The crisis was precipitated by twin blasts that heavily damaged the main Mozdok-Tbilisi gas pipeline on 22 January, cutting off gas supplies to Georgia and Armenia. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili both implicitly blamed the explosions on Russia. The crisis deepened over the next few days after damage to a gas-compressor station on the Russian side of the Azerbaijani-Russian border reduced emergency supplies of gas from Azerbaijan and high winds and snow incapacitated a high-voltage power line in eastern Georgia.
The short-lived, yet profound, energy crisis has demonstrated the fundamental vulnerability of the Georgian state, especially in the face of Russian pressure and intimidation, raising stark questions about Georgian security in general, and energy security in particular.
Despite being somewhat obscured by the larger clash between Russia and Ukraine over natural gas, the Georgian crisis also holds geopolitical implications for regional security and stability. Of particular concern is Russia's leveraging of energy as a tool of influence.
Too Much Energy Security
The first lesson to be drawn from the energy crisis is that the Georgian concept of energy security has been seriously hampered by a mistaken emphasis. To date, Georgian energy security has been defined by a focus on pipeline security, with too little attention devoted to seeking energy diversification, promoting greater self-sufficiency, and pursuing alternative suppliers. Although these strategic needs were clearly articulated in the recently unveiled National Security Concept of Georgia, action has been put off as officials await the completion of the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline.
The second factor, the most important consideration for national security, stems from the highly unsatisfactory state of Georgian military reform. There is a profound disparity between the upbeat declarations of the Georgian government and the desolation of the Georgian military. Georgia's pursuit of NATO membership, for example, may be seen more as a delusion of grandeur than a realistic goal.
Officially, the Georgian leadership is committed to transforming its armed forces in order to better defend the country, participate in coalition operations, and make Georgia a viable candidate for NATO membership. To achieve this, Tbilisi has taken some steps toward structural reform and to adopt Western and NATO operational principles, most notably seen in the effort to consolidate civilian control of the military, introduce budgetary efficiency and transparency, and improve financial management.
The current state of the Georgian armed forces still falls far short of the minimum NATO requirements, however. First, the overall reform effort has been uneven. Some senior military leaders have openly opposed it, and reluctance and resistance within the Defense and National Security ministries is widespread. This has been matched by a serious lack of policies to guide the day-to-day activities of the military and mid- and long-term plans to shape and then build the Georgian armed forces.
Second, there are still basic problems with all three branches of the Georgian armed forces. The Georgian Army's doctrine comprises a contradictory combination of U.S. and Soviet military doctrine, with little or no effort to adopt Western doctrine above the level of battalion. To make matters worse, the army has rejected external training programs aimed at closing this gap.
True, there has been some progress to date, as the Georgian Army now employs a mix of conscript and professional (contract) soldiers, with the 1st and 2nd Brigades made up of professional soldiers, and the 3rd and 4th Brigades (created during the integration of the Interior Ministry forces) made up of conscript soldiers. But serious problems with army equipment and maintenance remain unaddressed, and acquisition planning is still deficient.
The much smaller Georgian Air Force, despite a consistently small budget, has seen some improvement since 2000, with an increase in the number of its SU-25 combat aircraft from seven to nine and the planned procurement of three new air-surveillance radars later this year. But overall, the Georgian Air Force is still only capable of providing limited air support to the land forces and basic casualty evacuation and search and rescue operations. The Air Force is further hindered by a complete reliance on Soviet doctrine and Soviet-style organization, shortages of support equipment, and a dependence on the Tbilisi International Airfield as the sole location able to accommodate larger military transportation needs.
The Georgian Navy, in many ways the most inferior component of the armed forces, has no clear mission or operational doctrine, and lacks the most basic resources necessary to maintain seaworthy ships or conduct training missions. The navy is clearly the lowest priority for Georgian defense, in terms of policy, financial support, equipment and facilities.
In contrast, the Georgian Coast Guard, which is part of the Border Guard Department and, therefore, subordinate to the Interior Ministry, is the most effective and impressive force in Georgia today. Responsible for border security, the coast guard polices Georgia's 286 kilometers of coastline, manages the 12 nautical miles of territorial water and the 12 nautical miles contiguous zone, and secures the country's two principal ports, Poti and Batumi, as well as a third port currently under construction just north of Poti.
The limited success to date of Georgian defense reform suggests that the country's strategic orientation toward Europe and the military relationship with the West, mainly through NATO and the United States, has not yielded the hoped-for results. Yet, there is an interesting paradox with Georgia opportunistically exaggerating its vulnerability to Russian pressure in a bid to persuade NATO and the West that it is in their interests to intensify strategic cooperation.
Thus, it is the process of reforming and building the Georgian military, not its eventual success or NATO membership, that is paramount for the present Georgian government because doing so will not only strengthen the central state,but enhance its options for resolving the inherently political problems of the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts by military means. Restoring Georgian control over those breakaway regions would deprive Russia of a permanent source of leverage on Georgia comparable to the stranglehold Russia has had to date over Georgian gas supplies.
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- Ukraine consumes 70 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas per year. It produces 20 bcm of its own gas, has a signed contract to import 40 bcm from Turkmenistan, and in 2005 was getting 29 bcm from Russia as payment for transit of Russian gas.
- Ukraine sells some 7 bcm of gas a year to the West and places some in underground storage facilities. These facilities can hold 34.5 bcm.
- Ukraine is the sixth-largest consumer of gas in the world and uses more gas than Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia combined.
- Russia has proven gas reserves of 47 trillion cubic meters (tcm) -- the largest in the world ahead of Iran and Qatar.
- Russia sells approximately 160 bcm to Europe each year. By 2015, Europe is expected to import 300 bcm, or 40 percent of its projected needs from Russia.
- Russia's Gazprom is the world's largest gas company. It is the only company allowed by Russian law to export gas outside the borders of the CIS. It also owns the gas-transportation system and most of the gas fields in Russia.
- The Russian state is Gazprom's majority shareholder , with a 51 percent share. The company's ownership rights changed as of the beginning of 2006, with Gazprom stock being sold on the open market. The Russian state, however, will continue to hold the majority stake.