By wagering on NATO's lack of military options to confront Russia's actions in Georgia, and by controlling the bottleneck of energy flow to Europe through the Caucasus pipelines, Russia's new ruler Vladimir Putin has nearly put the finishing touches on America's downfall from its status as the world's only superpower, a process that began with its war in Iraq, or at least that is what he thought. Putin has wagered on Washington's military being tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as on Europe's internal division regarding the results of the US's unilateral adventure in Iraq. He has estimated that the US would lack the political and diplomatic influence, and that it would lose its prestige upon abandoning, in practice, democracy's spoiled child in Georgia, President Mikheil Saakashavili.
The US's decision regarding Russia's confrontational strategy (instead of giving priority to partnership) has its perspectives and implications not only in the context of bilateral relations between the two countries, or on the relationship between NATO and Russia's neighbors in the Caucasus. It also affects the position and status of the US all over the world, including the Gulf region with its oil and gas, and the Middle East with its conflicts.
Astonishment and verbal protestation will not be sufficient for a man of steel such as Putin, with his Soviet background, Russian nationalism, vast oil resources, and strategic oil partnerships with the likes of China and Iran. Retreating to the front, or escaping to the back, is the impression accompanying American and European responses, deepening the impression that the US has become a paper tiger, and Europe a wildcat that toys with the tiger but fears the Russian bear in its own home, which is why it will not dare to be defiant.
Given such a situation, it seems to some that the unipolar era is over, that a new world order is taking shape under Russia's leadership and that the US has run out of options. Yet, what will happen if the US decides take the initiative to use Iraq, as it had envisioned, as an unparalleled military base, and to redeploy its forces by tactically withdrawing its troops to aircraft carriers, informing all those concerned that it has decided to exercise what military might it has and that its hands are not tied?
What will happen if the US informs its NATO allies that Afghanistan is their mission and their responsibility, to free US troops of the military burden and remove its reputation for having its hands tied? What if Washington decides that the partnership with Russia over resolving the nuclear crisis by offering incentives to Iran has become ineffective, as Moscow has taken itself out of the partnership and exhausted diplomacy to serve Tehran's interest in buying time and stalling while reinforcing its nuclear capabilities and expanding its influence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, which the Islamic Republic of Iran has transformed into an Iranian base through Hezbollah?
The cost of these options should be considered on the basis of the cost of avoiding them. In other words, the US and Europe should carefully consider what to do with Putin's Russia, if they refuse to confront the fundamental message behind Russia's actions in Georgia, namely:
* Teaching every country in Russia's neighborhood the lesson that it must remain Moscow's friendly and obedient ally, and that it will not be allowed to become an ally of the US or a member of NATO.
* Informing Washington that it will not be forgiven for the mistake it made with Kosovo, and that revenge from Russia's perspective today is far more important than the partnership which was so important for Moscow under Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. Things are different now, and the scope of such revenge will not be limited to the Caucasus but will reach the US wherever it finds the need to, in the Caucasus, Iran or elsewhere.
* Taking a qualitative step forward, in the framework of its oil and gas strategy, by securing Russia's control over the bottleneck of pipelines stretching across Georgia to Turkey which supplies Europe with its energy needs. Additionally, several major European countries, such as Germany, rely on Russia's gas for over 40% of their needs. Russia has laid an important foundation for its strategic decision to regain its former grandeur, namely that of oil alliances and gas balances.
The matter is not limited to Mikheil Saakashvili's excesses in South Ossetia or his miscalculations. It is rather about the meaning of submitting to Russia's response to what Moscow has described as adventures that must be stopped by any means necessary, including military incursion into Georgia's territories to teach it a lesson and to control the future of its pipelines. The leadership in Tbilisi, on the other hand, claims that Russia has set up a strategy of escalation and begun to provoke Georgia, and that Georgia had no choice but to defend itself.
Saakashvili has suffered great disappointment, as the US and Europe have, in practice, abandoned him. Perhaps he had believed that responding to Russia's show of power with a show of power of his own would automatically lead to partnership and accelerate Georgia's admission into NATO. So far, his wager seems to have failed on both counts.
