Foreign Affairs

Russia Poised Again To Fight Georgia

Russia may be readying its forces for another border war in the tiny Caucasus nation of Georgia.  In August 2008, Moscow invaded Georgia apparently to keep it out of Western hands.  That action and Moscow’s preparations over the past year demonstrate that war may be the West’s only option to wrestle buffer countries like Georgia from the bear’s claws.

Twenty years after the Cold War ended, Russia is re-emerging as only a shadow of the former Soviet Union but none-the-less a power broker that refuses to be ignored.  This is especially true when it comes to preserving its influence over neighboring nations — the “near abroad” — which explains why the Republic of Georgia remains in Moscow’s crosshairs.   

That view challenges President Obama’s promise to “reset” our relationship with Moscow to bring it closer to the West and to advance freedom to former Warsaw Pact countries.  But Russia has a different view of its future.  

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin sees a bright future for the Russian Federation as a re-emerging great power and is using Russian instruments of national power to advance his agenda.  Putin has

  • Manipulated natural gas supplies to leverage Western European customers into capitulating on geopolitical issues. 

  • Used nuclear technology and weapons sales to buy influence among Middle Eastern and Latin American countries. 
  • Renewed naval and aircraft patrols along Cold War routes to garner global respect. 
  • Opposed America’s planned European-based missile defense to remind Washington that Russia is an atomic peer. 
  • Conducted political and military operations against neighbors like Georgia to maintain a buffer from the West’s eastward expansion.

The use of political and military operations to restrain Georgia provides an important clue to better understand post-Soviet Russia.

On August 6, 2008, Russia launched a five-day conflict to permanently deny Georgia control of two breakaway regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Moscow justified the invasion by claiming it was protecting the regions from a Georgian attack. But contrary evidence suggests the Russians created a pretext to trap the Georgian military in order to justify invasion.

Since 2008, Russia has violated the cease-fire agreement which required all forces to withdraw to prewar positions and levels. Moscow says it is no longer bound by that agreement because it recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states after the war. Now it is doing what those “independent” states wish.

Moscow used that self-declared status to build military facilities and increase the number of Russian troops to 15,000 in the states.  These upgrades provide Moscow better intelligence and the ability to quickly react to orders or to counter incursions directed by Tbilisi.  Some of these forces are strategically positioned near the critical Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan crude oil pipeline that connects oil fields in the Caspian Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.

Russia also garrisons several brigades of maneuver forces an hour north of the Roki tunnel, the route Moscow used to invade South Ossetia in 2008.  These troops and aviation units with fighter aircraft and helicopters are poised for action on short notice.   

Russia intends to base strategically-important military equipment in the regions.  Recently, Moscow announced the intention to deploy to the regions unmanned aerial vehicles for surveillance and Antonov aircraft for quick movement of forces. Russian naval and air forces are already stationed at Gudauta, a town on the Black Sea in western Abkhazia.  That base boasts one of the largest military airfields in the Caucasus region.

Last week, Putin visited Abkhazia to ratchet-up tension. He pledged to strengthen Russia’s military presence by building a $500 million base in Abkhazia.  “It won’t be a Maginot Line,” Putin said, referring to the fortifications France built to oppose Germany before World War II.  But it is a clear indication Moscow intends to stay for a long time.

Putin used his trip as an opportunity to chastise the West for condemning the Russian invasion of Georgia and accused the U.S. of pressuring countries to continue supporting Georgia’s claim to the territories.  He suggested another war is possible “… given the Georgian leadership today, nothing can be ruled out, but it will be much harder for them [Georgians] to do it.”

But Georgia and the U.S. aren’t backing down from Russia.  The Georgian interior ministry fans tensions by exaggerating the Russian build-up while Georgia President Mikhail Saakashvili publicly seeks to advance Georgia’s relationship with the U.S. and NATO, a verbal poke in Moscow’s eye.

Last month, Saakashvili enthusiastically welcomed U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Tiblisi.  Biden said Russia used a “pretext” to invade in 2008 and then dismissed the Russian threat.  Moscow, Biden said, is on a demographic and economic decline and will ultimately have to face its “withering” geopolitical position.  He used the occasion to renew America’s commitment to Tbilisi by resuming military training.  

U.S. Marines arrive in Georgia this week to begin training a Georgian infantry battalion for deployment to Afghanistan as part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in 2010.  The U.S. froze training of Georgian troops following the 2008 Russo-Georgian war.

Biden’s Georgia visit came after President Obama’s July talks in Moscow to renew the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty which expires this December.  But to Moscow’s disappointment, Obama refused to abandon key sticking points in the bilateral relationship — support for Georgia’s territorial integrity and America’s planned Europe-based anti-ballistic missile system.

Predictably, Moscow reacted to Obama’s geopolitical backhand, Biden’s dismissal of Russian significance and Georgia’s renewed coziness with the West by raising the alert status of its troops in Georgia.  Moscow denies it has plans for another invasion or a massive troop increase but tensions are reaching a high pitch.

Last week, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev added to the tension when he warned Georgia would face “retribution” for last year’s war. “I am certain that, in time, just and severe punishment, severe retribution, will come to those people who issued the criminal orders” to attack the breakaway Georgian regions.

Like Putin, Medvedev refused to rule out a new conflict with Georgia and implicitly accused the U.S. of ratcheting up tensions.  Medvedev warned, “It is well known who armed and who, unfortunately, is continuing to arm the Tbilisi regime.” This was a reference to the U.S., which provided military training and equipment to Georgia before last year’s war.

Then Medvedev proposed legislation that would make a new conflict with Georgia more likely.  The proposed law “… is aimed at forming a fully fledged legal mechanism to allow the commander in chief to use armed forces formations abroad to defend the interests of Russia and its citizens,” Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukou said.  In 2008, Moscow awarded residents of South Ossetia and Abkhazia Russian citizenship.

Russia’s activities in Georgia are clear — that country lies in Moscow’s sphere of influence and Russia will fight to keep it from becoming a pro-West nation.  The U.S. must decide whether it is willing to fight Moscow over Georgia and perhaps for other Russian border countries like the Ukraine or stop encouraging those nations to abandon Moscow.  

But the U.S. is ill prepared to join another ground war in a hard to reach part of the world much less risk a nuclear confrontation with Russia which seeks to become a great power once again.   Likely, much like former President Bush, Mr. Obama will talk tough if Russia attacks Georgia but provide little if any relief to our ally.

Russia is emerging from the post-Cold War era to regain its former stature.  Likely, it lacks the resources to reach that lofty goal but it does have the means to make its neighbors and the West pay a high price to resist its efforts.  Don’t be surprised if a second Russo-Georgian war breaks out soon.

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