March 31, 2006

March 31, 2006 | Commentary on Russia

Springtime is for War?

The pending appeal of the President of South Ossetia, Eduard Kokoity, to the Russian Federation's Constitutional Court may trigger a destabilizing chain of events in the Caucasus. Kokoity, who is totally dependent on the Kremlin, would not have asked for such a radical step if he wasn't encouraged from the highest level in Moscow.

If such developments spin out of control, they can cause a Russian-Georgian military confrontation with unpredictable consequences for the region and the world.

My recent meetings in Moscow and Washington indicate that Russian-Georgian relations have deteriorated to the point where some officials in the Kremlin are seriously looking for a pretext to start a military operation to topple Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Two Moscow insiders - a veteran senior foreign policy adviser who often informally speaks for the Kremlin, and a prominent Duma member who specializes in foregin affairs -- said that the February statement by the Kremlin political strategist Gleb Pavlovsky about a possibility of Saakashvili;s assassination is more than a boast. It's a warning.

"It's springtime -- a time to start a war with Georgia," said the foreign policy adviser. He specifically mentioned Ossetia, (and not secessionist Abkhazia), as the future flashpoint.

Georgians are persistently irritating Russia by successfully negotiating withdrawal of Russian military bases and appealing to join NATO. The Georgian Parliament is likely to vote to demand withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from Abkhazia and Ossetia. Saakashvili wrote to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan asking to "internationalize" peacekeeping operations in Abkhazia and Ossetia.

Christian Ossetians, say the Russians, hold Russian citizenship and want to join their brethren in North Ossetia, which is a part of the Russian Federation. "Saakashvili is out of control, and needs to be brought to heel," said the Russian foreign policy expert. "If Georgians keep quiet and behave, we may even tolerate their joining NATO, but if they are loud, we'll take measures," he added.

However, other Moscow-based analysts pointed out that this rhetoric is very similar to invective against the previous Georgian president, Eduard Shevardnadze. "Russia needs to realize that it has a problem with Georgia, not with Saakashvili or Shevardnadze," said a prominent foreign policy magazine editor.

If Kokoity's appeal to the Russian Constitutional Court, which is not known for its independence from the executive branch, is accepted and is followed by a referendum on formal secession and ascending to Russia, Georgia might take military measures to prevent its disintegration. But such steps, Moscow hopes, may trigger a massive response by Ossetians supported by "volunteers" from North Caucasus and beyond.

In addition to Ossetians from the north and south, the two Russian sources mentioned Ramzan Kadyrov's Chechens. "We armed Ramzan, who now controls between five and seven thousand bayonets," the Russian expert said. "He is eager to go to Georgia and fight - all the way to Tbilisi. He is smelling loot - and Moscow is very uneasy about his de-facto pro-independence policies," the Russian expert added.

Georgian officials who are visiting Washington for interagency meetings to coordinate Georgia's NATO membership application acknowledged that Russia, upset with Tbilisi's push to receive the NATO Membership Action Plan in the fall, is planning a "provocation".

"Russia is focused on the NATO issue in a negative way, which makes her more aggressive," says Giorgi Manjgaladze, the Georgian deputy foreign minister, who is managing his country's NATO accession.

However, Georgia does not desire to be dragged into a military conflict. "We will protest by diplomatic means, but will not take military steps if a referendum or other provocation in South Ossetia takes place," clarifies Nika Rurua, deputy chairman of the Defense and Security Committee of the Parliament.

All members of the delegation to Washington, including Mamuka Kudava, first deputy minister of defense, have agreed that their country is the target of a Russian "black PR campaign". However, the Georgian delegation followed the advice of Ambassador Juri Luik, the Estonian envoy to Washington, and the former defense minister of Estonia, that the best thing is to ignore Russian threats - just like the Baltic states did in the 1990s.

There is a fundamental difference, however, between the Baltic accession in 1999 and the case of Georgia. First, Russia was digging itself from under the rubble of the 1998 economic crisis, and was in post-Yeltsin transition, and therefore much weaker. Moscow has not made yet taunting America its foreign policy priority, despite attempts by then-foreign minister and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to do just that.

Second, the Kremlin was not seating on a stash of $200 billion dollars it did not know what to do with. Today, as always, governments and bureaucracies do things not only because they need to but because they can.

Third, while Russia is still uneasy about launching the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan main export pipeline (MEP), Gazprom is livid over the forthcoming Baku-Erzurum gas pipeline, which in the future may allow Turkmenistan and even Kazakhstan to export gas to Ukraine and Europe, bypassing the Gazprom pipeline network.

Back in 1999 Europe did not perceive deep dependence on Russian energy - today it does. However, "the Europeans are concerned about Russia using energy as a political weapon", says Svante Cornell, editor of Central Asia and Caucasus Analyst website at the School of Advanced and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "After Ukraine, such a weapon may backfire."

And finally, the Baltic candidates had a strong and vociferous support from Poland, Hungary and other Central European countries, as well as from powerful Central European diasporas in the U.S. - just before the crucial 2000 presidential elections.

Russia today is dead set on preventing Georgia and Ukraine from joining NATO. The Russian military feels that it is losing face by being continuously squeezed out - first from the Georgian military bases, then from Ossetia and Abkhazia - and eventually, from the dachas and sanatoria along the Black Sea coast. They may be even hopeful for promotions, decorations, and bigger budgets if the next Caucasus war erupts.

Spring is not bringing a sunny political weather to the Caucasus. Georgia will need all the political wisdom and support from friends in Washington and elsewhere as it negotiates the latest Ossetian crisis and the larger Caucasus political minefield.

Ariel Cohen is research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D. Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in  the TCSDaily