Russian Incursion Sounds Regional Alarm

TBILISI, Georgia — The bombs dropped by Russian planes fell in Georgia, but the shudder also coursed through nearby nations that once existed under Moscow's thumb during the Soviet era.

A Russian serviceman walks in the town of Gori 80 km (50 miles) from Georgia's capital, Tbilisi.

For countries like Ukraine, Azerbaijan and the Baltic nations of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, Russia's invasion and occupation of West-allied Georgia is rekindling haunting memories of a Soviet-era Kremlin that used its military might to keep its East European populations in lock step with Moscow.

Today, former Soviet republics and East bloc nations that long ago switched alliances westward have been watching the events in Georgia with alarm, wondering whether they might be next in line.

"This conflict in Georgia is a kind of 9/11 for Russia's neighbors, an event that changed all the security-related thinking in our countries," said Kadri Liik, director of the International Center for Defense Studies in Tallinn, Estonia's capital.

From 1999 to 2004, the Kremlin watched helplessly as 10 nations once ruled by Moscow joined NATO. Since then the Kremlin has rebounded on the shoulders of record oil prices and has solidified Europe's dependence on Russian oil and gas.

Russia has been ready to flex its newfound geopolitical might for some time, experts say, and the conflict with tiny Georgia, a nation led by a U.S.-allied president the Kremlin despises, gave Moscow the perfect arena.

Now Russia's neighbors worry that the Kremlin may expand that arena. Countries that have adopted pro-West policies, such as Ukraine and Azerbaijan, lie within what used to be the Soviet sphere.

Ukraine under threat

Ukrainians have especially watched with trepidation as events unfolded in Georgia. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko has been pursuing NATO membership, despite a threat last year from former President Vladimir Putin that Russia would re-aim nuclear missiles toward Ukraine if it joined NATO.

If an underlying aim in Russia's incursion into Georgia was to warn Ukraine and other former Soviet states about the perils of aligning with NATO, the strategy may have backfired, experts say.

"Russia's disproportionate actions in the Caucasus have raised a lot of concerns here, and the concerns are growing," said Alexei Haran, a political science professor at Kiev-Mohila Academy in Kiev. "The number of supporters of the idea of joining NATO is likely to increase."

Ukrainians are deeply divided by the question of NATO. The country's eastern and southern provinces are staunchly pro-Russian.

Russia has tried to exploit that rift by supporting Ukrainian opposition leaders. Russia's best leverage in Ukraine, says Haran, may be its Black Sea naval fleet, which under a lease agreement is allowed to be based in the Ukrainian port of Sevastopol until 2017.

When Yushchenko recently suggested Ukraine should restrict movements of those ships in the wake of the Georgian conflict, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev issued his own warning. "They must not tell us how to behave," Medvedev said.

Residents anxious

On the streets of Kiev, Ukraine's capital, anxiety runs high.

"If Russia ever attacks Ukraine, the world will know the truth—that Russia is a real armed monster," said Elena Titova, 32, an accountant. "That's why we should hurry up and stay close to NATO."

In Azerbaijan, citizens who embrace President Ilham Aliev's decision to align his country more closely with Washington and Western Europe now worry that the Kremlin will search for ways to force him to reverse course.

One tack Russia could pursue against Azerbaijan is to derail its burgeoning energy relationship with the U.S. and European countries. Azerbaijan ships Caspian Sea oil to Western markets through a pipeline operated by British energy giant BP.

That pipeline runs through Georgia, and Georgian officials have accused Russia of targeting the pipeline during its bombing raids. Georgia also accused Russia of bombing a key railroad bridge outside the town of Kaspi that was used to ship Azerbaijani oil to the West.

"It's clear that the events in Georgia infringe on Azerbaijan's interests directly and make Azerbaijan very wary," said Rasim Musabayev, a foreign affairs analyst based in Baku, Azerbaijan's capital.

Like Georgia, Azerbaijan wrestles with separatists in a frozen conflict that has endured for years and makes Azerbaijan vulnerable to Kremlin interference.

Azerbaijani officials have accused Russia of arming Armenian separatists who control the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh in western Azerbaijan.

Though Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are all members of NATO and the European Union, their populations have watched with alarm as Russia pushed its troops deeper into Georgia.

A report in The Times newspaper in London quoting unnamed Russian sources as saying the Kremlin is considering arming its Baltic naval fleet with nuclear weapons has only heightened anxiety.

An Aug. 15 poll by a Tallinn-based survey group found that 83 percent of Estonians believed the Kremlin's actions in Georgia endangered Russia's neighbors.

"People are indeed worried," Liik said.

Source: Chicago Tribune