Saturday, October 10, 2009

US, Ukraine, Georgia, Iran and Russia

A few days ago Alexander Vershbow, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, reportedly suggested that Ukraine would be an appropriate location for radar sites such as had recently been scraped for the Czech Republic as part of the ill-conceived BMD system of Bush that involved placing BMD missiles in Poland. Russia's Minister of Foreign Affairs was taken by surprise, to say the least, as was Ukraine.

What appears to have happened is that Vershbow was referring to existing radar systems in Ukraine and not the prospect of placing US BMD systems in their place or even in addition.

The Assistant Secretary of Defense is also visiting Moscow and will be in Georgia starting on October 19 where defence discussions will be on the agenda. These discussions will likely review and revise the military training support provided by the US to the Georgian army. What is unclear is whether the training will now be ratcheted up and include offensive capabilities.

Both the comment regarding Ukraine's inclusion in the future BMD shield (and after all, the land based system will not be implemented until 2015)and the meetings in Georgia are likely to raise hackles in Moscow, more regarding Georgia than Ukraine. Ukraine will have a new, more Russia centric president in January, so any US or NATO hopes for retaining Ukraine as a potential balance to Russia is circling the drain. Implementing a policy such as suggested by Vershbow - even using existing Ukrainian radar bases - would be rapidly unwound by the new government. It's a waste of energy and an empty threat.

Georgia, on the other hand, is a completely different matter to Russia. They have made it clear that Sakaashvili is not high on their list of favorite leaders. They have effectively seized portions of Georgia and declared their independence. As far as Russia was concerned, they virtually had the Caucuses wrapped up. So an increase in the US presence in Georgia would be a set-back for Russia's planning.

The international dance playing out by the US and Russia largely has to do with Iran. Russia wants to continue to reassert itself in the near-abroad and to do so, it holds out its leverage with Iran. The US is refusing to back away from maintaining and increasing its influence in Russia's backyard. The statements regarding Ukraine are meaningless. Georgia, however, is a different matter. US boots on the ground in Georgia become a trip-wire just as Russian troops are on the territories it seized. It would close out full control of the Caucuses for Russia.

As time goes on, however, it is becoming increasing clear that Iran is not going to walk back its uranium enrichment program, a key issue for Israel. If that is the case, then Russia will gradually lose its influence in Iran as well.

Once Russia is perceived as not being able or willing to deliver anything regarding Iran, its leverage will dissipate. Georgia can likely expect increasing support from the US while the US will encourage Turkey to reach diplomatic deals with Armenia and Azerbaijan. Russia's game plan for the entire Caucuses could unravel.

I think by the end of the year the geo-political landscape will be significantly changed in the region while at the same time making it more dangerous. Everyone should re-read "The Guns of August".

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