History and Geopolitics: 1920-1921 Help Explain Russia’s 2008 War on Georgia

By David J. Smith*

Eighty-nine years ago—January 29, 1920—the British cabinet rejected a plan to support the independence of Georgia and Azerbaijan and to secure the Black Sea to Caspian Sea corridor. The geopolitical effect was to cede control of the Eurasian heartland to the Soviet Union for seven decades. Reflection upon this anniversary provides historical perspective to analysis of Russia’s August 2008 war on Georgia.

In late 1919, Sir Halford Mackinder was appointed British Commissioner to South Russia. He arrived in civil war torn Russia on January 1, 1920. He met with British representatives at the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk and then traveled to Tikhoretsk to meet White Russian commander Anton Denikin.

He quickly assessed that Denikin’s forces were losing and that Denikin was an unsavory sort on whom Britain should not depend. Still, he feared “Bolshevism sweeping forward like a prairie fire.” So he returned to London to present his own plan to the British Government.

The Bolsheviks, Mackinder said, would not be defeated by Denikin or by any piecemeal policy that seeded a few guns here and a bit of money there—a whole policy was needed.

He recommended an anti-Bolshevik alliance to block the Bolshevik drive to the Black Sea and a British force to control the South Caucasian East-West Corridor. Once it had checked the Bolshevik advance, Britain could negotiate with Soviet Russia.

Mackinder advocated a string of middle tier states in addition to those created by the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I: White Russia, Ukraine, South Russia, Dagestan, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Britain would assume control of Denikin’s fleet on the Caspian Sea and secure the Batumi-Baku railroad.

The geopolitical importance of the South Caucasus was not new. The Transcaucasian Railroad was completed in 1872, hauling oil from 1883. The first Baku-Batumi oil pipeline began operation in 1907.

The British Army arrived in Batumi in December 1918 in the aftermath of World War I, amid allied efforts to dismember the Ottoman Empire. Throughout 1919, Sir Winston Churchill, then British Secretary of State for War, railed against the Bolsheviks and unsuccessfully urged support for the White Russians.

World War I had sapped British manpower, treasure and will, and there were too many other pressing problems. By the time Mackinder briefed the British cabinet, Churchill had reluctantly ordered the British commander in Batumi to prepare for withdrawal.

The British Army quit Batumi in July 1920. Soon after, Churchill wrote to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George: “We are deliberately throwing away piecemeal the friends who could have helped us. Halfhearted war is being followed by halfhearted peace. We are going, I fear, to lose both, and be left alone…We are just crumbling our power away.”

In April 1920, the Soviets seized power in Azerbaijan; in November, in Armenia. In February 1921, the Bolsheviks instigated civil unrest in Borchalo, in the Georgian-controlled neutral region bordering Armenia. 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.

Forced migration, prison labor, railroads, pipelines, hydroelectric projects and strategic relocation of industry during World War II built a Soviet heartland. In 1943, Mackinder wrote, “The Heartland is the greatest natural fortress on earth. For the first time in history it is manned by a garrison sufficient both in number and quality.”

Less than five 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.

So what? Surely very rich Russia is eager to leave geopolitics behind in favor of economic competition in a globalized world. But geography and culture are more enduring than many, particularly westerners, thought and hoped.

Speaking of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Boris Nemtsov said in the January 28 New York Times, “It is the typical behavior of the monopolist. The monopolist fears competition.” Now in political opposition, Nemtsov led the highly competitive Nizhny Novgorod Region during the 1990s.

This was the context of Putin’s April 25, 2005 declaration to the Federal Assembly that “the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical disaster of the last century.”

This was the context of Putin’s well-considered and long-prepared assault on the East-West corridor in Georgia. Perhaps this historical perspective will help part the waters of triviality and moral relativism that have inundated intelligent discussion of Russia’s war on Georgia.

*David J. Smith is Director, Georgian Security Analysis Center, Tbilisi, and Senior Fellow, Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, Washington.

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