What has taken place in Georgia constitutes a building-block in the grand Russian strategy set up by Putin in Russia's immediate neighborhood and on the international level. It would be wrong to believe that developments will be limited to the Caucasus or to Georgian territory, as Iran is the next stop in this strategy.
If Washington yields and behaves on the basis that its options are limited and costly and that it has no choice but to plead with Europe for salvation and bow down before Moscow, then the worst is yet to come. If those Americans who are angry at George Bush and his war in Iraq release their anger by rewarding Russia and Iran, and reinforcing their ability to expand, dominate, use threats and intimidation, revive the Soviet spirit, and mobilize allies on the basis of enmity to the US, it would be as if one were to chop off his nose to get back at his face.
There is now an urgent need for deepened strategic thinking regarding the American-European relationship, in the wake of the Iraq war in which the neoconservatives implicated the US. Such a war was a desperate decision which turned Iraq into a slippery step which may topple the US from its position of sole superpower. While the anger is well-founded, the challenges of the day demand far more than confining ourselves in blame and anger, and drawing lists of non-options. It is of the utmost necessity to formulate a comprehensive strategy towards Russia and Iran, at some point after the Iraq war, especially in the era of oil alliances and at a time when revenge is being employed as a fundamental political tool.
Moscow is not only taking revenge for Washington's mistake of supporting Kosovo's independence from Serbia, a measure which Moscow considered to be a direct insult, but also for the war in Iraq, of which excluding Russia from the country and its resources was a fundamental element. For two American errors, there were two Russian acts of revenge. And then there is Iran, where the matter is radically different, and where revenge takes a regional dimension, with a Russian-Iranian partnership directed against the US, based on exploiting American involvement in Iraq.
Vladimir Putin did not dwarf the US and turn it into a second-class country by his mere genius, but he intends to take advantage of the opportunity to abuse a dwarfed US to increase the possibilities of restoring Russia's grandeur. If he is met by apologies, he will move forward undeterred, supported by dangerous and violent nationalism. Only then will remorse catch up with those who focused the blame on Bush's adventures in Iraq and his mistakes in Kosovo, blame which he has certainly deserved, but without examining the designs of those benefiting from such errors and adventures, most particularly Russia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Europeans in turn have the responsibility of careful examination, rather than simply following the trend of chewing hatred and blame for Bush and the US. They are on the verge of the worst economic recession in a Europe dependent on Russian gas. Today they have caught a glimpse and are now familiar with who Vladimir Putin is, how he thinks and how he acts.
When Putin resorted to military force against Chechnya, the world did not take notice of his military tendency to resolve problems by undermining diplomacy. Today, and merely to spite the US, many Muslims forget that Vladimir Putin has repeatedly taken violent military stances against Muslims in Chechnya and elsewhere, and celebrate his violence to compensate for their constant failure.
If the response is silence, fear, retreat and accepting that there is no other choice but submission, it will constitute a meaningful strategic message, not only to Russia but also to Iran, allowing them to further pursue their ambitions of regional hegemony. This is not an invitation to rush to military options against Iran or to a display of power directed at Moscow. However, both options are available, if the US wishes to resort to them, at a cost.
Perhaps the developments in Georgia will lead to seriously considering early withdrawal from Iraq to redeploy American troops on aircraft carriers where the US's naval military might is unparalleled. Such a measure would put an end to the impression that the US has no other choice but to submit. Tactical withdrawal from Iraq would free Washington's hands and enable the US to act confidently at sea.
The other option could be to stop saying and pretending that Iraq is not a military base for the US, and instead to behave in the opposite manner. In other words, it is perhaps time to cause a qualitative shift in the debate over US military capabilities inside Iraq, to turn them away from the dilemma of having their hands tied and to emphasize the importance and usefulness of Iraq being, in practice, an American military base that could be activated whenever the US's needs and higher strategic interests would demand it.