October 20, 2006
By Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
Amid great power fretting over North Korea's nuclear test and
continuing Iranian truculence against the West, Russia escalated
its confrontation with the neighboring Georgia. The arrest of five
Russian alleged intelligence officers two weeks ago was a pretext
for Moscow to further escalate an already difficult relationship
with Tbilisi, now affecting the 1 million Georgian Diaspora in
Ethnic Georgians, including children, were loaded on cargo
planes and expelled from Russia, citing their illegal immigration
status. Prominent Georgian intellectuals, who are Russian citizens,
are being harassed by the tax police. Georgian businesses in Moscow
are singled out by law enforcement authorities. The handling of the
crisis is threatening Russia's international standing as a
responsible and constructive great power.
Georgia may have overplayed its hand by arresting the military
intelligence officers, whom it accused of sabotage, and not just
expelling them quietly -- an acceptable modus operandi in such
In response, Moscow recalled its ambassador from Tbilisi,
evacuated diplomats and their families and halted issuing visas to
Georgian citizens. The Russian military forces stationed in Georgia
have gone on high alert. Russia cut air and railroad links, and
blocked money transfers from Georgians working in Russia, denying
an important source of income for many Georgian families.
Since Mikheil Saakashvili came to power in the Rose Revolution
of 2003, anti-Russian statements by Georgian leaders, a relentless
push to evacuate Russian military bases (to which Russia has agreed
previously), an attempt to join NATO, and opposition to Russian
membership in the World Trade Organization, have caused the Putin
administration to embargo the two key imports from Georgia. These
are Borjomi mineral water and wine, much beloved in
It did not end there. In September, South Ossetian separatists,
who receive Russian military support, have fired on Georgian
helicopter carrying the defense minister. This was a provocation,
which, if successful, could have led to conflagration of
hostilities in the small secessionist territory that belongs to
Georgia. However, Russia made little secret of its desire to start
a war in the Caucasus that would lead to a regime change in
There are regional and global reasons why Moscow is escalating
the crisis over Georgia:
If Georgia comes under the Russian sway, neighboring Azerbaijan
and Armenia will feel the full weight of Russian presence. Leading
foreign policy experts in Moscow believe Azerbaijan has not
allocated enough oil patches to Russian companies and facilitated
oil exports via Turkey instead of Russia, which may explain why
Russia is leaning on Georgia so much.
The Armenian opposition openly demands a more pro-Western and
less pro-Russian policy, noting close ties with Moscow did not
improve Armenia's abysmal living standard and did not allow it to
receive international recognition of Nagorno-Karabakh's
A pro-Russian Georgia in the Collective Security Treaty
Organization of the Commonwealth of Independent States would permit
Russia and Iran to dominate Azerbaijan and Armenia, severely
limiting the U.S. policy options there. Furthermore, such a
development would put to rest U.S. ambitions in Central Asia and
may cut off strategically important Kazakhstan from Western energy
Russia has warned repeatedly it will retaliate severely in case
Kosovo is granted independence against the will of Serbia, a
historic ally. Mr. Putin has called for imposition of the Kosovo
criteria on separatist enclaves in the former Soviet Union,
including Transnistria, which is a part of Moldova, Abkhazia, South
Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia would enforce a referendum in
these territories, and would recognize their independence, opening
the door to their eventual incorporation in the Russian Federation.
Moreover, such an approach would create dangerous precedents
vis-a-vis the Crimea, where a majority of the population is
pro-Russian; for Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine; and even for
predominantly Slavic Northern Kazakhstan.
Violations and alternations of the existing borders of the
former Soviet Union may generate severe tensions in Europe and open
the Pandora's box of territorial claims and ethnically based border
challenges there and elsewhere, for example in Iraq and
The United States today is preoccupied with major crises, such
as Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea. Russia is a key player
in all these. Its true and real cooperation would be welcome,
although so far it is not sufficient. It is vital for the future of
the U.S.-Russian relations and for global security that Moscow
behaves responsibly and constructively. Quickly defusing the
Georgian crisis via diplomacy is a good place to start. Washington
should encourage the European powers, the European Union and Turkey
to become more engaged in diffusing the Georgian-Russian
confrontation. It should also advise Georgia not to escalate
rhetoric and performance vis-a-vis Russia unnecessarily. After all,
a peaceful and prosperous Caucasus is in the Russian, Georgian and
Cohen is senior research fellow at the
Heritage Foundation and the author of "Kazakhstan: Energy
Cooperation with Russia -Oil, Gas and Beyond" (BMG Publishers,
First appeared in the Washington Times
Amid great power fretting over North Korea's nuclear test and continuing Iranian truculence against the West, Russia escalated its confrontation with the neighboring Georgia.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow for Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy, The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies
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