The real problem with NATO’s eastern frontier was highlighted by Poland’s demand it be provided with Patriot anti-aircraft missiles to as a precondition to hosting anti-ballistic missile basing on its soil. The Poles needed tactical reassurance to participate in the strategic equation. Missile defense might make Russia less likely to challenge the USA in a winner-take-all strategic showdown, but it did nothing to stop Moscow from exerting tactical pressures against America’s new allies in the “near abroad”. The Telegraph described the Patriot deal:
America and Poland have now signed the deal to install a US missile silo 100 miles or so from Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic outlet. The irony of the deal is that it was held up by Poland’s desire to have US patriot missile batteries installed on Polish soil. … Whereas the US missile silo is designed to intercept long range missiles from Iran or North Korea however, the US patriot batteries are very clearly a measure against what Warsaw considers its own “rogue state” – Russia.
The American alliance with Georgia formed part of the Black Sea strategy. The Heritage Foundation described how the Black Sea acted as the regional highway for Russia’s energy exports as well as a conduit for drugs and arms. America and Europe has an interest in bringing this area under control, or at least under influence. But the question was how: NATO, apart from Turkey, had no obvious leverage in this area. Heritage wrote:
Oil and gas from Central Asia and the Middle East move along Black Sea shipping lanes and pipelines to Europe and other points west. These same shipping lanes are used for the traffic in narcotics, persons (including terrorists), conventional weapons, and components for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). The Black Sea region is an important platform for military, reconstruction, and stabilization operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and possibly Iran, as well as for the protection of energy shipping lanes between the Caspian region and Western markets. It is also Europe’s new southeastern border. Thus, both the European Union and the United States have strong interests in safeguarding the movement of some goods, preventing the movement of others, and maintaining a presence in the Black Sea region.
But with Turkey and Russia financially benefiting from energy deals to Europe, it is doubtful how far Ankara could be pushed into allowing the projection of American power into the Black Sea — and incidentally — into Georgia. Turkey, although nominally a NATO ally, might not be completely relied upon to oppose Russian adventures in the Black Sea. Still, the local is not the global. America, as a maritime power, has the option of exerting influence on one part of a rival land empire border in order to relieve a crisis in another. While the Black Sea may insusceptible to direct pressure, it can obviously influence Russia lay elsewhere; in energy politics and in Eastern Europe.
Thus while NATO cannot ride to the direct aid of Georgia, it can mount challenges to Russia that will force Moscow to expend energy in other quarters. In the end, the Kremlin will have to decide whether the benefits of making an example of Georgia will not be offset by losses it may suffer in other quarters. Poland, reacting to fears of Russia, has tentatively joined the game on the side of its Western allies, but wants SAMs to raise the price of any Russian military adventure against it.
Mahan wrote of the last maritime power’s struggle against a conqueror on land: “Those far-distant storm-beaten ships upon which [Napoleon’s] Grand Army never looked, stood between it and the dominion of the world.” Russia might be in South Ossetia, but America is in Poland. That’s the way an asymmetric geopolitical rivalry works. There may be more ways into the Black Sea than the Bosporus.