Russia Is Back on the Warpath
The West must reaffirm its support for Georgia.
Wall Street Journal
By CATHY YOUNG
June 3, 2009
With President Barack Obama's trip to Moscow on Monday, you might expect Russia to avoid stirring up any trouble. Yet the Russian media are now abuzz with speculation about a new war in Georgia, and some Western analysts are voicing similar concerns. The idea seems insane.
Nonetheless, the risk is real.
One danger sign is persistent talk of so-called Georgian aggression against the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which Russia recognized as independent states after the war last August. "Georgia is rattling its weapons . . . and has not given up on attempts to solve its territorial problems by any means," Gen. Nikolai Makarov, who commanded Russian troops in Georgia in 2008, told the Novosti news agency on June 17. Similar warnings have been aired repeatedly by the state-controlled media.
Independent Russian commentators, such as columnist Andrei Piontkovsky, note that this has the feel of a propaganda campaign to prepare the public for a second war. Most recently, Moscow has trotted out a Georgian defector, Lt. Alik D. Bzhania, who claims that Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili "intends to restart the war."
Yet Russia is the one currently engaged in large-scale military exercises in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and adjacent regions. Russia has also kicked out international observers from the area. On June 15, Moscow vetoed a U.N. Security Council resolution renewing the mandate of U.N. monitors in Abkhazia because it mentioned an earlier resolution affirming Georgia's territorial integrity. Negotiations to extend the mission of monitors for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have broken down thanks to Russian obstruction. Now, 225 European Union monitors are the only international presence on the disputed borders.
The expulsion of neutral observers seems odd if Russia is worried about Georgian aggression.
But it makes sense if Russia is planning an attack.
What would the Kremlin gain? A crushing victory in Georgia would depose the hated Mr. Saakashvili, give Russia control of vital transit routes for additional energy resources that could weaken its hold on the European oil and gas markets, humiliate the U.S., and distract Russians from their economic woes. Mr. Piontkovsky also believes the war drive comes from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is anxious to reassert himself as supreme leader.
Still, the costs would be tremendous. Last year the Kremlin repaired some of the damage to its relations with Europe and the U.S. by portraying the invasion of Georgia as a response to a unique crisis, not part of an imperial strategy. Another war would cripple Russia's quest for respectability in the civilized world, including its vanity project of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
And after the patriotic fervor wears off, domestic discontent would likely follow. Moreover, Russia would almost certainly find itself mired in a long guerilla war. This would further destabilize a region where Russia's own provinces, Ingushetia and Dagestan, are plagued by violent turmoil.
Given all this, a war seems unlikely. What's more probable is that Russia will seek to destabilize Georgia without military action. This saber-rattling may be meant to boost Georgian opposition to Mr. Saakashvili.
Still, Moscow's actions are not always rational. If the pro-war faction believes that the Western response to an assault on Georgia would be weak and half-hearted, it could be emboldened. In a June 25 column on the EJ.ru Web site, Russian journalist Yulia Latynina writes that the probability of the war "depends solely on the Kremlin's capacity to convince itself that it can convince the world that the war is its enemies' fault."
That is why it's essential for the United States and the EU to respond now -- by increasing their non-military presence in Georgia, expressing a strong commitment to Georgian sovereignty, and reminding Russia of the consequences of aggression. Such a statement from President Obama in Moscow would go a long way toward preventing the possibility of another tragedy.