Enduring Geopolitics: Russia’s 2008 Attack in Historical Perspective

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 Ninety-one years ago this week, the British cabinet rejected a comprehensive plan to rally an anti-Bolshevik coalition, support White Russian forces, control the Baku-Batumi corridor and the Caspian Sea and, from that position of strength, negotiate with the nascent Soviet government.  The geopolitical effect of this decision was cession of the Eurasian heartland to the Soviet Union for seven decades.  Reflection upon these events of 1920 provides historical perspective to Russia’s 2008 attack upon Georgia and its unremitting design to control the Black Sea and the South Caucasus.

In late 1919, Sir Halford Mackinder was appointed British Commissioner to South Russia.    He arrived in civil war-torn Russia on January 1, 1920.  At Novorossiysk, he met Sir Oliver Wardrop, British Chief Commissioner for the Transcaucasus, who had journeyed from Tbilisi.  “On the 8th January,” Mackinder reported, “I left Novorossisk by rail and arrived the next day at Ekaterinodar, and thence proceeded to Tikhoretskaya Junction, the Headquarters at the moment of General [Anton] Denikin.”
At Tikhoretsk, Mackinder concluded, “The Denikin Government alone cannot defeat Bolshevism…In view of the urgency of the whole situation and the need for formulating an all-round policy, I now determined to run home for a few days.”  HMS Centaur radioed Mackinder’s report to the British cabinet on January 21.
Mackinder, according to Cabinet Secretary Sir Maurice Hankey, “Would range up all the anti-Bolshevist states, from Finland to the Caucasus, giving them a certain amount of support…We must be prepared to hold the Baku-Batum line and to take control of Denikin’s fleet in the Caspian…We should be in a much better position to obtain a peace with a Soviet Russia which was not triumphant.”
The geopolitical importance of the South Caucasus was not new.  The Rothschild brothers and their competitor, Ludvig Nobel, began hauling oil via the newly completed Transcaucasian Railroad in 1883.  Three years later, they dynamited the Surami Pass, clearing the way for the first Baku-Batumi oil pipeline, which began operation 1907.  As World War I raged, oil from Baku and surrounding regions was a major strategic asset to the Russian Empire.
Then, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, the March 1918 Brest-Litovsk Treaty gave Germany, in Winston Churchill’s words, “the granaries of the Ukraine and Siberia, the oil of the Caspian, all the resources of a vast continent.”  Actually, putative allies Germany and Turkey competed for these resources.
British forces countered.  Major General L.C. Dunsterville moved north from Mesopotamia and Persia to occupy Baku for a month in the late summer of 1918.  In November, British Major General W.M. Thomson took the city again.  A month later, the 27th Division led by Major General George Forestier-Walker deployed to Batumi.  The war was over; however, British forces remained to deny strategic positions to the Bolsheviks.
But World War I had sapped British manpower, treasure and will.  And 1919 brought rebellion in India, war in Afghanistan and Mustafa Kemal’s organized resistance to allied occupation in Turkey.  
By the time Mackinder briefed the British cabinet, Whitehall had already ordered the British commander in Batumi, Brigadier General W.J.N. Cooke-Collis, to prepare for withdrawal.
“The immediate steps proposed in Sir Halford Mackinder’s report,” Hankey recorded, “did not meet with any support.”
The British Army quit Batumi in July 1920.  In April 1920, the Bolsheviks had seized power in Azerbaijan; then, in November, in Armenia.  In February 1921, they instigated civil unrest in Borchalo (now Marneuli).  Under that pretext, the Revolutionary XI Red Army entered Georgia on February 15.  By February 25, Tbilisi fell, locking the only gateway to the Eurasian heartland for seventy years.
Seven decades later, the Soviet Union imploded.  The Central Asian countries, though susceptible to Moscow’s influence, became independent.  Azerbaijan and Georgia were free.  In 1999, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey signed the agreement for the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline.  “Russia cannot dictate this question,” said Heidar Aliyev, late President of Azerbaijan.
Georgia set out to join the European Union and NATO.  It invited American military trainers and worked apace on an Individual Partnership Action Plan with the Atlantic alliance.  By 2008, Georgia was a candidate for a NATO Membership Action Plan.
But geography and culture proved stronger than many, particularly westerners, thought or hoped.  This was the context of then Russian President Vladimir Putin’s well-considered and long-prepared assault on the East-West corridor in Georgia.  The point was to choke the fragile East-West Corridor until everyone understood that Russia could throttle it altogether—control over access to the Eurasian heartland was at stake.
And this is the context of Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory, brazen violation of European Union-brokered ceasefire agreements, stonewalling at the Geneva talks, dooming the United Nations and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe missions in Georgia, suspension of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe and disregard of its 1999 Istanbul commitments to withdraw from Georgia and Moldova.  Geopolitics endures.

David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington. This essay originally appeared in Tubula.

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