The dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the hangovers from the defunct Soviet empire. Since Armenians declared the enclave independent in 1991, a declaration never recognized internationally, its Azerbaijani and Armenian populations have been at war, leaving tens of thousands dead.
Should Nagorno-Karabakh’s independence be backed by Moscow and Russian guns, Aliyev would find himself in the same boat as Saakashvili. Antagonizing Russia for the sake of accommodating the US on the Nabucco project, which energy experts predict will never get off the ground, would land him in really hot water at home.
The Ukrainian government in free fall
By now, European experts are beginning to talk about the need to bring Russia into the US-sponsored project to make it viable by supplementing the supply of gas. Already, the Russian monopoly Gazprom owns a 50 percent stake in Nabocco’s projected terminal at Austria’s Baumgarten.
But one expert says that this arrangement would go against the whole concept of Nabbucco, that it would not be either Russian or Russian-controlled gas.” This is the view voiced by Zenyo Baran, an energy and Central Asian expert at the Hudson Institute in Washington (and wife of Matthew Bryza, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs).
Cheney was due to land in Kiev Friday, Sept. 5, the one-but-last stop of his hapless trip. He was fated to find the Ukrainian government in a state of turmoil.
Thursday, Sept. 4, lawmakers loyal to the pro-US President Victor Yushchenko pulled out of the ruling coalition after prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko joined the pro-Russian opposition in legislation to reduce presidential powers and enhance her own.
If Yushchenko’s loyalists cannot form a new coalition alliance within 40 days, the Ukraine faces a general election. The president called his rivals’ step unconstitutional.
The prospects of Ukraine joining NATO, to which most European governments have cooled anyway, have therefore faded even further over the political crisis in Kiev. Investors too have been selling off its assets since the Georgian conflict with Russia erupted.
The US vice president winds up his tour in Italy, no doubt with a deep sigh of relief.